Pioneering auto analyst James Harbour dies

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

James E. Harbour, a former Ford and Chrysler executive who as an independent analyst pioneered studies on how the Big Three automakers should better measure up to other carmarkers, has died at age 86.

Harbour, who took automakers to task on manufacturing efficiency here and abroad, passed away Saturday. He formed his own consulting firm, Harbour and Associates, in 1980 that created an annual Harbour Report that industry insiders credited with prompting improvements in automotive manufacturing efficiency and performance.

His hard-hitting reports on cost advantages enjoyed by Japanese automakers were controversial but eye opening to U.S. manufacturers.

“Jim Harbour was a visionary when it came to manufacturing productivity,” General Motor Co. CEO Mary Barra said in a Sunday statement. “He drove all of us to new heights of efficiency. Jim’s knowledge and passion for the manufacturing arena made the entire industry better, and by so doing, brought higher levels of product safety and quality to customers worldwide.

“We are grateful for his many and lasting contributions, and extend both our thanks and condolences to the Harbour family on the passing of a great man.”

Even after retiring from his firm, Harbour worked with his daughter, Laurie Harbour, to release a 2006 study “Automotive Competitive Challenge: Going Beyond Lean,” which focused on the issues and gap between Detroit and foreign auto producers.

In commentaries that he wrote for The Detroit News from 2001 to 2008, Harbour praised gains made by the domestic automakers but also pointed out flaws and areas that required improvement.

“Having flexibility in plants is critical to the future success of the Big Three automakers,” he wrote in a 2006 Detroit News column. “Flexibility is what gives the three biggest Japanese manufacturers — Toyota, Nissan and Honda — their competitive advantage. It reduces costs while letting factories make different vehicles as the sales volume of specific models gets smaller and smaller.”

In 2009, Harbour authored “Factory Man,” which focused on Toyota’s quality and productivity methods and helped the U.S. auto industry get competitive.

“My father was not only an incredible father, coach and mentor about life and business, but he was especially committed to the North American auto industry,” Laurie Harbour said. “He just wanted to see it succeed, to compete and do well. It was his passion.”

Harbour was preceded in death by Delores, his wife of 60 years, who passed away in 2012. Besides daughter Laurie, the couple raised seven other children: Kenneth; Denise Fisher; Ronald; Carol Coon; Karen; Diane; and a son, Timothy, who is deceased. Harbour is also survived by 10 grandchildren.

Harbour was born in New Hampshire, the son of a Ford Motor Co. tool and die maker. He later served in the U.S. Navy, attended Wayne State University where he obtained a bachelor’s degree and was hired as a financial analyst at Ford Motor Co.’s Highland Park plant in 1954.

In 1957 he joined Chrysler where he held many different senior positions in accounting, finance and manufacturing over 30 years.

Visitation for Harbour will be Monday and Tuesday from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the A.J. Desmond & Sons Funeral Home, 2600 Crooks Road in Troy. A funeral mass will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the National Shrine of the Little Flower, Woodward at 12 Mile in Royal Oak. Visitation at church will begin at 9:30 a.m.