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Lutz's Impact on GM: Great, but is it Lasting?

Posted by: David Kiley on February 10, 2009

Bob Lutz’s impact on General Motors should not be underestimated despite the near-death experience the company is going through right now.

Before he was invited to leave retirement and his job running the Exide Battery firm back in 2001, GM had no real product czar, or even a credible voice of design, on its North American Strategy Board. This is the body at GM that literally green-lights and red-lights new models.

I didn’t become aware of this until I chatted with former GM design chief Wayne Cherry back in 2000 when the company seemed to be producing one dud after another—models like the Saturn LS, Cadillac Catera, Buick Regal, Pontiac Grand Prix—that all seemed to have been modeled while the designer was looking at a melting stick of butter.


To GM CEO Rick Wagoner’s credit, he realized that he needed someone who was not only talented, but who could shut the mouths of finance and manufacturing executives on the board who were good at dumbing down products and their design and packaging—i.e. Pontiac Aztek and Saturn Ion.

Lutz did that. He not only has a keen eye for a good line, but also a sense of how to fit the interior of a vehicle out with premium, or at least premium looking, materials. Before Lutz, the cost cutters and manufacturing guys (who tend to want it to be simpler rather than better)ruled the roost. And GM had a lost decade in the 90s when the Japanese were honing their skills in America and the Koreans were coming on. Quick: name a 90s GM vehicle that will attract interest at an auction in ten or 15 years…or even now.

Chevy Malibu, Saturn Aura, Cadillac CTS, Pontiac Solstice, Buick Lucerne, Buick Lacrosse, 2010 Cadillac SRX, Saturn Vue, Chevy Tahoe and Equinox and the forthcoming Volt are all among vehicles developed under Lutz’s system that I would buy or recommend. I couldn’t say that about as many GM vehicles in 2000.

Lutz will be missed. His legacy at GM will be determined, though, not so much by the vehicle programs he directed, but on whether he has left behind a system and culture that will carry on. I’d sure hate to see the Azteks rolling again in five years.

Reader Comments


February 11, 2009 4:52 AM

The fact is indisputable as to what Lutz is leaving behind: an insolvent GM resuscitated by a life support system via a government intravenous infusion of more than $15billion. At 76 year old, Lutz has lived long enough to know when to abandon a sinking ship. In a distance past, Lutz may have once been a contender in the penthouse of the auto world. Time has taken its toll. Like a long forgotten ex-fighter who refused to retire, Lutz joined GM nine years ago thinking he still "got it." But the auto world had changed beyond Lutz's comprehension. When Toyota, Honda and others had hybrid on the drawing board, old fuddy-duddy Lutz was still trying to manufacture a main stream car as a competitor to the Accord and Camry. Lacking credible vision and out of touch as to what kind of car the American consumer wants to buy and misunderstanding of the politic of crude oil, Lutz's leadership made GM vulnerable to changing markets. Instead of producing a Prius killer, Lutz mounted his horse, put on his armor and charged at imaginary profitable markets. His laughable solo creation: Solstice and Sky, a two seater with lousy mpg, disappointing fit-and-finish, and rough engine calibration at a time when the American consumers were struggling with gasoline prices. With hundreds of thousands of high tech-Prius roaming around USA, GM became a symbol of anachronism. To be fair to history the demise of GM falls not entirely on Lutz, for the other two Clowns, Wagoner and Wellburn deserves their own special recognition. In this unsolicited, premature eulogy of Bob Lutz, BW Kiley inadvertently bestow the title of czar to Lutz without realizing that most of the past czar had lived ignominious lives—some even been beheaded. But then dispensing kudos is not Kiley's forte, for more often than not it is a kiss of death. With one down and two more clowns to go, America eagerly awaits a new GM under new vibrant leadership recruited from outside the old-boys network.

From Kiley: That's why you are the b***buster.


February 11, 2009 10:18 AM

If GM is rolling out Azteks again in five years it will only prove they're really dumb. I don't think that will happen. I think they're learning from their present situation.


February 11, 2009 10:20 PM

Not under the stewardship of Lutz, but let's not forget the 1977 Chevy Chevette. When the driver got into the car, he/she discovered the steering wheel wasn't centered directly in front of them. It was about four inches too far to the right and made for uncomfortable driving. Then there was the 1978 Chevrolet Monza. It originally had a 4 banger and when GM decided to make it into a "muscle car" by installing a V-6, your local "Lube & Go" couldn't get the oil filter off without dislodging a motormount!

Then around the same timeframe, Cadillac came out with the WORTHLESS 8-6-4 engine, where when you didn't need the extra power, the 8 cylinder engine shut down 2 or 4 of it's cylinders. Stupid move! You still had the wear and tear of an 8 cylinder engine, even though it was only firing on 4 (or 6) cylinders. It was a pig, got terrible gas mileage (like the Chevette and the Monza) and no wonder GM has an image problem.

This, couple with UAW employees who make up to and in excess of $50 to $72 an hour (and some of these jokers do nothing but put bumpers on cars during their 6 hour shift THEY GET PAID FOR 8 HOURS) and whoever is buying a new GM product these days is paying as much and more than $3,000 just for the "perks" the UAW "terrorists" have on each vehicle coming out of the factory.

Yep, forget the Chevy Volt and give me a Prius... The Volt is unproven and will cost $40,000 while the Prius has a track-record and can be had for $17,000 less. And we all know how people love those Toyotas.

Lutz is the first rat to leave a sinking ship and if the UAW doesn't wake up and get get real, there will be a boatload of vermin drowning in Michigan VERY SOON.


February 13, 2009 9:08 AM

Mr. Kiley, must I reminder you that NOTHING lasts forever?? Just the same, Bob Lutz loves his cars and has demonstrated his ability to inspire and lead teams. He leaves a legacy of changed people who, regardless of the future of GM, will forever see and do things differently. The cars that GM has been producing are getting into the world-class level and challenging the very best for style, features and performance. I just bought an ENCLAVE (today) and have to say that the other carmakers are taking notes. That is one sweet ride! Congrats to the team and I hope that the folks at GM can put their differences aside and make the sacrifices needed to make the company viable again. Bob Lutz and Mr. Wagoner and a lot of other folks have been fighting hard to get things right and they just ran out of time. Maybe the lifeline from Congress and the realization that they are at a precipice will create the environment needed for the other sweeping changes required.

Patrick Wishart

February 15, 2009 12:24 PM

Hello GM Officer.
I am a small investor in GM USA,I do not know the type of arrangements GM has with their dealers,but if I am a dealer,and has some faith in the future of this great company,I would invest a little money in the company,as I would be thinking that if GM goes down,that my dealership will go down,that jobs will be lost,and communities decimated.All GM dealers SHOULD INVEST MONEY in this company.

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