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.