Bob Lutz retires from GM. Long live his influence

Posted by: David Welch on March 03, 2010

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It truly is the end of an era. Bob Lutz, the cocksure maverick who led a product renaissance at both General Motors and Chrysler, will retire effective May 1. When Lutz goes, the industry will lose one of its best car guys and a strong personality known as much for his gravelly pronouncements at auto shows as he was for the automobiles he helped create.

GM will surely miss his direction in the company’s new-car works. When Lutz arrived in September 2001, GM was putting out bland cars and cutting corners on all but its most-profitable pickup trucks and SUVs. Designers also took a back seat when the company set up to develop a new model. The company would engineer the underpinnings of a car, putting all considerations from engineering, manufacturing and marketing first. Then designers would wrap a steel body around it. The results were typically rote and boxy. When GM tried to step out with design, it ended up with cars like the famously garish Pontiac Aztek SUV.

Lutz brought design to the forefront. The company started its new cars with the styling concept first and then started to make changes for fuel economy, cabin space or aerodynamics or any other practical attribute. Stylists didn’t win every battle, but clearly design has improved immensely under Lutz’s reign. It took several years for Lutz’s overhaul to take hold. When it did, the results were much better cars that typically sold for thousands of dollars more than the old model they replaced. The current Cadillac CTS and Chevrolet Camaro have been critically praised. The Camaro has consistently outsold the rival Ford Mustang since its launch last year. GM has had to add production for the Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain SUVs.

Under Lutz, GM spent more cash to spruce up GM’s cabins, where the company’s finance-driven management team had often shaved budgets. Eric Noble, president of California auto consulting firm The CarLab, said the Malibu has nicer materials inside than a Toyota Camry. The Saturn Aura and Malibu won North American Car of the Year awards in 2007 and 2008.

Lutz also spearheaded the Chevrolet Volt program. The fruits of that work will come this fall when GM starts selling the car, which is engineered to run purely on electric power for 40 miles. Lutz had to make three passes at now-fired GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner to get an electric car approved.

Lutz wasn’t Mr. Green. This is a guy who flies his own jet fighter and has a passion for sports cars. He argued against government fuel economy rules and eschewed hybrid-electric cars until he saw the kind of marketing mileage Toyota was getting for its Prius. He famously declared Global Warming “a total crock.”

He also had some misreads when it came to the models he put out. The new GTO in 2004 was a cult favorite among gearheads, but the car was based on Australia’s Holden Monaro coupe and its jellybean styling looked dated. GM sold about 1,000 GTOs a month before ending production after three years. Remember the truck-nosed minivans? Lutz put an SUV face on the Chevy Uplander, Saturn Relay, Pontiac Montana and Buick Terrazza in 2005 and they, too, flopped. Lutz said at the time that it was a low-budget program. It was also bad badge engineering.

More recently, Lutz was overseeing marketing. He played a big role in the “May the Best Car Win” campaign that compared GM’s models to the best from Japan and Germany. It was audacious and showed that the company had confidence in the new cars Lutz and GM’s team had produced. GM still has a long way to go to convince some consumers to give its cars a look, but the campaign boosted showroom traffic.

Things changed in December. Whitacre and the board fired former CEO Fritz Henderson and later made Lutz an advisor. Lutz was dismayed at Henderson’s dismissal. Being an advisor with little authority didn’t suit his style, either. As Henderson told me today, Lutz “wants to be in the game.” At 78, Lutz has had a long run. If he isn’t having a major impact, he may as well kick back.

Someone has to pick up where he leaves off. Without Lutz to bring a product focus to GM, the company may surely be lost right now. Tom Stephens, GM’s vice chairman of global product operations, and GM-North America President Mark Reuss are the two men who will have to keep the car culture burning at GM, says Jim Hall. Lutz says he left a system in place to make sure it happens. And the two executives minding the car works have the sense to keep it going. Stephens is a car nut with an impressive collection of muscle cars and deep engineering knowledge. Reuss recently ran GM’s Holden business, where he had a big hand in developing the Camaro and beloved Pontiac G8 sports sedan. He is an engineer by training and has just the kind of expertise GM needs high up in management.

There may be tremendous pressure to return to old habits. Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre is driven to boost sales, turn a profit and take GM public as soon as he can. That way the government can sell its 61% stake and GM can ditch the “Government Motors” moniker. But with that drive could come the pressure to shave costs to show potential investors a better bottom line. That isn’t to say Whitacre doesn’t believe in good products, though he has said little on the subject. But the company will have to resist the urge to pinch pennies. And management will do it without Lutz’s force of will. Hopefully for GM’s sake, the team he leaves behind will be able to do it.

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Reader Comments

nizz

March 3, 2010 06:27 PM

David Welch, are you out of your mind? We need this guy gone to avoid GM old habits!

carmechanic

March 3, 2010 07:12 PM

Good riddance.

Lutz was one of those pack of long-time idiots that drove GM into the ground. Now that this pompous narrow-sighted moron is gone, GM might actually stand a chance of getting out of government wardship.

Bill Wagner

March 3, 2010 07:54 PM

A real car that didn't know his butt from third base!

I'm sorry. I can't join the group of folks that say this guy was terrific. He
was a major part of the problem, the GM
management that never changed from cradel to death, the guys that loaded a
car,made too much profit and set up a problem with the unions by over compensation that just about sunk the country. My major concern is that he never got it,could have started with a small car and a car that got great mileage. GM had all the horses to make it happen. But,he never did it and just
loved to load up those trucks with more
garbage and more costs.
Lee was miles ahead. I remember when he
introduced the Horizon and Omni, proven
in Europe and he sold a ton of them in the US. It was a small car to fit the circumstances. I cannot have any good thoughts about a guy that rode the gold pony but didn't understand his Ferris wheel was always going in a circle.
Bill Wagner
A real car guy

Asela

March 4, 2010 12:17 AM

This is a huge mistake on GM's part. Robert Lutz will be missed because if there was anyone who was capable of turning around GM it was Lutz. He understood the emotion of design. Better still he knew how bring design together with engineering. And he had the stamina and force of will to fight all the rusty fogeys and dullards like Whitacre to triump. If you look at the latest GM designs they are amazing. When Chrysler lost Lutz they went downhill immediately and you know this is going to happen to GM now. Imagine if Toyota hired Lutz now. They would decimate the opposition and help Toyota recover from their terrible misdeeds. Farewell Robert Lutz. Thanks for being a great American car guy!

Rebecca

March 4, 2010 01:10 AM

Goodbye, Bob! You who killed the original electric car, you who consider climate change "a crock," you who allowed Japanese cars to eat GM's lunch not just once in the post-oil-embargo 70s and 80s but also again in the 90s and beyond when you could easily have made every vehicle 50+ mpg. You Turkey, don't let the door ... ! I hope a new generation that truly appreciates systems thinking takes over and turns General Motors into something the country can be proud of, featuring state-of-the art electrics (Volt and beyond) instead of the kind of hogs that are associated with GM and American excess the world over.

Ballbuster

March 4, 2010 06:56 AM

Thank goodness the old fart geezer is gone. He, Wagoner, Henderson, and Wellburn all should have been fired even before GM's bankruptcy. Lutz legacy? How about the billion dollar fiasco called Sky, and Soltice? Lutz has so much talent that both companies he worked for, Chrysler and GM, have suffered bankruptcy. The truth is that Lutz never had much automotive talent except his clever sound-bites and insatiable ego.

Levon Tostig

March 4, 2010 02:34 PM

http://www.freep.com/article/20100208/BUSINESS01/100208024/1320/Ford-Shelby-GT500-ups-power-fuel-mileage

"Ford finished 2009 having sold 66,623 Mustangs, a 27% decline. Chevrolet sold 61,648 Camaros after the car went on sale in the spring for the first time since 2002."

Last time I checked, 66,623 was greater than 61,648.

David Welch

March 4, 2010 03:34 PM

David Welch here. I’m the writer of the blog post on Bob Lutz’s retirement. A reader argues that the Mustang sold more than Camaro last year. That’s true. But the Camaro did not sell for all of 2009 and the Mustang did. Going month by month, the Camaro outsells its rival pony car. So far this year, for example, Chevy has sold 11,853 Camaros to Ford’s 9,862 Mustangs.

Gimme a BREAK

March 4, 2010 03:41 PM

I've despised Detroit for over 40 years, but one NEEDS to remember, the ENTIRE shebang went ROTTEN in the 70s! It rapidly went downhill, and it learned the real value of BUYING CONGRESS. The leadership was as dumb and inbred as an IDIOT can be; NO OUTSIDERS need apply! But then the Unions got too greedy, and TOGETHER, the dysfunctional and bankrupt leadership, began a a courtship with the UAW, to BUY MNORE INFLUENCE IN CONGRESS. THIS, I've said before, and bears repeating; Al Qaeda, and the Arabs had NO GREATER FRIEND that the corrupt US Congress. Nothing's changed, except the higher and higher cost of buying a politician....they too have sown the seeds of THEIR OWN DEMISE, as EARLY as Nov 2010 and again 2012.

Werner

March 4, 2010 05:41 PM

Perhaps we should all just buy BMWs instead?

kelly

March 4, 2010 06:21 PM

This guy knew nothing about efficient auto transportation. Rumors wonder what pictures kept him on the payroll till age 78.

While taxpayers bail out his kind of mistakes with $50 billion he bitches about hotel accommodations and loosing the GM corporate jets.

Will it cost $22 million to retire him, as Wagoner, and how many millions 'for consulting' lie ahead..

Levon Tostig

March 4, 2010 06:37 PM

So, let's get this straight: You're promoting GM's higher sales of the Camaro -- the same GM that receives tax dollars to subsidize the cost of its cars, the same GM that gave tax dollars as part of its GM Credit Card Rewards program to cardholders wishing to buy GM cars to Ford, which received no bailout dollars?

That's like calling the guy on a motorcycle the winner... of a foot race.

Brilliant!

Did you happen to notice at the 11,000+ (14,000 Mustangs if you look in the Camaro forums - then again, mullets were never quite conducive to learning mathematics) 2011 Mustangs that have been pre-ordered? (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/new-mustang-with-new-powertrains-in-high-demand-2010-02-25)

Of the Camaros, are you counting the number that will have to be recalled because of the poor brake design? (http://jalopnik.com/5222908/2010-chevy-camaro-gets-mysterious-brake-weights) Or are quick-and-dirty fixes "okay" for GM (but not for Toyota)? I know: let's wait until Camaro drivers crash their cars before we take notice (though, I don't know how anyone would tell the difference between bad brakes and bad drivers... not that that matters much these days).

Maybe Lutz is taking off before Congress gets a chance to work him over.

kelly

March 4, 2010 07:38 PM

This guy knew nothing about efficient auto transportation. Rumors wonder what kept him on the payroll till age 78.

While taxpayers bail out his kind of mistakes with $50 billion he bitches about hotel accommodations and loosing the GM corporate jets.

Will it cost $22 million to retire him, as Wagoner, and how many millions 'for consulting' lie ahead..

David Welch

March 5, 2010 07:19 AM

Levon, pre-orders are not sales. You still have to get the buyer to come in and sign the deal, get the person financed and wrap the transaction. Perhaps there are pre-orders for Camaros, as well. We'll see. For right now, I'll just watch the sales numbers.

Christopher Price

March 5, 2010 08:46 AM

Bob Lutz delivered cars that genuinely got me excited about GM. The Pontiac G8, Solstice... America's best selling roadster, would not have existed without Lutz being the car guy in the room.

Tell the eco-frauds to stuff it, we'll miss you Bob.

Levon Tostig

March 5, 2010 01:56 PM

"Perhaps there are pre-orders for Camaros, as well. We'll see. For right now, I'll just watch the sales numbers."

HA! If there were, GM was sure careful about not doing a press release.

Even the Camaro guys, in their forums, are saying, "Don't pre-order!"

ps

March 5, 2010 10:03 PM

This is the guy that helped seize GM from the MBA schmucks that BW adores (and the Japanese automakers thank the good lord for) and got real car guys (designers and engineers)back in the mix. Right guy at the right time. Let's hope the bean counters are kept in their place.

Brendan Moore

March 6, 2010 05:30 AM

I've always admired Lutz's willingness to make his internal monologue external.

Although I've disagreed with his point of view many times, at least he left no doubt where he stood on things.

The car business is going to lose one hell of a great character.

Scott

March 6, 2010 06:43 PM

Does anyone remember "ABL" from the last days of Ioccoca's reign at Chrysler? Bob Lutz was a car guy, and would have made the best editor of Car and Driver the magazine ever had. He seems to be in excellent health. Never to late to fulfill your life's calling!

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Want the straight scoop on the auto industry? Detroit bureau chief David Welch , Dexter Roberts and Ian Rowley bring daily scoop, keen observations and provocative perspective on the auto business from around the globe. Read their take on such weighty issues as Detroit’s attempt at a comeback, Toyota’s quest for dominance and the search for an efficient car.

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