Welcome to Bob Lutz week at TTAC! I spent several hours recently with the auto industry’s most notorious executive, and elements of that interview will be the basis for much of my writing this week. We’ll also be capping the whole thing off by voting on the 2010-2011 Lutzie award for most unfortunate quote by an auto exec. And rather than jumping right into the meat of the interview, I want to kick off Lutz week by looking at a few cars that came up in our meandering conversation. After all, these are not just vehicles… when Lutz brings them up in an interview, they become stories, little encapsulations of his philosophy or the state of the company that made them. Let’s start with a car that I literally had never heard of before he mentioned it almost in passing: the Dodge Dakota Convertible. Eat your heart out, Murano CrossCabriolet… the Dakota was the original “WTF-vertible.”
Given his reputation for over-the-top vehicles like the Viper and Volt, and his general fondness for drop-tops, you might think that the Dakota ‘vert was one of Bob Lutz’s “babies,” but if that were the case his enthusiasm for the truckvertible has waned considerably. And, the way he tells the story, the Dakota’s topless conversion was not a gut-call for a strong niche product, but the outgrowth of Chrysler’s brief infatuation with “brand management.” But let’s let Lutz tell the story himself, which opens sometime around 1988, when Hal Sperlich was forced out of the company and Lutz began taking over more responsibility:
Like many other companies at the time, Iacocca got himself talked into ‘brand management’ by a board member, a guy by the name of Paul Sticht who was with RJR Nabisco. And so we had the famous Jerry York running Dodge brand and they were going to dictate product priorities to us. Jeep was intelligent enough to just say ‘hey, we’re on the right track. We’ll do the V8 Grand Cherokee and all the other stuff that followed on.’ But Jerry York wanted to make a mark, so he wanted a a Dodge Shadow convertible, for which we didn’t have the money, and he wanted a Dakota pickup convertible. *laughs* There’s a few around. I think we sold like a thousand. Maybe.
I saw one the other day at an airport out in California. Slammed. I think the Dakota convertible had to be the leakiest convertible top of all time… we had it done by ASC down in Mexico. It would be fun to have one just because they’re so rare… but once Iacocca saw that brand management wasn’t working, I became the real President.
My initial curiosity about the story was based wholly in the fact that I hadn’t been aware of the existence of a convertible pickup other than the SSR. But, having reflected on the story, I realized that this anecdote actually shows an interesting side of Lutz’s character. Though best known as the father of all kinds of outlandish machinery, Lutz is not the kind of guy to champion anything that’s out of the automotive norm simply because of its unusualness. Though Lutz clearly likes the idea of a rare convertible pickup, his dismissive attitude towards the Dakota Convertible’s genesis says a lot about his attitude towards new product development: in short, when an idea comes from “product guys” he tends to like it, but when it comes from “brand managers” he tends to be less supportive.
The problem with that attitude? By emphasizing problems in product conception rather than the product itself, Lutz opens himself to repeating mistakes that others have made, in the belief that a more product-oriented process (rather than a brand-oriented process) will have more success. The obvious example of this is the SSR truckvertible that Lutz championed into production at GM. Though it sold considerably more than a thousand units (estimated volume: 24,150 between 2003 and 2005), the SSR was still ultimately a flop. Would Lutz have pushed the SSR into production when he arrived at GM if the Dakota Convertible hadn’t been pushed on him by Jerry York’s Dodge “brand managers”? York and company certainly provided an easy scapegoat for one of the weirdest vehicles ever produced. And with the benefit of hindsight, it now seems fairly clear that drop-top pickups are a problematic proposition whether they come from “product guys” or “brand managers.”