Bob Lutz was not the worst thing to happen to General Motors. He was the second worst thing after CEO Rick Wagoner. Lutz’ legacy will not be the critically acclaimed vehicles attached to his name: the Cadillac CTS, Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Malibu or Pontiac G8. It will be the fact that GM’s vice chairman of global product development annihilated whatever remained of GM’s brand-related equity. Bob Lutz ran General Motors into the ground.
Lutz’ career at GM proves the old adage that if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. Oh hell, Lutz was the problem. Within weeks of Lutz’ elevation to Car Czar, TTAC sounded the alarm. In one of his earliest interviews, a reporter asked Lutz about Volkswagen’s prospects. Astoundingly, GM’s Car Czar couldn’t name more than three of VW’s brands.
While you might expect the identity of the German automakers’ divisions to catch out a pistonhead at a pub quiz, Lutz was the newly-appointed head of development for the world’s largest automaker. If Bob Lutz didn’t have mental access to this type of competitive information, how could he possibly craft a coherent strategy for GM?
Lutz apologists flew to his defense. This quickly became a habitual practice. In subsequent years, the automotive media focused its attention on Lutz’ mal mots: his allegedly recidivist views on the auto industry’s place within society. The so-called “crock of shit” problem was actually thinly-disguised admiration.
The press painted Lutz as the straight-talking, cigar-chomping representative of an earlier time, a time when V8 engines—and GM—ruled the earth. And they loved him for it. What the media missed: how often Lutz’ opinions about the car business were ill-informed, misguided and just plain wrong.
This is the hugely compensated automotive executive that today called the Pontiac GTO “my proudest accomplishment.” After all, “That’s the car that got us convinced that we could use the global product development scheme. Up until then, no one had tried anything like that.”
Maximum Bob is, once again, flat out wrong; the “world car” idea is as old the auto industry itself. Worse: the Australian-built GTO was an abject failure. The GTO lost GM tens of millions of dollars, squandered precious development resources and drove yet another Lutz-shaped nail into Pontiac’s coffin.
You could, however, make the case that the GTO was the quintessential Lutz-mobile: a romantic expression of his personal taste that fell flat on its face. A product that Lutz quickly abandoned in search of . . . the next big thing. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. For models within brands AND the brands themselves.
Lutz never developed anything remotely resembling a coherent, focused and determined product development strategy. Automotive Attention Deficiency Disorder characterized Lutz’ tenure. Everywhere you looked, GM under Lutz was a company typified by frenetic indecisiveness. The rear wheel-drive Zeta platform program was on-again, off-again no less than seven times.
In 2005, Lutz described Buick and Pontiac as damaged brands. The media thought it a “come to Jesus moment,” withdrawn to serve GM’s PC PR needs. But it was Lutz himself who had damaged the brands. And it was Lutz who continued to kick the brands when they were down. Lutz was guilty of sins of commission (a staggering stream of badge engineered mediocrity) and omission (a singular failure to define a profitable brand remit for ANY of GM’s divisions).
Lutz’ epic incompetence was matched only by his swagger and bravado. His enablers ate it up, adding to Maximum Bob’s egomaniacal ignorance. The fact that the media perpetuated Maximum Bob’s nickname without irony—a moniker I invented in a moment of disgust—shows you the kind of bubble that protected and extended Lutz’s befuddled sphere of influence.
Although, saying that, one wonders how much power Bob Lutz actually held within the loony labyrinth of backstabbing RenCen bureaucrats that is General Motors. Did Lutz argue for the Chevy Traverse or just let it happen? Did the Powers That Be appease Lutz with his pet projects (e.g., the Pontiac Solstice) so they could do whatever they wanted to maintain the dysfunctional status quo upon which they depended?
There is no question in my mind that Bob Lutz’ resignation was motivated by personal greed. Let’s not forget Lutz’ reply to the [first] suggestion that he take a haircut to show his devotion to the team: “I already gave at the office.” By stepping aside now, the man who scoffed at the question “Is your pension bankruptcy proof?” is making damn well sure it is.
Like so many failed American executives, Lutz will not personally suffer for having ruined the livelihoods of tens of thousands of his underlings. He will sleep well, eat well, travel luxuriously and, worst of all, continue to receive the respect of his peers. He doesn’t deserve any of it, as history will one day decide.