Double Lutz?

double lutz

What if GM Car Czar Bob Lutz is the kind of hero General Motors needs, hurling Volts from high atop the Ren Center to stave off Chapters 7 and 11? What if he's fighting the bureaucratic beast from within, under the guise of corporate tool, a double agent, if you will? Could Maximum Bob be one of the good guys? Double Lutz?

The General has had a tough couple of decades. Lutz arrived at his current job in 2002, hopping on the continuous market share slide. He is Vice Chairman, charged with global product development. During his tenure, the General has leaked significant levels of everything used to value a corporation: cash, investor confidence, consumer confidence, brand strength, hope, faith and charity. GM kissed away 23 percent of the US market since 1979, five of that during Lutz's stint.

Yet Lutz and his boss Rick Wagoner are still calling the shots, with the full backing of the Board. In most companies losing seven million dollars an hour, this is not the case. So why aren't these guys sitting on the curb with cardboard boxes on their laps?

There are several possible explanations. 1. The Board is stupid. 2. Inter-mingling with other blue-chip boards has created a web of complicity. 3. They invite bankruptcy. 4. They're telling it like it is: the Board believes in what Wagoner and Lutz are doing to turn the company around. This one is the hardest believe– unless all is not as it appears.

Robert A. Lutz is a retired Marine Corps aviator who speaks three languages. Born in Switzerland, 1932, he joined General Motors Europe in 1963. He worked at BMW in the early 70s, where he took part in the development of the storied 3-Series. At Ford, he rose through the Chairmanship of Ford of Europe all the way to the Ford Board. From there, he jumped to Chrysler, where he oversaw the Viper, Prowler and LH platform. Four years as CEO of Exide brings him back to GM.

Lutz has never been cocooned in Detroit. He's continuously championed European driving dynamics and technology in America. He's lead and lost political battles at each of the Detroit marks. It is difficult to accept him as a clueless– or even disinterested– Hindenburg pilot. The alternative, then, is Lutz at the stick of a Raptor.

The Chevy Volt project is being run unlike anything in GM's recent corporate memory. No curtains. No tarps. Everything everyone is doing is out in the open, blasted at the press and rocketing forward at twice normal development speed. This is GM's moon shot.

The Volt is anti-GM culture to its core. Literally. They ridiculed hybrids not five years ago and shot their own electric car in the back. Now, The General is throwing resources it doesn't have and what's left of its reputation at a vehicle that, as of right now, will not work.

Lutz is the father of the Volt. At Exide, he became enamored with batteries and electric drive and saw potential freedom from Saudi and Venezuelan oil. In 2006, he commissioned something striking for the 2007 Detroit Autoshow, telling his engineers and designers he wanted a game-changer.

The game he wants to change, though, is inside the Ren Center. A full century of corporate calcification has made it near impossible to do anything, let alone anything well. GM is notorious for tall decision trees, needing months to climb, and middle managers who've learned that sticking your neck out is the surest way to get cut down to size.

All of this is antithetical to a way a fighter pilot thinks. Marines understand chain of command. They are not above their brand of bureaucracy, but they are trained to get their orders and get the job done. The job in this case: overtake the former axis powers and regain US supremacy of the roads.

For victory, the Volt will need to zap GM's corporate mindset on sustainability, environmental policy, accountability and resource allocation. It has to turn around the crowd that killed the EV1 and dozens of other start-stop projects that sapped GM resources and credibility for a generation. And that, even more than build a cool car, is what Lutz really wants to do.

Lutz has repeatedly stated that this project is important not just to GM, but to the whole US auto industry. Yeah, he blankets the media jungle with crazy-palm. He has to. He needs to stoke what fire is left at GM and he can't use the truth to do it. How could he not sound ludicrous most of the time?

That expression about turning around an aircraft carrier doesn't apply to the General. It's more like a whole fleet. Maybe, just maybe, Maximum Bob is using the Volt to light the way.

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  • BuzzDog BuzzDog on Aug 25, 2008

    @geeber: Basically, for styling to completely ruin the Camry and dislodge it from its current position atop the sales chart, Toyota would have to come up with the 21st century equivalent of the 1961 full-size Plymouth. Or even worse, the 1962 Plymouth. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, supposedly the 1962 Plymouth and Dodge were downsized because someone at Chrysler engineering learned that GM had ordered tooling for a model with a 115-inch wheelbase and a ~200-inch overall length. Obviously, the all-powerful General was downsizing its full-sized offerings, and Chrysler wasn't going to be left behind with a dowdy old car of yesterday's larger proportions! Unfortunately for Chrysler, this tooling was for GM's all-new, mid-sized "A"-bodied models introduced in 1964: the Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac Tempest, the Oldsmobile F-85/Cutlass and Buick Special/Skylark (and these BOP versions were actually upsized from their 1963 predecessors). Hard to imagine that GM's power was once so influential, isn't it?

  • Dr Lemming Dr Lemming on Aug 26, 2008

    Sure, the Malibu is a better design than Camry's, which has some weird flourishes like the inelegant front fender hump and the otherworldly third eye grille (why can't they make it blink?). That said, I don't think that the Malibu is anything close to a home run. For one thing, it doesn't do a very good job of capturing the Chevrolet DNA. Indeed, it has an "any car" quality not unlike the original (1964). Toyota's styling has deteriorated in recent years, so I suppose there is the potential for the equivalent of the 1962 Plymouth. However, I suspect that as long as the Camry continues to meet people's functional expectations that it will do well. Recall that Plymouth was already a weakened brand entering 1962 because of quality control issues. In 1961 even Rambler outsold Chrysler's supposed "bread and butter" brand. Interesting comparison of the 1969 Chevy and Plymouth. I'd agree that the Chevy looks a bit better. The irony is that the Chrysler platform was brand new whereas GM refurbished its 1965 design. Chevy's wheel well bubbles were overdone and the massive donut front bumper fortunately disappeared after only one year. Alas, Chrysler really blew it with the fuselage shape. To my eyes the key problem was the overly high belt line, which was accentuated with a blocky front end and an overly squat roofline on the two doors.

  • Master Baiter I like the references to Red Barchetta. My fun car is a spiritual cousin to this Miata: 2001 BMW M Roadster--green with tan leather; five speed.
  • Arthur Dailey I believe that removing the screen from the instrument panel would greatly improve the looks of the interior. What of the Recaro seats? Any that I have tried have been too narrow across the back. Have they 'modified' them to fit North American drivers?
  • Cprescott IIHS has to stay relevant by changing the rules in mid-stream and then it gets to falsely claim a car is unsafe. Point of fact that most vehicles on the road passed the pre-existing test and that IIHS should only test NEW products to the new test and to let the current models alone. The clown who used to be the face of IIHS was an arrogant little troll who loved to get face time for his arbitrary changes that he imposed.I understand things change, but an ethical organization would have a set name for a test and when the test changed, so would the name and the new test could not be imposed upon a vehicle it already tested with the old one. The manufacturer could point to the prior passed test and that would have been ethical. I'm surprised that IIHS hasn't gone back years to show how the new standard would have failed all current vehicles ever made - the cars didn't get less safe, but the test would make you think so.
  • Arthur Dailey Nearly a decade since Suzuki withdrew from the N.A. markets? Seems like just yesterday. They did make some 'decent' cars for the budget conscious. The Sidekick, Vitara and Grand Vitara all being favourites among my friends/colleagues from the former Soviet Union. They respect the simplicity and versatility of these vehicles. Particularly when they have the traditional body on frame structure.
  • Arthur Dailey Had a 210 'Sunny', 2-door. It was a base model with zero options (for example a rubber floor without any carpeting), that we used as a courier style vehicle. It took all kinds of aggravation/bad treatment, received only minimal maintenance and never once complained or let us down.