Double Lutz?

Michael Martineck
by Michael Martineck

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.

Michael Martineck
Michael Martineck

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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.

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  • Varezhka And why exactly was it that Tesla decided not to coat their stainless steel bodies, again? My old steel capped Volant skis still looks clean without a rust in sight thanks to that metal vapor coating. It's not exactly a new technology.
  • GIJOOOE “Sounds” about as exciting as driving a golf cart, fake gear shifts or not. I truly hope that Dodge and the other big American car makers pull their heads out of the electric clouds and continue to offer performance cars with big horsepower internal combustion engines that require some form of multi gear transmissions and high octane fuel, even if they have to make them in relatively small quantities and market them specifically to gearheads like me. I will resist the ev future for as long as I have breath in my lungs and an excellent credit score/big bank account. People like me, who have loved fast cars for as long as I can remember, need a car that has an engine that sounds properly pissed off when I hit the gas pedal and accelerate through the gears.
  • Kcflyer libs have been subsidizing college for decades. The predictable result is soaring cost of college and dramatic increases in useless degrees. Their solution? More subsidies of course. EV policy will follow the same failed logic. Because it's not like it's their money. Not saying the republicans are any better, they talk a good game but spend like drunken sailors to buy votes just like the libs. The sole function of the U.S. government is to take money from people who earn it and give it away to people who didn't.
  • CecilSaxon Sounds about as smart as VW's "SoundAktor"