Bob Lutz Myth #11: Lutz Hates Car Design Clinics

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh
bob lutz myth 11 lutz hates car design clinics

Ed’s Ph.D. thesis. He told a different story. While Lutz is most famous for the Viper, his most profitable successes while at Chrysler were the far more practical, far less flashy minivans and Jeep Grand Cherokee. These vehicles were based on extensive research. Even with Lutz heavily involved, the Viper was the exception, not the rule. (See Ed’s Myth where Lutz claimed to get equally excited about both sorts of products.)

When Lutz took charge of GM’s new product development in 2001 I was still in touch with people inside GM’s design analysis and market research groups. They were fearful that Lutz would cut them way back or even shut them down entirely, based on his popular reputation. I told them they had nothing to worry about as long as GM got the actual Lutz and not the one that occupied the popular imagination. Lutz was against the mechanical use of market research and other data, but firmly believed in clinics as a tool to inform decision-makers’ judgment.

Which brings us to Car Guys. Before rejoining GM as a senior executive, Lutz had assumed that poorly conducted research must be to blame for the unattractive styling of many GM cars. But this wasn’t what he actually found. As he recounts, “To my surprise, I found GM’s research methodology to be excellent, much like that used to great success by Chrysler, and in some ways even superior.” The actual problem: “a general disdain for consumer input.” GM executives were disregarding clinic scores that were mediocre at best, and that were often awful. Vehicles like the Aztek were approved despite failing in clinics because revisions would require missing critical time and costs targets. The Vehicle Line Executives (VLEs) chose a probable future failure in the marketplace over a certain immediate failure to achieve their goals.

Rationalizations would come into play. In the case of the 2004 Cadillac SRX, the designers successfully argued that poor clinic results could be ignored because the general public couldn’t tell what they wanted in the future, that they lacked “reach.” As we now know, the first-generation SRX flopped. When the 2004 Grand Prix tested worse than the old design, the VLE reacted by telling the senior executive board that he wanted to take a baseball bat to the research group. Apparently the board bought this “argument,” as they approved the design despite the clinic results. The market then vindicated the clinic.

Lutz put an end to these practices. Designers’ passions and creativity are essential to creating beautiful cars, and Lutz did what he could to free them. But he also required that every design win its clinic by “a substantial margin” to get approved. Designs with merely decent (or worse) scores were revised, even if this or that gut suggested that the clinic results were wrong, and even if this made the project late and over budget. As is often the case, there isn’t a correct choice between “right brain” guts and “left brain” clinic scores. Successful cars follow from the proper combination of the two.

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11 of 31 comments
  • Detroit-X Detroit-X on Sep 20, 2011

    "Just doing the Viper" was the least risky of any "we just did it" exercise. I'm not impressed. It was just Chrysler's Corvette; no imagination needed, really. For such a low volume car, there's always a market with the expendable-money crowd if it's fast and nice looking, at least in the first few years. till the reputation catches up with it. The Aztek was much more of a risk, as it was intended to price and sell like a mainstream model. GM was too full of executive ass-kissers to halt a bad idea, or bad design. Even when the Azteks were in production, I thought it was nice to see an attempt at it, and not just another rounded, bar of soap, Japan-imitator.

    • See 6 previous
    • Geo Geo on Sep 21, 2011

      @Jurgen The Ridgeline was hailed by the mainstream press, most notably by the NYT, as a revolutionary vehicle . . . the sort that domestic automakers should be making but presumably had no idea how to. The reason it was able to sell 4000 or so copies per month was because of this praise. I remember the mainstream media drooling over it as a "new kind of truck", smooth to drive, wonderfully executed and designed, with a brilliant trapdoor in the bed, and great gas mileage to boot. It was the mainstream truck buyers who rejected the vehicle. Can you imagine if a domestic company created a Ridgeline? Perhaps with some Caravan DNA? Nobody would touch it, and I can almost hear the scoffing of the NYTimes as they decry the ridiculousness of the whole thing.

  • Michal1980 Michal1980 on Sep 20, 2011

    I've been reading since fargo. I rarely comment. But this whole lutz thing just stinks. A big check clear from his book or something?

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    • CamaroKid CamaroKid on Sep 22, 2011

      I gotta agree, something smells fishy here. This is the website who tagged Lutz with the less than flattering kick-name "Maximum Bob" This is the website who loved to point out that he was the brilliant car guy behind the G5. He was the car guy who killed the GTO FOREVER. He was the car guy who couldn't figure out how to sell the G8. He was the car guy who called Pontiac damaged goods, right before he called it a one car niche brand, right before he killed it. And that is JUST ONE division. A couple of years later and one cozy interview and this guy who used to be the fuel behind the GM death watch and the target of an annual foot in mouth award... is suddenly all big and bad... Yes Maximum Bob is the smartest person to help drive a multinational company worth almost 100 billion into bankruptcy. Yes there is much to learn from Bob. Ask him what GM should do... and then try the EXACT opposite.

  • RHD The price will also be a huge factor. Most websites expect it to start at around 50K. Add in the dealer fees, taxes, markup, options and assorted nonsense, it'll probably easily pass 60 grand. A Chrysler Pacifica starts around 38K. The real test will be if anyone with nostalgia for the old VW Van/Kombi/Station Wagon/Bus/Etc. will be motivated to actually buy one. Once the new and unique wears off, its innate excellence (or lack thereof) will determine its long-term success.
  • Carlson Fan I think it is pretty cool & grew up with a '75 Ford window van so I can attest to their utility. $60K is a lot for any vehicle and I'm not convinced EV's are ready for prime time for a number of reasons. It would make an awesome 2nd or 3rd vehicle in a multi-car household but again the price would keep most from considering it.I agree with the other comments that those who have to have it will buy it and then sales will drop off. Offer a panel version for the commercial market, that could have possibilities.
  • Wjtinfwb Panther Black? or Black Panther? Shaped like a decade old Ford detectives sedan? Seems like an odd way to send out your marquee car...
  • Kwik_Shift Instead of blacked, how about chromed? Don't follow the herd.
  • Carlson Fan Nicest looking dash/gage cluster ever put in any PU truck. After all these years it still looks so good.