Bob Lutz Myth #11: Lutz Hates Car Design Clinics

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh

Ed’s outstanding editorial largely disproved ten widely believed myths about Bob Lutz based on their candid interview. But my favorite Lutz myth apparently didn’t pop up in their wide-ranging discussion: that Lutz believes in designing cars from the gut, and opposes testing potential designs with representative car buyers in clinics.

You’ll often read that boring, even bad designs are the way they are because of clinics. Clinics have been blamed for the Edsel, the Aztek, and myriad other car design failures over the past half-century. Touted as the superior alternative: the golden gut, with Lutz as poster boy. The reality from Lutz’s new book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: the Battle for the Soul of American Business: he has found clinics to be an excellent indicator of a design’s future potential and firmly believes in their use.

This wasn’t news to me. Lutz’s 1998 book, Guts, includes as the first of its seven “immutable laws of business” that “the customer isn’t always right.” To whit, survey results are often misleading and, at a minimum, require careful interpretation. Lutz enthusiastically notes about the Viper, “We didn’t do any research at all—we just did it!” But not long after that book was published I interviewed Chrysler’s head of market research as part of the work for my 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.

Michael Karesh
Michael Karesh

Michael Karesh lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with his wife and three children. In 2003 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he worked at the National Opinion Research Center, a leader in the field of survey research. For his doctoral thesis, he spent a year-and-a-half inside an automaker studying how and how well it understood consumers when developing new products. While pursuing the degree he taught consumer behavior and product development at Oakland University. Since 1999, he has contributed auto reviews to Epinions, where he is currently one of two people in charge of the autos section. Since earning the degree he has continued to care for his children (school, gymnastics, tae-kwan-do...) and write reviews for Epinions and, more recently, The Truth About Cars while developing TrueDelta, a vehicle reliability and price comparison site.

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  • 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.

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    • 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.

  • SilverCoupe I am generally a fan of Hyundai/Kia styling, but those wheels make it look like one would be driving on octagons that would go clunk, clunk, clunk as one drove.
  • Lorenzo Electric motors provide instant torque, that's why locomotives use diesel-electric power plants, for maximum efficiency. Save the natural gas for cooking, and build EV's with locomotive power!
  • SilverCoupe As I see more of these on the roads, I am starting to warm up to them, though yeah, they should just have been called the "Mach-e" (not to be confused with the Mercury "Marquis.")
  • SilverCoupe For better or worse, younger folk do not have an internalized understanding of history. My father's generation, who fought in WWII, would not by Japanese cars, but he did not try to stop me from buying a German car for my first vehicle purchase.
  • FreedMike If you want an EV, buy one. If you don't, don't buy one. Y'all have fun on this thread. Peace, out.