Bob Lutz’s latest tome isn’t so much about cars as it is a business book on leadership that happens to be about cars. Through 11 vignettes, Lutz talks about the leadership figures in his life, their triumphs and foibles and how they impacted his personal and professional development.
It’s that time of year, with the clock ticking on your shopping for Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanzaa and the ease of buying books online makes them such low-hassle gifts. You want to give that special car-freak on your gift list a nice coffee-table book, but everybody’s coffee table seems to be creaking beneath the weight of books full of photos of gleaming classic/exotic cars. Boring! The solution: this book full of photos of abandoned cars!
“In the end, it was all about the car—designing, engineering, assembling, and selling a product that consumers wanted to own and drive.” So observes Bill Vlasic near the end of Once Upon a Car, his 379-page account of the recent “fall and resurrection” of the Detroit car manufacturers. Vlasic’s book is quite late to the party, following other journalistic accounts by Alex Taylor III and Paul Ingrassia and insider accounts by Steve Rattner and Bob Lutz. Can it possibly offer anything new? Is it worth reading? Yes, and yes. Yet Vlasic’s book also shares a fundamental weakness with the others, one all the more damning because of the above observation.
Never assume that press accounts of what’s going on inside the auto companies resembles what’s actually going on. For my Ph.D. thesis, I inhabited General Motors’s product development organization much like an anthropologist might inhabit a Third World village. What I observed during my year-and-a-half on the inside bore virtually no resemblance to what I read in the automotive press. Journalists aren’t inside the companies, have contact with select high-level insiders, and tend to print the PR-approved accounts these insiders provide. These accounts reflect how senior executives want outsiders to think the organization operates and performs much more than how it actually does. To the extent journalists know the reality—and few do any digging—they rarely print it. So I’ve refrained from even guessing at what’s been going on inside GM. Instead, I’ve been hoping that some insider would write an insightful account of the eventful past 10 to 15 years. None have, until ex-vice chairman Bob Lutz’s new book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: the Battle for the Soul of American Business. Lutz has a reputation for speaking his mind and straight shooting. What does his book tell us about what really went on inside GM?