I recently had the pleasure of putting a few miles on a Vauxhall Monaro, the Australian-built 5.7-litre coupe that's sold in America as a GTO by Pontiac. This is one heck of an impressive automobile. It's robust, with a great V8 sound and huge acceleration, but at the same time refined with outstanding cornering and handling. It's good-looking with an understatement that goes down well in Europe and an interior that's a big step up from what we're used to in cars made Down Under. In short, quite an automobile and a real pleasure to drive.
So why is the Monaro underperforming as a GTO in the American market? Sales there are well below hopes and expectations. There's a clue in a recent issue of Automotive News, which contrasts the GTO's market impact with that of the successful 300C Chrysler and added that the Pontiac 'looks more like an oversized Sunfire than a muscle car. Too bad, because the GTO is a wonderful car to drive and might have made a worthy successor to GM's F-body Camaro and Firebird.'
How true! The Monaro is right in the heart of the sprit of the Firebird and would have suited that moniker to a T. The GTO was famous for having an over-large engine in a mid-size body and was never hailed for its subtlety. This historic identity didn't suit the Monaro at all. Yet when the plans to built it as a GTO were announced, Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman of product development, said, 'This latest GTO will carry on the proud tradition of a legendary line. This car is a strong statement from both Pontiac and GM that we are determined to re-energise the car market with vehicles that command the customer's attention and excite their senses.'
Lutz's various public statements in support of the new GTO had the effect of ramping up expectations for the car to unrealistic levels during the several years required to bring it to market. Wrongly positioned and too subtle in its styling to make much impact with muscle-car lovers, the new Pontiac didn't 'excite the senses' of the enthusiasts who had waited for it so patiently.
'It's pretty obvious that the dyed-in-the-wool old-line GTO fans (mostly probably also collectors) are disappointed that it's a non-retro-themed car with few throwback GTO cues,' said Lutz in response to criticisms of the car's styling. 'But that's not what we set out to do. We wanted a modern interpretation, with a really slick chassis to go along with a big engine. It will more than live up to the GTO heritage in terms of driving excitement and performance. We really would like to draw new customers, rather than traditionalists.' Well, that's not what Maximum Bob said previously, when he claimed that the new car would 'carry on the proud tradition of a legendary line'.
Not satisfied with queering the pitch for GM's new models in America, Bob Lutz has been giving European car buyers the benefit of his 'wisdom' as well. In a recent interview with auto motor und sport he went out of his way to point up the deficiencies of Opel's offerings. 'In the next version of the Vectra,' he said, 'the design will be much more dynamic' - with clear inferences for the current Vectra, which I happen to think is a damn good-looking car. It's a good car as well, as the same magazine confirmed in the same issue with a comparison test of Opel's new Vectra diesel against the offerings of Mercedes-Benz, VW and Peugeot. The Vectra came out on top.
Lutz went on to inform his German readers that under its previous structure GM Europe 'had at that time, internally, a virtual civil war that was very damaging for all concerned.' The implication, of course, is that that has all been sorted during and after his spell in charge of GM Europe in the first half of this year. Sweetness and light will now prevail in the relationship among Zürich, Rüsselsheim and Ellesmere Port. I don't believe it for a minute.
I'm not the only person who is astonished that Lutz left Zürich in place. A separate office to run GM Europe was established only to strike a balance between Opel and Vauxhall in days when a real 'civil war' prevailed. It was plunked down in Switzerland because GM's American managers were terrified of the European Union's socialistic ideas on taxation and workers' legislation, their theory being that if they were headquartered in a non-EU country they could avoid any such annoyances. Only after they made that decision did they discover that Zürich had virtually no housing for their people and that Swiss salaries had to be sky-high.
Now the rationale for Zürich has gone away. Vauxhall is simply a home-brand marketing arm of Opel in product and production terms, with negligible involvement in the product-development process. Zürich has become as useful as the proverbial tits on a bull. Yet Lutz has not only kept it, but strengthened it. And this is the same man who, when he was running Ford of Europe, bemoaned the size of its central staff and said that it should be managed from a small cadre in a BAC 1-11 who could fly wherever problems needed solving.
My conclusion is reinforced by Lutz's remarks about Carl-Peter Forster, the ex-BMW production expert who's been promoted to a job directly under Fritz Henderson in the GM Europe hierarchy. 'We've sent Carl-Peter Forster to the European headquarters,' said Lutz, 'because he's shown that he's an outstanding manager.' Well, if that's the case, why not give him the top job? Instead Forster has to report to Henderson, a time-serving bean-counter who started in the GM treasurer's office in New York - a career path that led a certain Roger Smith to the chairmanship of GM. A couple of guys named Pischetsrieder and Wiedeking have shown it's no bad thing to have someone with production know-how in charge of a car company.
Of course, Forster may have been happy to leave Henderson in place as the lightning rod for all the criticism of GM's plans to make swingeing job cuts in Europe. The GM Europe chief has already shown that he has the short-term outlook that's so typical of American finance executives. 'I need to have a significant impact in 2005.' He said in September, 'so I need to have a plan in place in the next 60 days - we don't have the luxury of time.' It's the all-too-familiar American refrain, to paraphrase the proverb, of 'decide in haste, repent at leisure.'
'Our assumptions on volume and market share were wrong,' added Fritz Henderson, 'and picking up market share in Europe is incredibly difficult.' Welcome to the EU! And with impeccable timing GM has also announced its plan to transform Daewoo into Chevrolet in Europe, at the first of next year, to attack the very foundations of the market for family cars that chiefly support the sales efforts of Opel and GM's business partner Fiat. Might people be concerned that the quality of Korean-built Chevrolets could fall short of European requirements? Bob Lutz reassured them: 'Korean quality is coming up so fast now, it rivals the rest of the world,' he said. Big help for Opel and Fiat that was!
Lutz also had some peculiar comments about Chevrolet. 'It has become a sacrificial brand,' he said about the bow-tie marque, 'but we had to do it. It's easier to pull a brand down than to build it up.' I guess that means that it's okay to drag Chevrolet down to Daewoo's level by putting the bow tie on questionable cars because it would be too difficult to make the best of the Daewoo brand.
The excellent sniffpetrol website had a natty comment on GM's strategy. 'We realised that Daewoo is a badly devalued brand that means nothing to people outside of its home market,' it quoted a mythical GM spokesperson. 'So it made perfect sense to replace it with Chevrolet, which is a badly devalued brand that means nothing to people outside of its home market.'
I rest my case. It's time for Rick Wagoner to belt up Lutz. The man has clearly come to believe his press, which continues to hail him as the Second Coming of the Saviour of the auto industry. That he's not is gradually becoming evident. The Buick LaCrosse, a car strongly championed by Lutz, is my next and last exhibit. 'Curvy LaCrosse concept turns into Plane Jane car,' says a headline in a recent Automotive News. 'Nuff said.
Karl Ludvigsen is an award-winning author, historian and consultant who has worked in senior positions for GM, Fiat and Ford. In the 1980s and 1990s he ran the London-based motor-industry management consultancy, Ludvigsen Associates. He is currently an independent consultant and the author of more than three dozen books about cars and the motor industry, including Creating the Customer-Driven Car Company.
Karl and Monaro