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March 9, 2010

GOLDING’S TAKE: Lutz of memories

The abiding memory of Bob Lutz, a man trained to kill by the US Marines, is him standing proudly among his products on the GM stand at auto shows the world over.

The abiding memory of Bob Lutz, a man trained to kill by the US Marines, is him standing proudly among his products on the GM stand at auto shows the world over.

He would be bolt upright, half a head taller than most other men and with a calm superiority. When he looked around him his head would swivel slowly like a tank turret.  Ten feet away was his own personal security man. The security man had the fast eyes of a weasel, but Lutz probably saw just as much.

In his own mind, Lutz may well have been a failure. He would have loved to have run a car company but was always perceived as a threat by those who hired him which is part of the reason that he moved from Ford to Chrysler and on to GM.

In his book, Six Men Who Built the Modern Auto Industry, Rick Johnson recounted the typical confrontation 30 years ago with Red Polling at Ford who was an obsessive stats man. He could not cope with the Lutz intuitive approach which relied on instinct and passion and could not always be supported by the empirical data that Poling required when chairman of Ford of Europe 30 years ago. Lutz was President of Ford of Europe and his direct report.

Lutz became the Car Man therefore wherever he went and settled for that. He delighted in the company of designers and journalists who he enchanted with tales from his career which started with the Boy’s Own assignment of jet fighter pilot and persisted with scary exploits in test cars. Johnson reported an unnamed colleague of the two men as saying that Poling saw Lutz as everything he was not – funny, dashing, debonair with a talent for finding the best wine and cigars. The word was fed to Lutz that he was regarded as an upstart, maverick, swashbuckler for whom there was no place at Ford long-term. He was punished with promotion to the head of the US truck operation.

Lutz has remained his own man. He recently said that the problem of the US auto industry derived directly from the US Government’s failure to tax gasoline hard enough. Cheap fuel left the US in a backwater when the rest of the world was working hard on compact, fuel-efficient vehicles.

More recently still was his somewhat contradictory public offering that the concern about global warming and its consequences was a crock of shit.

What is hard to square is the unquestioned wisdom that car-man Lutz has transformed the GM product portfolio. When the revised Chevy Cobalt came to market late last year it was received by Motor Trend magazine with a rating of just two stars out of a possible score of five. Is that the work of a product genius?

In Europe, GM’s Corsa, Astra and Insignia were well received but have been quickly trumped by Fiesta and Focus. Companies which make things that people want to buy do not normally end up in administration. That may have been the key observation made by new GM chairman and CEO, Ed Whiteacre, when he received the news from Lutz that he was ready to retire and did not protest. However big the man, there comes a point when the mission has to be undertaken by someone younger.

Rob Golding

See also: Good wishes to Bob Lutz

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