At 69 Bob Lutz is back where he began – at GM. In terms of car industry careers, the charismatic, cigar chomping, jet fighter flying Lutz has managed a rare feat, jumping to BMW, Ford, Chrysler, and now back to GM, and leaving each company with his reputation as a hard driving “car guy” suitably enhanced. Lutz spoke exclusively to Angus Mackenzie for just-auto.

Lutz rejoined GM in August as vice chairman of product development. Last week he was also made chairman of the company’s North American operations, replacing the controversial Ron Zarella. A former executive with optical company Bausch & Lomb, Zarella restructured GM’s product development and marketing along narrowly defined brand values linked to individual models. Lutz’s appointment signals a return to product development driven by engineering fundamentals and exciting design.

“Design needs to play a stronger role in the overall creation of the compromise that results in an automobile,” says Lutz firmly. “At Chrysler we always started with the design, and then we worked backwards to make sure the rest worked. At GM it’s almost the opposite – they sort of define the whole car, and then they wrap it. It results in very good, spacious and practical cars. It’s just that not enough people fall in love with them.”

Insiders report Lutz has already made swingeing changes to a number of new model programs. One story tells of Lutz walking through a GM design studio and spotting a low-slung sports car. “What’s that?” he’s said to have asked. “The next Corvette,” came the reply. Lutz apparently took another look. “No it’s not,” he said, and walked out of the studio. He’s also said to be less than impressed with the brutal, angular styling of the new Cadillac CTS.

Lutz won’t confirm details. “There’s some stuff in the system that I’ve been able to influence – or free up the space for design to influence more,” he says simply. “The nice thing is I’m not having to fight with anybody because there’s an unbelievable desire for change inside the company.”

The only common theme Lutz says he wants in GM vehicles is excellent design. “I have absolutely no problem with some brands doing very angular designs, which I think is a theme that not only fits Cadillac, but also GMC trucks very well,” he says. “I would see the Chevrolet trucks as being somewhat softer in line and I would always see Buick as much softer than Cadillac; Saturn probably wants to be more in the import direction. I think it’s especially important for us that these historic brands should – if we do it right – attract different classes of customers.”

Is he comfortable that Cadillac’s so-called “Art & Science” design direction is so polarising? “I think Cadillac really does have to depart on an individual design direction,” he says. “The CTS is very polarising, but the good thing about it is the younger the buyer, the greater the acceptance of the style. If one of Cadillac’s strategic thrusts is to attract a younger class of premium buyers then that design is in the right direction.”

Nevertheless Lutz has reportedly put the next generation Cadillac STS on hold because he’s unhappy with its sharp-edged styling, even though insiders who have seen the car say it’s a much better executed vehicle than the smaller CTS. “I wasn’t here when the CTS was done,” he says pointedly, “but I think it was the right thing to do, because simply doing our version of a BMW 3-series or a Lexus GS300 wasn’t going to work. You have to do something different and provide a clear choice.”

GM is currently working on its first “retro” production car, the low volume Chevrolet SSR pickup, which will appear in 2003, long after rivals such as VW and DaimlerChrysler have put retro products onto the market. Has the company missed the boat on a passing design fad?

“No, retro is going to go on for a while, because there is so much heritage,” insists Lutz. “Of course it has to be done right – you can’t just do the old car again. But if it’s done right – and it was done right in the case of the Mini – I think that’s a very good way to go, because it takes a lot of the risk away when the public can identify with something that was successful in the past. It’s important for people to have an emotional connection with design, and when you do heritage design the emotional connection is almost guaranteed from the beginning.”

While he’s planning big changes to the way GM develops future models, in the short term, Lutz wants to focus on lifting quality across the company’s existing product portfolio. “I want to put a lot of emphasis on the detail execution and the degree of precision and fit and finish of the interior and exterior,” he says. This, he believes, is a cost-effective way of quickly moving the needle in terms of customer perception of GM products. “It doesn’t require a new model generation to do,” he says.

While Lutz’s credentials as a “car guy” are among the best in the business, there are those who whisper that he’s not quite as sharp at divining new trends in America’s truck segment, which now accounts for more than half the new vehicles sold in the US, and the bulk of the cash flow for GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler’s North American operations. Is he concerned the traditional mainstream passenger car is all but dead in the US?

“It’s certainly declining,” he admits, “although some of that is a definitional thing  – is a Lexus 300 really an SUV, for example. The answer is probably no, but it meets the definition of a truck in the US, as does the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Start rolling things like that in, and it’s obvious that trucks are taking a higher and higher percentage of the market. The few passenger cars that companies still do will have to be more sharply focussed.”

Suggested Further reading:

General Motors News Update Service

Company Profile of General Motors

General Motors Corporation Company Profile