GM’s Bob Lutz To Step Down as Product Development Chief in April, Retire by Year End

By Chris Haak

02.09.2009

General Motors’ “car czar,” Robert Lutz, will step down from his current role as Vice Chairman – Global Product Development effective April 1, 2009.  At that point, he will become Vice Chairman – Senior Advisor until his retirement on December 31, 2009.  Forty year GM veteran Tom Stephens, currently Executive Vice President, Global Powertrain and Global Quality will assume the role of Vice Chairman – Global Product Development on April 1.  Stephens (pictured below) will report to GM COO Fritz Henderson, whereas Lutz reported to CEO Rick Wagoner.

Bob Lutz joined GM in September 2001 after an already-long career in the auto industry (outlined here in more detail).  He began at GM in 1963, worked for BMW, Ford, then Chrysler.  He was a candidate to succeed Lee Iacocca as Chrysler CEO, but Iacocca chose Bob Eaton instead, the Daimler acquisition happened, and Lutz retired from Chrysler to become the CEO of Exide battery until GM came calling.

Today’s GM is certainly not the model of either operational or product development efficiency that some competitors’ organizations are, but over the past seven years, Bob Lutz has made a gigantic impact toward improving a very dysfunctional organization.  GM had individual fiefdoms in Europe, Asia/Pacific and North America doing their own work in product development, and the result was an enormous amount of wasted redundant efforts – or worse, underwhelming efforts that were ugly, unreliable, and tarnished GM’s reputation for a generation of buyers.  Stupidity such as the fact that although the 2004 Chevy Malibu and 2004 Saab 9-3 were both ostensibly underpinned by GM’s Epsilon platform, GM had allowed Europe and North America to differ on key hard points, meaning that two sets of parts had to be developed for each version of the Epsilon platform even under the skin and that European versions could not be assembled in the US or vice versa.

The GM that Bob Lutz is leaving now operates under a global product development model that Ford has begun to also adhere to, and that which many foreign competitors have been doing for years.  GM Holden in Australia is responsible for engineering large cars; Europe is responsible for midsize cars; Asia/Pacific is responsible for small cars with input from Europe; the US is responsible for trucks, SUVs, and crossovers.  The old GM would never have developed the eye-catching 2010 Buick LaCrosse jointly between China and the US; there would have been two substandard versions of the same car.

Bob Lutz, who will turn 77 on February 12, is not without his critics.  One problem he’s been known for over the years is his propensity to speak his mind, for better or worse.  Calling global warming a “crock of s–t” didn’t exactly endear GM to the good graces of folks concerned about the environment, just as GM is spending billions to prove to the world that it can build the Chevy Volt and de-emphasize fuel-thirsty SUVs and trucks.  As a self-professed “car guy” in GM’s culture of accountants, Lutz pushed hard for good-performing, good-handling vehicles.  To him, that equation usually resulted in a large, powerful car such as the Pontiac G8/Holden Commodore rather than a smaller, more efficient car such as the Chevy Cobalt SS.  The gas guzzlers certainly helped GM’s performance image in the marketplace, but did so at the peril of its green image.

Lutz not only served as a mouthpiece and culture-changer at GM, but was also a motivator for the design teams in his organization.  Love them or hate them, the designs that came out of GM during the Bob Lutz era (specifically over the last two or three years, when he was present for the beginning of the project) have significantly stepped up GM’s game in the design department.  Had it not been for the decades of pissing away the goodwill of customers with substandard vehicles, many of GM’s newest releases – the Malibu, CTS, Enclave, Silverado, G8, 2010 LaCrosse, and 2010 Equinox – could probably sell on their looks alone.  The amazing thing is that many of the same designers who had worked at GM when cars such as the Pontiac Aztec and Chevy Malibu saw the light of day were the same ones who were around for cars like my personal favorite, the 2008 CTS, as well.  Lutz once said he wanted to convince the beancounters that improving a vehicle’s quality perception with $500 in more expensive components might eliminate the need for $2,000 in rebates.  It seems like common sense, but getting GM interiors to move from mismatched Rubbermaid plastic to soft-touch, flowing shapes with attractive trim was a huge cultural shift for GM.  I spent a few days driving a 2006 Malibu LT last month, and as good as the 2008+ Malibu is – that one was bad.  The 2006 Malibu looked ugly and awkward from day one, was unrefined, had sloppy interior craftsmanship, and a lot of grey plastic in the interior.  (Not to mention that the 2006 Malibu had already been improved with a better front end design and slightly upgraded interior over the 2004 version of the same generation).

He is a larger than life figure, and leaves big shoes for GM to have to fill.  In addition to the GM vehicles he’s had a hand in, at Chrysler, he oversaw the 1994 Ram, 1992 Viper, 1993 LH cars, 1994 Neon, 1995 Cirrus/Stratus “cloud cars,” among others.  Certainly, Chrysler’s most recent product heyday was during the 1990s prior to the Daimler merger – and occurred under Bob Lutz’s watch.

Will Tom Stephens be the right guy to fill Lutz’s shoes at GM?  His tenure at GM Powertrain seems to have been successful, with many powerful and well-regarded engines in new GM vehicles.  I have no indication whether he has the same detail orientation that Bob Lutz has, but hopefully for GM, design chief Ed Welburn will continue his excellent work of the past few years.

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Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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3 Comments

  1. Your phrase “the same designers” is what’s important. Obviously, the talent was always there, but the (blind, deaf and dumb) accountants ruled at GM. The one thing Rick Wagoner did right was give Lutz the authority to make design important again, so the main thing that Stephens has to do is not screw this up. I’m sure Welborn will be fighting the good fight.

    I don’t know if this was specifically Lutz’s fault, but the built-in cannibalism of the Kappa cars always bothers me. Two roadsters?!? Why not one roadster (I think the Sky is much better looking than the Solstice) and a Chevy Nomad. The Nomad could have had been a hit like the Mini, if done right.

    You commented on Lutz’s apparent preference for large, powerful cars and apparent disdain for small, efficient cars. Perhaps this was due to GM North America’s inability to do a small car right (I’m looking at you, Cavalier and Cobalt). So he went for the low-hanging fruit. Importing the Astra is perhaps something they should have done first (instead of the Pontiac GTO), but hindsight is 20/20.

    Anyway, whatever happens to GM, bringing in Bob Lutz was one of the better moves the company made in the last decade.

  2. I don’t know, GM is still on the very brink of bankruptcy. How good can Lutz be? He wasn’t able to turn the company around.

  3. Are they going to sell the LaCrosse in China? They are rebadging the Insignia as the Regal in China. What’s the point of having 2 same sized cars competing against each other. Since they are both on the Epsilon II platform, they are identical under the skin, right?? GM did learn from the 2004 Malibu/9-3 Epsilon I fiasco, right??

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