Bob Lutz’ “Secret Weapons” Revealed
By Charles Krome
One of Detroit’s veteran auto journalists, John McElroy, dropped a bit of a bombshell recently when he provided a sneak peek inside the Bob Lutz regime at GM. It turns out that Mr. Lutz had some surprising help when he was heading up product development for the General: Four relatively highly placed (former) members of the automotive media, whose job it was to “assess all of GM’s new vehicles before they were OK’d for production. And their word was law.”
Apparently, McElroy had known about the situation for a while, but was sworn to secrecy by Lutz; now that the latter has left the building, however, the former is breaking the news.
I urge readers to visit Autoblog to get the full story, but McElroy’s position is that these folks provided a kind of instinctive, enthusiast’s mindset to the process and ensured GM’s Lutz-era products would appeal to the “car guys” as well as the bean counters. Plus, because they weren’t beholden to any GM stakeholders except Lutz, they’d be able to continue providing independent third-party-style feedback. Needless to say, McElroy also is hoping that Mary Barra, GM’s new product-development chief, keeps something similar in place.
But while I respect McElroy’s journalism, and certainly understand the whole car guy vs. bean counter business, the situation is setting off some warning bells for me.
First off, just to be clear, these four writers became full-time GM employees. Even with Lutz’ “protection,” I have to wonder exactly how independent they remained when the General was signing their paychecks. And this isn’t just idle journalism-school speculation—one of them went on to become the current director of PR for Cadillac.
Some questions pop up going the other way as well. The foursome had put in significant time in the top echelons of the big buff books, including Motor Trend, Car and Driver, Automobile, Popular Mechanics and Autoweek. It’s certainly possible that no one at those outlets realized what the four were up to and it didn’t reflect back on coverage of GM, but I’ve been in this industry long enough to have my doubts.
My main issue, though, goes to the reason McElroy let the ol’ cat out of the bag about this in the first place. Essentially, he was so worried that GM, led by noted non-car guy Dan Akerson, would revert to its bad habits in terms of product development that he broke a secret he had been sitting on for years. That tells me McElroy has some serious concerns about the future of GM products—and he’s not the kind of guy who goes around saying the sky is falling unless a few pieces have actually started to shake loose.