Saturday, May 28, 2011

Lutz's Account of His Time at GM

This week's Automotive News (May 23, 2011) "reviews" Bob Lutz's new book, "BOB LUTZ, CAR GUYS VS. BEAN COUNTERS, THE BATTLE FOR THE SOUL OF AMERICAN BUSINESS." I put the word reviews in quotes because to my mind the article by Automotive News' publisher Peter Brown is more idol worship of Lutz than a review of the book.

Let me say this right up front: Some good happened during Lutz's time at GM. I agree that he may deserve credit for some of it. But make no mistake, Lutz does not walk on water.

Lutz's biggest fault for me? Let me quote from the book (I have not read the book and will not spend my money for a copy; this is from the AN article), a quote attributed to Lutz, "Often wrong, but never in doubt." The hubris! Great men have doubts; fools do not.

Lutz, no matter how much he says he railed against the stultifying atmosphere at GM, was only a "maverick" in the John McCain vein. Lutz was as much stuck in the past as anyone else at GM, it was just a different past.

Lutz reminds me of the guy who runs down his wife yet punches you when you criticize some small detail of her. In this he is no different than most GM execs I've met over the years.

I remember way back in '84 attending the Canadian preview of the then new Corvette. After a morning driving the Vette, and after lunch, we had a Q and A with Dave McLellan, the Chief Engineer. I expressed my dissatisfaction with the shifting qualities of the 4+3 manual transmission stating that it was nearly impossible to power shift. McLellan, and I'm paraphrasing, said that I must be looking at the past through rose covered glasses because the new 'Vette was far and away a better car. McLellan made is point - don't criticize this car.

A couple of years ago there was a hasty invite to auto writers for a GM dinner at a hotel in Burligame, CA (I think it was originally a regional dealer affair). Bob Lutz was going to be the keynote speaker. After listening to Lutz tell us why GM was so much better than Toyota (despite the fact that at that point Toyota was poised to take the sales leadership away from GM) there was a Q and A. One of the journalists, RJ, questioned Lutz on the Solstice/Sky, bemoaning the lack of luggage space with the top down, the awkward operation of the top, etc, and comparing it to an MGB (by far an inferior car to any modern car but it did have a usable trunk and glove compartment). Lutz went into attack mode much as McLellan had done two decades earlier, telling RJ more or less that he was an idiot to dare compare the two.

I'm not going to debate the contribution Lutz may have made to GM. If he did make a positive contribution (and given that he's worked for so many different auto makers and left little to no lasting mark on any it is probably negligible) he did not do it alone. Lutz may have fought for better interiors, tighter and more consistent body gaps (Lutz needs to thank the Japanese for these) but if it wasn't for a very talented pool of people, many of whom have been toiling at GM for far longer than Lutz, and if it wasn't (in my opinion) for the government getting rid of the old guard at GM, Lutz would have nothing to take credit for.

I think it is time for Lutz, like the old soldier he is, to fade away. But please Bob do it quietly.

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