This is an article about a well-known car guy (at least in auto industry circles) who seems to have covered all the bases in his long career. He didn’t, try as he might, garner a CEO title during his distinguished career. I’ve followed his path to success for decades and he remains even today in retirement an incredibly influential individual. As a longtime observer of the auto industry, he’s been on my radar for way over 30 years. I’ve never met the man but at various auto show media events over the decades, it was easy to spot the tall, silver-maned gentleman giving an interview or just jaw-boning with another auto industry executive.
I’m schmoozing today about Bob Lutz because, even though he is pretty much retired and hopefully living the life of leisure as an 87 year old, he is still sought after by media types and when he does succumb to an interview, his words almost always create a buzz. It happened a couple of weeks ago when he shared some words with a staff member with industry weekly Automotive News. His comments about and prediction for the auto industry were pure Lutz. It remains to be seen if his observations are spot on or not (his track record is spotty at best) but his words always make for a great story.
Bob Lutz helped run four car companies, flies a Czech jet fighter airplane and has an opinion (often controversial) on just about everything. It seems that it never occurs to him that what comes out of his mouth might be a bit controversial. Of course, all things about Bob Lutz is what makes him so interesting and why I wanted to write a column about this very interesting man.
Lutz is known as a product development whiz and how he reached that status is a fascinating story. He was born to wealth in Zurich, Switzerland in 1932. His family moved to New York state when he was 7 years old and he became a U.S. citizen in 1943. Lutz is fluent in English, Swiss, French, German and has a modest fluency in Italian. He studied marketing in college and earned his MBA from U.C. Berkeley in 1962. During his career he served in the U.S. Marine Corp. Reserves in the 4th Marine Aircraft wing. A family man, he has four daughters. He’s known for his collection of vintage vehicles that include both remarkable automobiles and motorcycles and some military aircraft. Visitors to the third Lake Bluff Concours in 2007 may recall seeing Mr. Lutz’s 1971 Fissore-bodied, Frua-designed Monteverdi 375 “High Speed” Coupe masterpiece. The Monteverdi was a wonderful addition to the car show, but I was terribly disappointed that Lutz didn’t accompany his car.
Lutz’s automotive career path started in 1971 with three years at German automaker BMW, where he takes some credit in developing the iconic 3 series and the company’s Motorsport Division. Then he moved over to Ford of Europe for 12 years as an executive vice president. Under his auspices the Ford Escort III and the aero Sierra were introduced to great success. Still at Ford in 1985, he returned to Ford in the U.S. and had a hand in the introduction of the instantly successful Ford Explorer SUV. When the coveted CEO crown was passed on to rival co-worker Red Poling in 1986, a dejected Lutz moved to crosstown rival Chrysler Corporation, headed by Chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca and accepted the position as head of Global Product Development. Credit must be given to Lutz for the creation of Dodge’s outrageous Viper sports car and for the successful execution and introduction of the innovative LH cars, like the Dodge Intrepid and Eagle Vision. Chrysler was on a roll in the 1990s with Iacocca and Lutz at the top and continued after Iacocca retired in 1992. Bob Eaton, an executive from GM, was hired to replace Iacocca as CEO, but Lutz continued on at the company until the infamous and unsuccessful DaimlerChrysler so-call “merger of equals” in 1998. Later, Iacocca expressed regret that he didn’t recommend Lutz for the top job. Lutz left the DaimlerChrysler soon after the merger. From 1998 to 2001 he served as CEO of Exide Technologies (makers of batteries, etc.).
Lutz rejoined an automaker in a highly visible position when on September 1, 2001, he assumed the role of vice chairman of Global Product Design at then struggling General Motors. GM president Rick Wagoner recruited the services of the product and marketing guru in the hopes that Lutz could oversee a product renaissance for the ailing, former dominant automaker. His skills as a marketer and in creating compelling product was helpful at GM and a number of exciting cars were produced, including the Pontiac Solstice roadster early on, and the engineering marvel Chevrolet Volt toward the end of his GM career. But as we all know, in 2009 GM was forced into filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy, and by 2010 Lutz had left the company.
As I mentioned earlier, Lutz’s opinion on all things automotive is still sought after by journalists, and for the recent Auto News interview he didn’t disappoint. He touched on a wide number of subjects such as President Trump’s efforts to freeze fuel economy standards (he says it “is an intelligent” choice,) Trump’s trade tariffs (Trump is doing a great job with the economy and will win on both tariffs, and the next election) and shared thoughts on the ongoing brouhaha over the arrest in Japan of disgraced CEO Carlos Ghosn at Nissan/Renault (he thinks Ghosn may be innocent) but the ones that interested me most were Lutz’s observations on Chevy’s exciting mid-engine Corvette, Ram trucks selling better than Chevy’s, and on his thoughts about GM vs. Ford in design.
GM has been hinting at a mid-engine Corvette since the late 1960s. I saw a mock-up for one while working as a clay modeler way back in 1969. The new mid-engine Vette will be introduced to the press later this month. Lutz thinks it will do well for a year or two, then fade. He explained that Corvette owners are getting older and no young people are taking their place. He feels the Corvette brand has unlimited daylight on the upside and should build a Corvette SUV (like competitor Porsche) and offer a premium interior, a dedicated architecture, be super lightweight, provide super powerful and have a price tag starting at $100,000.
His take on the tight Chevy/Ram truck sales battle in 2019 boils down to GM dropping the ball on the Silverado pickup’s interior. According to Lutz, the Ram is surprisingly outselling Chevy this year because its interior is drop-dead gorgeous and has given the FCA brand a leg up.
In the AN interview Lutz also observed, “I am saying this for the first time in my career: I think Ford has an exquisite handle on design right now.” For the man who spent nearly a decade trying to help GM right their “design” ship this comment is pretty remarkable. He feels GM has lost its design leadership role from the past and Ford has stepped up. Lutz is especially keen on the styling efforts by Lincoln division, especially with their interior offerings. Says Lutz, “You don’t go for barely competitive and what can we get away with? You go out to kill with the interior. That’s where a few hundred bucks can buy you thousands of dollars’ worth of perceived value.”
There are hundreds of articles about Bob Lutz online and all reveal a man of great talent and of many opinions. I’ve enjoyed following his career over the years. He’s a big personality and nearly a one-of-a-kind. Right up there with Henry Ford I and Henry Ford II, Lee Iacocca, Alfred P. Sloan, Walter P. Chrysler and Sergio Marchione.
I’d also like to remind readers to not miss Studebaker National Museum’s Copshaholm Concours, on Saturday, July 13. For details go to wwwconcoursatcopshaholm.org.
• Trivia answer: The current Mustang is the sixth-generation pony car.
Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Q: How many generations of Mustangs have been produced since its 1964 introduction? (The answer is at the end of today’s column.)