Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

CHICAGO – When Bob Lutz, General Motors Corp. vice chairman-global product development retires at year’s end, the auto maker will not revert to the ways of the past, its top designer vows.

“I’ve been with GM long enough and have lived through many different experiences in the company – enough to know the changes Bob Lutz has made are changes that will stick,” Ed Welburn Jr., vice president-global design, tells Ward’s at the Chicago Auto Show here.

Lutz in April will assume the newly created role of vice chairman and senior adviser, providing strategic input to GM’s global design and key product initiatives until his retirement. He will continue to report to Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner. Tom Stephens will take over Lutz’s role as vice chairman of global product development.

When Lutz returned to GM in 2001, after an absence of nearly three decades, he found the auto maker churning out products with lackluster designs that failed to excite consumers.

Lutz broke through a corporate structure that valued cost-savings over attractive design.

Before Lutz’s return, “it was a different company, a different way of working and a different set of relationships,” Welburn says. “And it was difficult to bring a car to production that was anywhere close to the vision (designers) had created.”

Maintaining the changes Lutz implemented has become imperative at GM, extending to the highest executive levels within the company.

Even Wagoner has gained a new appreciation for attractive design, Welburn says, noting the top executive has discussed the direction the auto maker will take once Lutz departs.

“Rick and I just talked about that a couple of days ago, and the commitment (to design) will not change,” he says. “Rick learned a lot from Bob, and Bob learned a lot from Rick, as well. Rick is in the design studios at least once a week.”

Lutz also was instrumental in integrating GM’s design, engineering and product-development teams. The results were some of the best products the auto maker has produced in years, such as the award-winning Chevy Malibu.

Design has become the “great differentiator” within the auto industry, Welburn says, noting technology advances often are fleeting and cost pressures intense.

Despite GM’s current financial woes, including the announcement earlier this week that 10,000 salaried workers are facing involuntary separations, he says the mood within the design studios remains optimistic.

“The (separation) announcement we made was shocking and disturbing to people, but the design reviews we had after the announcement were just as spirited and hard-driving as the reviews we had before,” Welburn says.

When asked if he would consider leaving GM for a position at another auto maker, Welburn laughs and recalls a story of a visit he made to the Philadelphia auto show when he was 8 years old.

“I saw the Cadillac Cyclone concept and said, ‘That’s it. I’m going to be a designer for GM when I grow up,’” he says. “I never even thought about working for another car company. I couldn’t even imagine that.”

bpope@wardsauto.com