Commentary

Where are the leaders? I don’t mean the presidents or CEOs at the auto makers. I mean the larger-than-life personalities that create the product, inspire the dealers, woo the press and excite the public.

I don’t want to sound like an old fogy, but in the old days the brands, the nameplates, the divisions were led by stars.

Let me name a few:

Robert McNamara. He headed the Ford division in the 1940s and 1950s. The wildly successful Falcon was his car. It was small and easy to manufacture when most cars of the era were not. He went on to become U.S. Secretary of Defense and later ran the World Bank.

Edward Cole. A great engineer, he headed Chevrolet and created the celebrated General Motors’ small-block V-8 engine among numerous other momentous achievements before becoming president of GM.

John Delorean. He ran the Pontiac and Chevy divisions before leaving GM to start his own car company. Whatever you think of him, you can’t ever forget his GTO.

Robert Anderson. He led Chrysler-Plymouth before he went off to head rocket-builder Rockwell.

William Hoglund. He was the “We Build Excitement” guy who saved Pontiac in the 1980s.

Lee Iacocca. The one and only, he created the Mustang at Ford in the 1960s before moving on to save Chrysler in the 1980s.

These were not your typical corporate salesmen or marketers. They were men of genius.

Most were engineers, but not all. Hoglund was a financial type; McNamara a statistical mastermind. But they all had tremendous ability and the power and charisma to make things happen.

They could talk to the engineers and designers and manufacturing experts, tell them what they wanted for their cars and negotiate with them to get it.

And they all were terribly competitive – winners.

It is true organizational structures at auto makers have changed. We don’t have independent divisions now. But we don’t have to reintroduce the old brand divisions to create new organizational systems that provide paths to the top for men and women with a genius for product creation.

Bob Lutz is a rare current example and he is retiring. They may be engineers, or from finance or sales, but the industry needs to develop a new generation of executives with the intuition, charm and power to lead the teams that design and sell their cars.

The vehicle-line-executive system at GM has not succeeded in creating new Lutzes. Ford and Chrysler organizations have not been any better.

I’m not suggesting a return to the old days. I’m saying auto makers have to think about inventing organizations that not only create great products, but create great product leaders.

It’s about picking strong managers for the product lines, sticking with them and giving them the power and resources they need to lead the development of new products, inspire the sellers, court the media and win over consumers.

Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.