Bob Lutz turned 70 in February, the average age — more or less — of traditional Cadillac DeVille and Buick Park Avenue buyers.
But Lutz is no geezer. He drives hot cars and motorcycles, flies his own jet and maintains a swirling pace atCorp. more fitting for one half his age.
By now, everyone knows that the formerCorp. executive was recruited last summer by GM President and CEO G. Richard (Rick) Wagoner as the No.1 automaker's new product development chief. He carries the lofty title of vice chairman and later also was named head of GM-North America in a high-level shakeup.
Lutz joined GM on Sept.1 and has just completed the first six months of a 3-year contract. He appealed to Wagoner because despite his advancing years, he retains an uncanny sense for designs that car and truck buyers, no matter how young or old, find appealing.
He is not a designer. Like a lot of young folks, he doodled cars when he was growing up, but reluctantly concluded he lacked the talent to become a true designer. But, as they say, he knew good design when he saw it. And still does.
So during his nearly 40-year career with four auto companies, he has covered the gamut of disciplines. And now he is widely considered the ultimate “car guy,” possessing instincts that result in exciting styling.
Lutz wasted no time in settling in, creating a flurry of press coverage for himself, his ideas — and GM's concept cars and trucks and upcoming models — during the past 180 days.
Lutz tweaked this design. Lutz killed this concept. Lutz pushed through the Pontiac Solstice sportster for the auto show circuit in just four months. Lutz sits behind the wheel of a Chevy concept ragtop reminiscent of the 1955-'57 BelAir. And so forth.
It's precisely the kind of buzz only a Bob Lutz could create, validating Wagoner's bold move in luring him away from Exide Corp., where he was languishing as chairman after his 1998 retirement from.
Hey, here was mighty GM, once the king of car design, bogged down in a design malaise that was eroding market share in big chunks while it wrestled with a series of product development reorganizations that bore, well, boring cars and trucks.
Enter the savior.
What is not widely reported, however, is that GM already was making major strides toward changing its stodgy image. Some new models, such as Cadillac's edgy $30,000 CTS now reaching market, already were in the works and have received high praise (although Lutz is upgrading interiors of future models). Its new 2002 midsize SUVs, Chevy TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy, also have gotten favorable reviews. And production vehicles and concept models in the pipeline indicate GM has some winners coming soon.
Indeed, Lutz himself said after he toured GM's studios that its styling was heading in the right direction, making his job all the more alluring.
What is also often overlooked is that although the designs of Chrysler's mainstay passenger cars during his tenure were clean and advanced, none proved to be consistently solid sellers. He pushed the Viper super sportster through to create a halo for Dodge, but Viper has remained a small-volume niche. He also was instrumental in getting the Plymouth Prowler ersatz hot rod into production, but it is now being phased out. And even though it bowed long after his departure, he's credited with championing the PT Cruiser. Now it's stalled in the market, for the first time requiring incentives to keep it moving.
Lutz did better on the truck side, ushering in the full size Ram pickups modeled after big rigs, Dodge Durango SUV and Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Because GM's trucks, SUVs and crossover models are mostly new or already in the works, his priority seemingly would be on the car side, where GM is weakest. With GM's marketing clout and other resources, he has a better chance of success in that arena than he enjoyed at Chrysler.
To make that happen, Lutz in February made his boldest move yet: A complete revamping of the way GM designs and develops its products.
Gone are the seven brand-character studios and four production studios, replaced by three studios: Cars, trucks and interiors. Bryan Nesbitt, who was chief designer of the PT Cruiser at Chrysler and was recruited by GM to head the Chevrolet studio last spring, at 33 becomes the wunderkind of GM's car studios. Ed Welburn, 51, becomes responsible for trucks. And Anne Asensio, 39, takes charge of interiors and becomes the focal point for quality and brand character.
All report to Vice President-Design Wayne Cherry, who is scheduled to retire at 65 in September. In the new lineup, Cherry joins GM's North American Strategy Board, finally giving designers a direct voice in that decision-making group.
Mark Hogan, 50, becomes group vice president in charge of advanced vehicle development and, like Cherry, reports to Lutz. His job is to work with engineering, manufacturing and marketing to develop the business case for each new product.
The new organization wipes out several steps and echelons in the design-to-production process, and up to 400 jobs in the 1,200-person design staff. It also is targeted to reduce new-product decisions to two months from 12 months under the old system.
And it repudiates the “brand management” strategy instituted by former Chairman John Smale and Ron Zarrella, GM North America chief who departed late last year.
“Product management” might be the new mantra. Although it appears Lutz is on the right track, sweeping reorganizations nearly always produce glitches. And at 70 and counting, Lutz must surely know that GM can ill afford to spin its wheels under relentless competition.