I don’t know who is tallest, Rick Wagoner or Bob Lutz; both top out in the mid-6-ft. range.

Clearly, though, they see eye-to-eye on the need for General Motors Corp. to inject some major excitement in GM’s vehicles.

At 48, Mr. Wagoner, GM’s president and CEO since June 2000, is 21 years junior to Mr. Lutz, who retired in 1998 as vice chairman of Chrysler Corp. He later landed as chairman of Exide Corp., the battery maker, and slipped from public view.

Now Mr. Lutz is very much back in the automotive limelight. Despite his post-retirement age, Mr. Wagoner recruited Mr. Lutz as vice chairman and to head

GM’s product development group. Engineering and design report to him, giving him tremendous clout and influence on its future vehicles.

Larry Burns, GM’s vice president-research and development, now will report to both men. Mr. Burns had never met Mr. Lutz before, but has followed his career. “It’s going to be great,” he tells WAW. “Now I get to learn from the master.”

Mr. Lutz signed on for three years, which may not be long enough to pull off the turnaround Mr. Wagoner visualizes. GM has scores of new-product programs already locked in, and it would be expensive and potentially disruptive to dismantle them in midstream.

Short-term, Mr. Lutz’s strategy likely will focus on tweaking existing programs, say out to 2005, with his imprint growing larger from 2006 and beyond – long after he’s gone.

Or will he leave after three years? He says maybe not. And since Mr. Wagoner somehow circumvented GM’s longstanding mandatory age-65 retirement rule in hiring Mr. Lutz, he could well stay on indefinitely. “He’s a 69-year-old going on 30,” says David E. Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research and management partner in ERIM, co-sponsor of the Management Briefing Seminars.

I’m sure not everyone at GM is pleased that an aging “outsider” is charging in to shake things up. But even Mr. Lutz says that GM already is on track toward improving the technology and aesthetic design of its vehicles. What he importantly adds is a rare emotional element, a trait that has earned him a worldwide reputation as a consummate “car guy.”

Although he’s not an engineer or designer, his career at four auto companies (initially GM, then BMW, followed by Ford and Chrysler) has been marked by an uncanny grasp of what it takes to develop appealing vehicles.

During his 12 years at Chrysler (1986-’98), he was the inspirational leader behind a string of innovative vehicles starting with the Viper sports car, his personal favorite triumph. Others included the Jeep Grand Wagoneer, Dodge Ram pickup, LH full-size cars (Concorde and Intrepid) and the PT Cruiser, which was launched two years after his departure.

Mr. Lutz won’t officially join GM until Sept.1. Speculation about what steps he’ll take run rampant, but you can be sure there’ll be no lack of drama as he settles in.

Because of his long association with Thomas Gale, retired Chrysler design chief, there’s talk that Mr. Gale may be recruited to join him at GM. Sources who know both men well doubt that Mr. Gale, although he’s 10 years younger than Mr. Lutz, itches to get back in harness.

Wayne K. Cherry, GM’s design vice president since 1992, will turn 65 in September 2002. Mr. Lutz could nudge him into early retirement and go outside for a new design chief. More likely, though, he’d first look closely at some recent Cherry recruits, including 38-year-old Anne Asensio, who joined GM last October as director of the brand character studios for each of the corporation’s seven vehicle brands. Pre-Lutz, her name has popped up frequently as Mr. Cherry’s successor.

On the engineering side, Mr. Lutz can be expected to zero in on ride, handling and performance. He’s already on record as saying GM has made major strides in each of these areas in recent years. And as a lover of rear-drive European high performance cars, he’ll undoubtedly embrace GM’s new Sigma RWD platform on which the 2003 Cadillac CTS midsize sedan will be built, followed by an all-new Seville a year later.

Armed with attractive new midsize 2002 SUVs and ongoing success with its GMT full-size pickups and their derivatives, Mr. Lutz may not need to spend much time initially on the light-truck side, except involvement in concept trucks.

It’s a different story when it comes to passenger cars. GM still wrestles with making each of its four brands distinct and appealing, although it seemingly is headed in the right direction based on concept vehicles it has unveiled and on recent production decisions.

How that all plays out is now in his hands. If he still has his touch, he could make a hero of Rick Wagoner. o