I've got lots of respect for Bob Lutz and what he's achieved over the years, but unlike David C. Smith, my vertically challenged pal on p.76, I'm not as euphoric over Mr. Lutz's new appointment asCorp.'s “product czar.”
Detroit has swooned twice this summer over news of two aging superstars coming to town. The first was when the Detroit Red Wings organization — in a totally unexpected move — announced it was acquiring legendary goaltender Dominik Hasek. Knocked out in the first round of the playoffs last year after the team stopped scoring goals and the defense folded up like cheap lawn furniture, Detroit now is considered a top contender for the Stanley Cup next year.
Then, in another stunning move,Corp. announced it was hiring Bob Lutz as vice chairman of product development. Mr. Lutz retired three years ago as vice chairman of Corp., and has since been running automotive battery maker Exide Corp.
Detroit's media went utterly wild over the Lutz move, gushing more over “the consummate car guy” moving to GM than “The Dominator” coming to the Wings. The Lutz story literally got headline sizes normally reserved for declarations of war. Over and over again we were told how Mr. Lutz was the driving force behind's revival in the early '90s and how he was the father of sexy cars like the Dodge Viper and Plymouth Prowler.
Editor-at-Large David C. Smith, phoning in from his retirement villa on the shores of Lake Huron, declared it “The story of the year.” Mr. Smith, a 70-year-old former Marine who never wants to retire from the auto business, finds it exceptionally newsworthy that Mr. Lutz is a 69-year-old former Marine who doesn't want to retire from the auto business.
Pardon me, Dave, if I throw out a dose of reality while you're up there in Port Huron polishing your bayonet.
Detroit has unreasonable expectations for two stars in the twilight of their careers. At 37, Mr. Hasek's best work is probably behind him, and the same may be true for Mr. Lutz. What the Red Wings and GM really need most are strong team efforts.
I know if one guy can save a hockey team from disaster, it's the goalie. And if there's one guy who can save GM from disaster it may be Mr. Lutz. But even flawless performances on Mr. Hasek's part could result in ties, at best. And if he makes a few mistakes, well, Detroit is famous for being very hard on goalies. Plus, in recent years “The Dominator” has been injury prone.
At 69 Mr. Lutz looks very robust. And he probably could kick my butt, as you say, Dave.
But let's face it, while everybody who loves this business appreciates the Dodge Viper and the Prowler, they have done nothing for DaimlerChrysler's bottom line: The Chrysler group sold a piddling 1,470 Vipers last year and 2,631 Prowlers. Even the phenomenally successful PT Cruiser, “the last of the Lutzmobiles” as WAW columnist Jerry Flint calls it, can't make up for the weak sales of the high-volume cars and trucks that are now dragging Chrysler down. Mr. Lutz green-lighted most of those vehicles, too, we must assume. Let's hold him accountable for the dogs as well as the cool stuff.
And while Mr. Lutz's age shouldn't be a big issue, you should know that some whippersnappers in the trenches already are joking about GM putting “cane holders” in its vehicles in addition to cup holders.
And please, can we get off this macho “cult of personality” stuff with him. My chubby little friend on p.76 is enthralled with the swashbuckling image: the fighter pilot, the helicopter pilot, the “car guy,” and so are a lot of folks in the media who love him — or want to be him.
Certainly GM's corporate stuffed-shirt image can use a little color, but while older guys (and I do mean guys) may see him as a stud Car God, GM's crop of young designers, on which its future rests, might only see him as an egocentric grandfather barking out orders.
I'm not saying the Red Wings won't win a Stanley Cup next year, and I'm not saying we won't see a flurry of gorgeous concept cars and trucks suddenly start spilling out of GM's design studios. But Hasek's team can't win unless they play well in front of him. GM can't succeed if Lutz's team doesn't play well in front of him, either. For a guy who thinks teamwork is overrated, that might turn out to be too tall of an order.
And by the way, Dave, I may not be a tall man, but I will always be taller than you, shorty.
Listen to Drew Winter and other Ward's editors Monday and Thursday on WJR 760 AM radio in Detroit.