Editor Drew Winter argues on p.7 that Bob Lutz, tapped as General Motors Corp.'s product development chief, hasn't been as successful as most folks think in developing memorable, successful cars and trucks. Here, Editor-at-Large Dave Smith takes a different view.

Drew, you've been making poor judgments ever since you chose to be hired by me 17 years ago.

And I resent your picking on Bob Lutz. In fact, I'm thinking about filing an age discrimination suit against you, although at 69 I'm sure Bob can still kick your boomer butt without any help from me.

Bob and I are Marines (you never get over being a Marine), and even at our advancing age we still have fire in our bellies. I hastily add that his belly is much flatter than mine, and that his fire is a five-alarmer compared to my lonely lighted match.

You say Bob is not what he's cracked up to be, but please don't use that phrase lightly; remember, he flies his own jet and helicopter. On the other hand, “sources” tell me that when you walk off a plane you still have the armrests dangling at your sides, the color still returning to what can be seen of your ashen, bearded face.

But I don't want to be too harsh on you. After all, you are the esteemed editor of this esteemed publication. A guy journalism students could look up to if you weren't so short. At 6'4” or so, Bob is someone 95% of the population must look up to if they want to establish eye contact. And you are in that 95%.

I've been eyeballing Bob Lutz for more than 20 years and I know he has his faults. For one thing, he can't keep a job. Over his 38-year career he flitted from GM to BMW, Ford, Chrysler and finally, of all things, battery maker Exide, before returning to GM this month as vice chairman and product development chief.

I knew when he took that Exide job after he retired three years ago as vice chairman of Chrysler that he wasn't yet finished with the auto industry. I wrote an “exit” story (see WAW — Aug. '98, p.46) as he left Chrysler headlined “So Long Bob, Hello Bob,” and I emphasized that even though he was 66 at the time, “He's not ready to settle down. He could enjoy his farm and his collection of cars, trucks, planes and motorcycles, gliding quietly into lush retirement. But you sense Bob Lutz still has something to prove.”

And how. When GM President G. Richard (Rick) Wagoner Jr. called on him to see if he might be interested in consulting with GM on product matters, he logically concluded that consultants have zero clout. But if somehow Rick could get GM's board to make an exception to its mandatory age-65 retirement policy, he'd take yet another fling and come on board fulltime. Known for his design passion, he'd try once more to work his magic on GM's vehicles, most of which for the last 20 years have been as exciting as industrial toasters. Insiders even call its big vans “breadboxes.” No one ever said that about the vehicles Mr. Lutz spearheaded at Ford of Europe and at Chrysler.

For a guy with Bob's legendary ego, it had to be flattering — and a challenge he could not turn down. For Rick, arguably the most outgoing financial type ever to lead GM, Bob was the ticket to answering critics who have long complained that what GM lacked was a true “car guy” who loves, lives and breathes cars, and who has an uncanny sense about what the public wants.

It was a bold and startling move almost as valuable for its public relations value as for what Bob can deliver. And it said a lot about Rick: Stodgy, inbred GM can change, so look out!

That may be unsettling to the troops Bob will work with, but he's no Chainsaw Al. I suspect GM's engineering and design people will discover that they and Bob talk the same language. The talent has been there all along. All they really needed was a charismatic, widely respected leader with exceptional product credentials and top management's implicit backing to lead the charge. And Bob certainly fits that description, Drew.

Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research and development, for one, says he's looking forward to working with his new boss. “It's going to be great; now I get to learn from the master,” Mr. Burns tells me. A 64-year-old GM design executive simply observes: “It's a great day for us old farts.”

I suspect that view might become contagious as Bob makes the rounds, spreading his intuitive vehicle knowledge and enthusiasm down the ranks. And I doubt there'll be a significant exodus, although Bob may bring in some more firepower. Hopefully, when he finally retires — if he ever does — after his three-year contract ends in 2004, someone will emerge as GM's next “car guy.”

Three years is scant time in the auto industry to make a huge impact on design, so I suspect Bob's biggest contribution — besides buoying the troops — will be as a frontispiece for GM's product development thrust, on concept vehicles you'll see at global auto shows and on vehicles coming in 2005 and beyond.

Bob reportedly says he's arriving at an ideal time, underscoring that GM's design revival already is well under way (see WAW — Aug.'01 cover story, p.26), that he likes what he sees coming, and that he can focus his considerable energy on GM's cars and trucks, not on Rick Wagoner's job.

So Semper Fi, Drew. And if you don't know what that means, ask Bob, one of the most Gung Ho guys I know.