Fighter jet–flying, horsepower-hungry Bob Lutz believes global warming is “a crock of shit,” yet GM’s vice-chairman is the driving force behind the Chevy Volt, an
innovative electric car that calls to mind the company’s glory days of engineering ingenuity. And it still might not be enough to save GM.
Fighter jet–flying, horsepower-hungry Bob Lutz believes global warming is “a crock of shit,” yet GM’s vice-chairman is the driving force behind the Chevy Volt, an innovative electric car that calls to mind the company’s glory days of engineering ingenuity. And it still might not be enough to save GM.
by Russ Mitchell-
Bob Lutz recently announced that he will be stepping down as vice-chairman of General Motors on April 1st, 2009 to take a consultant position, and will fully retire at the end of the year. We spoke to him about his career and the state of GM only months before he made public his plans to leave the company.
General Motors is burning, but Bob Lutz, the company’s vice-chairman, is grinning in a way that’s reminiscent of my high school stoner friend Artie. I’m riding shotgun, and Lutz is behind the wheel of the new Chevy Camaro. He is 76 years old, finely appointed in an English-tailored suit, and perfectly sober. But that grin means mischief. I have visions of Artie and me blasting through Chicago’s South Side in my ’68 Camaro 327 Rally Sport, the eight-track belting out Humble Pie. I tell Lutz about my flashback, but he scoffs: “The 1968 Camaro was a primitive car.”
The machine he’s piloting rumbles low as we prowl through the General Motors Technical Center, a 330-acre campus just outside Detroit teeming with thousands of engineers, designers, and technicians. Suddenly Lutz downshifts, jams his foot to the floor, and unleashes the new Camaro’s 422 horses. There’s a quick G-force slam back into the seats and a giddy rush as the engine lets loose. “There’s a roaring fire in there!” Lutz shouts. “There’s stuff exploding in there! Something is happening in there! No electric motor is ever going to do that!”
Something explosive is happening in Detroit, too, but it’s less the heady rush that comes from flooring a Camaro and more like the spike you get spinning out on a patch of black ice. Already hurting from crushing debt, huge pensions, and massive overproduction, the U.S. auto industry has been pummelled by the recession. It’s not even clear if the Big Three (General Motors, Ford, Chrysler) will survive the year. Stronger companies, like Toyota, are making drastic cuts, and should be all right. But it’s only thanks to a $9.4 billion loan from Congress that GM limps on — at least through April.
“We need to focus on getting healthy again,” Lutz says with the forbearance of a colonel in the middle of a war. He won’t forecast GM’s odds of survival, but he’s emphatic that it will “repay the taxpayers as quickly as possible.”
A difficult prospect, considering that even before the Big Three were forced to go panhandling in DC, customers were bypassing GM showrooms. That’s why the company brought in Lutz, a bona fide car genius with the vision and balls to shake the company out of its rut.
“What happened at GM is that we cruised on our reputation for the last 30 years,” he says. “Now when we do a great car, people say they don’t like GM cars. And when we ask, ‘Why don’t you like GM cars?’ They say, ‘Because my daddy told me they’re crap.’ Well, at the time, Daddy was right.”
Except now, Daddy’s no longer right. Overlooked in the welter of bad press about Detroit is the fact that Lutz has largely succeeded. Car quality–rating agencies, automotive magazines, and industry analysts agree that the GM product line is the best it’s been since the ’60s, comparing Chevrolets to Toyotas and Cadillacs to BMWs without sarcasm. What’s more, Lutz has championed what could be the most important American electric hybrid car yet, and a key to securing GM’s future — the Volt. He still has one more task, the toughest of all: make Americans love GM again.
Lutz has always stood out from the bland ranks of his auto industry brethren. He’s a straight-talking former marine flyboy; a quasi-vegetarian who’s skeptical about global warming’s causes. A Zurich-raised, Berkeley-educated gentleman who speaks English, Swiss-German, and French with a set of low-vibrating, cigar-and-martini-marinated vocal chords. An amateur fighter pilot and motorcycle fanatic who likes to blast a Ducati through the twisties. He is a 6-foot-3 white-haired tough guy with a permanently curled upper lip that adds some in-your-face blue collar cred to his otherwise dapper demeanor, and the rare man in GM who feels equally at home on the assembly floor and in the boardroom. “I hate to quote Kipling,” says Tony Posawatz, who heads the Volt program at GM. “But Bob has the ability to walk with kings and never lose the common touch.”