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.
Despite helming the Volt project, Lutz is no tree hugger. In his grandest foot-in-mouth moment since joining GM, last year he dubbed global warming “a crock of shit,” a remark he now acknowledges was “politically incorrect.” Lutz, no scientist, believes that sunspots are a more likely cause of global warming than human-generated carbon dioxide. Mainstream scientists note a positive correlation between sunspot activity and global warming effects, but few identify it as the main cause of the greenhouse effect.
Sunspots or not, Lutz insists his views on global warming won’t affect his work. More regulation, tighter fuel standards, higher energy prices: All, he knows, are inevitable. “My motivation is to be petroleum-free,” he says. “If anyone thinks we’re going to reach higher mileage standards using gas engines, they’re nuts. I don’t think the internal combustion engine is going away soon, but the electrification of the automobile is a necessity.” No matter what, Lutz says, the Volt program will go forward. “The Volt is our highest priority,” he says. “Everything else can get cut, but the Volt won’t.”
Not that GM has a choice. If the Volt does not fulfill Lutz’s promises, if it costs too much (rumors point to a $35,000 price tag versus the Prius’s $22,000), if it does not arrive on time (it’s set to hit showrooms late next year), it won’t matter whether GM survives from month to month on bailout fumes. If the Volt doesn’t make it, GM won’t either.
As the sun rises over the German gingerbread main house at the Lutz farm in Ann Arbor, Lutz’s beautiful wife Denise (his third) heads to the barn to care for the horses. Close by, Lutz’s MD 500E helicopter sits ready for his morning commute.
Lutz folds his frame into his copter, fires it up, and lifts off northeast toward GM’s Tech Center in nearby Warren. The flight takes him to the edge of burned-out Detroit. “You become immune to the ugliness,” Lutz says.
The last great car guy in Detroit descends again into the fray, knowing there’s still much to do. Lutz will continue to build great cars and try to undo Daddy’s effect on car buyers. Trouble is, Lutz is about all that separates the GM of today from the bean-counting days of the recent past, and he won’t be around forever. “The day he retires,” one longtime GM supplier told me, “the traditional GM culture will move in like the tide and wash away the sand castle that Bob built.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.