The legend of Lutz

By Alex Taylor III, senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- The announcement that Bob Lutz will retire from General Motors on May 1 at the age of 78 brings down the curtain on one of the most remarkable careers in the history of the auto industry. Lutz held top executive positions at Ford and Chrysler, as well as GM, and made a mark on all three companies.

It was an outsize mark because Lutz was an outsize personality. Standing well over six feet and silver- haired, he created a stir whenever he appeared in public. Although fluent in several European languages, he spoke pungent, unaccented English and was accustomed to dominating conversations.

It was Lutz, while working at Chrysler, who referred to an early dent- resistant but overweight GM minivan as "the plastic pachyderm," and coined the description "angry kitchen appliance" to describe the benighted Pontiac Aztek.

The relationship between Lutz and the journalists who covered him was a longtime romance that he cleverly exploited . He pretended they were equal partners in his five-star world of fast cars and international travel and kept them titillated with high-level gossip. His frequent admonitions to "protect me on this" or "don't let this come from me" were always honored.

Lutz spent the first eight years of his career at GM Europe and then the next three at BMW. In 1974, he launched what would turn out to be a twelve-year stint at Ford (F, Fortune 500), culminating in posts as chairman of Ford of Europe, head of international operations, and chief of truck operations.

In 1986, Lee Iacocca recruited Lutz to Chrysler and eventually made him president. Chrysler was heading into one of its periodic swoons, so Lutz championed the Dodge Viper sports car to symbolize the company's vitality and then oversaw Chrysler's product revival with the HL "cab-forward" cars and Dodge Ram truck.

At GM, Lutz filled an organizational vacuum with a strong personality and a distinct point of view. Before he arrived in 2001, the demands of too many brands and too few resources sabotaged good design, GM never knew what it wanted until it saw the research, and then warring factions would clash over what the data meant and where the money should be invested.

On Lutz's watch through 2009, there were no disasters, though there were fewer smash hits than he would have liked. Possessed of unerring regard for his own good taste, he served as a one-man focus group. Lutz knew when it was important to spend a few extra bucks on a vehicle. If he had a fault in product development, it was that he too often steered his efforts toward enthusiasts like himself to create cars with sporty pretensions, flashy designs, and high horsepower.

He also tended to be too optimistic about the sales prospects of his favorite creations. Former GM CEO Rick Wagoner once joked that he had to divide Lutz's volume projections by ten to get a realistic number.

The first batch of Lutz-inspired GM models failed to excite buyers. But the second wave -- the Chevy Malibu, Cadillac CTS, Buick Enclave -- have been widely praised by analysts and well accepted by customers.

Based on his history, you wouldn't have expected him to last at GM. He was the antithesis of the non-confrontational GM executive and seemed more in the mold of a John DeLorean than a Rick Wagoner. But he managed to achieve progress at the company without making so many waves as to damage himself.

As he grew older and more secure in his position, Lutz made remarks in public that were less than politically correct, such as dismissing Toyota's hybrid cars and denying that global warming was a problem. Public relations operatives would have to explain that it was just "Bob Being Bob."

Yet Lutz also had the confidence to say the obvious and to correct himself when he misspoke. Just as GM was entering bankruptcy, it was Lutz who pointed out that many of GM's problems were self-inflicted, such as relying on fleet sales; not addressing health-care, pension, and other legacy costs; and allowing vehicle design to take a back seat. He added that for decades, GM built inferior vehicles that Lutz called "brilliantly executed mediocrity."

Nobody could argue with him. Lutz's retirement deprives GM and the rest of the industry of a unique character -- and a unique talent. To top of page

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