From Threat to Guru
Bob Lutz at eighty-seven
by Jan Schlain
From the August, 2019 issue
When Bob Lutz drove up to the Millcraft Paper Company on Boardwalk, he spotted a red metallic Tesla Model 3 parked in the lot. The retired GM vice chairman had seen Model 3s that were sloppily assembled, so he gave this one a close look.
"I was stunned," he wrote in a recent Road & Track column. "Not only was the paint without any discernible flaw, but the various panels formed a body of precision that was beyond reproach. Gaps from hood to fenders, doors to frame, and all the others appeared to be perfectly even, equal side-to-side, and completely parallel. Gaps of 3.5 to 4.5mm are considered world-class. This Model 3 measured up."
When Lutz says almost anything about cars, people listen. His comments quickly ricocheted across the country. "Thanks Bob!" Elon Musk tweeted: "He is a tough critic."
Lutz's toughness is legendary. The son of a Swiss banker whose fleet of cars included an Aston Martin and a hopped-up Mercury, he was kicked out of boarding school, piloted jet fighters for the U.S. Marine Corps, and earned an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley. Rising through BMW and Ford of Europe-he's fluent in German and French-he returned to the U.S. as a Ford VP, moving on to Chrysler and GM and marrying a string of beautiful women along the way.
"Famously blunt, occasionally stubborn and blessed with a knack to lead, inspire and provoke"-in the words of the New York Times-Lutz oversaw the creation of such groundbreaking vehicles as the Ford Explorer, Dodge Viper, and the Chevy Volt. It's often been said that the only reason he never became CEO of a major automaker is his irrepressible habit of speaking his mind (see his 2013 book, Icons and Idiots.)
Reached by phone at his house west of town, Lutz has his own theory about that. Though he didn't realize it at the time, he says, he now thinks that his lifestyle, global
resume, and Marine Corps cred "triggered fear and envy" in colleagues and superiors.
He may be onto something. Who else, on learning that Chrysler CEO Iacocca was the only executive with a full-time driver, would have elected to commute the forty miles to work in his own helicopter?
"I'm a critic of Tesla," Lutz confirms. "It's not that I don't think their cars are good-I think Mr. Musk is doing a lousy job running the business."
But expecting to see "a really rough car" that day on Boardwalk, "I saw a car that was put together with more care and better fit than anything I had seen out of Japan or Germany." It didn't raise his estimate of Tesla's prospects, though-he believes "they're inevitably heading for Chapter Eleven [bankruptcy]."
It's not just Tesla he's dubious about. "I think the prestige brands like Porsche, Audi, Ferrari, etc., are an endangered species," he says, "because as the world gradually transitions to autonomous modules that you call up from your cell phone … why would you care who made your module? I mean, when you ride in the subway, do you care who made the subway car?"
Iacocca had just died, and Lutz had written a warm and evocative tribute for R&T's website-as a problem- solver, he wrote, his longtime boss "displayed an intellectual brilliance I have never seen duplicated." But when I ask about their working relationship, he says, "We may have been antagonists."
Iacocca "didn't take questioning of his decisions very graciously," Lutz explains. "And he could be very stubborn, and sometimes he was just dead wrong." When Chrysler was developing the subcompact Neon, he says, Iacocca insisted it be built in Mexico to cut costs-even though it had to be built in the U.S. for the company to meet federal fuel economy standards. It took "all the psychology we could muster," Lutz says, to change his mind.
When Iacocca retired, Lutz says, his succession plan was "Anybody but Lutz" (see letter, below). The board went with Bob Eaton, who oversaw the company's sale to Mercedes maker Daimler-Benz. The merger eventually had to be unwound, and during the Great Recession Chrysler, like GM, ended up in bankruptcy.
Lutz's current car collection includes a 1952 Cunningham C4R Le Mans Racer; a VLF Destino, which he and a partner made by dropping a 600-horsepower GM V8 into a Fiskar hybrid body; a 1934 LaSalle convertible (in photo); and a selection of Corvettes and Pontiac Solstices, the small sports car he developed in a fruitless effort to revive the brand. "Oh, I forgot," he adds: "my dad's old '52 Aston Martin."
He knows that car guys like him are a dwindling breed. "I don't think the love affair with cars is totally gone," he says, "but it's certainly declining, gradually, and is at nowhere near the level that it was fifty years ago."
He blames the "blanderizing" of design, the shift to utilitarian crossover SUVs, and the fact that "people are no longer buying cars, they're leasing them-which means that the real thrill and knowledge and pride of ownership is largely gone."
He has no doubt that Musk's promised autonomous vehicles are coming-though not necessarily from Tesla. "There's no other solution," he says. "I mean, as a nation, we're squandering tens of millions of hours of productive time daily, not to mention 40,000 fatalities a year, due to human-driven cars. And we cannot solve the world's surface transportation problems, especially in the major metropolitan areas, without going to robocars."
I ask how that makes him feel.
"It makes me very grateful that I'm eighty-seven years old and that I lived through … the heyday of the automobile," he answers. "How did people feel at the turn of the twentieth century when the horse was basically banned from public streets?
"A lot of people still have them. But they don't use them on public roads. They're used on race tracks. Horse competitions. Riding stables. Dude ranches. And the same will be true of automobiles."
And he's pleased that people still ask him what he thinks. "I'm suddenly the wise old guru!" he marvels. "And I think it's because I no longer pose a threat to anybody.
"There's a huge upside to being old. I never would have believed it, but it's true."
This article has been edited since it was published in the August 2019 Ann Arbor Observer. The circumstances of Lutz's departure from Chrysler have been corrected (see letter, below).
From Calls & letters, September 2019
Anybody but Lutz
Our August My Town on auto industry legend Bob Lutz erred in describing his departure from Chrysler. Lee "Iacocca did NOT recommend me as his successor," Lutz emailed. "It was 'get even' time, so his succession plan was code-named 'ABL' ... 'Anybody but Lutz'. The board wanted me, but Lee won. He later (after the failed merger with Daimler) publicly stated that it was the worst mistake he had ever made."
Our apologies to Lutz, and writer Jan Schlain, for the editorial error.
[Originally published in August, 2019.]
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