Image: General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz
VALENTIN FLAURAUD  /  Reuters
GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz speaks at the Chevrolet exhibition stand at the Geneva Car Show this week.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, msnbc.com contributor
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/4/2010 4:44:38 PM ET 2010-03-04T21:44:38

Old soldiers never die, they just fade away, the old Army ballad says. And that now seems the fate for Bob Lutz, the former Marine pilot who went on to become one of the most colorful and storied executives in an often colorless auto industry.

Capping months of turmoil in General Motors’ executive ranks, vice chairman Lutz announced this week he will retire May 1, capping a nearly 50-year career.

"My work here is done," Lutz said in an e-mail to The Associated Press from the Geneva Motor Show Wednesday.His work, yes. His legacy remains open to question.

It’s not the first time the septuagenarian executive said he would wrap things up, but each time he seemed ready, finally ready, to turn his attention to an enviable collection of cars and private aircraft, Lutz found another reason to extend his career.

Wednesday's announcement probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise, considering the pace of change at GM. CEO Ed Whitacre. Jr., the former boss of AT&T brought in after GM’s bankruptcy, has ousted the automaker’s old management team one by one. But Lutz, 78, has had an uncanny ability to survive even the worst setbacks.

The son of a Swiss banker and a naturalized American citizen, Lutz has worked for some of the biggest and most influential automakers in the world, including Germany’s BMW and all three of the Detroit makers.

When a promising career at Ford ran aground 30 years ago, he suddenly landed at Chrysler, where he was seen as the likely heir to that maker’s telegenic Chairman Lee Iacocca. But Lutz’s penchant for speaking his mind often landed him in trouble. And it didn’t help when the Swiss-born executive helped scuttle a proposed merger with Fiat, with whom, ironically, Chrysler would ultimately partner up with after its 2009 bankruptcy.

Then, as now, Chrysler was in serious financial trouble, and most industry analysts were predicting the company would need to find an alternative partner, something Lutz was determined to prevent. Asked about the likelihood of such a pairing in 1990, Lutz told this reporter, “You can’t find a bridegroom when the bride is on her deathbed.”

That image of Chrysler didn’t set well with Iacocca, who would have fired Lutz had the company’s board let him. But even then, Iacocca made sure Lutz would never become chairman, instead hiring GM’s former European boss, Bob Eaton, to take the helm when he finally retired.

Despite the slight, Lutz remained with Chrysler, declaring that you don’t quit the team just because you weren’t named quarterback.

It was a critical decision, and Lutz’s many admirers insist the products he helped conceive in the years that followed were critical to Chrysler’s survival, and to its eventual merger with Germany’s Daimler in 1998.

Again, Lutz was privately opposed to what would prove a star-crossed marriage. And even as the trans-Atlantic legal documents were being inked, he announced his first retirement.

It wouldn’t last long. Offered a chance to run the troubled battery maker Exide, Lutz said yes. But it proved to be a much more difficult challenge than he had anticipated.

As Exide bounced from one catastrophe to another, Lutz began to step back, relinquishing most of his duties and spending more time flying his helicopters and Czech-made L-39 Albatros fighter jet.

Then came the call from Rick Wagoner, the former CEO of General Motors. After trying a variety of alternatives, Wagoner had finally come to agree that GM needed a true “car guy,” in industry parlance, somebody who understood the passionate side of the business and could translate that into sheet metal that could win over consumers.

In a move that resembled Dick Cheney's path to the vice presidency, Lutz agreed to assist GM in its search but eventually, “We agreed there was no one else who could do the job,” said Wagoner at the time. Lutz became GM’s new “car czar” in 2001even though he was already past the automaker’s normal retirement age.

Only months before joining GM, Lutz had again fired from the lip, deriding GM’s products as “angry toasters,” and insisting, “You can’t sell ugly cars.” But turning things around proved a substantial challenge, one that required him to restructure the entire global product development system.

The results came slowly, and skeptics abounded, but by late in the decade, there were signs of progress. The midsize Saturn Aura won the coveted North American Car of the Year trophy in 2007. A year later, the Chevrolet Malibu staged a repeat victory. Equally significant were the kudos GM’s newest products began getting for their improved quality.

But by then, the damage was too deep. Even as it celebrated its centennial, it became clear that GM couldn’t survive without a federal bailout and, ultimately, the protection offered by a bankruptcy filing. It was a good time to pack it in, Lutz announced, handing product development duties to his top lieutenant, Tom Stephens.

No sooner had GM emerged from bankruptcy than Lutz announced his own return last year. The aging executive didn’t bounce his protégé; this time Lutz would return as marketing chief. That move surprised even those allies who had long ago forgotten that Lutz’s degrees were in business and marketing, not engineering.

But it would prove to be a short-lived shift. Almost immediately after ousting Fritz Henderson, who himself spent just eight months as GM chief executive, new CEO Whitacre shunted Lutz aside. He became a man without a portfolio, doing little more than serving as the automaker’s familiar public face and as a repository of corporate knowledge for the new generation of managers.

Insiders say it was a difficult transition for Lutz, who preferred to be the executive in charge rather than merely a mentor.

Others suggested it was even more difficult for Lutz to watch the new management team begin to take credit for GM’s nascent turnaround, something Lutz for which felt he deserved more recognition.

There likely will be some long debates over whether Lutz was finally pushed or chose to jump. But that’s not the real question, says analyst Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting.

“The reality,” Phillippi contends, “is that (Lutz’s legacy) will be tested by the processes he left behind. We’ll see whether it can survive or get smothered by the old-style GM bureaucracy.”

And so, ironically, the new management team may ultimately be responsible for what the automotive history books have to say about Lutz’s long career.

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