Image: Bob Lutz
Valentin Flauraud  /  Reuters
Nearly two years after he looked set to fade into retirement, Bob Lutz is back at GM.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, contributor
By contributor
updated 9/7/2011 12:26:08 PM ET 2011-09-07T16:26:08

Whether you know him as “Maximum Bob,” “Capt. Lutz, USMC-Retired,” or simply “Bob,” few executives have had as long or as influential an impact on the automotive industry as Robert A. Lutz.

Now — nearly two years after he reluctantly seemed ready to fade into an affluent retirement — the blunt, cigar-chomping Mr. Lutz is back.

In a news release that many missed going into the long Labor Day holiday weekend, General Motors revealed it has signed the 79-year-old Lutz as a consultant. While specific details were withheld, sources suggest the onetime Marine pilot will be offering advice on a variety of subjects related to product and marketing.

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His appointment could be critical for General Motors. The automaker is pressing hard to make gains at the expense of its Japanese rivals who are still struggling with product shortages caused by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan last March.

Significantly, the compact Chevrolet Cruze, one of the products Lutz championed before leaving GM in late 2009, has toppled such long-time sales leaders as the Toyota Camry and Honda Civic, to become the nation’s best-selling passenger car in recent months. GM’s challenge is to keep that momentum going.

“It’s not a surprise,” said David Cole, when asked about Lutz’s return.

The Chairman-Emeritus for the Center for Automotive Research, or CAR, in Ann Arbor, Mich., Cole says Lutz “has such a deep passion for the product. It’s probably better to have him working for you than working somewhere else because he’s not going to retire until he dies.”

Lutz began his nearly half-century in the automotive industry with General Motors, signing on shortly after retiring from the Marines. He later jumped to BMW, and then Ford, ultimately moving to Chrysler, where he became the top lieutenant to the legendary Lee Iacocca. It was a stormy relationship, and Lutz’s tendency to shoot from the lip often got the Swiss-born banker’s son in trouble.

Once seen as Iacocca’s eventual successor, Lutz soured his chances two decades ago when he helped to derail a proposed Chrysler merger with Fiat. When he was asked if Chrysler would need to find an alternative partner, Lutz replied that “you can’t find a bridegroom when the bride is on her deathbed.”

After leaving Chrysler in 1998 following the short-lived “merger of equals” between the U.S. carmaker and Germany’s Daimler, Lutz was clearly not ready to retire. He helped fund a short-lived effort to revive the Cunningham sports car company and then landed an equally brief job as chairman of the automotive battery company Exide.

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But then came the call from Rick Wagoner, who at the time was Chairman and CEO of General Motors. Recognizing that the car company couldn’t market its way out of trouble, Wagoner realized it was time to reorganize GM’s legendary product development program. And Lutz was asked to take over as Vice Chairman and “car czar.”

It was a slow and agonizing process. By 2002, GM’s product line-up had become an industry joke, Lutz himself deriding models like the Pontiac Aztek as “angry appliances.”

But each year the product line-up started to improve. Even as GM’s finances started to collapse the automaker landed two key victories: the Saturn Aura and then the Chevrolet Malibu were consecutively named North American Car of the Year.

As GM plunged into bankruptcy in 2009, Lutz’s product skills appeared to be more important than ever to the company. But his bluntness didn’t help, especially as he took on controversial issues like global warming (a topic he routinely dismissed as a fantasy). In the final weeks of 2009 GM’s new Chairman and CEO, Texan “Big Ed” Whitacre, announced that Lutz would be retiring.

Lutz might have been nudged out of GM, but the septuagenarian soldier had no intention of fading away. He was, if possible, more visible than before, launching a consultancy and joining several boards, including that of British sports carmaker Lotus. And he announced plans to write a new book.

The latest tome, “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business,” picks up where Lutz’s earlier book, “Guts,” left off, arguing that the rise of MIT and Harvard wunderkinds in recent decades, armed with MBA degrees, is really a threat to American business.

Ironically, while best known for his role in product development, Lutz actually trained in marketing.

“What he has been able to do is insert himself in the role of the customer and unleash design and engineering from the business side to put passion into the product,” according to the CAR’s Cole.

And that is likely the role he will continue to play as a part-time consultant for GM. Sources say Lutz will work with a number of senior executives, including Mary Barra, the first woman to head up product development at a major automotive company.

“If I were somebody like Mary I would want somebody like Bob whispering in my ear,” said Cole.

But Lutz will likely also offer advice on the marketing side of the business. Even with the company’s latest products winning steadily improving reviews it has proved especially hard for GM to win over import-oriented buyers, particularly those on the coasts. The question is whether a 79-year-old “kid” like Lutz can make the connection with yet another generation of buyers, said one GM source who admitted being a bit skeptical.

There are few who expect Lutz’s latest assignment at GM to mark his swan song. Despite turning 80 next February, he has the full head of silver-white hair and the ramrod posture that would suggest a man years younger. The voice may be hoarse from a lifetime of smoking Cuban cigars, but his energy and drive remain the stuff of legend.

Lutz is, if nothing else, driven to compete. And the man he is most directly competing with is his own father, who worked until just six months before his death at 94. That, Lutz has hinted, was still too young.

Don’t be surprised, then, to see Lutz still on call at GM — or somewhere else — when he nears 100.

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Photos: The hatchback makes a comeback

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  1. The hatchback’s comeback

    By Paul A. Eisenstein , contributor

    American motorists are often described as fixed in their ways and unwilling to try new things, yet there are signs that this might not hold true anymore. There are signs car buyers are open to alternative body designs that can enhance both form and functionality, especially as more and more motorists downsize to reduce fuel costs.

    In some cases, that mean old ideas are making a comeback – the hatchback, for example.

    Take Audi's A7.

    After years as an also-ran in the global luxury car market, Audi has been steadily gaining ground on its leading challengers, Germany’s Mercedes-Benz and BMW, as well as Japan’s Lexus – and its reputation for striking design is a major reason.

    The A7 is Audi’s latest hit. It’s a coupe-like sedan or, more accurately, a coupe-like hatchback. Five-door designs are wildly popular in Europe and many other parts of the world but have long been anathema to American motorists. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Ford Fiesta

    While some carmakers are still reluctant to bring hatchback designs to the U.S. market, Ford is betting big on 5-door models like the Fiesta subcompact, shown here, and the new Focus compact.

    Demand for hatchbacks in the U.S. small car segment has surged from 15.5 percent in 2003 to 41.8 percent last year. Overall hatchback sales, meanwhile, shot up 63 percent between 2006 and 2010, to 475,048. (Ford / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Chevrolet Corvette

    Would a rose by any other name smell so sweet?

    The Bard’s words might as well be applied to products like the Chevrolet Corvette. Sure, most motorists are likely to call it a sports car, but take a closer look and you’ll realize the ‘Vette has traditionally gone for a hatchback design – as have many of the most popular classic sports cars. (Gm / Wieck) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Jeep Grand Cherokee

    What is the SUV if not a hatchback (unless you prefer to call it a station wagon on steroids)? Ironically, it’s the big rear hatch that gives so much flexibility to the conventional sport-utility vehicle, as well as its more fuel-efficient cousin, the crossover vehicle. Count them and hatchback sales suddenly rival those of the sedan. (Stan Honda / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mini Cooper

    The Mini Cooper is another European take on the hatchback. The iconic small-car brand has shown that both small cars and 3-door designs can click with the American motoring public. Mini will soon offer a total of seven hatch-based designs in the U.S. market. (Mini) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. BMW X6

    BMW’s unusual X6 is a hatchback blend of conventional SUV and sports car. The muscular design has had a significant influence on both luxury and mainstream automakers over the last several years – even though it is more an exercise in form than functionality. (Tom Kirkpatrick / eb.andriuolo/BMW) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Honda Crosstour

    Among those who have echoed the X6 design are Honda and its up-market sibling, Acura.

    The mainstream brand has struggled with the Accord Crosstour and hopes to pump new life into the design by adding more features and simplifying the name to just Honda Crosstour for 2012.

    The Acura ZDX isn’t doing much better in the market and both may not last much beyond the 2012 model-year – which could extend the myth that Americans won’t buy hatchbacks. (Honda) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Ford Pinto

    The Ford Pinto is one reason why hatchbacks lost their luster in the U.S. market. The once-popular subcompact was a mainstay of the 1970s but, like so many hatchbacks of the era, it offered little in the way of creature comforts and other amenities. Making matters worse was the Pinto’s flawed gas tank design, associated with a number of deadly fires. (Ford / Wieck) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Chevrolet Vega

    The Chevrolet Vega was another reason why hatchbacks lost their appeal in the U.S.

    Though stylish in its day, the relatively stripped-down Chevy experienced a variety of quality and reliability problems that hurt the image of both parent General Motors and of the hatchback itself. Once one of the most popular body styles, demand for 3- and 5-door models slipped to barely 1 percent of total U.S. sales by the middle of the last decade. (© Bettmann/CORBIS) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. AMC Gremlin

    Few carmakers were more committed to the hatchback than American Motors.

    It offered a wide variety of alternatives -- especially considering the size of the company. The Gremlin, shown here, was among its most popular hatch models, along with the Alliance, marketed under the brand of one-time French ally Renault.

    But one of the most curious AMC offerings was the Pacer, originally designed to use the radical Wankel rotary, though converted to a conventional engine due to quality and mileage problems with the rotary. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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