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‘Maximum Bob’ back at the wheel at General Motors

Image: General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz addresses his speech at the Chevrolet exhibition stand at the 80th Geneva Car Show
Nearly two years after he looked set to fade into retirement, Bob Lutz is back at GM.Valentin Flauraud / Reuters

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.

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.

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.