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GM's New Driving Force

Tough-talking Bob Lutz brings a widely admired sense of style that he has developed over the last four decades to his new position as vice chairman at General Motors.


TOKYO — Bob Lutz strode through the colorful, raucous and sometimes wacky displays at the Tokyo Motor Show last month, eyeing the low-slung roadsters, compact sedans and oddball concept cars--one of them made of plexiglass.

When the new vice chairman of General Motors Corp. travels, he studies local motoring trends intently. He didn't care for a lot of the boxy cars and trucks at the Tokyo show, and as for the generally small cars on the road, they were attractive but wouldn't really click in the U.S.

"There are some beautiful, sleek sedans and wagons on Tokyo streets that are 'Japan only'--thankfully," he said.

Robert A. Lutz is all about design. After spending his career working for all three domestic auto makers, he was hired in September to be product development czar at GM, with the title of vice chairman.

On Tuesday, Lutz assumed the added title of chairman of GM North America, solidifying his role in product development.

The world's largest auto maker gave Lutz, 69, a simple but sweeping mandate: Make its cars look better.

In his last job with an auto manufacturer, Lutz was vice chairman of Chrysler Corp. before retiring upon its acquisition by Daimler-Benz of Germany. At Chrysler, he was considered the driving force behind such signature models as the Dodge Viper performance car, the Plymouth Prowler roadster and what became the retro Chrysler PT Cruiser.

The big question for GM, he said during an interview in Tokyo, is "why aren't we doing better on the passenger-car side of the business?"

"It's not a lack of quality or functionality," he said. "But it appears to be a somewhat lack of commitment to compelling design that will really draw people into dealerships. There's no reason we shouldn't be doing as well as Toyota, Honda and Volkswagen."

Lutz is renowned, even revered, for his instinct, his gut feeling, about cars. (Note that he entitled his 1998 management primer "Guts.")

"The thing that's most telling about him is his ability to take a quick look at a car and then describe in enormous detail all the things that are right and wrong with the design," said David E. Davis, acting editor in chief of Motor Trend magazine and founding editor of Automobile magazine.

"It is really quite something to be around him when he does that," said Davis, who has known Lutz since 1968. "He has an astonishing eye and an astonishing ability to retain detail."

Auto industry veteran Donald E. Petersen used to tell how when he was chief executive of Ford Motor Co., he was shown around the Frankfurt International Auto Show in the early 1980s by Lutz, then chairman of Ford Europe. European dealers clustered around Lutz to "kiss his ring," as Petersen put it, alluding to the stature Lutz enjoyed even then.

Lutz is as renowned for his bluntness as for his design acumen; he calls things the way he sees them.

"GM wouldn't have brought him in otherwise," said David Cole, head of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Bob Lutz's history is too full of candid ways of doing things, and that's what they bought into. His instincts are good."

Lutz says it is just a matter of common sense and having the courage to speak out. Because he has come in as an outsider on a three-year contract, he can shoot from the hip.

Sources say that is precisely what happened when he looked at the next generation of a large sport sedan. Lutz won't say which car it was, but a GM executive confirms it was the Pontiac Grand Prix.

"Bob came in and called it for what it was, had a couple of suggestions, and within a week it was changed," said the executive, who has participated in meetings with Lutz.

Typically, such a process would take a few months, possibly delaying the car's launch altogether.

"What I saw was a design that had passed through the system that nobody was really happy with, and yet nobody had, if you will, blown the whistle on it," Lutz said, puffing on a Cuban cigar, one of several passions.

"It's this culture of this so-called basket-weave organization, where a lot of interaction takes place between different groups within the company that are all very legitimate interests," he said of GM's tightly knit management structure, which critics say tends to stifle outspokenness.

"A compromise is found between engineering, manufacturing, marketing, sales and the people who defend the brand character--that is, making sure a Buick looks like a Buick and a Cadillac looks like a Cadillac--and design," he said.

That meant GM's design side did not enter the picture early enough or forcefully enough, and was not as much a part of the process as it should be.

"Coming in new, I said my view somewhat unfairly and in violation of the GM process, which was, 'I don't care how we got there, this isn't right,"' Lutz said.

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