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Bob and me: Run-ins with a car czar

Nothing personal, but the retiring GM vice chairman has sought my

February 12, 2009|Dan Neil

The news that Vice Chairman Bob Lutz is retiring from General Motors reminds me of that wonderful quote of Voltaire's: "He was a great patriot, a humanitarian, a loyal friend -- provided, of course, that he really is dead."

I've had the pleasure of spending some hours wreathed in the smoke from Lutz's Robusto cigars, and we've had some vigorous exchanges over the years, dating to when I was freelancing for the New York Times.

In a 2003 review in that paper, I called the new Pontiac Grand Prix "clumsy and contrived" and said it looked like it was wearing a Hitler mustache.

Lutz, who had been trumpeting the Grand Prix as the precious spark of a new creative fire at Pontiac, demanded my head on a platter, Salome-like. And then we got into this weird colloquy about what did and did not constitute a front strut brace. It was wonderful.

My most infamous run-in with Lutz was occasioned by a review -- well, on reflection, a rant -- in this paper in 2005 about the Pontiac G6, which seemed then and now a small disaster of a car.

At the time, the message out of GM was that the G6 was "Lutz's car," the first the company's product czar really had a hand in. On the basis of that claim, I called for the cashiering of Lutz and/or GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner.

"This is an uncompetitive product, an assertion borne out not by my say-so but by sales numbers," I wrote. "When ball clubs have losing records, players and coaches and managers get their walking papers. At GM, it's time to sweep the dugout."

That week, GM pulled its national advertising out of the L.A. Times. To the credit of the editors, the paper stood by the review and eventually GM's advertising came back.

And yet Lutz and I have always seemed to get along personally.

We spent a fine evening together at England's Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2004, arguing about global warming (Lutz is infamously skeptical of it) and the company's disastrous pursuit of the LeMans championship. I met his utterly charming wife, and he mine. He has sent e-mails to compliment me on one turn of phrase or another. And no, I am not immune to the man's charisma.

These episodes came flooding back to me in January, while Lutz and I were exchanging e-mails about a story I was working on about Chrysler, where he was once president.

The e-mails were off the record; however, I don't think Lutz would mind my revealing his remark that he thought the new 2010 Buick LaCrosse was the best car he'd ever "guided." Then I saw the car at the Detroit Auto Show.

The exterior is peculiar, with a concave hood profile that seems the very opposite of the "power dome" hood Lutz usually favors. Overall, it was hard to see how Lutz -- whose list of credits includes the Dodge Viper, the Ford Explorer and the Chrysler LH sedans -- would declare the LaCrosse his career-defining car.

And then it dawned on me. Lutz's job has always been to work the refs. Like a basketball coach storming the hardwood to protest missed foul calls, Lutz uses his bluster, his charm, his authority and his cigar-gnashing persona -- whatever it takes -- to control and orient criticism of the cars and company.

Precisely as he did with the Grand Prix and later with the G6, Lutz is shilling wildly for the new LaCrosse, leveraging his stature to moderate the reception of the car, knowing that for most auto journalists challenging Lutz is like interrogating one of the granite heads on Mt. Rushmore.

This is the car industry's version of the Great Man syndrome, whereby political reporters become enchanted with powerful politicians and go soft.

Obviously, it works. A quick survey of stories this week about Lutz's plans to retire, at age 77, constitutes a study in moony adoration. He's a real car guy, an ex-fighter jock, the Howard Roark of Motor City. Detroit has always been intensely patriarchal, and Lutz has emerged as the Great White Father of the American car industry.

Meanwhile, the man's penchant for speaking candidly seems, in retrospect, pure guile. Everything Lutz says in public seems calibrated for a desired effect, including his remark last year that global warming was a myth.

This allegedly unscripted remark sparked a furious debate in the car world that lasted a month and encouraged climate-change doubters to come out of their foxholes. The goal posts had been moved.

Mission accomplished.

--

dan.neil@latimes.com

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