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, of course, I've followed his career closely. We've had some vigorous exchanges, dating back to when I was freelancing for the New York Times. In a review in that paper in 2003, I did my level best to drub the awful 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix, a car I called "clumsy and contrived" - I also 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 2006 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 Chairman Rick Wagoner. You can read the story here.
Thus quoteth I: "This is an uncompetitive product, an assertion borne out not by my say-so but by sales numbers. 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 didn't go over well, apparently. That week, GM pulled its national advertising out of the L.A. Times. To the credit of the editors then, 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 Goodwood in 2005, arguing about global warming 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 damn peculiar, with a concave hood profile - conveying in its geometry the very opposite of a "power dome" hood - and a fussy lateral accent line. I'm reserving judgment until I get hold of it in the real world, but the first impression is that it's a fairly nice car wrapped in someone's anxiety. In any event, I couldn't imagine why Lutz - with a portfolio of accomplishment reaching back many decades - 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 harassing referees about close calls and missed fouls, Lutz uses his charm, his authority and his cigar-gnashing persona - and if none of that works, his scorn -- 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 Mount 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 about Lutz in the industry press this morning comprises a study in moony adoration. He's a real car guy, an ex-fighter jock, the last of the Mohicans, Howard Roark in Detroit's morass of compromise, etc. 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. As far as I know, Lutz has never said anything in public that was not calibrated for a desired effect, including his remark last year that global warming was B.S. 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 goalposts had been moved. Mission accomplished.
Lutz has made no secret of his low regard of the press, and there is no reason to think that I have somehow risen above that. He may like the way I write, but that doesn't mean he thinks I know doodily about cars or the industry. So with fond remembrance and the certain knowledge that he couldn't care less, I offer my list of Lutz's hits and misses at GM. Bombs away, Bob. Bombs away.