Bob Lutz is known formally as an executive, but his influence on design live on well beyond the memories of any balance sheet. The Chevy Volt and Dodge Viper are two of his most famous creations. (Thea Brine, AOL Autos)

    by: Kevin Ransom | AOL Autos

    In early March, Bob Lutz -- the auto industry’s colorful, outspoken, “ultimate car guy” -- announced he would step down from his position as General Motors vice-chairman on May 1.

    The Swiss-born Lutz, now 78, leaves behind a long legacy. He’s served in various executive positions at General Motors, Chrysler, Ford and BMW, and has always been a proponent of bold designs that created an emotional response from buyers. He helped turn Chrysler around in the early 1990s, and then returned to GM in 2001 to inject some excitement into their product line-up and re-focus the company’s attention on product quality.

    Since Lutz’s return, GM has rolled out a bevy of sexy, head-turning models, some of which have snagged awards. New models bearing his influence include the dashing Cadillac CTS, the burly new Chevy Camaro, the redesigned Chevy Malibu, the Buick LaCrosse, and the svelte Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky roadsters (a pair that, unfortunately, were discontinued when GM decided to shutter the Pontiac and Saturn divisions). But the most important vehicle Lutz has had his hands in just might be the upcoming Chevy Volt plug-in, which could be a game-changer both for GM and the industry.

    About a week after announcing his retirement plans, we caught up with Lutz to discuss his career, his legacy, his proudest accomplishments and a couple of his more colorful quotes. Here’s what he had to say.

    AOL: Of all the vehicles you’ve shepherded into existence over the years, which one would you say you’re proudest of?

    BL: I think it would have to be the Volt, for a few reasons, one of them being the new technology. Previously, every other vehicle I’ve been involved with and have been proud of has been an exceptionally good execution of something that someone had done before, but it never really broke new ground technologically.

    But the Volt does break new ground. In the field of alternative-drive systems, it leapfrogs what has been employed by our Japanese competitors, and it was also a very interesting program to execute, because there was a lot of internal and external skepticism. There were a lot of naysayers who said it was BS, or that it was just PR, or that the lithium-ion battery would never work, or that GM wasn’t serious about this.

    So, facing all that negativism, and ultimately triumphing with a car that has a good chance of making a major impact, is thrilling.

    AOL: It’s been reported that you had to approach former GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner three times before you got the go-ahead to move forward with the Volt. Is that true?

    BL: It wasn’t just Rick Wagoner who was hesitant -- it was the company’s entire automotive strategy board. GM had been so badly burned with the EV1 that there was very little desire to repeat that, and to experiment with a battery-powered vehicle.

    And there were a lot of senior people inside the company who’d become very enamored of fuel cells, and we were spending a lot of money on fuel-cell development. So I think there was some resentment from the fuel-cell backers inside the company 'What is Lutz doing, pulling this lithium-ion battery out of his hat?' Because I think they thought they would be the ones to transform the planet and get us off fossil fuels. There was this internal competition.

    AOL: You’ve said that one of the other things you are proudest of is changing the culture at General Motors during the past decade. Talk about that, and why you consider it to be an important accomplishment.

    BL: Well, when I came back in 2001, there was a business-school attitude at the company that the product was only one element, and that it was just one of the many factors that had to be blended together for maximum financial impact. But that theory no longer works.

    It’s really only by focusing on the product, and identifying with it, and loving it, and giving it the best look, to just aim for the goal of creating the best product you know how, that will give you the greatest rewards. That was GM’s legacy of the 1950s and '60s, when GM had the best styling, engines and technology. Then, from the '70s through the '90s, that ethic became lost. I was happily able to connect GM to its past, and re-focus on the primacy of product excellence.

    Which car is Bob Lutz's greatest legacy?

    AOL: After the Volt, what other two or three vehicles would you say you’re proudest of, that you think were among your greatest accomplishments?

    BL: I’d say the Cadillac CTS and the Pontiac G8, and I was certainly very proud of the Pontiac Solstice and the Saturn Sky.

    AOL: Why did you think the CTS was an important vehicle for the company, and what did you want it to represent?

    BL: I think the fact that the CTS still receives so much acclaim demonstrates that the Cadillac division can still produce a vehicle that -- in terms of styling, fit and finish, road manners, etc. -- can match the best that the German cars have to offer.

    AOL: The development and unveiling of the Pontiac Solstice concept car (in the fall of 2001) is a great auto-industry story. It went from being an idea to a concept car for the Detroit auto show in just four months. Looking back, why was that important, both in terms of the vehicle itself and the ability to launch the concept car so quickly?

    BL: One thing that was great about that, as you indicated, is that it was executed so quickly, which was a great learning experience for the corporation. But what was also important is that we showed it was permissible to put emotion and excitement back into our autos, to create a vehicle with dynamic properties, that was also priced at a level that made it a high-value proposition. Which is something that a lot of people did not think GM was capable of.

    AOL: Let’s go back in time a bit, to your days at Chrysler, and talk about the Dodge Viper. It was conceived in early ’88, unveiled as a concept car at the ’89 Detroit auto show, and became a limited-edition production model in ’92. That was certainly a head-turning vehicle and a real screamer. Some would even say it was revolutionary vehicle. Do you agree, and what was it about that project that was so important?

    BL: I am indeed proud of that one, but that was not so much a vehicle program as it was a marketing and PR exercise. This was the late '80s, and Chrysler was flat on its back again, after Lee Iacocca had helped rescue the company several years earlier. There was again the threat of bankruptcy, and a lot of folks, including a lot of media people, thought Chrysler was not capable of doing anything but making front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder K-cars.

    So I thought, 'What can we do to shock people into understanding that the ability to execute great vehicles -- of any description -- is alive and well at Chrysler?’ And my answer was, 'Let’s create the most powerful, most expensive car in the U.S.' It was initially just intended to be a concept car, but it really resonated with the public. We got cards and letters, with $100 bills clipped to them saying, 'I want one of these, here’s my deposit.'

    The main purpose of the Viper was to renew confidence in Chrysler, both with the public and in the financial community, and to boost the morale of our people internally. I think it succeeded on those levels.

    AOL: One reason you’re popular with us auto writers is that most of us are also 'car guys.' But admittedly we have also liked covering you because you’re very quotable and have made some colorful statements. One of those was the comment you made about global warming. [In 2008, Lutz famously remarked that global warming was "a total crock of s---.”] Do you still hold that opinion of global warming?

    BL: Well, I can’t really get into that too much as long as I am still gainfully employed by General Motors, but I can say that as time has gone by there are more people in the scientific community who share the same point of view I do. And the majority of the public right now does not believe that CO2 emissions from cars is the main source of global warming. Perhaps, at the time, I did not express my views eloquently, or with any degree of sophistication, but I am not the only skeptic on this topic.

    AOL: Your championing of the Volt was not prompted by a concern about car emissions leading to climate change, but was instead a business decision. You could see there was a market out there for it.

    BL: Correct. And if the government and the EPA say we must curb CO2 emissions, I have to set my personal beliefs aside and do what is required. But reducing dependence on imported petroleum is also important to me, and we also must look at fossil fuels as a finite commodity. We don’t know whether it will be 50 years or 100 years, or whatever [before there is a scarcity], but alternative ways of moving people around in their automobiles [other than by using fossil fuels] is obviously something we have to focus on.

    AOL: In late 2008 and 2009, when GM was applying for Federal loans and facing bankruptcy, there were some who were calling for Rick Wagoner to step down. At the time, you disagreed with that, although Wagoner eventually was forced to resign. It’s been a while since that all went down. Have your thoughts changed?

    BL: I think that Rick had all the right priorities and that he had the right long-term plan. But with hindsight being 20/20, I think that the company should have been moving faster in terms of winding down capacity, removing dealers, and all the things we’ve been doing post-bankruptcy. Rick was a brilliant strategist and one of the smartest people I have ever met, but looking back, the amount of patience he brought to the situation regarding those factors may have been excessive.

    AOL: In his recently-published book, former Massachusetts Governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney claimed that an anonymous auto executive told him that the Obama administration’s task force was essentially running the show at GM and making the major decisions. Shortly after that was reported, GM flatly refuted Romney’s claim; the company said that was just not true. What are your insights into that?

    BL: Well, as a condition of the loans and bankruptcy, the president’s task force initially did have certain goals, like to reduce number of dealers, and they did insist on certain restructuring steps we had to take as we were working our way out of bankruptcy. But in terms of them having the slightest influence on things like strategy and product decisions, that’s not true. The task force has long since been abandoned, and all of those folks have gone back to their former lives, and we haven’t heard word one from them since.

    AOL: Obviously, bankruptcy is no-one’s first choice, but now that GM has been through it, are you confident about the company’s future?

    BL: Bankruptcy is a perfect solution for fixing a company, and in this case, fixing some things that should have been fixed years ago. But one thing that’s wrong with it is that it wipes out the shareholders and that’s really unfortunate.

    But the new GM, as it’s been restructured, is largely debt-free, so we’re in far, far better shape now. Our labor costs are on a par with those in the Japanese transplant facilities in the Southern states. Our margins were actually never that bad, but by the time you allocated fixed costs, we were upside down when we sold the vehicle. Now, we have lower fixed costs, so we have bigger margins, and that will definitely help the bottom line. I think GM is going to be a profitable and healthy auto company, but right now I couldn’t really put a time-line on that.

    AOL: Is it safe to say that once Fritz Henderson resigned as GM’s CEO in December 2009 and your role was changed to an advisory capacity, that it seemed like you didn’t really have an opportunity to have a major impact any more? And that this was the main factor that prompted you to retire?

    BL: Well, that was part of it. As Fritz said at the time, I’m much happier as an executive who is actually running things, as opposed to advising people on how to do it -- which is why I would probably make a lousy consultant.

    Plus, the thing I set out to do, to shift the focus to product excellence and quality, to make the product the be-all and end-all -- that job has been completed. All of the leaders of the company have seen the result of how the focus on creating best-in-class products can succeed in the marketplace, and succeed financially. So, in terms of changing the focus of the culture, I think that’s already been accomplished.

    AOL: Are you confident this mindset will continue at GM, or are you concerned that the company might slip back to the old way of thinking after you’ve retired?

    BL: If I had any doubts or suspicions that it would go back, I would stay, and the minute I saw that happening, I would be right there, haranguing people and criticizing that.

    Ed Whitacre [who took over as GM’s Chairman and CEO in December 2009] adopted a simple mission statement, once it was decided that we needed one that could be remembered by everyone, so that everyone knows what the company is all about. We had a discussion about that, and it took us about 10 minutes to come up with it. And that statement is this: Our plan is to build and sell the world’s best cars and trucks.

    Even now, Ed will buttonhole individual employees, ask them their name, and ask them what they do, and then he’ll ask them, “What is our mission statement?” And he won’t be satisfied until he can walk into any assembly plant and pose that question to any line worker, and hear that as the answer.

    AOL: After you've retired, will you still be interested in conceiving new vehicles on some sort of consulting basis? Or do you have other plans?

    BL: I don’t really know yet for sure. Various people have expressed an interest in my services, but mostly in the area of communications, like making speeches and such. I will probably write another book. But, to be honest, I don’t see myself ever taking another full-time job.

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    1 - 20 of 107 Comments
    plzzshop004 Apr 13, 2010 10:25 PM
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    fraelichpr Apr 12, 2010 7:12 AM
    Don't forget the GTO. What happen here Bob?
    Report This
    brpaleist Apr 10, 2010 8:27 AM
    General or is it Goverment motors,lost another 4 Billion in the first quarter(again)Sounds like old Bob is leaving at the right time.Better save your money to pay yopur health care.
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    nomoretoyota Apr 09, 2010 8:15 PM
    Bye, Bob. All those years in the car industry and you couldn't do enough to convince you buddies at GM to build a high quality product. instead you were part of the problems that GM built cars that were made to sell not to last. He still will not admit that consumers are changing to brand that are trouble free not fancy.
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    chvy70camaro Apr 09, 2010 7:08 PM
    cface, you just cry racism just because more then half of the country has major problems with obamas policies?!! WTF?!! Ever heard of J.C. Watts or Michael Steele?! I would vote for both of them for ANY office, including President!! Atleast they have some experience, unlike obama, who's never even ran a corner liquor store or even a taco bell!!!
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    chvy70camaro Apr 09, 2010 7:04 PM
    lets see the japs match the combo of the '10 Camaro V6 with 304 hp/29 MPG highway!! OR the combo of the Camaro SS with 426hp/25 MPG highway!!
    Report This
    chvy70camaro Apr 09, 2010 7:03 PM
    hey wrx, a used 911 isn't gonna be able to keep up with a Z06 Vette, much less a ZR1!!
    Report This
    jomarpines Apr 09, 2010 5:49 PM
    You People are Missing the Point!!! You can argue..fight...blame...hate...lie...complain all you want...you did it to yourself.... and still are!!!.. I'm 64, have driven American cars all my life, from my first '49 Plymouth Special Deluxe to my '06 Pontiac Grand Prix GT...never was able to buy brand new, but always bought "Top of The Line"...I loved them all...they ARE better!!!...I always hire local help, purchase food from local farmers, and search to buy "American" whenever possible!!!...It's called "NATIONALSM"...and if you continue...your children will be living in "THE UNITED STATES OF CHIMERIPAN"
    Report This
    jswdavid Apr 09, 2010 4:33 PM
    The day that anyone can make a car that everyone can agree on will be the day of the second coming. The Volt sounds like the answer to many problems-I hope that it (THE VOLT), and the answers actually do come to fruitiion.
    Report This
    bshericap Apr 09, 2010 4:02 PM
    By the way, how many of you knew that GM China is 30% bigger than GM China and all the profit is from China.
    Report This
    bshericap Apr 09, 2010 4:01 PM
    Plug ins are going to go away, EPA and justice department indicated they will crack down on claims that they are zero emissions (they use electricity from coal, gas and nuclear mostly). They will have to carry the equivlence of HP and MPG based on the electricity they use from the batteries while driving, Engineers expect the result will be abount a third of the mpg as a comparably powered and weight gasoline car.
    Report This
    bob4bet Apr 09, 2010 2:47 PM
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    veasystreet Apr 09, 2010 2:47 PM
    Hey, is there anyone out there? Let's talk about GM and their future. It looks good to me. Let's talk up what is good about our auto industry and get these cars selling. There are lot of people to employ out there, and good times are just around the corner. Show your faith in our economy and system of governbment.
    Report This
    veasystreet Apr 09, 2010 2:15 PM
    What an idiot remark. I suppose when we railed against Bush we were showing our "Honkyism?" Get over the race card, he has chosen to to be our leader and with it comes the target on your forehead, every President has had it.
    Report This
    cfaceinc Apr 09, 2010 2:11 PM
    It is hard to understand how no matter what happens in this country, be it national or in the remote corner of a 30 person town, that what ever goes wrong it is presidnet Obama's fault. I am amazed hw we have come to have sooo much anger for a person that is trying to save our country. I was one of the ones who thought times were changeing when Obama went into the White House. I felt people were finally coming together, but the negroisms are still alive. What is even worse if that people are taking target at older people. 78 doese not mean the end of life. It is some of those old ideas that have kept us going. To Mr. Lutz don't worry, people don't like you for your old ideas and people don't like Obama for his new ideas "Go Figure". I say thanks to both of you, Mr Lutz for wonderful American Made cars and to the president for for health care that all Americans should have.
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    veasystreet Apr 09, 2010 2:07 PM
    GM will do fine. It will continue and will probably flourish with its new lineup of cars. Good news for the American workers except that GM will keep trying to find ways to ship production out of the country or overseas. I wouldn't be surprised to see some divisions of management starting to open up in China, where their presence (and the partnership with the Chinese) is showing real promise. This is what GM workers have to worry about, not the disappearance of GM, ain't gonna happen!
    Report This
    cbarberi Apr 09, 2010 2:04 PM
    A true Car Guy! Might sound like no big deal but this is exactly the problem currently at GM. Better find some Car Guys who know the manufacturing end and some Car Guys who understand what it takes to sell em' That's all it takes. Oh...and keep the government OUT OF IT!
    Report This
    pstultz743 Apr 09, 2010 2:01 PM
    unreal. this guy is an arrogant tool. he is a rat fleeing the sinking ship. GM sucks and has for several years. during his tenure. this guy couldn'y give a f*&k about america, cars, or his company. good riddance ahole.
    Report This
    code3matthew Apr 09, 2010 2:01 PM
    nonotmiketoo........ Funny you wanna talk about Gm when audi does nothing but gouges its customers! Ill take a volt anyday over a poorly built audi! The problem with audis president is he didnt think of the volt first. In fact audi doesnt have ANY hybrids! Go back where you came from!
    Report This
    airman59f Apr 09, 2010 2:00 PM
    You bloggers are stupid. You have too much time on your hands
    Report This
    1 - 20 of 107 Comments
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    Please keep your comments relevant to the Exit Interview: Legend Bob Lutz Retires article.
    In early March, Bob Lutz – the auto industry’s colorful, outspoken, “ultimate car guy” -- announced that, on May 1, he would step down from his position as General Motors vice-chairman. About a week after he announced his retirement plans, we caught up with Lutz to discuss his career, his legacy, his proudest accomplishments and a couple of his more colorful quotes.


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