GM's Bob Lutz, Car Guy Who Broke Mold, To Retire - InformationWeek

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2/13/2009
12:00 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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GM's Bob Lutz, Car Guy Who Broke Mold, To Retire

Not to drop names -- which means I'm going to drop names -- but over the years I've heard many executives speak live, everyone from Bill Gates and Gordon Moore to Steve Jobs and President George H.W. Bush. Of them all, far and away the most charismatic orator was the late, great astronomer Carl Sagan, who passionately believed that we are not alone in this universe. No. 2 is outgoing General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz, who just announced that he'll retire at the end of 2009.

Not to drop names -- which means I'm going to drop names -- but over the years I've heard many executives speak live, everyone from Bill Gates and Gordon Moore to Steve Jobs and President George H.W. Bush. Of them all, far and away the most charismatic orator was the late, great astronomer Carl Sagan, who passionately believed that we are not alone in this universe. No. 2 is outgoing General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz, who just announced that he'll retire at the end of 2009.Lutz, after an illustrious career as president of Chrysler and a VP at Ford, was brought into GM in 2001 to be the "car guy" -- his official title was vice chairman of product development -- who would revive the automaker's fortunes by championing the building of "gotta have" cars.

On that front, Lutz has a mixed record. He championed the return of the Pontiac GTO to its muscle car roots. (That was done somewhat oddly, by importing an Australian auto, the Holden Monaro, to the U.S. and essentially rebadging an emission-compliant version.)

His most impactful move will undoubtedly be his advocacy of the Chevy Volt, the plug-in electric/hybrid that's expected to launch in 2010. But the jury is still out on whether the car will be the success GM is counting on, as it makes its first serious foray into a production electric vehicle.

Indeed, it's quite possible that the Volt will be the failure which paves the path for a subsequent winner. That's because engineers have been having difficulty reining in the cost of the Volt and also getting the batteries in place. (Those two challenges pretty much sum up the problems everyone has today in designing an electric car. That's why I've advocated skipping electrics and going right to fuel-cell-powered vehicles. Read my post, "5 Things GM's Bailout Package Must Have.")

It's interesting that Lutz's swan song at GM is such a forward-looking project, because the rap against him has always been that he's too retro. As in, he's 76-years-old and is more associated with muscle cars of the 1960s than with 21st-century hybrids.

Lutz hasn't done much to counter that image, what with his famous comments that global warming is a crock and the Toyota Prius doesn't make sense. Also, he's an ex-Marine and flies a Soviet-era MiG fighter as a hobby.

Anyway, the thing I like about Lutz -- other than the fact that he's the second most charismatic speaker I've ever had the privilege of listening to -- is that he's passionate about what he does, and what he believes. That's a quality which equates to accomplishment, and is just the type of "right stuff" we need more of, if we're to get our auto industry back on track.

You can read Lutz's own comments on his impending retirement -- he's not officially stepping down until the end of the year -- on his GM blog, here.

What are you driving? Let me know, by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me directly at [email protected].

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Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.

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