- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2001

If Robert Lutz has his way, customers will be clamoring at the doors of GM dealer showrooms for the automaker's future offerings. Mr. Lutz was just hired as vice chairman in charge of product development for General Motors.

The consummate "car guy," Mr. Lutz's primary mission is to put some pizzazz into GM's products to make consumers desire them.

Mr. Lutz, 69, is well experienced at that. Although he first started his automotive career at GM, the Swiss-born Mr. Lutz served at Chrysler under Lee Iacocca and Robert Eaton. He also held top positions at BMW and Ford.

At Chrysler, the energetic and highly personable Mr. Lutz is credited with instituting a product development system that produced new vehicles less expensively and more quickly than other automakers could. During his tenure, Chrysler was at its creative best, developing vehicles such as the Plymouth Prowler and PT Cruiser. Mr. Lutz himself is said to have sketched the Dodge Viper on a napkin. The sketch was turned into a concept car, which proved overwhelmingly popular at auto shows, prompting Chrysler to put it into production. A sales hit, the Viper also symbolized the revitalization of Dodge.

GM officials hope Mr. Lutz does the same for their company during his three-year contract. Mr. Lutz said he thinks GM already is on the right track.

"There are tremendous signs of a new vitality and a new willingness to create solutions and be best in class," he said. "Nobody should have the impression that I'm coming here to inject passion or save the place. The team is in place already. GM has overcome the inertia of the past and has developed tremendous momentum in the right direction.

"My job," he added, "will be to accelerate the process and help institutionalize it to make sure the culture lives forever into the future so that GM becomes the company everyone wants to work for and sells the cars and trucks everybody absolutely has to have."

Indeed, GM President Rick Wagoner, who to his credit recognized the need for a car person in the company's top ranks and hired one, said he expects Mr. Lutz to focus primarily on product but also to look at the way GM runs its entire business.

"We want him to look at specific products and our entire portfolio to see if there are new areas that we might attack," Mr. Wagoner said.

The rumors of Mr. Lutz joining GM had been circulating for months. What was surprising was that he took the job. After retiring from Chrysler when the Germans took over with the DaimlerChrysler merger, Mr. Lutz became chairman and chief executive officer of battery maker Exide Technologies; he remains as chairman. He also started his own car company, Cunningham Motors, which plans to produce an expensive American touring car to compete with the Europeans in the next few years.

Mr. Lutz's arrival at GM is bad news for the competition. Already, signs of a reawakening of the giant have occurred — and have been acknowledged by GM competitors. GM has stolen remarkable talent from other car companies, including Anne Asensio who left Renault, where she was credited with some of its most appealing designs, and Brian Nesbitt who left Chrysler, where he designed the phenomenally successful PT Cruiser. Now Miss Asensio is a top GM designer, and Mr. Nesbitt heads Chevrolet's design studio.

But the announcement of Mr. Lutz's arrival at GM can only be interpreted as good news for GM employees, especially its designers and engineers. The company has long needed a champion for the cars and trucks it builds; a car czar. It has often seemed as if GM has forgotten what business it is in: building cars and trucks.

"I'm taking this job because it is truly a once-in-a-lifetime: the opportunity to help in the ongoing rebuilding of not just an American icon but a global icon," Mr. Lutz said.

Maybe that is a task only an outsider could accomplish. But whether Mr. Lutz can work through GM's cumbersome processes remains to be seen. That will be his greatest challenge.

MOTOR MATTERS


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