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GM’s Lutz to retire – finally

Going: GM vice-chairman Bob Lutz is set to make another attempt to retire, this time on May 1.

Job done at GM, Bob Lutz set to drive off into the sunset in belated retirement

General Motors logo4 Mar 2010

BOB LUTZ, the Swiss-born former US Marine pilot and 47-year veteran of the motor industry who postponed his retirement last year to help guide General Motors out of bankruptcy, is finally set to hand back the keys to GM’s product development operations.

Coincidentally, GM vice-chairman Mr Lutz, a youthful 78, was back in Switzerland for the Geneva motor show last night when GM announced he would retire on May 1, ending a career that took him full circle through four motor companies – GM, Ford, BMW, Chrysler and back to GM – with a side excursion to battery-maker Exide.

On the way, he became a champion of Australia’s GM Holden, lauding its rear-drive cars and promoting Holden export programs to North America for products such as the Pontiac GTO (Monaro) and Pontiac G8 (Commodore).

He visited Australia several times in his position as GM’s product development leader, once telling Holden dealers that his love affair with the Australian product started when he borrowed a Holden-made Chevrolet Caprice SS (a Middle Eastern export model based on the Holden Caprice) that was under evaluation by engineers in Detroit.

He said the sealer in his enthusiasm for the Holden-made rear-driver came when his wife wanted to keep the car for another week after he took it home for a weekend.

With GM now making headway under chairman Ed Whitacre, former Holden chairman and managing director Mark Reuss and a newly reorganised sales and marketing team in the US, the time is right for Mr Lutz to belatedly head into retirement to play with his private collection of planes, classic cars and motorcycles.

 center imageLeft: Bob Lutz with a Holden Monaro in Melbourne.

Robert Lutz was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1932, the son of a bank director. The family left Europe on the eve of World War 2, when he was seven.

He joined the US Marine Corps as a pilot in 1954, and while he quit full-time service in 1959, he remained an officer in the reserves until 1965. In fact, he has continued flying ever since, most recently in his own jet, a Czech-made Aero Vodochody L-39 fighter trainer.

After graduating from the University of California Berkley with a degree in production management in 1961, followed by an MBA in 1962, Mr Lutz started his motor industry career with GM Europe in 1963.

He switched to BMW in 1971 as executive vice-president of sales, apparently helping to develop one of BMW greatest success stories, the 3 Series.

In 1974, he was picked up by Ford, rising to become chairman of Ford of Europe in the early 1980s, driving the development of the Sierra. His career at Ford took him back to the US where he was put in charge of international operations and then truck operations, with the rank of vice-president, with the Explorer on his list of credits.

In the mid 1980s, he joined the dysfunctional Chrysler in his familiar role as product development executive, overseeing the development of exciting cars such as the Dodge Viper, Plymouth Prowler and Chrysler LH – cars that put sizzle back into Chrysler.

He was promoted by Chrysler to president and then vice-chairman, before making a switch of career, joining Exide Technologies as CEO. His efforts to save the company failed, and Exide filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2002.

Never one to give up, Mr Lutz returned to his old stamping ground at GM, as the head of product development.

Just as he was about to ride off into the sunset in retirement last year, the global financial crisis intervened, bringing GM to the point of collapse. Then GM president Fritz Henderson asked Mr Lutz to stay on to re-shape the GM product line-up in the wake of the culling of Pontiac, Saturn and other brands, appointing him vice-chairman.

An advocate of alternative-fuel vehicles, Mr Lutz is an unapologetic greenhouse skeptic, famously describing global warming as a “crock of shit”. Instead, he says, his support for vehicles such as GM’s plug-in Volt is driven by the need for the US to be energy self-sufficient.

Announcing the new plan to retire, Mr Whitacre said Mr Lutz’s influence on GM’s commitment to design, build and sell the world’s best vehicles would last for years.

“I, along with many other men and women in GM and throughout the industry, have greatly benefited from his passion, wisdom and guidance,” he said.

Mr Lutz said he decided to retire now in part because his job was done, with GM products now strong and selling well.

“I can confidently say that the job I came here to do more than nine years ago is now complete – the team I have been fortunate to lead has far exceeded my expectations,” he said.

“Our product lineup is as strong as it has been in GM’s history. The perception of our products and brands is beginning to catch up with reality.

“And most importantly, the absolute commitment to being a product-driven company is ingrained throughout the organisation – from the top down – and I am confident that, under Ed Whitacre’s leadership, the straightforward, singular focus on product will endure.”

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