Never Stop Driving #60: Sometimes wrong, never in doubt

Never Stop Driving Bob Lutz in-Copy Bannered
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Dodge Viper owners love retired auto executive Bob Lutz. And for good reason. Without Lutz, their cherished V-10 sports car would not exist. Last Saturday, The Motor City Viper Owners Club (MCVO) turned a yearly Viper gathering—usually held at Lutz’s southeast Michigan home—into a Motown celebration of the man who never forgets that the car business runs on passion. (For a primer on Lutz, check out our interview from last year.)

MCVO member Jon Block conceived a car show that included not just the Viper but all of the cars that Lutz willed into existence during his five-decade career. Some 300 people, a mixture of colleagues, employees, and folks like me who were lucky enough to have spent time with Bob, attended the invite-only event held in a pair of aircraft hangars at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Block and seven volunteers assembled 400 cars and a stage where speakers could share their favorite Lutz stories. “I wanted to honor Bob,” Block said, “and do something he could see and appreciate.” Everyone in attendance shared that sentiment.

I met Lutz several times in the early 2000s during quick hand-shake moments at press events (I was a tech editor at Car and Driver.) Around 2010, I had an idea to turn the Detroit City Airport into a motorsports complex and called Lutz, who had recently retired from GM. I wanted his opinions and perhaps connections. Looking back, I’m a bit embarrassed by my quixotic quest, for its naïveté. I thought I might have the chops to pull it off, but I didn’t. Surprisingly, Lutz remembered me from GM media events and didn’t dismiss my idea, instead inviting me to lunch at his Swiss-style home in nearby Saline, Michigan.

There were a couple of other auto executives in attendance. Lutz wore an apron, cooked, and served us on a deck that overlooked the driveway. We talked cars, the business, my idea, and laughed a lot. I returned whenever I could. A couple of years later, when I took the helm of Road & Track, I asked Bob to answer reader questions via a monthly column.

By then, I’d gotten a much fuller picture of Lutz. Since he served as a Marine aviator, flew a helicopter to work, was often in the press, and openly smoked cigars, his outward image was of a macho and autocratic executive. Maybe there was kernel of those traits, but I also found him to be insightful, open minded, generous, humble, and above all passionate about cars. Of course, he had strong opinions, and he joked that he was sometimes wrong but never in doubt. We called his column “Go Lutz Yourself” and he hand-wrote his submissions, which rarely needed a word changed. Lutz is a gifted writer.

Judging by Saturday’s crowd, my admiration for Lutz is widely shared. BMW sent over a fleet of cars and four employees including Franciscus van Meel, the CEO of BMW M. Perhaps you were not aware that during Lutz’s three-year stint at BMW he started the motorsports division, established the numeric models 3, 5, and 7, and even had a significant hand in the famous tagline “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” BMW has not forgotten Lutz’s contributions. Don Runkle, who was once GM’s VP of engineering, suggested that he gave Lutz the idea for the Viper when he said the Corvette needed a competitor to revive flagging sales. Designers and engineers spoke of how Lutz championed their ideas, cut red tape, and helped them do their best work. There were tears of gratitude. The event raised some $22,000 for the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation.

I called Lutz on Monday to ask if I could share the experience. He said that the event was not the cringe-worthy affair he feared and asked that I explain how it was not his idea. Lutz didn’t ask to be honored, but there was a palpable feeling that folks hugely appreciated the opportunity to do so. Lutz deserves his special legacy. We love you, Bob.

There is even more to celebrate this week. Our Redline Rebuild crew finished a multi-year project to resurrect a historic dirt-track racer. The film (below) includes a time-lapse engine rebuild and is capped by footage of host Davin Reckow sliding the finished object on a northern Michigan dirt track. Heaven. Cammisa explained the opposing views on the Acura NSX and Henry Catchpole celebrated the machine that I think everyone needs to drive at least once: the Mazda Miata.

Hagerty’s Steven Cole Smith was once a cop—for real!—and he shared his first police chase. I challenge you to find a better written and photographed piece than this one on Porsche and Pontiac. Finally, the Land Cruiser is coming back!

We regularly post new material, all produced by the best in the business, so check back often. If you’d like to support us, please sign up for the Hagerty Drivers Club. In the meantime, join me in celebrating this period of positivity.

P.S.: Your feedback is very welcome. Comment below!

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    Another interesting column – thanks, Larry!
    I don’t know any automotive enthusiasts in my circle who don’t know of and admire Mr. Lutz. In the pantheon of automotive giants, he stands pretty doggone tall. It’s often that I, when reading about some vehicular development history, see his name spring out – sometimes in surprising ways. Such is the case in the BMW references in your article – I knew he’d been at that company and of course he’d been influential – but just the few things you mentioned blew my mind. That guy has had LARGE fingerprints on SO MANY areas in the car world.
    I get a ton of personal enjoyment (not to mention education) out of the Hagerty Media experience – both print and digital. You and your team contribute some much-needed currency to this “period of positivity” on a nearly daily basis. Thanks again to you all. 👍👍

    In Mr Lutz’s stint at BMW, he is also considered the father of the BMW R90s motorcycle. The motorcycle that saved the company’s motorcycle division. Lutz is a seminal influencer across the motoring industry.

    Bob is one of the few open and honest speaking auto executives we have ever seen.

    He was not one that was afraid to take some risks and generally they paid off more than they failed.
    But he will admit the mistakes and often never gets the credit when he was right. But he does not dwell on that.

    I have all his books and they are great and well written. I would recommend each.

    I just wish Bob had gotten to GM sooner as his move to change the culture there came late. It is benefiting by it now but for decades GM was their own worst enemy.

    Some of Bobs brilliant work is right in front of us but most people never see it. The HHR many said was too late to make a difference. It sold between 100K-200K units in its time on the market. It really replaced what would have been a Cobalt wagon. Could you really see 200K Cobalt wagons selling ….no! But the HHR did.

    The Solstice was built on a shoe string and while not perfect it was a nice little car. The GTO was built on less than a shoe string and is a case study in how to bring a car to market at the lest amount of money possible, Yes it suffered old styling but this was Pontiac and they were the performance division but yet no RWD car?

    Imagine what would have come if Bob had money to work with.

    Let’s not forget Mr. Lutz’s contributions to BMW Motorcycle. Although von der Marwitz breathed new blood into the lineup and moved them away from the aging /2 platform, it was Lutz and the R90S that may have saved the marque and returned Sparte Motorrad to prominence.

    That gathering sounds incredible! I would love to have been able to attend. Was any of it filmed for YouTube?

    Great piece about a great guy. Being a Chrysler family guy, I was totally unaware of the BMW M-Connection…Wow!

    One thing I wondered about, especialy now considering his time in der Faderland: What does he think of the evolution of Porsche? I see no reference to the marque throughout the piece, whether on sports cars, race cars or luxury cars. It would be interesting to hear his take on the quick-fix finances of wagons and the “sports car for 4” diversions from the up-turned soap dishes. And maybe the Pieches vs the Quandts….lots of discovery room there.

    I never asked him specifically about Porsche but I once asked him to comment on the model proliferation at German auto companies. It seemed like they were splitting niches with coupes, four doors, coupe versions of SUVs, etc. Lutz repeated something Iacocca told him which was, “Don’t plant too many flowers because you can’t water all of them.” There’s finite marketing money, showroom space, and critically, salesperson attention. As for Porsche, my hunch is that the SUVs are clearly working for the company and they have not diluted the 911 image. Also, here’s an article on expanding the Corvette line.

    Porsche needed volume as it could not live on the 911 alone. They tried the 924-944-928 but it diluted the image of Porsche. The lower cost models built by VW did them more damage than good in that era.

    So they regrouped and did the Boxster at a little higher price and Cayman. Then they moved the 911 even higher in status and price.

    The SUV was more to fill volume that they needed and score cash. The EV sedans are just dabbling for the future as it may be difficult to make an all electric small light sports car. This is why the euro builders are now pushing back.

    On the other hand the Corvette is a model not a brand and Chevy has the volume already. Their move is just a money grab that could damage the name equity of the Corvette name.

    You really trust Chevy? The company that put the Blazer name on a FWD based CUV and not a real truck based model.

    GM needs to use the Nomad name or something like that and make it tuned by Team Corvette. This way if things go south they can separate it more easily.

    Lutz admitted one of his greatest mistakes was to make Hummer a Division and not a model of GMC. It was much more expensive to run and difficult to control. When it came time to shut it down it cost GM much more to do so than if it were a GMC model. Today they got it right.

    Might also bring in Lutz Ford experience in Europe. It was a much more difficult time as he had to deal with cam failures there. But he got them through it.

    His books on auto leaders is eye opening and very honest. One should read it.

    We are almost halfway to his prediction of the end of human driven cars. That series of articles painted him as a car enthusiast and an elitist. It burned a lot of people who are passionate about driving and didn’t present him as having a full understanding of the absurdity of his claim. We still can’t get fully safe autonomous vehicles in a very favorable climate of Phoenix, they are still in beta tests and limited deployment. 7.5 years and they need to be ready for prime time in Michigan winters.
    Secondly, we can’t even fully support our summer A/C demands, let alone charge all these pods.

    Lutz is a direct kind of guy, but much of his flagship salvations at GM didn’t age well. Hummers weren’t very good off road, the Cobalt and HHR were quality disasters, the list goes on.
    Halo cars and performance overlook his influence in development of the Grand Cherokee. Love them or hate them, they sell, have good quality, and versatility. The front-drive/AWD GM midsized SUVs just don’t compare. GM could have been in a much better place, had they been as receptive to more of his influence.

    Actually the Hummers did well off road as I have driven them to the limits myself. The down fall was the bail out where GM just did not have the money to support a separate division,

    The Cobalt and HHR sold in great numbers and held up well. They have not been built since 2012 and just look around how many HHR models are still in the road. A PT is a rare sight anymore.

    Jeeps are well known for rust.

    To judge Lutz time at GM is not so much product. He go there after the money was gone so he was very limited in what he could do product wise.

    He displayed change a lot of rules and thinking at GM. His goal was to change the culture that created the issues.

    He looked at a Malibu and a Hyundai and asked the metal man why GM could not make as tight panel gaps. The metal man said they could. Lutz as then why are we not doing it and he was told we were not hold to do it. We were not permitted to do this unless told. Lutz said you have now been told and no longer have to wait y to be told to fix things.

    For less than $300k they made the 08 Malibu panel gaps industry leading.

    These culture changes are still working today.

    He delayed the mid engine Vette. He was leaving and knew that a mid engine car would not get proper funding or support post bail out. In fact it could have put the Corvette in a tough spot. They worked the C7 to buy time while getting the C8 right. Old GM ietger would have rushed it, under funded it or canceled it due to the culture.

    To see what Lutz did you have to look beyond the surface and see the rocky bottom he tried to clear.

    I was fortunate enough to write on the Dodge ad account at BBDO during Lutz’s tenure at Chrysler. From among my 20 years in the ad biz, those years were by far the best. Lutz was an astute marketing guy and a partner to the agency rather than an adversary — which is too often the case in the car biz. He let me and my partner take a couple of Vipers to the top of a volcano in Hawaii to shoot Dodge’s “sound machine” for a Magic Carpet Ride fantasy, a experience I’ll never forget. Without Lutz both the car and the commercial never would have happened.

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