Bob Lutz, at 90, is still smarter than everybody else
Bob Lutz is arguably the most influential automotive big shot of our time. Inarguably, he’s the most outrageous. Lutz was a major executive at all three domestic manufacturers, as well as at BMW, where he was executive vice president when the original 3 Series was being launched. At Ford he was executive vice president and a member of the board; at Chrysler he was president and vice chairman, as well as a board member; and at GM he was vice chairman.
Lutz was at least partly responsible for the Ford Sierra, the Ford Explorer, the revolutionary 1994 Dodge Ram, the Dodge Viper, the Chrysler LH models, the last-generation Pontiac GTO, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice twins; the Pontiac G8, the Hummer H3, the Plymouth Prowler, the Chevrolet Cruze, the Chevrolet Malibu, the Cadillac CTS, the Chevrolet Camaro, the Buick Lacrosse, the Chevrolet Equinox, and the Cadillac SRX. There are more, both good cars and bad.
He is certainly the most quotable, newsworthy auto executive of our time. The ex-Marine fighter pilot looked the part of the well-groomed businessman, also flying his own helicopter and an L-39—a Czech military fighter jet trainer. He rode motorcycles (mostly BMWs), and he seldom said “no comment” in an interview. His appearance on Late Night with David Letterman when he was 77 and an active GM exec is a textbook case of what an auto executive should, and in a couple of instances probably should not, say on television.
He remains busy with his own communications company, and he still pays close attention to the automotive world. And at 90, he still says outrageous things.
How are you?
Everybody’s getting a little older, but it’s all cool.
I know, I’m getting old too.
You, sir, are a mere pup.
You were 69 when you took over GM.
Seventy, actually. It was just before my 70th birthday.
Are you still flying, Bob?
No, I had to stop about three years ago when I couldn’t pass the eye test. Age-related deterioration. My vision is now about 85 percent in my right eye and 95 percent in my left eye, so if I wanted to fly, I could probably pass the eye test. But I don’t want to. You tell yourself that at age 90, how much business do you have in a jet fighter cockpit? Once you realize it was time to quit something, and you make up your mind that that was then and this is now, it’s not that hard. I mean, I was over it, I got that military-type flying out of my system. So it was OK. I’m perfectly comfortable giving up stuff I no longer should be doing.
Are you still driving?
Oh, hell yes.
What’s in the garage?
Oh, same things as always. I don’t know if you ever saw my Intermeccanica Italia. And I have a VLF Destino, a C8 Corvette, a C7 Z06, a C6 ZR1, an AC Cobra, my dad’s Aston Martin …
How do you like the C8?
I love it. It’s an extremely pleasant, easy car to drive, it’s very silky and creamy, the handling and steering are beyond compare for the price. [Corvette Chief Engineer] Tadge Juechter was right when he said that the mid-engined layout is essential because if we stayed with front-engine we could throw more and more horsepower at it, but it’s not going to go any faster.
You’ve been critical of Tesla and Elon Musk, but it seems like you’ve tempered that lately. What’s your take on Tesla now?
I used to be highly critical of Elon Musk, and I thought he was behaving irresponsibly, betting the company rather than offering a more measured approach to expansion, but he pulled it off. I thought he was reckless, but it did pay off for him. They are now doing fine. I think he may be pushing it a little bit with his entirely sensor-based autonomous self-driving approach; I think most people would rather go with a combination of sensors and embedded digital maps, which is certainly the approach that GM, Ford, and Toyota are taking. Among other things he has done something that 20 or 30 years ago, maybe even 15 years ago, nobody in the media or in the industry thought would be possible. And nobody ever talks about this part.
More than just taking the lead in electric vehicles, he has singlehandedly taken automotive technology leadership and put it back in the United States. As opposed to Germany or Japan, or wherever people thought it was. Miracle upon miracles. In the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s we were writing the American automobile industry off as a bunch of laggards, and everything worthwhile was being developed overseas, and now all of a sudden Tesla is the benchmark for the world of automotive electrification.
And he has not only done that, but he has established a premium brand which Lincoln, Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, Cadillac, everybody has been trying to build as a luxury brand to rival BMW and Mercedes, and guess what? In one fell swoop, the Tesla Model S is the most sought-after big luxury sedan in the world and it outsells the Audi A8, the Mercedes S-Class and the BMW 7 Series combined. That’s pretty outstanding. People are forgetting the power of the brand. When the general public sees electric vehicles, they think of Tesla. The Tesla Model S is not only solid and reliable, technically an outstanding vehicle, but it’s also beautifully styled.
And the Cybertruck, I personally hate it, most designers hate it, but it’s an entirely new design direction, the equivalent of the F-117X stealth fighter, all flat planes with sharp edges. I think it’s almost anti-design, but the Tesla fanboys love it. The order banks are full and it will be hugely successful.
And it’s not going to be easy taking leadership away from Tesla, because it’s not just about how many miles does it go, how fast is it, how long-lived is the battery, how fast does it recharge, all those things are important but it’s just like putting Cadillac against BMW or Mercedes, the Cadillac may be just as good, but people say, yeah, yeah, I know, but I want that prestige badge on my car. In electric vehicles now, let’s face it, Tesla is the gold standard. And it will be very difficult for other manufacturers to unseat them.
How do you think the domestic brands are doing on electrification? Any standouts?
I think the electrification is terrific. GM has the technology, they have excellent batteries, Ford has a huge success with the Mustang Mach-E, the electric F-150 pickup is apparently sold out, General Motors is getting enormous traction on the Cadillac Lyriq, which is sold out until 2024, the new Celestiq will be the Cadillac flagship costing $300,000, which I think is a very good idea. Doesn’t matter how many they build or whether they make any money on it or not, but it re-establishes Cadillac as a global premium brand. That’s what’s important. I think right now Stellantis is a little bit behind; they don’t have much in the way of production electric vehicles that they can announce. But they’ll catch up.
There’s no doubt in my mind that, technologically, Ford will be an easy match for Tesla. Technologically. But brand-wise, that’s going to be a tough one.
In my driveway right now, for review, is an $81,000 pickup. With the maybe-a-recession, how long can people afford to buy vehicles like that?
People want to buy them, and as long as we have leasing—which is always a way out for those who don’t have the cash—as long as the monthly lease or monthly payment is affordable, it doesn’t really matter much what the list price is. And don’t forget, most people have a trade-in, and used car prices are through the roof, too. So if you thought your used car would be worth $30,000 at trade-in, and all of a sudden its worth $50,000, that lessens the pain when you get that $81,000 pickup. I just read the average used car in the U.S. is $33,000. Can you imagine that? It’s wild. But as long as people want the cars, and as long as there’s the necessary affordability … Another question is how long are people going to buy $4 a gallon gasoline?
I thought $4 would be a ceiling for consumers, the price that they would cut back on use, but I was wrong.
Well, people have been paying between $8 and $9 a gallon in Europe for generations. You get used to it. And you accept whatever the price is and live with it. That’s the cost of motoring, and you adjust your budget accordingly.
When you look back at all the cars and trucks you were responsible for, what stands out?
I get asked this question a lot, and people are frequently surprised by my answer, but the vehicle that I think was the most significant, and the hardest to do, the one that required the most invention and was the greatest challenge to the team executing it, was the Chevy Volt. It was all-new technology, nothing like it had ever been done before, no series hybrid had been produced with a lithium-ion battery. It was something nobody at GM had any experience with and we had to learn as we were going along. The team pulled it off, and I thought that was pretty spectacular.
I’ve never met a Volt buyer who was unhappy with the car.
It was an extremely enthusiastic owner group with a very, very high level of owner satisfaction.
Any vehicle that didn’t work out the way you hoped it would?
Oh, yeah. There were a lot of those. Some of the luxury cars, or attempt at luxury cars … For instance, one that I was highly enthusiastic about—and so was the media, by the way—the Cadillac CTS wagon. Everybody loved it but the customers. And the CTS-V wagon—I was sure there were enough people out there in the United States that would buy a sporty Cadillac wagon. I guess there wasn’t. We had planned for a much bigger volume, and it never materialized. That was a big waste of money. But people who have them today are wildly enthusiastic about them, and they’re hanging onto them.
Any thoughts on the state of motorsports?
No, not terribly interested. It’s becoming less and less compelling and it seems it’s just not the technological proving ground that it used to be. Especially the formulas in which everybody is forced into a degree of sameness. I remember Formula 1 racing in Europe where everything was open—you could have 1.5-liter supercharged engines, or you could have 4.5-liter naturally-aspirated. So it was the naturally-aspirated crowd versus the supercharged crowd. It was interesting to see various technologies compete against each other. And we really don’t see that much anymore. You certainly don’t see it in NASCAR. Identical cars with identical technology looking for that edge somewhere, being driven by superb drivers who really know their cars, but to me watching a NASCAR race is totally devoid of any excitement.
Is it a good place for manufacturers to spend money?
Well, they keep doing it and I think sometimes its an ego trip for some marketing people and CEOs—many of the racing series are very good about the VIP invitations, they know who controls the budget, and they make sure they invite these guys and give them the VIP-suite treatment, pit passes, and make sure they have a good time at the races. If you can get the CEO who controls the budget enthusiastic about the races, and get him convinced it’s a sound use of the company’s money, then you’ve got it made. They get the decision-makers and spend lavishly on entertainment, legal or otherwise.
Bob, how would you like to be remembered?
As a guy who made a difference in the industry. Loved cars, loved the whole idea of personal mobility and the thrill that comes from owning and driving really good ones. I also would like to be remembered as the guy who tried his very best to make cars and trucks that truly delighted the customer as opposed to just giving them the bare minimum.