IN THE EARLY 1970s, while working as head of sales for BMW AG, Bob Lutz asked the technical chief whether the company could build a V-12.
Three weeks later, BMW had a V-12 up and running in a test cell. The speed staggered Lutz, who had spent his first years in the auto industry embedded in the hierarchy at General Motors.
'You do not need a gigantic, hierarchical, huge, bureaucratic organization to run an automobile company,' Lutz said in an interview with Automotive News Europe. 'A lot of it can be reduced to plain and simple common sense and a couple of people sitting in a room together and saying, 'That's it. Let's get on with it.' '
The lessons he learned at BMW and elsewhere in Europe had a profound effect two decades later on an American company, Chrysler Corp.
Lutz helped create a lean, speedy method using platform teams to develop cars and trucks at Chrysler.
Chrysler's restored fortunes made it an attractive merger partner this year for Daimler-Benz AG.
As Chrysler prepares to merge, Vice Chairman Lutz is retiring. On 1 July, one of the dominant personalities of the auto industry will leave the company he helped revive.
Lutz was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1932. Nearly two-thirds of his 35 years in the auto business have involved European posts.
After a stint as a pilot for the US Marine Corps, he started his auto career in 1963 with GM, where he rose to senior sales positions at Adam Opel AG in Germany and General Motors of France.
BMW lured him away in 1972, making Lutz executive vice president of sales. It was the first time that he could say, 'The buck stops here.'
After three years at BMW, Lutz spent 12 years at Ford, where he was executive vice president of truck operations and Ford of Europe chairman.
The final third of his career has been spent at Chrysler.
He joined the No. 3 US automaker in 1986 as executive vice president of Chrysler, lured by another huge personality, Chairman Lee Iacocca.
Lutz and then-chief engineer Francois Castaing revolutionized Chrysler's massive, centralized engineering operation. In 1989, they created four independent platform development teams.
Each team pulled together design, engineering, purchasing, manufacturing, finance, marketing and sales people under one umbrella to work together on a vehicle or family of vehicles.
While platform teams were first suggested by Castaing, Lutz understood the potential of this ambitious change. He had the power to make it happen.
Castaing, who came to Chrysler in 1987 when the automaker purchased American Motors Corp., said Lutz always listened to new ideas and offered unwavering support when those ideas were adopted.
'Some of the old-timers in Highland Park were upset I was changing the organization,' Castaing said. Iacocca, then Chrysler chairman, began receiving a steady stream of anonymous letters accusing Castaing of tearing apart the organization.
'Bob had to deal with that to protect me,' Castaing recalled. 'All along Bob protected me.'
Lutz said he had prepared himself for the inevitable in 1992 when Eaton was chosen to replace Iacocca as Chrysler chairman.
Castaing, who has been a close colleague, believed in 1992 that Lutz would be the next chairman.
'In all due respect for Bob Eaton, I thought Bob (Lutz) should have been chairman in 1992,' Castaing said. 'He had the leadership, he knew the company well and he knew what to do to make it better. So it was logical to me for him to be chairman.
'I was extremely disappointed for him. I didn't know Bob Eaton. But it was not about Bob Eaton.'