Bob Lutzs impact on General Motors future vehicle programs started within weeks of joining the automaker on Sept. 1, 2001.
He targeted GMs bland car styling, the result of cost cuts in the early 1990s when GM was considering a bankruptcy filing. He also arrived when the hideous Pontiac Aztek was the talk of the town.
Under Lutz, GMs design team gained worldwide acclaim.
Shortly after joining GM, Lutz issued a directive to put some excitement in the stale Pontiac brand. A sporty, rear-drive, two-passenger model was selected and rushed to completion as a concept. The result was the Solstice, a huge crowd-pleaser that debuted at the 2002 Detroit auto show. It entered production a few years later.
Lutz focused on Buick, too. Within weeks of joining GM, he killed the exterior and interior styling program that had been approved for the next-generation 2004 Buick Regal, later renamed the LaCrosse, as well as that for the 2005 Lucerne, the replacement for the LeSabre.After seeing the LaCrosse developed under Lutzs direction, one dealer said the GM product chief took a bland potato and made a very nice-looking automobile out of it. The design studio created the vehicle in about 60 days.
Before Lutz, GM had a long list of bland potatoes under the Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Pontiac and Saturn brands. Hardly anyone used the words beautiful car or outstanding interior when speaking about GMs cars in the 1990s and early portion of this decade. Today, they do.
The interior in the 2000-2005 Impala, for example, looked as if it was designed by the engineering group, more concerned about cost and ease of assembly than appearance.
There was good reason. In the early 90s, GM was teetering on bankruptcy. Styling did take a back seat to engineering cars on the cheap under Chairman John Smale and Ron Zarrella, president of GM North American operations.
Designers kowtow to accountants
The hands of GMs design team, headed by Wayne Cherry, were tied by the program chiefs and accountants. Design had to kowtow to their desires, Lutz told me.
The styling selections favored by GM design -- and in particular, interior styling -- many times were overruled. What resulted were vehicles lacking got-to-have appeal. Take a look at that Impala or the last-generation Regal and Century, with that cheap-looking plastic interior trim.
During an interview several years ago, Lutz told me about the 2000-2005 Impala, the version with the tan interior. Using that car as one example of what was wrong with the quality of GMs interiors, Lutz said that car has 11 different shades of tan. The door panels, armrests, instrument panel, etc., each had a different shade of that color.
In 2001, Zarrella departed, credited or discredited for the Aztek. Lutz quickly started to change GM culture. The styling studio regained an equal footing with engineering. Cherry was allowed to stay to age 66, one year later than mandatory retirement, so he and his design team could redeem themselves.
The result was the beautiful Cadillac Sixteen concept, which had people asking for several years whether the car would go into production.
Welburns clean slate
Cherrys replacement, Ed Welburn, literally had a clean slate to work from -- without interference from GM engineers. There had been rules on the type of headlights that could be used, on the maximum width of a vehicles C-pillar and the slope of the rear window. There was a long list of limitations on designs.
We broke a lot of GM rules, Lutz told me.
From that freedom evolved such attractive vehicles as the 2010 Buick LaCrosse and Chevrolet Camaro, as well as the Chevrolet HHR, Saturn Aura, Pontiac Solstice and G8, 2008 Chevrolet Malibu and 2008 Cadillac CTS. The interiors are especially well-executed -- extensive attention to detail, soft materials and matching colors.
If awards mean anything, the Aura and the current Malibu were named North American Car of the Year by a group of journalists. There have been other awards.
Critics take their shots
In terms of models and styling, Lutz did have his critics. And Lutz proved that he is sensitive about certain vehicles.
Resurrecting the GTO name and putting it on an underpowered Holden coupe from Australia proved to be a mistake, and auto enthusiasts did not let him forget it.
During a press conference at the Los Angeles auto show a few years ago, Lutz was hopping mad about the comments of one journalist that the retro-styled 2006 Chevrolet HHR was a Chrysler PT Cruiser clone.
I read a news story today that is the height of stupidity, GMs reply to the PT Cruiser, but it comes to the party at least three years late.
Who the hell says there is some magic period when you must absolutely introduce a heritage-desired vehicle for one of your brands? Read my lips, the HHR will be sensationally successful. I dont apologize for it.
Lutz was right about the design: The car was a hot item when it went on sale.
End of an era
Regarding Lutzs legacy, he was on the right track. If he had joined GM two or three years earlier, maybe, just maybe, GMs fortunes might be different today.
With the end of the Lutz era, and GMs serious financial issues, my fear is this likely is the end of an era -- an era where styling ruled. Im afraid that GM will fall victim to the formula it followed in the 1990s, where cost cuts will eventually take the soul and appeal out of its vehicles.
Creating got-to-have styling for GM vehicles next decade is just as important to GMs future as cutting costs and the other measures GM must take to remain viable.