He’s been called a car guy, a maverick, a change agent, a curmudgeon. Safe to say, those who have tried to manage him or live with him have some more pet names of their own. But, really, he defies any simple label. And as the cigar-chomping, jet-flying, global-warming-questioning Swiss-American prepares to retire in May – for real this time, he says – we still can’t seem to get over our fascination with him. We’ve traced his seventy-eight years in an attempt to explain, perhaps for the last time, why there is one, and only one, Bob Lutz.
February 12, 1932: Born in Zürich, Switzerland, to an upper-middle-class banking family.
First car memory: Standing between his parents on the front seat of their La Salle convertible.
1938: Remembers road trips in the family’s 1938 Jaguar SS 3½ Litre sedan: “We really got to know the Swiss rail system, because we’d depart on a Sunday trip and the Jaguar would come home on a train.”
1940: Is a world traveler at age eight, already having crossed the Atlantic five times.
1940: Drives for the first time in his uncle’s new Ford V-8 coupe – and crashes it into a stone wall. Meanwhile, another uncle obsesses over an Alfa Romeo Zagato coupe to the point that his wife exclaims, “I never see Freddy anymore – he always has that goddamned Alfa under his ass!” Lutz’s three wives would later have similar complaints.
Early 1940s: Traveling between the United States and Switzerland takes a toll on Lutz’s schoolwork, as he’s always put back a grade when he returns to Europe. Plus, he has a very short attention span, often doodling cars and planes during lectures.
Late 1940s: Kicked out of high school for, among other things, sneaking away with friends to rent a flathead V-8 Ford and, in his words, “showing too much interest in the daughter of the biggest industrialist in town.”
Late 1940s: Labors for six months in a leather warehouse; decides school might be a good idea after all. His father agrees to pay for school again, but only on the condition that Bob join the U.S. Marines after graduation to learn some discipline.
1952: Lutz’s father buys a new Aston Martin DB2 Vantage (which Lutz now owns) and a Volkswagen Beetle for Lutz’s mother – four-speed manual, no synchromesh. As a result, Mrs. Lutz could shift “like a skilled race driver on a road course.”
1953: Gets his own Beetle, a 1948, as his first car: “If you’ve driven an early Beetle on wet cobblestones, there’s no amount of sudden oversteer you can’t handle.”
1954: Graduates from a high school in Lausanne, Switzerland (having become fluent in French; he already spoke German and English), and returns to the U.S. to enlist.
Mid-1950s: Aviator with the Marines, based out of Okinawa, Japan. Marries for the first time.
Late 1950s: Has first of four daughters. Lutz admits he’s “never been a big family man.”
Late 1950s: Attends Berkeley intending to become a Marine officer but realizes he wants to get into the car business.
1962: Graduates from Berkeley at age thirty with an MBA, then goes to work for General Motors in New York City. He mostly conducts research and prepares reports.
Mid-1960s: Transferred to Opel in Europe as a lowly “assistant to the assistant director” but soon ingratiates himself with designers. Having discovered drawings for what would become the Opel GT, he helps sneak a concept into the 1965 Paris and Frankfurt auto shows. It’s a hit, but his GM bosses aren’t pleased.
1971: Frustrated with the GM system, he leaves for freer air (and much better pay) at BMW AG, where he becomes head of sales and marketing. During his reign, BMW takes over its disparate network of independent auto importers, greatly increasing its overseas profits. Lutz also nurtures the company’s motorcycle business and claims credit for the development of the first 3-series and 6-series.
1974: Realizes he “wasn’t going to go anywhere” at BMW since another young man, Eberhard von Kuenheim, had recently been named CEO (Kuenheim served in that capacity until 1993). Lutz moves to Ford, where’s he’s soon put in charge of its European operations.
1982: Divorces and soon remarries.
Early 1980s: Moves to Ford’s U.S. operations, where he initiates a major hit (the Explorer) and is responsible for a major flop (the Merkur brand).
1986: Moves to Chrysler, which is facing its second crisis in ten years. Lutz reorganizes product development around small “platform teams” responsible for an entire car. He also empowers designers. Payback is huge when the swoopy, cab-forward LH sedans (Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde, Eagle Vision) and the macho new Ram hit the market in 1993 and ’94, respectively.
1988: Conceives the idea for the Dodge Viper halo sports car while driving around in his Mark IV Cobra (a Shelby Cobra replica featured on the cover of our May 1986 issue). The resulting concept debuts at the 1989 Detroit auto show and is rushed into production.
1992: Ego clashes with Lee Iacocca. Lutz is widely considered the lead candidate to replace Lido, but Lutz doesn’t help matters by mocking Iacocca behind his back. Bob Eaton is named CEO.
1994: Third marriage.
1998: Sees the writing on the wall and “retires” after Chrysler merges with Daimler-Benz.
1998: Releases Guts, a memoir/business manifesto that includes “Lutz’s Immutable Laws of Business.” Among them are, “The customer isn’t always right,” and “Too much quality can ruin you.”
1999 Takes over troubled battery maker Exide and soon thereafter launches his own carmaker, Cunningham Motor Company, with Briggs Cunningham III. Exide soon goes bankrupt, and CMC goes belly up.
2001: Recruited by GM CEO Rick Wagoner to lead product turnaround.
2004: Champions the importation of the Australian Holden Monaro as a reborn Pontiac GTO. Like his earlier Merkur XR4ti, the GTO is a failure.
2007: Promises a production version of the Chevrolet Volt concept by 2010.
2008: Calls global warming a “total crock of shit.”
February 2009: Announces that he will retire by year’s end, with GM’s future in serious doubt.
June 2009: GM files for bankruptcy. “Maximum Bob” quickly unretires again, apparently convinced that the government won’t interfere with car development. CEO Fritz Henderson puts him in charge of marketing.
December 2009: New GM chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre reassigns Lutz as a “special advisor.”
March 2010: Announces retirement again: “It really is time to move on. Early retirement is finally here at age seventy-eight.”
May 2010: Lutz retires and (take your pick)
A) flies off into the sunset in one of his military jets, content to finally spend time with his seven grandchildren.
B) unretires yet again, hangs around General Motors until 2075.
C) hires on with another automaker.
Lutz >> Quotables
“You can’t sacrifice future product for short-term financial gains. That’s like a farmer eating his seed potatoes instead of planting them.” – 2006
“Bankruptcy is totally out of the question. We have never contemplated it.” – 2006
“If you have a good [car] name, it can help. I’ve seen a lot of stupid names in my life.” – 2003
“We’re glad we’ve recently cut $9 billion in costs, but we also know you can’t ‘save’ yourself into prosperity.” – 2006