Of course I have a huge affinity for the retiring, but hardly shy, Bob Lutz. The title of this column is Vile Gossip, after all, and half the things that come from my mouth at any given moment set my own hair on fire. Obviously, I like anyone – especially in this barren industry, bereft as it is of real characters – who can cause a bigger ruckus than I can.
By now, you’ve all heard the saga of the man who flew his own Czech military jet trainer in to save General Motors, having blitzed through Opel, BMW, Ford of Europe, Ford of North America, and Chrysler, leaving numerous great products as his legacy, along with a reputation as a loose cannon who shot from the lip and antagonized his superiors. His motto: frequently wrong, but never in doubt. The combo pack was irresistible to us. We named him Man of the Year in 1993, right after Lee Iacocca ruined Chrysler by making sure the wrong Bob (Eaton) succeeded him as chairman.
While bloggers and forums across the Web savagely debate Lutz’s worth as the “car czar” of GM in the wake of his recent retirement announcement, I have a more personal tale to tell.
Bob Lutz and I didn’t really pay attention to each other until he was going through his second divorce. He’d come to an Automobile Magazine breakfast on a cold Saturday morning in January, and he was clearly pissed off at the soon-to-be-ex Mrs. Lutz. “She left and took the freaking sink out of the wall in the bathroom,” he said to me, in answer to my casual, “How are you?”
“Apparently your judgment of women is pretty bad,” came right out of my mouth. Cue the hair on fire. Did I just say that to the vice chairman of Chrysler? He looked at me. I looked at him. “Yes, I suppose it is,” he agreed. We both laughed. As it turned out, three times was the charm, and he and his extraordinary wife, Denise, stood up for my husband and me at our wedding.
To be sure, it hasn’t been all yuks between us. Lutz has had no problem over the years picking up the phone to disagree with something written in the magazine. “Who were you yelling at in there?” our copy editor asked one evening. Well, he was yelling at me . . .
There was also the phone call at home to rip me a new one for mentioning a few problems with our Four Seasons 1995 Dodge Ram. “Maybe we shouldn’t let journalists drive our new cars,” he barked. “Works for me!” I shot back. “What are you going to do about your customers, though?” Hair on fire! Hair on fire! Pause. He then invited me over for fondue because his daughter was home.
Lutz at home is good. He lives in the country, nowhere near the white-bread enclaves of automotive power. There are the exquisite vintage cars, the hot bikes, Denise, and the kids (his and hers) coming and going. There are little dogs and big dogs. There are horses. At parties, there are stable hands, nonautomotive friends, a fiddle-playing retired general, and maybe a member of congress or a TV personality.
You don’t see a lot of helicopters flying around where I live in the boonies. Our neighbors were having a roofing party one hot summer day when Lutz hovered over our field, then set his machine down. Hammers stopped in midair as the pilot – in shorts, olive drab military cap, big stogie, and rifle – stepped out to meet us. He was bringing my husband a muzzle loader to sight in. He saluted. We saluted. And away he flew, the hammers still paused in midswing.
Another time, we were in northern Michigan. The Lutzes were flying by and called to ask if we had a spot big enough to land the helicopter. Sure, I said, and described the barn and the orange Kubota so he’d be able to see it. We heard the rotors and went out to wave them in. The field I’d described wasn’t nearly as big as I’d imagined, and it was ringed with eighty-foot pines.
“Is the key in the truck?” I asked my husband. “Is the nearest hospital in Grayling? I’ll drive.”
The landing was slow, careful, and perfect. Denise was at the controls. Lutz stepped out, lit his cigar, and said, “That’s what the military would call a constricted landing.”
After Chrysler, Lutz ran Exide Technologies for a while before bursting back onto center stage at GM in late 2001. At the 2002 New York auto show, he and I watched the reveal of the BMW CS1 concept. “That,” he pronounced, “is hideous.”
“That,” I replied, “is fantastic!”
He looked at me, looked at it again, and said, “Herein lies the problem of making a 70-year-old man your product guy.”
Lutz is 77 now, and still brilliant. He can drive the wheels off a car or bike and believes passionately in design. His arrogance was just the ticket to clear the death fog that had settled on GM. We have yet to see if the Lutz era came too late for GM, but to us, he’s leaving too early.