Robert Lutz and the Volt: was he paying lip service? (General Motors photo)
I for one am not all that sorry to see Bob Lutz finally throwing in the towel. The General Motors vice chairman is the wrong person to lead GM in the new century. When it comes to green cars, he tried to toe the company line, but it was plain that he just didn't get it.
He constantly disparaged even the concept of hybrid cars (at least until GM started building them), proclaimed that there was no business case for the Toyota Prius (now the company's third best-selling model), and announced that global warming is a "crock of shit," and that methane from cows is actually a bigger problem.
At a car show, before GM introduced its fuel-cell platform, no less, we were treated to a home video of the now 77-year-old Lutz, a former fighter pilot, buzzing around in his very own jet fuel-guzzling Eastern Bloc warbird. Journalists loved him, because he was always good for a macho-sounding, "car guy" quote.
According to Business Week, in 2007 Bob Lutz charged GM more for private planes--$190,000--than did either Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner ($45,000) or President and COO Fritz Henderson (just $21,000).
In January, when he still had a job, Lutz told NPR radio "I've never quite been in this situation before of getting a massive pay cut, no bonus, no longer allowed to stay in decent hotels, no corporate airplane. I have to stand in line at the Northwest counter. I've never quite experienced this before. I'll let you know a year from now what it's like." But he didn't last a year. Standing in line at the Northwest counter was evidently too much for him.
The cars closest to Lutz' heart are retro-styled muscle cars, a dead end for domestic automakers. At Chrysler, he turned the Dodge Viper concept car into vivid reality. Yes, the '59 Corvette was a beautiful car, ideal for taking Mary Lou to the sock hop, but nostalgia won't rebuild the auto industry.
It is, perhaps, nostalgia that keeps the automakers fighting fuel-economy regulations and California's greenhouse gas law. There seems to be an illusion that if the regulators will just go away, Bruce Springsteen's glory days will be back, and we'll be back in our suicide machines, "chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin' out over the line." GM will have a new Impala every year again, and Ford will have a V-8-powered hit comparable to the Mustang.
But the auto industry's future is electric. GM VP Larry Burns is one company executive who gets that. Let's hope that, beyond the rhetoric he's forced into with the $13.4 billion bailout hanging over his head, CEO Rick Wagoner gets it, too.
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