Editor's Notebook: Expect the unexpected from Robert Lutz

If General Motors were a pack of cards, Bob Lutz would be the joker in the deck.

In August, company President Rick Wagoner confirmed that he had hired Chrysler's former vice chairman to energize General Motors' stodgy product development. Lutz also must recruit a successor for design chief Wayne Cherry, who is close to retirement.

Wagoner's decision to hire Lutz was inspired - and risky. At Chrysler, Lutz was a skilled bureaucratic infighter, defending controversial projects such as the PT Cruiser. But Lutz had a prickly relationship with former Chairman Lee Iacocca, and it cost Lutz the chairmanship at Chrysler.

Among Detroit's automotive writers, Lutz was famous for outspoken opinions that sometimes bordered on reckless. I had a firsthand experience of this a decade ago during a Christmas party. At the time, Chrysler was deeply involved in merger negotiations with Fiat S.p.A. The synergies seemed obvious: Chrysler could let Fiat design and build small cars. But there was Lutz at the party, sipping his scotch and puffing a cigar as he airily insisted that Chrysler could build its own small car. As it turned out, Lutz was right. Chrysler later introduced the Neon, which enjoyed solid sales in North America. Even though Chrysler was nearly bankrupt, Lutz believed a Fiat merger wasn't necessary. And if he sabotaged it, so what?

I don't believe Lutz will pull any similar stunts at GM. He is 69 years old, and does not want to run the company. Moreover, Wagoner does not have the Iacocca-sized ego that inspired Lutz's derision. And in the wake of the disastrous Pontiac Aztek launch, it will be hard for GM's designers to resist a shake-up.

In his first public comments as a GM executive, Lutz displayed a deft regard for GM sensibilities. He noted that the company's trucks are selling like hot cakes, and applauded GM's decision to expand its Hummer sport-utility lineup. But his interactons with GM's young designers should be entertaining. In a January speech, Lutz joked that some concept cars look like angry kitchen appliances. Later, he claimed he was referring to some Japanese concepts. Perhaps so. But some GM designers are embracing a similar look.

It will be three years or so before we see any Lutz-inspired cars in showrooms. But we won't have to wait that long for some excitement. Look for Lutz to recruit a high-profile designer such as BMW's Chris Bangle. Lutz may be older and wiser, but he is still the joker in the deck.

E-mail Editor David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com

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