Confidential

Lutz promotes 'car crazy' culture

Robert Lutz thinks he has figured out how to end General Motors' recent record of producing lackluster cars: He wants a 'car crazies council' to generate hot designs.

Speaking at the Tokyo auto show, Lutz made it clear that he's already thinking about how to empower designers beyond his tenure as GM's vice chairman for product development.

GM's future guardian of good design 'may never be a single person,' he says, 'but a permanent group of fervent car fans.

'Let's say we created a 'car crazies council' and peopled it with some of the absolutely superb car guys - guys in a nongender usage,' Lutz said. 'We'd have this group of people who have true passion for the product lobbing ideas into the hopper, along with the more analytical system.'

Before Lutz, such an idea might have had no chance at GM. But Lutz made it clear he believes change is accelerating at GM, where he has worked as design advocate and general challenger of tradition since September 1.

GM has had a 'don't make waves ethic' that has allowed mediocre work to go forward, he says.

But Lutz denies that GM, by empowering design, will try to live on an endless stream of niche vehicles and sexy special models. GM, as a mainstream car company, needs high-volume models, he says.

He added: 'We've got to give attention to those models that should be selling 300,000 to 350,000 vehicles a year. You've have to step back and say, 'What is this system that lets less than blockbuster cars - cars that represent less than the best General Motors can do - slip through the system?'

'That's what I'm in the process of figuring out right now.'

Take it to the limit

As the head of corporate public relations for Nissan, Shuri Fukunaga is probably the highest-ranking woman at a Japanese carmaker.

Asked at the Tokyo auto show if there is a glass ceiling in Japan, blocking the rise of women executives, she replied, 'No. It's concrete.'

Banking on Europe

General Motors Chairman Jack Smith believes that western Europe can avoid a recession.

Like the USA's, 'western Europe's economy will be slow,' said Smith, 'but we expect a downturn can be avoided if the central bank can ease monetary policy in Europe.'

Asked about the prospect of GM's Japanese alliance partners Suzuki, Isuzu and Fuji Heavy Industries joining its purchase of Korea's Daewoo, Smith said: 'We haven't made those decisions yet.'

In other comments at a speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, Smith denied GM was taking on excess capacity with the Daewoo purchase. He said that Daewoo's excess, unused capacity was located in its plants outside Korea. Except for two small complete knockdown plants in Vietnam and Egypt, GM is not buying Daewoo's assembly capacity outside of Korea.

Shoichiro's skepticism

Toyota Honorary Chairman Shoichiro Toyoda has a limit to his respect for financial analysts. At the Tokyo auto show, he acknowledged an appreciation for their expertise.

'We read their findings and comments to keep informed,' Toyoda said politely.

So Toyoda would follow analysts' advice for personal investments?

'Oh no,' Toyoda said. 'I don't believe everything they say.'

Slowdown, shutdown

Luxury carmaker Jaguar extended its annual autumn shutdown at its Browns Lane and Castle Bromwich plants in England because of uncertainty over future demand caused by worldwide economic slowdown.

But Jaguar insisted that the order books were still full.

'This was a prudent measure to make sure that sales and production do not get out of balance,' said Colin Cooke, head of international public relations.

The week-long annual shutdown was extended by five days although Jaguar's new plant at Halewood in the north of England where it builds the new X-type was not included in the extended break.

'In fact September was our best month ever for sales worldwide with 11,300 vehicles,' added Cooke. 'The order book is full but dealers around the world have reported a slight slowdown in showroom traffic. Buyers are rather hesitant at the moment.'

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com
Tags: Design Sales

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