Whitacre-as-savior concept gets the Lutz lash

Automotive News | March 6, 2013 - 11:58 am EST

So Ed Whitacre thinks he saved General Motors.

Bob Lutz thinks that claim is a total crock of (rhymes with part of "Whitacre").

Lutz, the retired GM vice chairman who is to automotive reporters what Shakespeare is to English majors, unleashed a classic Lutzian rant against Whitacre for overstating his effectiveness as the carmaker's post-bankruptcy CEO.

In a post on his blog last week on forbes.com, Lutz complained that so many people now want to take credit for fixing GM, including President Obama and "Mike Bloom," the former head of the White House auto task force whose name is actually Ron Bloom. (Bloom's first name in the post has since been corrected.)

Maximum Bob scoffs at Big Ed's recent book, American Turnaround, for portraying Whitacre as Detroit's version of King Midas, instantly transforming everything he touched into balance-sheet gold. Whitacre is no Midas or Tuffy or even Mr. Goodwrench, Lutz argues:

"Presumably, each of these pockets of ineffectiveness was cured after their encounter with 'Big Ed,' and rapidly spread the gospel until all of GM's hundreds of thousands of global employees got the word and quickly set about creating compelling new products, thus rocketing the company to financial success. If you believe any of this, I need to talk to you about oceanfront property in Nebraska."

Lutz attributes GM's revival entirely to two things: its debt-cleansing trip through Bankruptcy Court and "winning products" developed while he, Rick Wagoner and Fritz Henderson were in charge.

But Whitacre doesn't seem to be on board with the idea that GM's product pipeline was in good shape before he took over (which, as he reveals in his book, he did because no one else wanted to do the job, not even for $9 million in annual compensation. For the record, I was never asked).

Appearing on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" Feb. 6, Whitacre emphatically told host Jon Stewart that GM now builds "the best" vehicles.

Stewart then asked: "Why didn't they do that before? Why did they wait until they got bankrupt?" Whitacre laughed heartily and eventually responded, "You'll have to ask them."

Whitacre, Lutz says, wouldn't know a good car if it hit him like a runaway… uh …choo-choo train:

Former GM CEO Ed Whitacre, in a 2009 photo, is seen riding with Bob Lutz in the driver's seat.

"Ed's most notable contribution to design was a comment I recall at a Cadillac styling session. Professing to know nothing about cars (true), he nevertheless opined that Cadillacs had the look of 'old-fashioned Choo-choo trains.' We digested that opaque bit of input and elected to stay with what we had."

Twice -- perhaps accidentally -- Lutz nearly compliments Whitacre, saying he was "not without value" and "a good leader" who made "incremental improvement" to GM. Then Lutz takes one final jab, no doubt inspired by his childhood on a farm along Omaha's world-renowned Pacific coast:

"To suggest that he is the architect of GM's current success is a bit like crediting the rooster with making the sun come up."

Nick Bunkley is an enterprise reporter for Automotive News.Nick Bunkley is an enterprise reporter for Automotive News.

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