RUSSELSHEIM, Germany - Adam Opel AG's current chairman, Robert Hendry, met Fritz Lohr nearly 15 years ago on his first assignment in Europe. Hendry recalled showing Lohr an organization chart drawn by Opel's chairman at the time.
At the top was a box that said 'Chairman.' Lohr added a new box above it, Hendry recalled: 'Chief Engineer.' 'That's who really runs things here, and don't you forget it,' Hendry said Lohr told him.
During Lohr's tenure, Opel's market share was high and its products highly regarded. He has been called the father of Opel's product range. The four-car lineup he proposed to Detroit in the 1970s is still Opel's basic car program.
Lohr, who retired eight years ago, was also the last of Opel's master engineers, an executive who not only approved each decision but worked in nearly every department and knew the Technical Development Center as well as his own home.
'I have lived my entire life here near the Opel chimney; it was one of the highest buildings in Europe,' said Lohr. 'I still wonder, to this day, about this 20-year-old guy Adam Opel, who said, `I will do it.'*'
Lohr's associates laughingly say 'Fritz will do it' - Fritz will das in German - is the insiders' definition for front-wheel drive because of his determination to switch Opels to fwd drivetrains in the late 1970s.
Lohr, born in 1926, started at Opel at age 13 as an apprentice. In 1941, he was offered the first Opel scholarship to study engineering. A year later, he was conscripted into the German army. Lohr was captured by U.S. forces and was released two years afterward, when Germany surrendered.
Lohr finished his studies and returned to Opel. He became head of the advanced engineering department in 1974. Lohr proposed that all GM cars except the big Rekord switch to front-wheel drive. He launched an intensive study of how Opel's range of four cars should look.
He was on hand in Detroit when his ideas were presented to GM brass. Opel managers were told to come back with better figures.
Lohr couldn't control himself and blurted out: 'We need a decision; we only have three years.'
GM President Pete Estes 'turned around and said, `Shut up,'' Lohr recalled.
'I sat down but got up a minute later and said, `We need a decision.' I think many of the guys in the room thought they would never see me again.' Lohr said the GM president reassured him, 'Don't worry, you will get your cars.'
In 1980, Lohr became chief engineer at Opel, and in 1985, he was promoted to head the new Technical Development Center for Europe.
Lohr penned the first design for Opel's first ultra-lean factory, in Eisenach in the former East Germany. 'I drew this picture on a beer coaster on March 27, 1990, at the Eisenach Castle,' he recalled.
Except for a few small changes, that's the way plant was built.