In the early 1970s, while working as head of sales for BMW AG, Robert Lutz asked the technical chief whether the company could build a V-12.
Three weeks later, BMW had a V-12 up and running in a test cell. The speed staggered Lutz, who had spent his first years in the auto industry embedded in the hierarchy at General Motors.
'You do not need a gigantic, hierarchical, huge, bureaucratic organization to run an automobile company,' Lutz said in an interview with Automotive News. 'A lot of it can be reduced to plain and simple common sense and a couple of people sitting in a room together and saying, 'That's it. Let's get on with it.' '
The lessons he learned at BMW and elsewhere in Europe had a profound effect two decades later on an American company, Chrysler Corp.
Lutz helped create a lean, speedy method - using platform teams - to develop cars and trucks at Chrysler. Platform teams led to a parade of refreshing vehicles - the Dodge Viper, Jeep Grand Cherokee, LH sedans and Dodge Ram - that grabbed the attention of American car and truck buyers, and restored Chrysler's fortunes.
That recovery made Chrysler an attractive merger partner this year for Daimler-Benz AG.
As Chrysler prepares to merge, Vice Chairman Lutz is retiring. On July 1, one of the dominant personalities of the auto industry will leave the company he helped revive.
BUCK STOPS HERE
Lutz was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1932. Nearly two-thirds of his 35 years in the auto business has involved European posts.
After a stint as a pilot for the U.S. Marine Corps, he started his auto career in 1963 with GM, where he rose to senior positions at Adam Opel AG in Germany and GM of France.
BMW lured him away in 1972, making Lutz executive vice president of sales. It was the first time that he could say, 'The buck stops here.'
After three years at BMW, Lutz spent 12 years at Ford, where he was executive vice president of truck operations and Ford of Europe chairman. The final third of his career has been spent at Chrysler.
He joined the No. 3 U.S. automaker in 1986 as executive vice president of Chrysler Motors Corp., lured by another huge personality, Chairman Lee Iacocca.
Long before arriving at Chrysler, Lutz was known as the consummate product man.
His car-guy reputation is actually something of a touchy subject. Lutz says the tag is a bum rap. He wants to be known not only for his product creativity, but also for his ability to stick to a budget.
'I think I was stronger than many people give me credit for on the cost and finance front,' he said. (See story on Page 37.)
BACK ON THE MAP
One of the fruits of combining creativity with tight cost targets was the original LH program, which generated the 1993 Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde and Eagle Vision large sedans. Lutz said it was his favorite Chrysler project.
The large family sedans were spawned by Chrysler's new platform teams. Lutz and then chief engineer Francois Castaing revo-lutionized Chrysler's massive, centralized engineering operation. In 1989, they created four independent development platform teams.
Each team pulled together design, engineering, purchasing, manufacturing, finance, marketing and sales people under one umbrella to work together on a vehicle or family of vehicles. The LH sedans were their first product.
'It's what put us back on the map,' Lutz said.
While platform teams were first suggested by Castaing, Lutz understood the potential of this ambitious change and had the power to make it happen.
Castaing, who came to Chrysler in 1987 when the automaker purchased American Motors Corp., said Lutz was
always willing to listen to new ideas and offered unwavering support when those ideas were adopted.
'Some of the old-timers in Highland Park were upset I was changing the organization,' Castaing said. Iacocca, then Chrysler chairman, began receiving a steady stream of anonymous letters accusing Castaing of tearing apart the organization.
'Bob had to deal with that to protect me,' Castaing recalled. 'All along Bob protected me.'
Lutz said he had prepared himself for the inevitable in 1992 when Eaton was chosen to replace Iacocca as Chrysler chairman.
Castaing, who has been a close colleague, believed in 1992 that Lutz would be the next chairman.
'In all due respect for Bob Eaton, I thought Bob (Lutz) should have been chairman in 1992,' Castaing said. 'He had the leadership, he knew the company well and he knew what to do to make it better. So it was logical to me for him to be chairman. I was extremely disappointed for him. I didn't know Bob Eaton. But it was not about Bob Eaton.'
Lutz was able to cope with the disappointment and march on, Castaing said.
'Both of them, I guess, for various reasons, decided to make it work,' Castaing said.
Lutz believed it was in Chrysler's best interest for him to stay and keep the team together and focused, while Eaton knew that the company was working well and did not want to make any hasty changes to derail the progress being made, Castaing said.
Castaing, 53, who now is technical adviser to Eaton, plans to retire when he reaches 55.
'Bob (Lutz) always generated a lot of new ideas and encouraged people to have new ideas,' Castaing said. 'So many ideas coming along were coming from permitting people to express their views.'
Castaing added: 'The idea that Bob drove all the product ideas
is not true. He drove an organizational culture that was so intensely interested in cars that ideas came up to the surface and we'd look at them.'