My Car Quest

September 23, 2021

People: Bob Lutz, Auto Executive Extraordinaire

by Wallace Wyss –

Being Swiss American, I always look for examples of Swiss who accomplished something. I was always a car guy so became a fan of Bob Lutz who I once met at Pebble Beach when he and Tom Gale, Chrysler’s design VP, were judging the best classics. He asked if I could speak Schweitzerdeutsch and I couldn’t so it was a short conversation.

He was born February 12, 1932 in Switzerland to an upper middle class family. He eventually became a Captain of Industry at each of the Big Three having been in succession executive vice president (and board member) of Ford Motor Company, president and then vice chairman (and board member) of Chrysler Corporation, and vice chairman of General Motors.

His father was a vice chairman of Credit Suisse. Lutz left Switzerland at the age of seven and spent time in Scarsdale, New York. He became a U.S. citizen in 1943, but returned to Switzerland in 1947 to attend school in Lausanne. Ironically, Lutz went to UC Berkeley, a school identified with anti-war politics but joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve’s 4th Marine Aircraft Wing to become a fighter pilot.

Bob Lutz (October 2008) photo by Ed Schipul

Bob Lutz (October 2008) photo by Ed Schipul

Wikipedia says he also was a vacuum cleaner salesman in Walnut Creek, California, which must have taught him salesmanship on a 1:1 level. After leaving the Marines, Lutz spent eight years with GM in Europe before joining BMW serving as executive vice president of sales at BMW for three years. Always interested in cars on a driver level, it is said he had a lot to do with the development of the BMW 3 Series as well as their Motorsport division. He also worked at Ford Europe and had a lot to do with the Escort.

Then it was to Detroit where he became head of Chrysler Corporation’s Global Product Development, including the very successful Dodge Viper and LH series cars. It is ironic that everyone assumed he’d be the next President of Chrysler but Former Chrysler chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca, who helped bail out Chrysler after arranging receiving loans from private banks backed by the U.S. Government in 1979, said he should have picked Lutz as his successor rather than Bob Eaton at the end of 1992. Lutz and Iacocca were both car guys but opposing each other throughout. Eaton was responsible for the sale of Chrysler to Daimler-Benz in 1998 which Daimler ended up backing out of in 2007 when it sold Chrysler to Cerberus Capital Management.

He retired from GM, saying that one reason for his decision was the increasing regulatory climate in Washington that would force GM to produce what Federal regulators wanted, rather than what customers wanted. In 2008, he was one of the first Big Three executives to say “the electrification of the automobile is inevitable”.

Lutz back over a decade ago expressed skepticism on the issue of global warming but may since have changed. He was seriously wrong on that but, in his defense, while at GM he helped get the EV-1 electric car program going and that led eventually to GM’s Volt hybrid and the pure electric Bolt.

He has quite a car collection, not all prewar classics but some souvenirs of his industry achievement. When a visiting reporter from Autoweek profiled him back in 2007 he saw in Lutz’s garage not one but two Vipers, acquired while Lutz was running Chrysler’s car business. And a British car that inspired the Viper, a Cobra. But it is not one of Shelby’s originals, instead what you would call a “continuation car,” an AC Autokraft Cobra with a Roush 302 V8 he bought for $45,000 in 1985. That car gave him the idea for the Viper once he began working with consultant Carroll Shelby at Chrysler.

He told Autoweek “I was driving it with a ‘Powered by Ford’ badge on the front, which I removed because I was at Chrysler. I said, ‘If only Chrysler had this.’ Then I thought, we have the Dakota with a wishbone front suspension, new five-speed transmission, V10 engine coming, no reason we couldn’t at least do a show car. The first sketches were like a Viper, and I thought it was too far away from the Cobra. But they convinced me they didn’t want to copy the Cobra.” He has a couple homes in Europe in Montserrat and Switzerland. He has a Cadillac XLR in the Swiss garages, a red Hummer H3 and a Pontiac Solstice on Montserrat.

In late-2017 Lutz wrote an article for Automotive News predicting upheaval within the car manufacturing industry, anticipating large-scale fleet ownership, removal of dealerships and an eventual ban on human driving of vehicles for transport.

And then there’s the airplanes. He started with helicopters but somehow bought two German fighter trainers, two seaters that will fly to 50,000 ft, and do 500 mph. He’s infamous for once landing one wheels up. That’s my favorite picture of him–as a jet jockey, not of just a bizjet but a jet fighter plane.

He’s been married three times, with grown children and grandchildren, so I think he won’t be tempted back to a corporate job at one of the Big Three.

In sum, Bob Lutz’s career is what every enthusiast would hope gets a commanding position at The Big Three. Many battles fought, some won and few significant ones lost. But there’s no “gearhead” that can match his reputation to replace him.

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

Wallace Wyss

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is the author of 18 car books and co-hosts the Autotalk radio show, broadcast weekly from KUCR FM Riverside.
 
 
 

 

 

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People: Bob Lutz, Auto Executive Extraordinaire
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People: Bob Lutz, Auto Executive Extraordinaire
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In 2008, Bob Lutz was one of the first Big Three executives to say "the electrification of the automobile is inevitable".
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Comments

  1. Rob Krantz says

    I have always admired Bob Lutz….an icon of the auto industry though not as well known as Lee Iacocca (at least to non car buffs). He was so influential in his career for many cars. He was responsible for having Ford import the European Ford Sierra XR4i with resistant car being the Merkur XR4Ti (I owned one and loved it) and ultimately the Merkur Scorpio. I wasn’t aware of his ownership of an AC Mk. IV and the Mk IV’s inspiration for creation of the Viper. That is a neat tidbit! Thanks for the post Mike and link to the story about my Mk. IV.

  2. Glenn Krasner says

    I admire Lutz as well, but in a big, long career, he had a couple of duds he created: The Plymouth Prowler was an amazing package, but failed because it was underpowered, and then he came too late to the Miata game with the Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky, again, underpowered. Overall though, a very brilliant man with a many successes under his belt. I just wish he and Lee Iacocca could have got along, so that Lutz led Chrysler instead of Eaton. Even Iacocca regrets his decision. Lutz “in retirement” also partnered with somebody at one point to make a world-class supercar, but I don’t know whatever happened with that. Glenn in Brooklyn, NY.

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