So Long, Bob Lutz

Last week, a GM press release announced yet another signal of how much things have changed. Bob Lutz, at age 78, will retire on May 1. Lutz is legendary.

Over his near half century in the auto industry, he worked for GM, Chrysler, Ford and BMW, rejoining GM in 2001 to lead product development. The press release sounds like he’s comfortable with where GM is heading – thanks to the success of several of the latest Buick and Chevrolet brands. His latest baby was the Chevy Volt though which he called his “proudest achievement.”

I had the good fortune to meet Lutz in fall 2008, just at the maw of the recession and auto crisis. He was passing through Toronto. A group of auto bloggers and journalists were fed and boozed while Lutz took questions about the Volt, himself and the extremely precarious state of the economy.

One of the themes I enjoyed most that night was the sheer difficulty of planning that auto manufacturers endure. Take your car’s entertainment interface. They’re expensive for car manufacturers and can’t be revised every six months like they can in other gadgets. Nobody foresaw the cultural shift the iPod would usher in. Planning five to ten years ahead of time must make crystal-ball gazing seem scientific.

And then there’s the price of oil. To be fair, all of us should have seen it coming but most simply didn’t. In the previous two years, prices had risen 50% from $80 to over $120 per barrel.

Lutz had done his best to inculcate a new mentality at GM: one where they prepare for oil permanently resting there, perhaps even at $140. So they’d have to make cars that use gas sparingly.

Whoops. Oil was almost down to $100 by the time of our dinner – just two months later – but that didn’t bother him. No harm in creating efficient vehicles. And what goes up must come down, mustn’t it?

Speaking of coming down, the press releases didn’t mention Lutz’s embarrassing media splash less than a year ago. Last May, he and several other GM execs sold off all their remaining stock. Shareholder value sank to its lowest point since the great depression.

I don’t recall seeing him pocket any extra dinner rolls during our meal together, eight months before.

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