Bob Lutz enjoys near-iconic status in the auto industry and is routinely fawned over by the media, who lap up his gruff pronouncements and are happy to overlook his climate-change denying and role in running General Motors (GM) into the ground. The 79-year-old is supposed to be retired, but he's been making the rounds recently as a consultant and because he has a book coming out in June.
All about Bob
It's titled, unsubtly, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle For The Soul Of American Business. You can probably guess which party is the soul-less one. A self-promoter of dizzying talent, Lutz is stumping for the book at the same time he's trying to wedge his way back into GM, against the wishes of the U.S. Treasury.
He's rehashing his usual enemies list, summarized here by Automotive News' Rick Kranz: increased fuel-economy standards in the '70s, exchange-rate conspiracies, bean counters management, the unions, and the media with its hating on Motown. We could label this all Sideshow Bob-ism, if Lutz weren't still taken seriously for his colorful and self-aggrandizing nonsense.
Distorted history of Detroit's decline
Lutz's preoccupation with Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, issued in the wake of the 1973 Oil Crisis, is particularly galling. Kranz quotes Lutz at the recent New York Auto Show:
"By selecting a fleet average as the way to get fuel economy, we handed the market to the Japanese. They were all better than the average because of their small-car lineup. We were all worse because we did the big frame, V-8 cars...Had to switch? Or should have switched? Front-wheel-drive V6 and 4-cylinder vehicles now dominate the passenger-car market, are simpler to build than rear-wheel-drive V8s, and have helped Toyota (TM) and Honda to steady profits. Heck, GM itself arguably created the greatest V6 of all time, the Buick 3800 -- in 1962!
"Basically the American car industry had to trash its whole model lineup, top to bottom, V-8 engines, longitudinal automatic transmissions. We had to switch to V-6, front-wheel drive, transverse mounted. There was way too big of an engineering and financial task to be able to accomplish that."
Opposing Detroit's real future
CAFE standards are now going up for the first time since 1990 and are scheduled to rise significantly more by 2016. This is a Lutzian nightmare, given that it will compel Detroit to move toward even smaller cars. He wants to perpetuate the car-guy illusion that if only Motown had been able to stick with the powerful V8s, it could have cranked out American BMWs.
To his credit, he did advocate for the Chevy Volt extended range EV, seeing electrification as a way for GM and others to build a few avant garde-y vehicles to achieve CAFE objectives, rather than further re-engineering entire fleets.
Car guys? Bean counters? How about neither?
Americans, for the most part, have voted against both sides of Lutz's distinction. The thrilling vehicles he adores have become niche, enthusiast preoccupations. The dreary sedans of the 1990s, beloved by the bean counters, were trounced by the Japanese.
What consumers want are reliable, versatile vehicles with a certain amount of style that deliver decent fuel economy and performance. In other words, the CAFE-mandated cars that Lutz has been railing against since 1975.
So don't lament the eventual silence of the Last True Car Guy. He's entertaining. But he's also just as responsible for decimating Detroit as everyone else of his generation.