Q&A with Bob Lutz;
The following is an interview with Bob Lutz that appears in the latest issue of Pontiac Performance magazine. (Visit www.myGMmagazine.com to sign up for a free one-year subscription.)
Q: You've often said that Pontiac is near to your heart. What is it about this brand and its image that draws you to it?
A: Its glorious history and its legitimate place in the GM brand lineup as an aggressive, performance-oriented brand, appealing to younger people who want a car or truck to be more than just transportation.
Q: Talk to us about Solstice and the impact you expect it to have on Pontiac's image. Will you buy one?
A: Let's start with the second question: Clearly, I've already placed an order for one, and very definitely intend to own a Solstice. I see Solstice as playing an image revitalization role for Pontiac, in that it's very hard to improve brand perceptions through advertising. The best way to change perceptions of a brand is through an iconic, breakthrough product like Solstice that captures everyone's attention. And I enjoy getting e-mails that say, "I never thought I would set foot in a Pontiac dealership but the Solstice is going to make me do it." That benefits the whole brand. In fact, Pontiac dealers are saying they're selling other cars because of people coming in for the Solstice, so it's already generating traffic.
Q: You were the catalyst that brought the GTO back, which was an exciting event for enthusiasts. But the reaction to the car has been mixed. How do you answer the critics?
A: Well, it was a fast program, and the only way we could get it was to adopt an existing Australian car. We never intended it to be a "retro" car; we intended it to be a modern interpretation of the GTO. It was intended to get some performance credibility back for Pontiac and get the brand back in the market with a rear-wheel-drive, great-handling, V8-powered car. It's done that. And I might add the '05 GTO is not disappointing at all. We're selling every one we can get, and we're selling many in markets where we have to break through again with Pontiac, like on the West Coast.
Q: What are your goals for GTO in the future?
A: The future is ill-defined at this point. But it is definitely safe to say Pontiac will not give up on rear-drive V8 performance.
Q: The public response to the GM FastLane blog has been very positive. Why did you think it was important to give customers a conduit to you on the Web?
A: I think blogs and the Internet have given us a way to have direct contact with a number of our customers and with auto enthusiasts and to get unfiltered feedback from the marketplace - both good and bad. In the past, that feedback either had to be formal research, or it was what you got as interpreted by your dealer organization. It was always filtered. And our dialogue with the customers was always either through advertising, which doesn't enjoy a very high trust or credibility factor, or it was through the media, who have their own agenda. Blogs permit a clear, unfiltered, direct person-to-person dialogue with customers, which is where we think the huge benefit lies.
Q: We've been reading a lot of cloudy forecasts for GM. Why should people be more optimistic about GM's future?
A: Because the best of our product onslaught is yet to come. The new design direction, as exemplified by the Solstice, the Saturn SKY, and the Saturn AURA has yet to really be demonstrated in cars and trucks across the board. But the HUMMER H3, the Chevy HHR, the Buick Lucerne, and others coming this year feature much bolder, more "breakthrough" design. They and our new lineup of utilities and crossovers will contribute to GM's turnaround. We do not intend to slow down in rolling out dramatic new products. On the contrary: we've increased our product spending for this year.
Q: You're obviously a strong advocate for performance, but what about styling - what do the designers have to do to attract new consumers to GM vehicles?
A: Well, that relates to the last question. We do realize that a purely research-driven and rationality-based product development process doesn't work. That's why we are actively encouraging our designers to be much bolder and we are learning to be a design-driven company again, one in which the designer originates trendsetting new concepts, as opposed to responding to a series of planning inputs. Good examples of this, cars that were inspired pieces of work by the designers, are ones like the Solstice and the Saturn SKY. And there are more to come like that. This is perhaps the element that's been absent from the mix, especially in GM North America, and it's one that we are aiming to fix.
Q: What do you think is the biggest change or development in the auto industry over the past 20 years?
A: It would have to be the advent and the growing strength of the Asian auto industry, which you could look at as three waves. The first big wave was Japanese. The second big wave, which is coming in now, is Korean. And the third big wave, which is yet to come in but we have inklings of it, is indigenous Chinese car companies exporting to the rest of the world. That development is a huge challenge to the established automotive companies of the West.
Q: What do you think will be the biggest change in the industry over the next 10 or 20 years?
A: Increasing globalization... to where country of origin will play an ever smaller role. Of course, there are obstacles to attaining that vision, such as national regulation and work force issues, but it really is, I think, an unstoppable phenomenon. The large companies will survive but they won't be national; they'll be producing cars around the globe, and shipping them to other markets as necessary.
Q: Is the SUV revolution starting to wind down? Are we going to see more cars and crossovers?
A: I think cars will stabilize ... I don't see them making a huge comeback. I think we may have seen the end of growth, but by no means will we see a decline, in large body-on-frame sport-utilities. But medium-size and smaller sport-utilities, both body-on-frame and body-frame integral, will continue to grow and rise in importance. Because of its two-box design, an SUV or a "crossover", regardless of all the criticism of SUVs, is simply a wonderfully rational body style.
Q: You made a comment in the past that many of the concept vehicles these days are like angry kitchen appliances. What did you think of the vehicles on this year's auto show circuit?
A: Actually I said that about seven or eight years ago, when there was a series of concepts at the Detroit show ... it seemed every company was trying to outdo the others in producing concepts that had a hard-edged, mechanical, Transformer-Robot look to them, which were obviously done by students of design - but not students of automotive design. Many of these themes were visually interesting, but not particularly effective or useful automotive designs. Most of the concepts this year have been excellent. GM's were focused more on the future of propulsion, in the form of the GM Sequel, and the GMC Graphyte, both of which I thought were very well done from a design standpoint. I also thought some of our competitors' concepts were very well executed, especially Chrysler and Jeep's.
Q: You have said fun is a lost art in the automotive business. Can you explain what you meant by that?
A: I said that in the context of performance, and performance vehicles and performance parts and the aftermarket and so forth. But in a larger sense, let's just say that I believe enjoying a car or truck used to be a guilt-free experience. More and more people are being swayed by sentiments of social guilt and environmental awareness into not admitting to themselves that motor vehicles that are dynamically excellent and have a good driver-machine relationship are one of life's greatest pleasures.
Q: Can you tell us something about Bob Lutz that people may be surprised to hear?
A: Well, people probably don't realize that I like to cook. I'm very fond of animals - I'm actively engaged with the Michigan Humane Society. I'm also probably one of the world's greatest amateur producers of bitter orange marmalade.
Q: What kinds of planes are you flying these days?
A: I'm flying a Czech-built L39 Albatros 1S, which was a Soviet Bloc advanced fighter trainer and attack aircraft. And since last summer I own a former German Air Force Alpha jet, a swept-wing fighter attack aircraft, almost new, and with twice the power-to-weight ratio of the Albatros. That's a very exciting airplane to fly. And I still fly my McDonnell-Douglas MD 500 helicopter, for commuting and getting to the military planes.
Q: Let's say GM is enjoying record sales in three years and the country is still facing some tough challenges. If somebody begins a "Bob Lutz for President" campaign, would you be interested? If you started a third party, what would you call it?
A: First of all, being more on the conservative side of the political spectrum, I doubt that I would feel the need to form a third party. But the remote possibility that someone would see me as qualified for that particular political office would be immediately nullified by the fact that I was born in Switzerland. Therefore the question is purely hypothetical and requires no further answer (laughs).
Q: I understand you're chairman of the New Common School Foundation... are you particularly interested in education?
A: Yes, because I think it's a very depressing fact that we have one of the worst K-12 school systems in the world. We are constantly lowering the bar to make it easier for everybody to step over. It's no longer a meritocracy. We are falling farther and farther behind other nations like China, Korea, India, and Japan in what we actually successfully teach our kids, especially in the area of math and science. I'm a member of the board of the Center for Education Reform. I'm actively engaged in the New Common School Foundation, which is focused on trying to improve the K-12 education system in Detroit. I think that we don't talk about it enough, but the quality of education is one of the greatest factors helping to reduce America's competitiveness versus the rest of the world. This comes at a very bad time, as the challenge from better educated societies is becoming greater.