Bob Lutz addressed the Automotive Press Association at the Detroit Athletic Club.
To be admitted, Kirk Seaman and I put on ties and jackets. We looked great!
Kirk’s take on Lutz’s oration is first:
It was Thursday, May 28, 2009, and General Motors was balanced on the brink of bankruptcy. Outside the entrance of the DAC, the air was perfumed with the scent of gently exhaled mildew.
Inside, GM product guru Bob Lutz was about to address the APA for the first time since he announced his retirement in April. The fact that the lunch was not standing room only speaks either to the irrelevance of what news Lutz might have to share or the inability of tapped-out expense accounts across southeast Michigan to pony up the requisite $40 event fee. Or both.
Unless they are huge fans of the DAC’s Chicken Vermont and rice pudding (count me among that number), those who did not attend did not miss much. First, Lutz softened up the crowd with a few lines about gathering items for his impending retirement: bumper stickers. Let him among us who does not appreciate the universal appeal of bumper-based humor such as “Some Mornings I Wake up Grumpy. Other Mornings I Let Him Sleep In” or “At My Age, Flowers Scare Me” throw the first stone.
But after that, the presentation was more or less warmed-over GM speak—a tune we’ve heard before. To summarize Lutz’s speech briefly, and with apologies to the Who: “Meet the New GM; Same as the Old GM.” In other words, “We’ve got great product in the pipeline and just wait until it hits the showrooms. GM will return to its rightful place in the pantheon of automotive glory.”
And Lutz may be right. There is some good stuff on the way. The Cadillac CTS Coupe is an example, and Lutz related the story of previewing the upcoming product portfolio to the members of the federal government’s automotive task force. “They loved the CTS Coupe, but I told them they wouldn’t be interested since it would have 560 horsepower, and I kept trying to show them the fuel-efficient models we have coming. But they kept asking me about the CTS and when it will be out. It just shows that normal people get turned on by great cars.”
But will the good stuff get to us? The glaring omission in Lutz’s speech, and the major hurdle between now and said good stuff, is bankruptcy. Lutz stated at the outset that he wouldn’t address the issue since he knows nothing other than that something momentous is about to occur. But until the bankruptcy issue is resolved—and who knows how long it will take for GM to emerge-the great products such as the Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon, Chevrolet Volt, and the Pontiac Solstice Coupe won’t be enough to pull GM out of the ditch it has spent the last 30 years digging for itself.
Here’s my take on Lutz:
Car sales stink. But people will eventually have to buy new ones. How much longer can you ride around in your old Grand Am? Lutz didn’t say whether the government might have to subsidize those future purchases. He did say some foreign governments have already subsidized our present purchases through their monetary policies. What a dreadnaught, that weak yen!
I expected to hear Lutz blast the federal takeover of Detroit or to launch a tirade against GM’s impending forced bankruptcy. Instead, still towering above us in his late-70s, he danced around Obama’s policies like a metallic blue morpho in the rain forest. The Auto Task Force is regarded as a blessing. “Finally,” he said, “for the first time in history, [carmakers] have the ear of the Administration.” No more chasing down the odd elected representative in the hall of the Congressional Office Building to make your case.
Obama recognizes a wealth-producing industry when he sees one, according to Lutz. The goal isn’t to run Detroit but to get it back on its crosstreads. That’s why, with the industry and the administration getting along so well, the new tag line is, “GM—Yes, We Can!”
Meanwhile, Lutz insinuated a plea for a national energy policy, which will help carmakers know the future of gas prices. “We will pass through the cleansing fire of a radical restructuring, in or out of court,” he said. The result of this cleansing is to be liked. Hey, GM’s past of “brilliantly executed mediocrity” is over. Design reigns supreme. A blind tasting of current cars reveals consumer preference for the company’s products. Now to reinforce that conviction once the labels are revealed.
Lutz says that carmaking is a “highly resilient” business. Now is “a great time for transformation.”
And don’t worry, because car buyers will continue to have good choices.
New CAFE requirements? Global competition? B-b-b-r-r-ring ’em on.