So, Bob Lutz, are you going to miss us?
That was my first question to the retiring Bob Lutz yesterday at the New York International Auto Show. And the answer was a resounding "yes."
We in the press will miss Lutz, too. I ducked away from some of yesterday's press-day hoopla to spend a few minutes with Lutz, the ultimate car guy. He'll retire from General Motors on May 1 at age 78, after an iconic career in the auto industry.
Some speculate that GM chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre is pushing Lutz out, but Lutz denies it. Even if Lutz is being shooed into retirement by Whitacre, a former telecom acquisitions expert, Lutz would never say so. An ex-Marine - yesterday he was wearing a Marine Corps tie clip - Lutz is loyal to the core; he would never publicly break ranks.
Yesterday, while Volkswagen was showing off its new Touareg hybrid, Toyota unveiled the Sion iQ, Acura unwrapped its new TSX Sport Wagon and all sorts of other product introduction were following in lock-step on the Jacob Javits show floor, Lutz reflected on the changes he's led at GM since coming aboard in 2001.
He's rightly proud of the product plan he's helped put in place as head of global product development. GM has a lot of solid models in its lineup and more coming - including the Chevrolet Cruze Eco compact car that will get up to 40 miles per gallon on the highway, he pointed out.
GM is, however, just part of the Lutz story. He's also had major roles at Chrysler Corp., BMW AG and Ford Motor. He, tag-teaming with Lee Iacocca, led a product renaissance at Chrysler in the 1990s that was nothing short of spectacular. In 1997, in fact some called Chrysler the company of the year. Then Daimler AG took over and disaster followed. Lutz left, retired, and then turned up running a battery company until GM came calling.
Lutz, the son of a Swiss banker who was stranded in the U.S. with his family during World War II, is an American citizen with a global outlook, He went to schools in the U.S. until the war ended and the family returned to Switzerland. He speaks a pile of languages, has interests in everything from fine wines to classic cars to jet fighters, which he still flies.
Lutz served in the Marines as a fighter-bomber pilot who later studied at the University of California at Berkeley in the wild 1960s. After earning business degrees, he went to work for GM of Europe.
Though about to retire, he is today the most experienced auto executive in the world. Tidbits: as head of sales at BMW AG, he hired the agency that created the great BMW slogan, "The Ultimate Driving Machine." And while heading Ford's truck operations, he put in place the plan to build the Explorer SUV which turned into a best-selling cash machine for Ford in the 1990s.
GM will be a poorer company with Lutz gone. Not everyone agrees with him both within and outside GM, but he is universally respected. His legacy at GM is a stack of new models with good interiors and strong ride manners. And what he has helped create at GM during the past eight and a half years has a chance of continuing under GM's new president for North America, Mark Reuss. He's a car guy, too, just like Lutz.
And you never know. There is a company called Chrysler that itself is being reinvented yet again, this time under management at Fiat led by Sergio Marchionne. At just 78, Bob Lutz might be a bit young to retire, so no one would be completely shocked to see Lutz pop up at Chrysler after a suitable period of time away from GM.
It's possible that the last chapter in the story of the Bob Lutz romance with the auto industry has yet to be written. Perhaps we won't be missing him for very long at all.