Justin Hyde — In his new book, former General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz calls Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and other right-wing critics of GM “reckless” for their hatred of anything linked to the Obama administration — including the Chevrolet Volt. Here’s our exclusive first drive review of the soon-to-be-published book.
In his book, “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle For The Soul Of American Business,” Lutz reveals what anyone who pays even the slightest of attention to the auto industry has known for years, that far from being created by the Obama administration, the original idea of the Volt sprouted in 2005 — and it would have never survived GM’s bureaucracy without a push from Elon Musk and Tesla Motors.
Lutz — a cigar-smoking, jet-flying former Marine — has long admitted that the halo cast by the Toyota Prius unfairly sainted Toyota while casting GM vehicles as pollution-barfing tanks. Lutz’s original idea was to recommit GM to a pure electric vehicle with lithium-ion batteries — a prospect that GM’s engineers and executives hated due to the scars from the EV1 project.
When Musk unveiled the Tesla Roadster in 2005, it gave Lutz the ammo he needed to get a concept approved by GM’s management. But as he talked with engineer Jon Lauckner, Lauckner said he had a better idea, and sketched out an electric-powered four-seat sedan with a T-shaped battery cell charged for extended range by an onboard engine — the basic design of the Chevy Volt sitting on dealer lots’ six years later.
The birth of the Volt would take several more years and hundreds of tougher hurdles, including GM’s collapse into an Obama administration bailout. Lutz makes clear the Volt did not sprout from environmental concerns; his detailed take on global warming matches his previous comments labelling it poo-filled ceramics. But Lutz contends the Volt’s transformation into a “political football,” by both critics on the left and Limbaugh has robbed the credit due to GM’s engineers for its invention:
Animosity towards the Obama administration is so intense among the right-wing talk-show hosts that any vulnerability, however tenuous, must be attacked and blamed on ‘socialist influence,’ with no regard to truth or to the damage these reckless claims can make…
The sceptics, the pundits, the GM haters, and those who detest lithium ion as a chemistry will all be dragged, however unwittingly, to the same conclusion: Volt paved the way, Volt was first with the extended-range EV concept, Volt demonstrated the will and technological capability of General Motors…And to all the doubters, opponents, critics and sceptics… [including] Glenn Beck, I say: ‘Eat your hearts out. Volt is the future.’
The heart of Lutz’s book details the problems he faced upon being coaxed out of retirement by GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner in 2001 to remake the company’s vehicle development process. Lutz had worked at GM before in the ’60s, before stints at Ford, BMW and Chrysler, and he details the long decline of American automakers from the inside, pinging number-crunching CEOs, demurring stylists and engineers, and U.S. fuel economy standards, which he contends handed huge advantages to Japanese and European automakers.
When Lutz finally comes back to GM in September 2001, he finds a bureaucracy asphyxiating on its own hubris, convinced the terabytes of PowerPoints will lead GM to global triumph despite all common sense. GM’s pre-Lutz ideas included a Buick concept that could be driven entirely by voice control, because that’s what Buick’s elderly owners said they wanted in focus groups. Whether it was covering the first-generation Chrysler 300 in 90-odd post-it notes showing how its popular design failed GM standards, or worrying that adding chrome trim to the Chevy Impala would kill a cost target even while making the car attractive, Lutz details just how close GM came to being irreparably broken.
Lutz was lucky to find under the bureaucracy’s avalanche a hovel of talented people – from French-born designers to Harley-riding metal stampers – that knew exactly what needed changing, but had never had the chance to say so, or even been asked. He also managed to start the process of turning GM into a global automaker, rather than a cage match of regional vice presidents who fought ideas like selling the Holden Commodore SS as a Pontiac sports sedan. (Lutz’s plans to turn Pontiac into an affordable American BMW offer some of the saddest what-might-have-been moments).
Lutz argues the same dynamic that pushed GM to collapse threatens the rest of American business as well. He sees in too many executives the same numbers-obsessed, MBA groupthink that turned GM from world dominator to ward of the state. And he bleakly warns that the United States may have to come close to a Chapter 11 of its own before ridding itself of the idea of “too big to fail.”
To his credit, Lutz admits that even if he had been GM’s CEO, he would not only have made many of the same mistakes as Wagoner, he might have added a few new ones too, like not buying Korea’s Daewoo, which has become the source of GM’s small car engineering worldwide. And that’s the real secret: “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters” isn’t a contest. It’s the formula for success; when one side gets too dominant, the entire system falls apart.
GM’s newest models have proven successful, profitable and able to keep pace with some of the world’s best. When Lutz came out of retirement in 2001, one Wall Street analyst estimated that if he successfully set GM’s carbuilding right, Lutz could add $1 billion to GM’s roughly $10 billion market value. Without him, GM probably would have struggled through until 2008, and still been bailed out — but left bereft of knowing how to build cars that people want. The old GM might have tried to put a value on Lutz’s contributions. The new GM should know numbers never tell the whole story.
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