General Motors is trying to change its image, fast. So it chose the only person on hand that made sense as its image czar: an old car guy with some new ideas.
"(GM's) image is in tatters, and they need a real jump-start," says Peter DeLorenzo, editor of AutoExtremist.com. "I think Bob will bring it."
Bob Lutz, 77, was going to retire at the end of 2009, but decided to stick around and help GM revamp its advertising, internal communications and public relations. Lutz is the same guy who propelled GM's product design into the 21st century, and most critics say his tenure has helped the company turn out some pretty good vehicles.
"When I made the decision to retire, I thought we'd be in bankruptcy for a long time. I thought we'd lose our freedom to design and build the products the public wants as opposed to the products the government wants to see on the road," Lutz says. "I thought all of the fun is gone from the business. ... But lo, and behold, the government task force were not a bunch of ogres. They were extremely helpful, and their only agenda was to make GM the best company it could be."
Now, Lutz says, GM has to move fast to convince consumers it's changed. While the product design changes he made are taking hold over years, the ad changes could take hold in a month or so.
"There's a lot of stuff that irks me" with GM's current advertising, Lutz says.
Take, for example, recent print ads intended to talk about GM's car buyback program in case of job loss or illness. They were so weighed down with print, Lutz says, they quickly lost their meaning. He also dislikes the current Buick ads that show a Hollywood director fawning over the Enclave crossover and all-new 2010 LaCrosse sedan.
"That Buick commercial tested very well, which is not the same as saying that it's an effective ad," is how he tactfully put it in a Web chat this week. "I think you will very quickly see a drastic change in the tone and content of our advertising. And if you don't, it will mean that I have failed."
Lutz, a pilot and former Marine with a penchant for cigars who is known to commute by helicopter from his home outside Ann Arbor, Mich., to GM's headquarters in Detroit, has a reputation as a colorful speaker. That's sometimes landed him in trouble, but he's a favorite with the automotive media, who crowd around him at events to get his vivid, tell-it-like-it-is take on whatever he feels like talking about: cars, the state of the economy and global warming (of which he is famously skeptical).
Once he spent the bulk of an interview bemoaning the loss of scantily clad models at auto shows, pointing out that at one time, the Paris auto show was filled with topless models.
DeLorenzo says that although Lutz has said some things in the past that could come back to haunt him — such as once calling global warming "a total crock" — he is in tune with what people want, and has had a role in improving GM's green image.
"He's been one of the chief boosters of the Chevrolet Volt," GM's electric car due on the market in late 2010, says DeLorenzo. "To label Bob as someone who's not appreciative of the green sensibility or where a lot of consumers' minds are going, I don't think is accurate or fair."
Still, Lutz stands by his skepticism on hybrids, which he says are having trouble selling in the current market because gas prices are too low and the cars are not cheap. People still want bigger cars, he says, with more power.