|57 Studebaker Silver Hawk|
Bob Lutz is a real car guy. In his new book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters, he contends that MBAs and finance guys have stolen the soul of the Big Three auto manufacturers as well as most of the big corporations in America. Lutz has worked for all of the Big Three and BMW. He was coaxed out of retirement in 2001 by then GM Chairman and CEO, Rick Wagoner, because the company needed someone who understood how to build great cars. Lutz was behind the resurgence of Cadillac and Buick and championed the Chevy Volt from the original concept in 2005 to its production, starting last year.
Lutz describes how the cars we lust after – the great classics of the 50s and 60s – were built during an era when designers and engineers were the prime movers at GM. He reminds us of the beautiful cars from GM’s design studio – the Chevy’s of 55 and 57, the Pontiac GTO, the early Corvettes and the classic Cadillac designs. Focus groups would never have come up with these designs and the finance guys would never allow such expensive treatments as big fins and chrome embellishments.
I do know that the design came out of the Raymond Loewy design studio and is beautiful enough to have a cult following today. Maybe Lutz is onto something.
By the mid-70s, GM’s culture was starting to shift. No longer would the design studio drive product decisions nor would engineering be a prime mover. By the 80s, it was all about numbers and focus groups. So, GM produced a series of forgettable cars for a generation.
Lutz was brought back to GM to help change the culture as much as anything else. During the generation in which engineers and designers were marginalized, Vehicle Line Executives (VLE’s) became the decision makers. They were bonused on meeting quantitative measures of cost and specifications developed from focus groups. There were standards for wheel clearance and windshield height. Each car had to respond a certain way when you drove over a bump. The results were cars like the Pontiac Aztec and the Chevy Impala which met the standards but looked like each section of it was developed by a different committee. Any wonder no one wanted them?
The pronouncement that brand identities must be developed for each model led to all Chevys having a horizontal chrome bar through the grille and each Pontiac having body cladding glued to the side. It didn’t matter if it was ugly, it met the standard. The VLE got to check it off his list and be eligible for his or her bonus. Changing an entrenched culture like this in a global corporation is a monumental task.
But, while his book was primarily about the evolution of GM in the last decade, the sub-text was about LEADERSHIP.
The first lesson? Courage. If you know your product, your market and your business, you should have the courage to follow through on your vision. During the 50s, Cadillac was the premier automotive brand in the world. The phrase “it’s the Cadillac of…..” was a popular phrase, meaning it’s the best of a category. By the turn of the century, Cadillac was an aging brand whose target customer base was literally dying. It had lost its 50s brand image – a high fashion, great performing vehicle whose engines were transplanted into race cars. Chuck Berry sang, “CADILLAC DOING ABOUT 95 IT WAS BUMPER TO BUMPER SIDE TO SIDE” in the hit song, Maybelline. It was a great time for GM.
For the 21st Century, Lutz decided Cadillac should take on BMW. How’s that for courage? The Cadillac CTS brought edgy styling, V8 power and rear wheel drive to a car which was exactly the same size as a BMW 5-Series. GM could have tested their new model at their Michigan proving grounds; however, they chose to test it at Germany’s famed Nuerburgring where it promptly set lap times better than its targeted competitor. A bold move? Sure. But the automotive press picked it up and the car has been a rousing success. This week, Cadillac announced a new model, the ATS, aimed at BMWs best selling 3-series. Cadillac executives didn’t mince words, saying the car would be new from the ground up and focused on performance.
Still, I am a foreign car guy. I have owned 3 Mercedes, 2 Audi’s, 2 BMWs, an Acura and a Lexus. Indeed, my first love was a 62 Mercedes 190SL. I got to spend some time with another car guy, AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson, a couple of years ago. It turns out his first car was a 190SL. We commiserated on how difficult it was to keep its duel carburetors synchronized among other things. It was a great day for a car guy.
What about you? What was your first car?