Sunday, September 25, 2011

They Don't Write Songs About Volvos

57 Studebaker Silver Hawk
I am a “car guy”, sort of. I have always loved cars. My parents used to tell stories about me at age 3 sitting in the back of their 47 Dodge naming every car that went by. There’s a Plymouth, a Hudson, a DeSoto and so on.

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.

My first car was a 57 Studebaker Silver Hawk. It had a hole in the floorboard and a dented trunk lid but it ran a 289 V-8, same as the Mustangs of that era, and only cost me $100. Best of all, it was mine! This was an era when rock songs referred to cars as part of the popular culture. When the Beach Boys sang “SHE’S SO FINE, MY 4-OH-9”, everyone knew they were talking about a Chevy Impala with a 409 cubic inch engine. The kids at school nicknamed my car the Batmobile because its fins reminded us of the car on the cult TV show starring Adam West. Or, maybe it was because I drove like a bat out of hell. I don’t know.

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.

79 Camaro
My first GM car was a 79 Camaro. It ran a small block 305 V8. It was blue with a black interior and was a great boulevard cruiser. When I became a daily commuter in New Jersey, I traded it for a VW Rabbit which got great gas mileage and held more stuff.

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.

My 190SL

Next, communication. You need to relentlessly communicate your vision to the troops. They want it, they love it, and they want to be included. Lutz was in charge of product planning during his recent stint with GM. He had no authority over engineering, marketing or manufacturing. He had to convince not only the company’s CEO but also the various committees involved creating new products of his vision.

Last, but certainly not least, find likeminded people, support them and shine a light on them. In the end, it will be the folks on the front lines that will get the job done for you.

Lutz book really made me want to root for GM. The author is an ex-Marine fighter pilot who carried his combat instincts over to a career he loved.

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?


  1. I am a car guy. I'm also a plane, train, and boat guy... Actually pretty much anything that involves engines, motors, mechanical engineering and reeks of performance. You're absolutely right. Lutz knows. They don't sing about Volvos...or Priuses (Prii?) for that matter

    My first car was a candy-apple green Chevy Vega station wagon with a Buick 252ci V-6 from a Riviera.

    The car originally had the gutless 4-cyl and weak TH-250 tranny. After I managed to wreck the car's drivetrain in a rainstorm, my father told me to put the car back together and thus the project took off.

    He found a shade-tree kind of guy with the prerequisite Cracker accent and partnered me up with him to "learn" how to do a junkyard swap. In hindsight, I think it was so my 16yr-old self could learn how to monitor the progress, report back, and ensure his payments were duly applied.

    Anyway, when the car was "ready for delivery" by our "mechanic's" esteemed judgement, it was running on four cylinders and would intermittantly hit on six. It was missing the torque arm from the transmission to the differential as well having a 2" too long cobbled-up driveshaft that bound up in the transmission tailshaft output. Everytime you put it into gear at idle, the rear of the car would rise a few inches and everything would bind up with much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

    I learned a lot from that car, a lot of it practical engineering and "vendor management" skills.

    When I got done sorting out the car on my own over the summer, I had a fun high school ride that would surprise many a BMW 3-series on the freeways in the SF Bay Area. The stock 4.something rearend and Holley 4bbl really gave the car some snap and authority on passing.

    Anyway, true car guys "get it". Messing around with practical applications of engineering and baking in the performance and design with as few compromises as possible leads to great products. Look at Enzo Ferrari as an example.

    As a nation, we need to quit watering things down and accepting the media's baby food at face value. As parents, we need to teach critical thinking. Whether it's our nation's education system, or our politics, pick a direction, lead, and execute the vision.

    Determine what is our national competitive advantage and fiercely protect it. It used to be innovation and manufacturing prowess. The recent trend of "the global economy" and offshoring is giving the store. In three years, foreign nations will have reverse-engineered our products and undercut us on in our own markets (solar, PV cells...) while the C's take their short-term money and run. The end result is the loss of the middle-class, the backbone of our innovative, creative, and patriotic edge.

  2. John,

    My first car was a 1974 Pontiac Firebird Formula 400 with a 4 barrel carburetor. I placed a huge down payment on it….thanks to several long summers of working hard and saving every cent. I bought it at the peak of the gas crisis, not a terribly smart move.

    It was also nicknamed “The Batmobile” by my friends…even though it was white with orange pin striping. It wasn’t as fast as a Trans-Am but it sure could move.

    I had an 8-track tape in it and I had a bunch of Barry White and Love Unlimited Orchestra tapes in it. The car, and the Barry White tapes, made it a lethal chick magnet…..and this dorky Cuban teenager needed all the help he could get.


  3. Your best column on leadership ever. That’s what it’s all about!

    (My first car: ’72 Camaro Rally Sport 350. Overpowered, underbraked, rubber in four gears. Midnight Bronze.)

    Now you’re singing about it, right from the heart. GM in its Glory days was all about leadership.

    So was Kodak. So was Xerox.

    So was Apple every time Jobs got his hands on it.

    Leaders have entrepreneur hearts. They believe and they take risks.

    They want to win, but their definition of that is much sexier than the jealous guy’s.

    If you’re jealous, you think he wants your money. Truth is, he wants you to drive, and love, his car – the one that just rolled off his new assembly line!

    The entrepreneur wants to bring his vision to life, and that’s all that matters to him. That’s success, and the money just comes with it.

    Greed? Hah! To him, hanging onto money is for suckers.

    They don’t want to accumulate, they want to spend. And win. And live well.

    They don’t hoard. That’s for bean counters. Many of them rip through a few fortunes in a single lifetime.

    Because the real fun isn’t the money itself, it’s that new business you just started, it’s that new car you just designed, it’s that new team you just put together.

    That’s when you’re producing.

    Passion and leadership go together. You and I have both felt it.

    The biggest sin of government control (sold by the class warfare model) is that they chain up that entrepreneur, put him in the basement, take his money, vilify him for making it, give it to the whiners, and then they simply bore the shit out of us.

    I wonder what the Corvette would look like if the Department of Transportation and the Department of Energy could just form a committee……

    Yes we need leaders. But you won’t find leaders in government buildings.

    And we don’t need just one. We need thousands. Again.

    Bob Cannan

    Chairman and CEO

    Eagle Productivity Solutions

  4. Excellent content… Cars are my art and still tickle my soul... Thanks for sharing…


  5. Another great effort, John. I liked your comment on courage, and thought about many CEOs I work with that don't have any. Not innovative at all, and are just trying to keep up with the bank across the street......a far cry from cultures like that of the Citibank we once knew.

  6. Part of why Detroit is in trouble is that brand identification is difficult; with the aerodynamic profile of current day cars it is hard to tell them apart... so if no one can tell on sight that you're driving a nine year old car, why buy a new one?

  7. John,
    On the 3 principles that you highlighted at the end of your blog, I'm not so sure that surrounding yourself with like minded people will lead you to success. In fact, thats one of the reasons why a lot of great American firms (like GM) haven't been able to adapt to market change. I'm a firm believer that diversity (of experience, personality, thinking style) will help a leader steer an organization to success.

  8. A great point, Russ. In retropect, I could have expressed it differently. In my reading of the book, I was impressed with how Lutz got down to details and found engineers and designers who were as frustrated as he. His approach was to bring cars with exceptional fit and finish -- like Audis and Lexuses -- to the shop floor so great technical people could understand the goal and participate in upgrading GMs engineering. He celebrated their success. Perhaps describing them as like minded (my words not his) was not the best way to make the point.

  9. My first car was a 61 Datsun Station wagon I bought for $100. The next was a brand new 69 Road Runner. It was a great looking car and ran fast but it really was not a well built car. But boy did it have style!

  10. Funny thing John, but Sly (from the Family Stone-"Wanna get ya highya" ala Woodstock 1969) once worth $40 million, is now penniless and homeless and living in a van somewhere in California. On the Entertainment Tonight spot, they interviewed him-a shadow of his former self thanks to drugs. He reminisced about his mansion and money and stable of cars...of which he has retained only a single one (other than the converted van he calls home): a Gold 1967 Studebaker Silver Hawk. This was just last night. Spooky. I distinctly recall your Hawk (wasn't it gold, black and white?) and how proud you were of it. George's first car was a 1960 Chevy, blue three on the column. That and his mom's 1963 Oldsmobile Delta 88, Gray and White Tank that was addicted to STP. My first car that belonged to me alone, was a 1965 Buick Special. Over my lifetime I have owned 25 cars & four motorcycles. At present I have a small fleet, six all together: 1975 280-Z I bought new in...1975, 1977 Corvette T-top, 1991 Dodge Stealth, 1997 Jaguar XK-8 Convertible, 2004 Audi Quattro A8L, and a 2008 Toyota Tacoma 4WD pickup. After several years of being away from the two wheelers, I bought a 2001 HD 1200 Sportster . Great hobby/passion those cars.... Frank Miller

  11. 1957 Buick Special (floorboard starter and push button automatic). If you tried to go over 50 MPH…the car said HEY cut it out.

    1964 Plymouth Valiant (slant six) so sensible

    1970 VW Super Beetle (my first new car)

    1973 Plymouth Barracuda with a Hemi………..

    In 2006 I traded my Mercedes S500 in on a Daimler Chrysler 300 C Hemi – love that car!

    No idea what I would buy today!

  12. Will Silk • Great post John! My first car was a '74 Plymouth Satellite, 318 V-8 with a 727 Torqueflite transmission. Lots of torque, soft suspension, and adequate brakes at best; but the mill was tops as it was a MOPAR V-8, and at 16, this was the closest I could get to a Hemi or 440 on a teenage budget.

    In terms of Bob Lutz, he's a true hero if you ask me. His leadership abilities know no boundries. He pulled Chrysler back to the top with the help of great designers like Tom Gale, and then moved to GM where he resurrected the Pontiac brand into a performance icon that the marque had not seen since the 1960s. To do this he surely motivated a lot of people with the vision he had and the direction that he was aiming to move in.

    Unfortunately the bean counters went for Pontiac first in their quest to cut and save, a major error on their part, as the brand under Lutz's oversight was destined to become a marque that could rival the best performance machines in the world.

    On a better note, Cadillac is maturing nicely after its rebirth into an upscale performance luxury brand, something that I think began around 1994 with the STS, but was further catapulted to success when Lutz arrived at GM and began to aid the iconic American marque in focusing on just how to attain their goal of taking the battle to BMW and winning.

    I just don't think there's enough people like Bob to keep the industry going. Today's car buyers seem like they are looking more for appliances on wheels than actual motor vehicles that offer performance and a bit of adrenaline to those that take the wheel. I still have hopes though that things will change. I myself am anxiously awaiting the new Chevy 130R.

  13. Thanks, Will. I am watching the new Toyota/Subaru 2+2 twins to see if Detroit responds. A Corvette, Jr. perhaps? I think Ford has it nailed with the Mustang but most people are unaware. A V6 Mustang can be nicely fitted out for $30K and give you much superior performance. It won't be as "tossable" as they like to say in the car magazines. But, it's a great car nevertheless.

  14. Will Silk • Great point on the Mustang, John; and yes, with just over 300HP on tap from the base 3.7 V-6, it takes the fight head to head with Camaro and its V-6 model. As you also mentioned, the "toss-ability" of these cars is often the area where most enthusiasts find issue with the Big Three. Bob Lutz was a master at organizing the troops and putting out a well rounded product in my opinion, with cars like the Pontiac Solstice, GTO, and the latest Camaro being examples of this. Handling was placed right at the top of the agenda, and as you mentioned in your post, Lutz surely aimed to match handling and power outputs accordingly due to his key knowledge and understanding of the enthusiast customer that these cars were being aimed at.

    With the new 130R concept that appeared at the NAIAS in Detroit recently, I think a baby Corvette may indeed be on the way. Talk is of a small ~1.5 liter mill that sports a turbo to be the propulsion mechanism, and the chassis is laid out as a front-mid engine with rear drive from what I've read.

    The key question remains will GM simply make the 130R another Chevy model, or will it diversify the Corvette brand, making it a stand alone brand similar to what Dodge has done with their Dodge Truck line. The leadership at GM is playing with a loaded cannon here, as the Corvette remains one of the most iconic cars in the history of American automobile production.

    I personally wouldn't mind seeing Corvette become a separate division of the General, thus focusing 100% on sports car production as well as adding an entry level and mid field sports cars to the fold. A mid engined machine would be a nice addition as a separate Corvette model, and would be something that Duntov aimed for years ago when he was at the helm of the Corvette program.

    Thanks again for posting this discussion; it's great to chat about this stuff.

  15. Will, did you happen to see the 2 hour special on Velocity channel on the First 100 Years of Chevrolet. It's amazing how close the Corvette came to extinction about 20 years ago.

  16. Will Silk • Hi John, I didn't catch that program. It doesn't surprise me though considering the issues that the Corvette engineering team had to deal with regarding the C4 series of cars. The car was originally engineered with a spar connecting the center of the top of the windscreen to the center of the roll hoop or body. A GM president saw the prototype and reportedly said that he'd never approve the car with the spar in place. That piece was crucial to chassis stiffness, and with it removed the engineering team didn't have the time to properly sort the chassis before the C4 made its debut for the '84 model year. It apparently took a great deal of time to get the chassis fully sorted, and the engineering team was never really pleased with the way the C4 turned out.

    I've never driven a C4 Vette to date, but have seen plenty of the type in action at tracks and auto crosses and can honestly say that they appear to do quite well for a car that Corvette engineering was never fully satisfied with.

  17. The show featured the head of the Chevy division during the 1990 timeframe (I don't recall the name) who said the C4 was cut from his budget so he found the money in some slush fund and developed the car in a "skunk works". Fascinating stuff.....

  18. Will Silk • That's really interesting, and again no surprise as the General at that period in time was starting to realize the trouble it was in. It was once said, by who I'm not quite sure, that if things at General Motors ever started to decline, it would be 20 years before the company would fully recognize it.

    Many would say that's true, as there are a lot of historians out there claiming that GM began to enter a period of decline in the early to mid 1970s, and didn't come to full grips with how bad things had gotten until the early to mid 1990s.

    Thankfully, there were key people in leadership positions at the time that were able to keep the company going, and in the case of Corvette, retain a truly significant sports car for us to continue to enjoy today.

  19. Kurt Niemeyer • John & Will,
    Bob Lutz is a real "Car Guy" check out his Aston Martin that his Father bought new to support the British car makers in 1952 when the Labor Party was voted out of power, and Bob restored. His book about Bean Counters vs The Car guys is very insightful and hits the target square on the head. Lutz had a super interview with Dave Despain a few ago that may still be archived on Nobody remembers Roger Smith for bringing anything good to automobiles or the business. Corvette Engineering has some great talent, Danny Kellermeyer being one that championed the marque with many racers and built some stout Corvettes for competition.

  20. Will Silk • Spot on Kurt! And yes, Bob's Aston is incredible, I've seen it in a few profiles of his garage. He has a Cunningham C-3 in his collection as well, one of the most beautiful American cars ever built (OK, so Briggs had the bodies done in Italy, it's still a great car in my book).

    I have a lot of respect for Dave McLellan, the retired Corvette chief engineer. To step into shoes formerly filled by Zora Arkus Duntov and then be told to design the next Corvette (the C4) and have to lead a team to build a better car than the out going C3 that Bill Mitchell originally designed takes incredible ability and courage.