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02.15.11

Bob Lutz May Make Detroit Comeback

GM wants to rehire colorful auto guru, but the company’s government overseer is balking—for now.

As General Motors Co. gets closer to emerging from government oversight, the automaker is trying to hire Bob Lutz, its former chief of vehicle development, as a consultant — but the Treasury overseer has been opposing the appointment, a Detroit source tells The Daily Beast, on the grounds that it might be viewed as a golden parachute.

The Lutz initiative comes as GM management, led by chief executive Dan Akerson, has been on a push to speed development and reduce cost, as well as to reform GM’s corporate culture, which has been criticized as hidebound. A colorful former Marine fighter pilot, Lutz’s storied half-century career in the auto industry includes stints at GM (twice), Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Corp. and BMW AG. The 79-year-old favors an intuitive approach to designing and marketing vehicles, often arguing as a counter-weight to analysts who rely mostly on market data and research clinics.

Paying him so close to his retirement could look like a sweetheart payout.

The U.S. Treasury has opposed Lutz's appointment on the grounds that, since he left the company last May, paying him so close to his retirement could look like a sweetheart payout. The government could soften its opposition in three months, once a year has passed since Lutz’s retirement. If an agreement is reached with Lutz, GM would gain access to his considerable experience developing vehicles. In any event, the U.S., which owns a third of GM, aims to sell its shares as soon as possible, which would remove GM from the government’s purview.

Since May various GM executives, including Akerson, have been calling Lutz to pick his brain. Should he return, perhaps devoting a day a week to the automaker, he could be helpful in product development, as well as design and marketing.

“Bob is an executive of singular experience in the auto industry,” said Selim Bingol, GM vice president of public affairs, who declined to comment further.

GM three weeks ago promoted Mary Barra, 49, to senior vice president in charge of global product development, an area where she’s had relatively little experience. Presumably Lutz, who declined comment, would advise on the design and functionality of new vehicle models, his specialty. Starting in 2002, Lutz exerted heavy influence over some of GM's more successful vehicles of recent years, such as the Chevrolet Malibu midsize sedan. He authored a few duds as well, such as the Pontiac GTO.

After GM was embarrassed in the early part of the decade by the failure of the Pontiac Aztek crossover vehicle due to its homely appearance, Lutz commented that some GM vehicles looked like “angry kitchen appliances.” Former GM chief executive Rick Wagoner, later fired by the U.S., hired Lutz to help improve future GM models.

Doron Levin has covered the world auto industry from Detroit for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Detroit Free Press, Bloomberg, and others, since 1984.