GM’s Bob Lutz Bids a Final Farewell

Bob Lutz’s long goodbye ended Tuesday, with a macho montage of photos and videos chronicling the auto industry icon’s 47-year career — and his serial retirements.

During a celebration at General Motors Co.’s Technical Center in Warren, GM executives and employees toasted, roasted and commemorated the end — the real end — of Lutz’s automotive career.

Lutz retired from GM as vice chairman April 30.

He and his wife, Denise, were surrounded at their final farewell by several hundred GM employees who gathered to honor the man credited with leading a product renaissance at the Detroit automaker.

“GM is in such good shape coming out of Chapter 11 because of Bob Lutz,” said Tom Stephens, vice chairman of global product development.

“You taught us how important it was to listen — not only to other people, but listen to your gut. In the automotive industry, that gut reaction is probably the most important reaction.”

Lutz, 78, initially announced his retirement from GM in February 2009, complaining about government oversight attached to billions in federal aid that kept GM afloat.

He later chose to stay with the company, heading the marketing and communications department. But his continued employment at GM drew criticism from critics of the bailout and GM, who pointed to Lutz as evidence that the automaker was resistant to change.

In December, Chairman and Chief Executive Ed Whitacre Jr. named Lutz a special adviser. Four months later, Lutz announced his retirement.

Stephens ribbed Lutz about his on-again, off-again retirement status before launching a video, set to the tune “Danger Zone” from the movie “Top Gun” — an apt choice for Lutz, a former Marine fighter pilot.

There was Lutz in uniform, in a cockpit, in a hot tub, in a hot rod, with a cigar, with a sport fish, with Donald Trump, with a cigar, on a motorcycle, with a cigar, with a cocktail, with David Letterman.

And there he was, alongside and in some of the vehicles he championed at GM, including the Chevrolet Malibu and Volt and the Pontiac Solstice.

After receiving two gifts, including an aluminum, scale-sized set of some of those vehicles, and a model of an engine, Lutz launched a speech that was part career epitaph, part analysis of what nearly killed GM and part plug of his as-yet untitled book.

“I think this is the third time I’ve retired,” he said. “I think this time I can actually achieve it and not go back to work full time for anybody.”

Lutz has spent the past few weeks getting used to life as a retired executive, which has delivered some shocks.

“Suddenly you find cars don’t fill themselves (with gas) like they used to,” he joked, “or wash themselves.”

He’s also spent time writing a book that will trace the decline of GM from the 1970s and lay blame for about 80 percent of it at the automaker’s own feet. The book also will focus on the company’s culture and use the Volt extended-range electric car, which Lutz championed, as a metaphor for the transformation of GM, he said.

Lutz, who held senior positions at each of Detroit’s Big Three automakers and has overseen some of the industry’s most daring vehicles, including the Dodge Viper sports car, said GM has recovered from that failed mindset.

But he vowed to return, in some form, if GM ever loses its way again.

“If I see things going wrong, there will be the ghost of Bob Lutz,” he said, “and it ain’t going to be friendly.”

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