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Detroit Auto Show: Bob Lutz of GM Has a Split Personality

DETROIT -- General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz is a lot more well-rounded than he lets on.

Lutz, 76, has a carefully cultivated image as a cigar-smoking, ex-Marine fighter pilot and consummate "car guy," the highest praise in the auto industry, and especially in the automotive media.

In the automotive lexicon, a "car guy" trusts his gut instincts. He's the opposite of a "bean-counter" who avoids risk at all cost and never does anything unless it's been analyzed and researched to death.

Typical Detroit nostalgia is for the Good Old Days when the car guys ran everything. The bean-counters cleaned up the mess when the market turned down, and counted the profits when sales went up.

Lutz indulged in some of just that sort of nostalgia in a Jan. 11 appearance before the Society of Automotive Analysts, as part of the kickoff for this week's Detroit auto show press preview.

Last month, Lutz was kicked upstairs as an advisor on design and global product development by GM Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre. Lutz had been vice chairman, marketing and communications, filling in for Mark LaNeve, who abruptly retired last year. Before than, Lutz was widely known as GM's "car czar." At the SAA meeting, Lutz was asked what he was most proud of in his GM career, and what he most regretted.

"I'm most proud to re-instill into GM the thing I observed 1950s and 1960s ... the period when GM was the U.S. industry powerhouse," Lutz said.

"GM was an entirely product focused company. It was a design-focused program. Did designers and product people some times waste money? Yes they did. There came a period where design and product were relegated to a lower level," he said. GM in effect became "a bank," he said.

Lutz said the new, post-bankruptcy GM is marked by "total focus and dedication to product."

Lutz's biggest regret? "That it took me so long... but if I had moved faster, maybe the (GM) organism would have rejected me," he said. In 2002, Lutz rejoined GM, where he had worked earlier in his career. In the interim, Lutz was best-known as president and COO of Chrysler.

But inside Lutz, I've always felt there's a bean-counter struggling to get out. Lutz has a fine appreciation of the financial benefits of developing global cars, to spread costs across the biggest possible production volume, for instance. Last night he made some additional statements worthy of a bean-counter.

For example, he complained about the Japanese government manipulating the yen-dollar exchange rate in the past, to make Japanese cars cheaper. The net effect was an advantage Lutz estimated at $4,000 per car.

More recently, the exchange rate has gone the wrong way for the Japanese car companies. "Now the rate has the Japanese manufacturers saying, 'This is terrible, this is terrible, we don't know how we can make money at this rate,' " Lutz said, pausing for dramatic effect.

"And my eyes remain dry," he said, getting a loud chuckle from the friendly, hometown audience.

It takes some chutzpah for a company like GM, which is more than 50 percent-owned by the U.S. government, to complain about other countries supporting their car companies. In that, maybe Lutz the Car Guy merges personalities with Lutz the Bean-Counter.