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Bob Lutz, GM's 'ultimate car guy,' to retire

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TOM KRISHER and DAN STRUMPF | March 3, 2010 07:02 PM EST | AP

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DETROIT — Bob Lutz, the longtime auto industry executive who led nearly a complete overhaul of General Motors' lineup, will retire May 1.

"My work here is done," the 78-year-old executive said in an e-mail to The Associated Press from the Geneva Motor Show on Wednesday.

Lutz, GM's vice chairman and a former U.S. Marine aviator who once crashed his personal helicopter at a Michigan airport, has been responsible for overhauling design at GM and has held senior positions at three other automakers during his career.

However, Lutz's role at GM diminished during his last year with the automaker. He originally planned to retire at the end of 2009, but changed his mind after then-CEO Fritz Henderson asked him to lead the GM's marketing efforts as the company exited bankruptcy protection.

But Henderson was ousted from the company in December. His successor, Ed Whitacre, took away Lutz's marketing duties and made him a "special adviser" – an ambiguous position that left him with no one reporting to him. Whitacre said he wanted Lutz to help him learn the ropes at GM.

Long a fan of flashy race cars, Lutz has called the Chevrolet Volt, the gas-electric sedan that can go up to 40 miles on battery-power alone, his proudest achievement.

Lutz is also credited with leading crosstown rival Chrysler Group LLC to success in the 1990s and spent time at Ford Motor Co. and Germany's BMW AG. He rejoined GM in 2001.

At the Detroit auto show in January, Lutz said he supported opening more factories to produce hot-selling products. That was how Chrysler gained market share in the 1990s, he said. But GM executives ruled that possibility out earlier this week.

Still, Lutz said Wednesday he would be leaving GM happy with the way the company was running.

"The whole organization, top to bottom, now has absolute product superiority as the highest objective which enables all others," he said in an e-mail. "So, I can retire in peace."

Lutz said recent vehicle successes at GM, including the Buick LaCrosse, Cadillac SRX, GMC Terrain, Chevrolet Equinox and Chevrolet Camaro, played heavily into his decision to retire. GM Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre praised Lutz's influence on the automaker.

"I, along with many other men and women in GM and throughout the industry, have greatly benefited from his passion, wisdom and guidance," Whitacre said in a statement.

Lutz began his career at GM in 1963 holding sales and marketing positions. Through the late 1980s and into the 1990s, he held senior positions at Chrysler, leading all of its automotive activities including sales, marketing, product development and manufacturing.

During his time at Chrysler, the automaker released a new, more aggressive Ram pickup truck, which vaulted Chrysler to a larger market share. At GM, Lutz pushed the Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac CTS, two top sellers and symbols of the next generation of GM products. He also upgraded GM's vehicle interiors, making them more competitive with Japanese models.

"Bob had an uncanny ability to champion an idea or a concept through the organization," said Michael Robinet, an automotive analyst with CSM Worldwide in Michigan.

"While at GM, he was able to globalize the company and make it think like one GM. ... Over at Chrysler, he was able, with a clean sheet of paper, to reinvent the company from a product perspective," Robinet said. "He was the ultimate car guy."

Over the years Lutz acquired a reputation for candor and flamboyance. Long a fan of high-horsepower V-8 muscle cars, he was in charge in 2008 when GM rolled out the Corvette ZR1, which has a supercharged 638-horsepower V-8 engine, a top speed of 205 miles per hour and can go from 0 to 60 mph in 3.4 seconds.

His candor sometimes backfired. Despite his support of the Volt, he once criticized Washington's "global-climate-change mania." He worried it would be coupled with "perhaps ill-conceived ways to curb fuel use." Lutz once called global warming a crock, setting off a firestorm of criticism.

Lutz was born in Zurich, Switzerland, and earned a bachelor's degree in production management, and a master's degree in business administration from the University of California, Berkeley.