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Can His Arsenal Survive New Management?

When Bob Lutz ran General Motors' product development efforts, he did something that no other car company has done in the history of making cars. He hired four automotive journalists to assess all of GM's new vehicles before they were OK'd for production. And their word was law. Everything had to be developed to their satisfaction.

That didn't go down well with GM's traditional engineering staff, at least not at first. They didn't like the fact that four outsiders, four media critics with no product development experience, could force them to make changes on a new-car program. But because the journos reported to Lutz, they had all the protection they needed.

[Lutz] personally asked me not to write anything about them. That's how much of a competitive advantage he felt they brought to GM.
Lutz hired them as full-time employees because he wanted an independent, third party voice to evaluate GM's cars as they went through their development stages. "These are four guys who made a living out of critiquing cars," Lutz says, "and they made a pretty good living at it." Since the four didn't hold any allegiance to the design, engineering or manufacturing staffs at GM, they could feel free to critique any car just as they would when they were full-time journalists.

Lutz tells me they were his secret weapons. He credits them with the reason why GM's cars are now tuned to world-class standards. These guys didn't design, engineer or develop any vehicles. That was done by GM's long-standing employees. But the journos brought an enthusiast magazine mind-set to the evaluation process to make sure there would be very little for the press to pick apart.

I've known about Lutz's secret weapons for several years. But he personally asked me not to write anything about them. That's how much of a competitive advantage he felt they brought to GM. He didn't want to see any other car company copying this approach. Since these guys are friends and colleagues whom I've known for years, I also didn't want to jeopardize their jobs. So I didn't write about them. Until now. And now I think it's important that I do.

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John McElroyJohn McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as a Detroit insider to Autoblog readers.

The four journalists I'm talking about are Jack Keebler, Rich Ceppos, Ron Sessions and Nick Twork. Before joining GM Keebler was Senior Editor at Motor Trend. He has an excellent sense about cars and can feel powertrain and suspension subtleties that escape most reviewers – and engineers.

Rich Ceppos spent most of his career at Car and Driver, with stints at Automobile and Autoweek, where he became publisher. He is a wickedly fast driver who probably could have raced professionally had he chosen to.

Ron Sessions has a superb technical background. He knows cars inside and out, having written a number of books on car repair and restoration. He also worked at Road & Track and Motor Trend.

Can Lutz's secret weapons survive GM's latest management changes?
Nick Twork contributed to Popular Mechanics and Autoweek early in his career. He later became an automotive analyst and also worked in public relations at Ford, all of which has given him an excellent sense of the automotive business. Though he joined GM as one of Lutz's secret weapons, he didn't remain one for very long. Currently, he's the director of public relations for Cadillac, which I would classify as a very astute career move.

Bob Lutz is gone from GM now. Tom Stephens, who took Lutz's place, is no longer in charge of product development. Today Mary Barra is running PD. She's tasked with developing new cars faster and at lower cost. That's got me wondering if Lutz's secret weapons can survive GM's latest management changes.

GM's new CEO Dan Akerson openly admits he's not a car guy and is clearly impatient with GM's product cadence. He wants things to move a lot faster, and he wants to take out a lot of cost. That's why he put Barra in charge. But the former journalists are known to force the development people to take their time to get things right. That approach could quickly get the heave-ho, especially if Barra doesn't protect them like Lutz did.

Product development requires a gut feel. It requires a passion for excellence.
One of the areas where the journos played a critical role was in the development of the Chevrolet Volt. As you know, the gasoline engine in that car comes on when the batteries run below a given level. But in early engineering versions of Volt, depending on the driving cycle, especially climbing grades or at highway speeds, the engine would come on with a roar at red line. The "secret weapons" kept pushing the engineers for a more subtle engagement. And they kept pushing until they got what they wanted. Today, that's one of the more impressive aspects of the car – just how unobtrusively the engine comes on.

The product development process is more than just a process. But in the pre-Lutz years, that's often how GM approached it. All it did was check off the checklist. It collected its benchmarking targets. It ran up millions of miles on its proving grounds. It did its shake-down tests. And it came out with a bunch of soul-less cars that hit the market with a thud.

Product development requires a gut feel. It requires a passion for excellence. Above all it requires an in-depth knowledge of product, and what will convert customers into true believers. Lutz's secret weapons gave that to GM. Let's hope it keeps them.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 4 Years Ago
      While not a bad idea in theory, I really question how valuable it is to have these guys giving the thumbs-up or thumbs-down on cars like the Malibu or Cruze. These are people who spend their time critiquing minor performance differences between 5 $100,000+ sports cars. Do they really have a good idea of what average people want out of their cars?

      Put another way, what are the odds that these 4 would come up with anything remotely close to the formula of the Camry?
        • 4 Years Ago
        @TomTom: I think his point is that auto journalists in general don't know what the market wants. GM and the like want to sell cars to the average Joe, not an auto journalist who may have different priorities similar to how film critics often don't agree with the general public.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I think you need to make a better distinction between critiquing and developing. The engineers have goals that a product must accomplish, in the case of a Camry, to safely, comfortably, and reliably transport passengers and their belongings. The reviewers will tell them what's good and bad about it- but the engineers won't take "it handles sloppily" and decide instead to build a new MR-2 instead. They can use that critique to tighten up handling, but won't simply change the nature of the car to do so.
        • 4 Years Ago

        "So then why do so many people drive Corollas?"

        I have no clue, but if I have to guess I'd say it is because:

        - they never drove something else before they bought (CR and friends say it's great, so it is great - why bother looking around)

        - sincerely, up to last year or two max, anything else they might have test-driven in that class sucked as bad as Corolla
        • 4 Years Ago

        "I think his point is that auto journalists in general don't know what the market wants. GM and the like want to sell cars to the average Joe, not an auto journalist who may have different priorities similar to how film critics often don't agree with the general public."

        I call BS. Actually, I would have said the same thing you did if I didn't see proof to the contrary with my own eyes. My wife doesn't care about cars, hates anything related to auto industry, has no clue what suspension does ... and so on. Yet, when she test-drove certain German sedan the effect was so clearly visible and she wouldn't quit talking about smooth this and smooth that. She can't say "handling", but she sure as hell kept going on how she hit 270 degrees entrance ramp at 60 mph and it felt like going in a straight line. And so on ...

        If somebody can't appreciate these things, no matter how far they might be removed from being called car enthusiast, maybe they should switch to riding a bicycle.

        So, yes, general public can appreciate certain things that only enthusiasts consciously care about and look for intentionally when evaluating a car.
        • 4 Years Ago
        So then why do so many people drive Corollas?
        • 4 Years Ago
        Okay, so now you agree with my point that enthusiasts have nothing in common with typical car shoppers...
        • 4 Years Ago

        "Nah, your latter point is completely untrue. There have been better choices for handling in compact cars for at least ten years."

        Well, yes. 1st generation Focus, Mazda 3 and Golf. We all know what happened to Focus, that leaves Mazda 3 and Golf. Do you see *typical* Corolla customer cross-shopping with Mazda and VW? Now they will have Focus, Elantra, Cruze and new Civic - much better than before. Of course, with hope that new Civic will get more Euro flavor than just styling.
        • 4 Years Ago

        "Okay, so now you agree with my point that enthusiasts have nothing in common with typical car shoppers..."

        I really never contested that point. I just said that, unless dead, even typical car shopper will appreciate better handling and more refined car. They have no clue WHY (which enthusiast does) they like it, but they know they like it better than the other car without it.

      • 4 Years Ago
      So you're telling me there was virtually no impact on the product that we see today because of these 4 journos? Personally, the cars still aren't appealing, as the majority of GM lacks any style. Still lack innovation, except maybe the Volt, but that's way over priced for what you get. GM vehicles still scream cheap materials in and out. So Lutz may consider it a success. But from a consumers eye, I have seen no drastic change in any of their products over the last decade. Just pushing out more stale appliances.
      • 4 Years Ago
      The problem with what Lutz done - hired journalist who probably dictated a car that suited thier own agenda and not a vehicle to satisfy the common folk whom not only generate sales but 'retail' income at that.

      Eitherway .. General Motors failed in a spectacular way which says nothing about the competancy of Lutz.
      Linda Sheridan
      • 4 Years Ago
      The reason GM made a turn around is by SCREWING all of their stockholders who
      believed in them and buying stock in GM by reorganizing and claiming bankruptcy- making our stocks worthless
      and then starting under a new name and offering IPO's.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Here is a secret weapon free of charge. Engineer a car that is relatively problem free for 200,000 with a decent fit and finish like a honda accord and people will be lining up to buy one. I will be the first in line. A car is a major investment for me i need a reliable car that will last a long time and go for big miles. Last 2 hondas went for over 250,000 relatively trouble free. I want to buy American. Please GM just do it already I honestly cannot understand why they just dont build a better a car. Its the long term reliability stupid!
      • 4 Years Ago
      Yet, not only did General Motors continue to engineer amoung the poorest quality, much unreliable and troublesome cars a customer could buy - the company also become a catastrophic failure.

      Says alot really !!!
      • 4 Years Ago
      GM Nothing but smoke and mirrors
      The trend continues from the GM cylinder downtown Detroit
      • 4 Years Ago
      "Lutz hired them as full-time employees because he wanted an independent, third party voice to evaluate GM's cars as they went through their development stages."-----------------------------once you hire someone they are no longer independent. If Lutz wanted some constructive criticism he could have released a few photos to this website called Autoblog and read the comments.

      The grade on Lutz is in, he knows how to make sexy cars, but he does not know how to make cars that people want to buy at the price the company can sell them and still make a profit.
        • 4 Years Ago
        so you're saying the four journalists hired have had no effect on GM's product lineup and that a photo posted to a website would have had better effect?

        I disagree...and so do the results of the article.

        my neighbor just bought a new malibu and she's ecstatic about the car, she says it drives like a cadillac (of course she's not a big car girl) but i have to say that in chocolate brown, its pretty classy.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Whoa, where do I sign up for the waiting list for these 7-speed AWD diesel turbos??

        WANT! ;-)
        • 4 Years Ago
        But that is long after many major changes can happen. You think they roll out prototypes that are nearly complete before internal people evaluate things on them? It's a constant process.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Thats exactly what Bob Lutz did.........

        he just used jaded and angry journalists who were gonna run the cars into the ground and toss the keys back like a teenager.
        • 4 Years Ago
        As amazing(and handsome!) as we Autoblog readers are, we'd never be able to give the quality insight that personal oversight of these vehicles demands. You're correct that they're no longer "independent" when they're hired, but Lutz still helps his cause with them, especially when they only report to him. The question becomes can Mary Barra do the same? I'm predicting no, but I hope to be proven wrong.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I wish those guys would stop turning to "experts" and start listening to the people who actually buy their products. We don't need a 300 HP gas hog that will go 0-60 in 2,5 seconds. We need a fuel efficient car that will get about 40 or better mpg. I'm sure there is an engineer somewhere who can figure that out. We need a car that can do the speed limit on the interstate (70 mph). And don't tell me nobody has found a more efficient fuel than gasoline. We all know that is backed by money and power. Screw you car builders.
      • 4 Years Ago
      save the company = rape our wallets
      • 4 Years Ago
      Looks like they had nothing to do with the GM Terrain, all the journalist hammer it for how ugly it is and the Silverado is not much better, still resembles the Studebaker truck that GM bought in the 1960's.. Maybe they just critiqued the cars?????? To bad they did not get 4 people off the street
        • 4 Years Ago
        I am pleased w/my eBay Terrain which had tangled w/a semi,because now it has no globs of plastic chrome ,but a slicked nose w/a chrysler 300 grill.
      • 4 Years Ago
      The fact that this automotive press guy doesn't notice that this is a massive conflict of interest shows just how corrupt the whole thing has become.

      I wonder if guys who trashed his car designs previously got hired by him? The lesson current auto writers will take from this is "be nice now, you might get a well-paying gig there later".

      It reminds me a lot of federal government employees and members of congress who regulate industries going easy on them and getting rewarded later with the (unprovable) bribe of a nice paying job there later. The revolving door concept also apparently applies to the automotive press.

      Oh, and just what GM designs are so great? I drive a Chevy truck but they're hardly anything special. SRX - underpowered, overweight blob. CTS - $45K to get one that really performs, resale terrible, not as well finished as most competitors. Camaro? Great, if you like crude power and bad visibility over actual handling prowess. Equinox? Mmm, boxy and plasticy. Their new Cruze costs as much as a much bigger and better finished Hyundai Sonata which about matches its fuel economy. This is progress?

      Looks like they told them to make more cheap feeling cars that are $1000 less than the competitors to capture sales. Seems like the same ole' same ole' to me.

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