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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Airs every Sunday at 10:30AM on Detroit Public Television.
Autoline Detroit Podcast
Click here to subscribe in iTunes
Follow Autoline on Twitter for ongoing updates every day!
Subscribe to Podcast | | | Listen on Phone
[Image: Bill Pugliano/Getty]