Bob Lutz, the former Vice Chairman of General Motors, is the most famous also-ran in the auto business. In the course of his 47-year rampage through the industry, he’s been within swiping range of the brass ring at Ford, BMW, Chrysler and, most recently, GM, but he’s never landed the top gig. It’s because he “made the cars too well,” he says. It might also have something to do with the fact that Maximum Bob, who could double as a character on Mad Men, is less an éminence grise than a pithy self-promoter who has a tendency to go off corporate message. That said, his new book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business, has a message worth hearing. To get the U.S. economy growing again, Lutz says, we need to fire the M.B.A.s and let engineers run the show.
Lutz’s main argument is that companies, shareholders and consumers are best served by product-driven executives. In his book, Lutz wisecracks his way through the 1960s design- and technology-led glory days at GM to the late-1970s takeover by gangs of M.B.A.s. Executives, once largely developed from engineering, began emerging from finance. The results ranged from the sobering (managers signing off on inferior products because customers “had no choice”) to the hilarious (Cadillac ashtrays that wouldn’t open because of corporate mandates that they be designed to function at -40°F). It’s pretty easy to imagine Car Guy Lutz removing his mirrored shades and shouting to the cowering line manager, “Well, customers in North Dakota will be happy. Too bad nobody else will!”