Viewpoint -- GM Rediscovers Styling

Hooray for Lutz, car lovers and maybe even market share.

Maybe it is a little early to say that General Motors Corp. is having a renaissance, but the September hire of car guy Robert A. Lutz is apparently being seen as the first step. For example, his appointment as vice chairman for product development seems to coincide with several mutual funds tilting toward GM stock. It's almost as if both GM and Wall Street decided that vehicles must have emotional appeal of styling as well as rational attraction of engineering. If so, that change in thinking raises some questions. Does the new attitude spell a decline in the reliance on brand-management practices at GM? Will the brand-management strategies retreat back to the consumer-products industry? Is this a watershed event where design inspiration is to be drawn from leaders with great ideas and not from focus groups whose contributions have little to do with forward-looking creativity? Lutz, in case you've just arrived from outside this planetary system, is a seasoned veteran of all three Detroit automakers. Once a Marine pilot, he started his career at GM in the 1960s and then served at both Ford and Chrysler before it became DaimlerChrysler. As Chrysler's president, he championed unique vehicles such as the performance-oriented Dodge Viper, the street-rod inspired Prowler, and the PT Cruiser, a charismatic sedan whose appeal comes from combining a retro look with the practicality of a cavernous interior. Between his tenure at Chrysler and rejoining GM, Lutz served as chairman of Exide Technologies. For automotive historians, the appointment of Lutz to solve GM's styling problems should stir some sense of irony. Not only has GM tried the strategy before, but also the automaker is credited with inventing the corporate styling function to solve a marketing challenge. (History does repeat itself!) The setting was the 1920s when archrival Ford was the market leader, leveraging its innovation of mass production to crank out, year after year, seemingly endless quantities of the Model T. The marketer's concession to styling was "any color as long as it's black." (Auto historians estimate that until the end of the Model T's reign in 1927 half of America's cars were produced by the Ford Motor Co.) At the beginning of the 1920s, styling and the annual model change were still theoretical issues that were considered too disruptive to the inflexible processes common to the prevailing production lines. As a defining metric, consider that when Ford finally changed over from the Model T to the Model A in 1927, production was halted for five months, from May 26 to Nov. 1. Meanwhile 1927 marked another industry milestone at GM -- the first stylist's efforts to achieve success in mass production. The vehicle, a Cadillac La Salle, is described in Alfred P. Sloan Jr.'s "My Years with General Motors" (1963, Doubleday). "The effectiveness of the new design can be seen by comparing it with the 1926 Buick sedan. The La Salle looked longer and lower, the 'flying wing' fenders were drawn deeper than their predecessors; side windows had been reapportioned; the belt line had a new type of molding; sharp corners had been rounded off, and other design details were added giving it the unified appearance that we were looking for." Sloan was impressed. "On June 23, 1927, I took up with the Executive Committee a plan to establish a special department to study the question of art and color combinations in General Motors products." The design guru was Harley Earl who went on to head GM's Art and Color Section through the next several decades -- what collectors call the golden age of automobile styling. Earl came to GM from a Los Angeles custom body shop where, as a chief designer he directed the building of custom bodies on American and European chassis for a Hollywood clientele. Will Lutz have as great an influence on the company and its products? While its too early to see GM show cars comparable to Earl's 1938 Buick "Y" job or his 1938 Cadillac 60 Special, the mere presence of Lutz indicates that CEO Rick Wagoner understands the challenge. (Both the Buick 'Y" job and the Cadillac 60 Special defined important styling themes that profitably influenced production models for decades afterward.) A supporting factor is the recent resignation of GM's brand management champion, Ronald L. Zarrella, president of North American Operations. He arrived in 1994 from Bausch & Lomb bringing brand management as a solution for halting GM's market slide. Opponents saw Zarrella's idea as a strategy for shifting styling decisions away from designers and toward marketers. Under Zarrella, styling started with focus groups. With Lutz, styling starts with creative leadership at the design step with focus groups assuming a subordinate position. Lutz has been quoted saying; "overreliance on [focus group] research is like trying to drive by looking in the rearview mirror!" (Zarrella is now back at Bausch and Lomb as chairman and CEO. At GM, Lutz has taken on additional duties as chairman of GM North America.) A final clue to what to expect from Lutz is his attitude on what cars represent. He typically uses such words as art, entertainment, and mobile sculpture -- and transportation. His personal "art" collection includes a 1952 Aston Martin, the second Dodge Viper made, and a 1934 La Salle convertible. John Teresko is an IW senior technology editor.

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