This former Marine was the pioneer behind the Viper, Camaro, GTO, Hummer and more
Former Marine Captain Robert Lutz is a familiar name to many Americans, some may know of his achievements while others who have heard it before mentioned in the news or saw it in a magazine. He may be one of the most accomplished automotive executives alive with vehicles that he has been a part of have graced the silver screen, TV, video games and many other types of media. He has written many books on his time in the automotive industry such as Guts:8 Laws on Business from One of the Most Innovative Business Leaders of Our Time , Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle of the Soul for American Business and Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership. Lutz spent time in the Corps on the enlisted side first and then as an officer when he was a Naval Aviator and jet pilot.
Lutz still wears flight suits and he still flew his own personal private military jet up until he was 86 years old. He is now 88 years old. He said, “Whenever I found the zipper getting tight, I knew it was time to do something.” He attended boot camp at Parris Island and shared, “I was never a San Diego type I went to bootcamp at Parris Island, S.C.…we never got to see John Wayne on base or anything…back in the old days every Marine Corps movies was shot in San Diego or Camp Pendleton….close to Hollywood and the weather was reliable. Pendleton you could film mountain warfare scenes, jungle warfare scenes, desert warfare scenes, amphibious landings. (At) Pendleton you could shoot about anything.” Lutz believes it is important to have realistic portrayals of Marines in the media. He still can tell when films and shows have Marine Corps advisors are a part of the production and the producers listens to those military consultants.
Lutz started his automotive career after his time in the Marines with General Motors in Europe. After GM Europe he worked at BMW and then went onto Ford Europe. He spent time at Ford in the U.S. being an initiator for the Ford Explorer. He was then hired by Chrysler and worked for Lee Iacocca, the man behind the Ford Mustang while at Ford, at the automaker. While a senior executive at Chrysler he was influential in the Dodge Viper, Dodge Ram truck (redesigned for 1994), LH cars and the Plymouth Prowler before taking a job at GM again, this time in Detroit. At GM, his influence included the return of the Chevy Camaro in 2007 (which was featured in The Transformers films and is the Transformer Bumblebee), Hummer H2 and H3, Saturn Sky, 2009 Corvette ZR-1, Pontiac Solstice (also in the first Transformers film), the Pontiac GTO, and the Cadillac CTS-V, which was featured in The Matrix Reloaded. Lutz was also instrumental in the development and production of the Chevrolet Volt.
Just to give you an idea of the far-reaching impact of Lutz, here are some examples of cars he influenced and the places they were featured in the media. The Viper has appeared in The Fast and The Furious film series, its own TV series Viper and in countless other TV shows and racing video games to include the popular Need for Speed racing video game series. The post 1994 Dodge Ram has been featured in TV shows such as Walker, Texas Ranger which stars Chuck Norris in the title role; The Fast and The Furious film series, Walking Tall, which stars Dwayne Johnson and Neal McDonough, and Twister, starring Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. The Ford Explorer was featured in the timeless classic Jurassic Park and still is being produced today by Ford. The Pontiac GTO showed up in Stealth and The Last Ride, and the H2 and H3 were featured throughout the Transformers series, video games and on different TV shows. The Chevrolet Volt was featured in the film Tomorrowland with George Clooney. The updated Corvette ZR1 of the late 2000s showed up in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film The Last Stand as the bad guys' getaway car.
Lutz was born into a stable family and his father was a Swiss banker. They had good schools, food and even servants in their home. His childhood had a strong household with a good relationship between his parents. He had two siblings. He shared,
“We were taught good manners, we were taught behavior, we were taught obedience, we were punished when we misbehaved…you always knew if you did something wrong you knew punishment was coming. There was an easily comprehensible risk/reward or risk and punishment mechanism that we all understood. My mother was probably a better disciplinarian than my father was simply because I was around her more than my father because he was frequently at work. When he came home, my mother would say, ‘You have no idea what he did today, and I hope you punish him appropriately.’ I mean here is a guy he just comes home, takes off his hat, puts his briefcase down and the first thing he is supposed to do is paddle his kid. I can’t blame him for not feeling like it.”
He describes his upbringing as “near-optimal as you could get back in the 30s, 40s and 50s.” Lutz’s father ensured he was raised a good Protestant and he was sent to Sunday school while growing up. His mother was not as religious as his father, and Lutz followed his mother’s example moreso. He said, “….I was certainly taught honesty, integrity, hard work, don’t lie, don’t steal, basically 10 Commandant’s stuff…I thought everybody was raised that way. The values were very similar to the basic values of the Marine Corps.”
He describes his relationship with Lee Iacocca, Chrysler CEO and automotive mogul like a “…father and son relationship.” He shared,
“At times he absolutely despised me. Usually when I argued with him in meetings. Probably not the smartest thing to do because he had a big ego, but it was a very delicate ego. You could argue with him, but you had to do it with nobody else present. Of course, I had a tendency to do it in meetings when he initially made the erroneous claim or exhibited poor judgment, I would take him on right away. I was always comfortable with that whether in the Marine Corps or private industry, I never had a problem with subordinates telling me I was wrong or that they had a different opinion. On the contrary I considered it a sign of confidence in my leadership that people would feel comfortable in telling me I was wrong or that in their opinion I was mistaken on this one. But Lee Iacocca wasn’t like that. His ego was very delicate, and he felt personally attacked even if what you said was not ad hominem, but it was more disagreeing with his factual statement, he still felt like it was a personal attacked designed to demean him….but he was a brilliant automotive marketer, and I learned a lot from him.”
Lutz shared why he wanted to join the Corps with, “First of all I was a troubled high school student. Today would probably be known as ADD. Back then the teachers said, ‘He just doesn’t want to concentrate in class,’ because I would be in math class or history class and all I would do is draw pictures of cars or planes. I had some behavioral problems in school…I was expelled from one private boarding school and another one prior to that I left two steps ahead of the sheriff. Nothing was working out. Finally, my father said, ‘We are going to get you a European or a Swiss high school degree.’ Which...in fairness, it is not 12 years over there it is 13 and ½ years…I didn’t graduate from high school until age 22.”
His father sent him to the more French speaking part of Switzerland as opposed to the stricter German speaking part of Switzerland. He finally found an environment that worked for him and was like a US high school experience.
One of the men his father admired was a former World War II pilot, Marine Colonel that was then working as an Investment Banker. The veteran turned investment banker was the poster boy Marine both look, work and focus wise. The Marine recommended to Lutz’s father that, “The Marine Corps straightens out young people. I have dozens of friends that I told them to send their kids to the Marine Corps and they turned out well. I was a semi-troubled youth, and it changed my life.” His father made a deal to finance Lutz’s education if once it was finished Lutz would travel to NYC, stay with family friends and then join the Corps. He stated of the deal with his father, “Fine with me. I was always an admirer of the Marine Corps. Loved Marine Corps movies. Loved Flying Leathernecks.” He joined the Corps at the height of the Cold War and he, “ …was very motivated to make a contribution to the country and…kill communists if necessary.”
He wanted to be a fighter pilot and enlisted in the Corps initially as he did not have any college which was a requirement for the flight program. He was given a battery of tests during his time at boot camp and he went to Parris Island, SC. He came out with a GCT that qualified him to be an officer candidate and did well on the aviation aptitude tests and flight physical. Once he completed boot camp, he became a file clerk at a company at PI. He shared, “I am extremely pleased and proud of the time I served in boot camp and I wouldn’t want to do it twice where it was a life-changing experience. I give top marks to my drill instructor.” He believes drill instructors have a special influence on all Marines and he found a spiritual home in the Corps, he found a set of values, a pattern of behavior, a camaraderie that is, “…unmatched by anything else and certainly not matched by any branch of service in the US….I doubt that it (fraternity) exists in any military service in the world. Of course, the Marine Corps’ record in combat is unequalled by any other fighting force, so I wanted to be a part of that.”
He was in the first class of aviation training in the Corps and they were put into jets immediately, which was unheard of at the time where he went from SNJ-4 (AT-6) to the TV-2 and then to F-9/F-5 Panthers for single-seat jet tactics, formations and weapons training. He was stationed at NAS Chase Field which has since been closed.
He was assigned to VMA-311 at MCAS El Toro, which has also been closed since the late 1990s. He went from F-5 Panthers and transitioned to F-9 Cougars, which was supposedly supersonic, and he found it difficult to get the plane past Mach 1. He was selected to become a Forward Air Controller (FAC) and served in Okinawa as a Battalion Air Liaison Officer for 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines. He shared, “At first I didn’t think I was going to like it, but I liked it a lot. It was good being back with the grunts and it made me….happy about my bootcamp because unlike ‘Navcats’ that had come from civilian life at least I had over a year of active-duty time as a Marine.” He wore an expert rifle and expert pistol badges with his flight wings in his summer service alpha uniform, which was tan, where the grunts couldn’t believe he was good at flying and then good at shooting as well. Shooting is something the grunts were supposed to be good at only, not pilots too. He made a lot of friends in Okinawa and served as a military adviser to the South Koreans as well during his time with the unit.
He rotated back to the US and transitioned to the Marine Corps reserves upon his return. He was assigned to fly the McDonnell F2H Banshee, even though it was an aging platform. He said of the plane, “…they were literally on the verge of falling apart.” He was stationed at NAS Alameda, which was in Alameda, CA. His unit was the first reserve squadron to get the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and the unit was just one mod behind the active-duty unit squadrons. They were in almost new aircraft at the time. Later in his civilian life, almost 30 years to the day of his last flight in an A-4 back in May of 1965, he did his first flight in a Soviet air force jet in 1995. He said, “You know what, it all came back very quickly so from 95 to 2018, I put in several thousand hours in an L-39 Albatross and a West German Air Force Alpha jet. I am sure that I hold the record for the world’s oldest pilot to fly a tactical military….jet.” Lutz has no complaints thus far in life.
He has carried over from the Corps the values of integrity, obey the letter and spirit of the law, show respect to those who report to you, nicely demand performance, not micromanage in his civilian management positions, similar to how officers delegate to the NCOs and the officers supervise in the Corps, and good, clear communication. Civilian world communication can be confusing at times. Lutz said, “Marines do communicate clearly. Not only do they communicate facts they communicate ideas and beliefs. I have found that needs to be highly effective in civilian life. Motivating your people through the spoken and written word. So, I have found that whatever works for the Marine Corps in terms of leadership traits, leadership skills it works in the civilian world just as well.”
He believes there are not enough Marine Corps style leaders in the civilian world though to get a “critical mass." Whenever an event was held at one of the automotive companies he worked at and he was the ranking senior person he was usually approached to start eating first in front of the attendees. Instead, he chose to follow the Corps example and eat last, even though he was an executive. When questioned by people about why he did that he would, “The way I was taught in the Marine Corps, officers eat last.”
Each one of Lutz’s three books contains chapters of his experience at BMW in the 1970s. His experience at BMW involved a lot of corruption and crooked dealings with some executives, which upset Lutz. He stated about his time at the company with,
“I had so many opportunities to enrich myself from suppliers, BMW distributors, dealers, you name it. It was like doesn’t everybody? I just totally resisted it and when I left BMW and got back into Ford Motor Company, I thought well at least I could put that phase of having to deal with corruption behind me. I fired more people at BMW than probably any other management or board member in history. I fired a whole department. I had a distribution department…we found export in the warranty statistics in the computer runs. We would find VIN numbers for vehicles that were supposed to have been exported to Indonesia and South Africa…we would find them in the domestic warranty statistics. We decided to check up and we found the owners. We asked how they buy the car. (They would say) I found it off a want ad in the paper. It said, ‘Brand new BMW, available at thousands below list price, don’t got to a dealer.’…We did the investigation and we found out that guys in the export distribution would allocate scarce cars to overseas distributors and say, ‘You know I think I can get you five more 3 series, but I would like you to order six, but I will…compensate you for it at the export distributors price. But I’ll send you five, but I would like to keep one here…The foreign distributors would say, ‘Fine, no sweat off my back.’ So, they would order six, be compensated for the sixth one and then the guy in distribution would take that car and he’d sell it through want ads through German papers. Of course, the difference between foreign distributors' prices and the domestic retail price was huge -- they would make three or four thousand bucks on it.”
When these employees were confronted about their unethical behavior they were surprised and confused, with many having questioned what the problem was. The employees were confused as to how the supposed legal transactions were wrong. Lutz told them, “Well if I have to explain it to you, I would suggest you get yourself a lawyer and go clean out your desk because I am firing you for wrongdoing. I fired every single one of them which was about 14 people in that foreign distributor’s distribution department. I fired them all because they all had been doing it.” He was questioned by his boss Mr. von Kuenheim, who was CEO of BMW Group, as to why he was firing them, which he replied with, “Because they were corrupt Mr. von Kuenheim…I told him what they did.” Von Kuenheim said, “Oh, that’s bad. You were right to fire them.” Lutz shared, “But, you know what, he (Von Kuenheim) was as bad as anybody else.” He believes the corruption is institutional in Germany and he does not know why it is in such a way. He believes it may be from the line of thinking, “it is okay to lie and cheat, but getting caught is bad.” The corruption spans from high and low levels in the country. Further reading is available in his books.
His favorite projects working on in the automotive industry were the Opel GT European sports car of the mid-1960s. He was the driving force behind getting that done to include convincing the hierarchy to approve the project. He enjoyed working on award winning initiatives for trucks and cars across Europe during his time there with Ford. The Dodger Viper he describes as, “…iconic….it was able to change people’s minds about (the) Chrysler Corporation and Chrysler Corporation’s engineering capability and, in many cases, people bought a Dodge Viper as it was the first American car, they had ever owned…” He is proud of his work in developing and getting the Chevrolet Volt out to market. It was the first mass produced passenger car using lithium-ion batteries with a sequential hybrid system as opposed to the parallel hybrid system used in the Toyota Prius. He shared,
“The Chevy Volt was technological tour-de-force in that is one of things that made it so interesting where you have been in the business for 40 years plus, every new program you do has an internal combustion engine, a manual or automatic transmission, four corner suspension systems, brakes and a body structure and gas tank. But the Chevy Volt was totally different, nobody had done a sequential hybrid before, nobody had done a car with 40 miles of range in small lithium-ion batteries and then another 200-250 or 300 miles of range with a range extender gasoline engine. Getting all the software into that thing…all interaction between the driver, the battery, the electric motors, the piston engine, that smooth transition from the end of the battery into the piston engine…the car was rather easy to create but the software guys did a superhuman job on that and it was flawless and utterly reliable from day one. So that was a giant step towards vehicle electrification. You were leading a team that has literally never done this before. There was nobody to talk to and there were no suppliers that had done it before. There wasn’t a body of experience that you could draw. It was an exciting time…what made it even more exciting was Toyota constantly holding press conferences saying it (the Volt) is a PR ploy. They will never build it. Lithium-ion batteries don’t work for cars, trust us. Toyota is the number one producer of hybrids in the world. We know this business and what works and what doesn’t. General Motors is trying to pull the wool over everybody’s eyes, but they haven’t got anything. Well, it turns out we did have something.”
He described having vehicles he influenced in films, TV and the media as,
“Oh, that’s fun....I really get a kick out of it. I even watch ‘Chicago PD’ where I see late model vehicles that I definitely had a hand in. When I watch the Sopranos I see the big front wheel drive Pontiac V8 (Grand Prix, GXP) which we produced a limited few with V-8 engines…It is not as keen an experience as you’d expect because I had a hand in so many vehicles and so many mass produced vehicles like the first Ford Explorer….whenever it is something somewhat unusual like a Dodge Viper or Pontiac Solstice or Saturn Sky in traffic, it gives you a feeling of satisfaction because it’s a reinforcement of the fact that you actually made a physical contribution and that not only were people employed engineering it and manufacturing it. But now you’ve got people enjoying those things and they will enjoy them for years to come.”
He hosts a regional Viper event held at his place yearly and he usually has 70 Vipers, and their owners attend. He also participates in Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky events. He shared about developing the 2007 Camaro as GM had gotten out of the fourth generation Camaro because the sales volume was low and the plant it was being built in was inefficient to operate. GM could not close the plant unless they dropped the Camaro at the time. GM then realized that they needed an exciting car for the product lineup with Ford’s success with the updated Mustang. GM made a point when developing a new concept Camaro by ensuring they did not vary too much from the concept to the production car. Early design proposals for the car looked like a 1967 Camaro, where Lutz and the executive team wanted a design language that would clearly say it is a Camaro, but that it cannot look like a 67 model. He said, “A modern car that captures the spirit of the 67s. That is what we did, and it clearly worked.” Michael Bay, director of the Transformers films, had a hand in choosing the new Camaro as he was already close to Chevrolet and the designers of the car. The Hummer H2 and H3 were other vehicles that Lutz was proud of and glad to have the SUV put into the media and movie industry.
The Plymouth Prowler stemmed from Lutz’s desire for a Dodge Viper GTS coupe, based on the Brock Yates Shelby Daytona Coupe from the 1960s, made into a production car. Tom Gale, the chief designer of the Prowler, was a hot rod enthusiast and always wanted to do a modern hot rod. Lutz made a deal with Gale backing him on the Viper coupe with Lutz having backed away for Gale to get his modern hotrod which became the Plymouth Prowler. Lutz believes one of the drawbacks of the Prowler was it had a V-6, as Chrysler could not afford a more high-powered engine as they were tied to using parts from normal production cars, which is because their transmissions could not take the torque of a high-performance motor.
When Dodge introduced the Ram, Lutz knew that the company had to retake the big block truck market, he decided to have the 360 V-8 modified with two more cylinders to make it a V-10, which was at the time the only V-10 on the market via the Ram. The designing of new motors mostly takes place in the cylinder and combustion parts of the motor. He fought with the marketing executives because they did not believe it could be done. After all, no one had a V-10 on the market. He shared why to offer a V-10, “…Precisely, that is why we are going to do it because more is better. When it comes to trucks, the truck buyer always said, ‘more is better.'" He chalks up this victory based on the Marine Corps value of, “You do the job without having enough money to really do the job. The budgets are always tight, you can’t afford the stuff that you really want to afford. When the Army went into the Apache helicopter the Marine Corps couldn’t afford it, so they sent the Huey/Cobras back to Bell to get a second engine installed. (The Corps) got the Huey/Super Cobra where it turned out to be a more reliable and more capable helicopter than the Apache, which was a complex weapon system. Necessity is often the mother of invention and the Marine Corps always has a necessity. The Marine Corps teaches you to improvise. It teaches you to find unconventional solutions because you can’t afford the conventional solution…Making due with what you’ve got or finding a way to get something new because you can’t afford what you want is definitely a value taught by the Marine Corps.”
He values common sense as a key leadership trait, and Lutz considers himself to be a great proponent of valuing common sense over intellect. He is also a great proponent of a bias toward action as big industry tends to get stuck on analysis and overanalyzing the situation because people are trying to avoid deciding. He said,
“The Marine Corps has a bias towards action. I always had a bias towards action. This is not going to get any better by us waiting around for more data. Let’s make a decision now, right or wrong. Thank God, usually right. I also believe in ‘No Risk, No Reward.' Again…tied to the big corporation mentality where this is a risk to doing something where if you do something and it goes wrong where if you find reasons not to do it…it's what I call an error of omission. Nobody ever said, ‘Well you should’ve decided to go ahead. Oh well, we weren’t sure yet.' Mistakes of omission never get punished while mistakes of commission do. So consequently, you develop this risk-averse culture. The Marine Corps does not have a risk-averse culture.”
Lutz shared his experience with Lt Gen. Bill Keys Marine Corps (ret.) as he served with the Marine general on the board of the Marine Military Academy which is based in Harlingen, Texas. General Keys shared a story with Lutz about how he was surrounded by a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Battalion which Keys was in command of only a rifle company. Keys attacked to the right flank, overran the NVA company in that position and without a pause attacked to the left and they went from 3 o’clock to 12 o'clock and took out another NVA company. From there he moved his Marines to the 9 o’clock position and defeated that NVA company. Finally, Keys led his Marines to NVA company located at the 6 o’clock position which Keys and his Marines drove the NV company south into US artillery. One encircled Marine rifle company destroyed an NVA battalion.
Lutz asked General Keys one question: "What the hell were you thinking?”
Keys replied with, “It is very simple, before any major combat engagement there is about a 15-to-30 minute pause while all of the officers are sitting around in a tent and they have got a couple of locker boxes and the maps are out. And the officers are all sitting with pointers and saying, ‘We’re here, they are there…we’ll put two companies upfront…beta company is going to be in reserve,’ and they go through this elaborate scenario planning, which never works out anyway because as we know no battle plan lasts longer than two minutes of actual engagement with the enemy. I decided why am I going to sit for 30 minutes waiting for these guys to make up their minds of what they are going to do. We’ll attack right now. They were so off guard, and the other thing was, all of the officers at the battalion headquarters…with the battalion commander leaving three, basically all four companies with no leadership. No platoon leaders, no company commanders, shit, it was easy. If it was obvious what you gotta do, go ahead and do it. Use the analysis time, which is largely worthless anyway, to gain an advantage on your opponent.” Lutz has told this story many times in his corporate life which he said, “Seize the opportunity and catch your opponent off guard.”
Lutz has enjoyed having former Marine officers and enlisted as his direct reports as they were speaking the same language. Lutz enjoyed working with fellow Marine officer Jim Queen at General Motors as Queen had been a captain in Vietnam, and he flew F-4H Phantoms off the carrier. He shared, “He was still as much of a Marine officer as you could possibly want. Appearance Marine-like. Speech Marine-like. Behavior Marine-like. Leadership style Marine-like. So, between him and me, we got a ton of stuff done.” He believes it is difficult to get Marines into positions of leadership at corporations and large firms nowadays because so many more Marines are career Marines. Lutz shared, “In my day it was the old citizen-soldier thing ya know where you did five years active duty and then you got off active duty and you could pursue a civilian career. I think that is more rare now.” He also comments,
“Another element I see as a society -- we have become overly sensitive, overly tolerant, overly worried about feelings and we’ve become almost like anti-authoritarian schools. I was getting to be very uncomfortable with the whole direction of corporations, even some of the ones I was involved (with), more and more uncomfortable with the leadership style, which is benevolent, kindly, everybody’s ideas have merit... no they don’t! We put posters up which say, ‘There is no such thing as a bad idea,’ which is total BS. Of course, there is such a thing as a bad idea. Then listen to everyone with respect, everyone’s…thoughts and ideas are equally valid. No, they’re not. This is egalitarian BS, which I don’t buy and luckily, I don’t think the Marine Corps is buying too heavily….I have noticed a drift into excessive political correctness. The Marine Corps cannot get too far away from general society. I think many former Marine officers would be uncomfortable with what they find as a preferred leadership style in civilian company.”
Lutz stated on leadership, “You can’t govern by consensus, you’ve got to govern by what is right. If you’re going to disappoint some people well that’s the way the cookie crumbles….the Marine Corps is used to setting an accepted standard and then making sure people behave to that standard wherein civilian life more and more everything is loosey-goosey.” He doesn’t believe in the phrase, “…Beatings will continue until morale improves,” since he does believe in discipline and direct communication.
He described his proudest moment, which is the answer he always gives, “…the day I made PFC! The first promotion in my life. The first thing I’d ever done totally on my own. My own merit. You know, no parental help, no letters from my father. It was totally on my own. Making PFC was even bigger than when I got commissioned as a second lieutenant and got my wings.” He still has his shirt from when he was promoted to PFC with the stripe on it and he can still wear the shirt too!
He is a member of the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen which is the only real military school left in the US. It is run by retired and former Marines and Drill Instructors. The school is set up like a Marine base with Saturday morning parades. The school has a mess hall, grinder, lots of yellow and the rocks are painted white. The school also has the first cast of the Marines raising the flag on the Iwo Jima statue. He is a member of the board of trustees at the Marine Corps University Foundation in Quantico. He has been a frequent donor to both organizations out of his gratitude for the Marine Corps in having changed the course of his life. He said, “I will definitely go the extra mile to help the Marine Corps in any way I can.” He owes a debt of gratitude to his parents for seeing him through his childhood where he considers the transformation from an average, unfocused, typical teenager with no clear notion and little motivation to the Corps. He shared, “ Whatever I am today, whatever success I’ve achieved is due entirely to the Marine Corps.”