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A jet flight with GM's ex-chief, Bob Lutz

  1. “Ok, Charles, if something goes wrong and you hear me call, ‘Eject, eject, eject!’, stick your head back, and pull very hard on these two handles… if it doesn’t fire, then lean over and flick this lever here and try again… if that doesn’t work, then pull this lever here and manually open the canopy. If it still doesn’t fire, pull this lever here. That will override the canopy release and allow you to pop right through the glass.

    Don’t worry about the altitude - these seats operate from ground level. It’ll spit you right up into the sky, and you’ll come sailing down on the ‘chute. And if the ‘chute doesn’t open, then here’s the rip cord I told you about… ok?”

    Words: Charlie Turner
    Pictures: Webb Bland 

    This feature first appeared in the December 2011 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. The man doing his best to terrify me is called Robert Anthony Lutz, affectionately named ‘Maximum Bob’. A legend in the motor industry, Bob is running me through the emergency procedures for his ex-communist-bloc Aero L-39 Albatros fighter jet, painted - somewhat ironically - in the livery of his old Marine Squadron.

    The average 79-year-old’s itinerary for a lazy Saturday probably involves hunting down something easily chewable for breakfast, followed by a day infested with light naps. But here’s Bob, prepping out his personal light strike jet for a joyride. And doing a fine Top Gun impression, dressed in full military flight suit and standing 6ft 3in tall, topped off by a shock of white hair. It’s all a bit surreal.

  3. All I can think is that if I hear anyone even jokingly saying “Eject, eject, eject!”, then I’ll either be exiting stage vertical by the ‘j’ of the first word, or that options b, c, and d will be rendered irrelevant by screaming panic. The next thought in the queue involves the fact that before meeting Bob, I’d mentioned my plans for a Lutz Airlines flight to a colleague. The response was slightly worrying: “Make
    sure he puts the landing gear down - he tried to land a while back and the tower had to radio to remind him.”

    Luckily, Lutz lowers himself into the front seat and starts to rattle through the pre-flight checks with a fluidity and clarity of thought that acts as a balm to frayed nerves. And I start to see glimpses of just why Maximum Bob has become quite so revered.

  4. When he’s in action, Bob stops being 79. There’s an aura of competence about the man that it’s hard to define - the ambient knowledge that here is a man that will Get Things Done.

    Go historical, and you find out that Bob is one serious player. Following a five-year career as a low-level, fast-jet pilot in the US Marine Corps (a particular CV highlight if you find yourself sat behind the man at the end of a runway) Bob started his 48-year automotive career working for GM in 1963. In 1971,
    he moved across to BMW as Executive Vice President of global sales and marketing, before moving to Ford in 1974 for a 12-year stint in which he became Chairman of Ford of Europe. In 1986, he moved to Chrysler as Executive Vice President, and then, back in ‘98, he left Chrysler to join Exide Batteries
    as CEO, completing the circle by returning to GM in 2001.

    In short, in the US car industry, he’s literally been there, done that.

  5. He’s also a man famous for his dislike of ‘design and engineering by numbers’ - something endemic in the US auto industry back in the day. “I hate the analytical, dispassionate, numerical approach,” he says, with vehement directness. “The attitude of ‘Don’t tell me about lust, don’t tell me about desire - just show me the market segment, and how fast it’s growing’ just leads to the creation of mediocre cars that won’t offend, rather than exceptional cars that delight.”

    Instead, Lutz preferred to push the companies he was involved with into what he refers to as a “more risk-accepting path”. He wanted huge, motoring SuperCorps to start producing cars that appealed to the heart rather than the head.

  6. “With good engineering becoming the standard, for a car to succeed, it has to be exceptional. Design has become vitally important as a distinguishing factor. Good design is like pornography - hard to define, but you know it when you see it.”

    That might sound like Lutz just wants to play with the shiny toys, but his 48-year CV is as much humble as halo. He might have been responsible for the Dodge Viper, but he also had a huge hand in the creation of the Chevy Volt (the Vauxhall Ampera). Which makes him even more intriguing. Ah, yes. The Volt.

    “Willow Run Tower, this is Albatros requesting clearance, over.”

  7. We’re pointing straight down runway 23 with 3,762lb ft of thrust ready to spool up. I wonder if now would be a good time to discuss fuel-economy issues with a man famously quoted as saying, “Global warming is a crock of shit.”

    But my thoughts keep returning to the Chevy Volt, a car which could - at least partly - be responsible for setting the whole US en route to a lower-carbon economy.

    “Yeah, but the motivation for Volt wasn’t purely environmental, more to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. I don’t like that - it feels like they have us…”

    “By the balls?” I offer. “You said it, but, yeah. Look, the Volt will be profitable in the future: the margins are calculated on the basis that it’s a new technology and there may be large warranty claims, but if those claims don’t come true, then it’s already a profitable programme.”

  8. So will it be profitable? Yes, absolutely.” And what about fuel-cell technology? “Forget that - they’re expensive, the hydrogen is still largely fossil-fuel based,
    there’s no infrastructure and ultimately from well-to-wheel, they’re about as efficient as a good diesel hybrid.”

    “Roger Albatros, this is Tower: you are clear on runway 23.”

    The L-39 shudders and rolls forwards, gathering momentum in that inexorable,
    jet-like way. Bob mutters, “Ok, we’ll rotate now,” and the L-39 greases into the sky over the hanger, effortlessly climbing up and away towards Lake Michigan. Five minutes into the flight, and we pass Chrysler’s Chelsea proving ground - they don’t call them fast jets for nothing - and Bob nods towards the loops of road.

    “Can you see the track we developed for the Viper? We needed a bit more space for that one.”

  9. Of course, there have been changes since then. With Fiat now owning 35 per cent of Chrysler, I wonder out loud if the Italians can deliver on the American recipe.

    “I see Marchionne doing things that I applaud… the new Grand Cherokee is one
    of the nicest vehicles I’ve ever seen from any country in terms of exterior design, the interior’s right and the handling is great. Where I do think they’re making a mistake is with Lancia. Lancia is a great old brand, but a Chrysler 300C with a Lancia grille? Maybe Marchionne said, ‘Well, ok, so it damages the brand. So what? What’s left to damage?’”

    I’m left to ponder the straight-talking as we leave Detroit rapidly behind and head to Lake Michigan, and soon the shoreline flashes past as we head toward Muskegon. We drop down hard over the lake, pulling 3.5 to 4g.

  10. My un-g-ready mass struggles to handle the loading, and, as we run along the shore, dropping down ever lower, the sheer speed becomes even more… impressive.

    ‘Low’ doesn’t quite cover it. ‘Exciting’ certainly does, albeit in high-def understatement. Lutz senses something in my silence.

    “I used to do this for hours, when I was in the Corps…” he says quietly, crackling over the radio. “This was our mission, low-level, under-the-radar operations.”

    If you haven’t already guessed, you can’t keep a man like Bob Lutz down. Instead of wandering off into a world filled with carpet slippers and daytime TV, Bob’s gone and got himself a little retirement project; he’s joined the Lotus Advisory Board. He also seems to appreciate a clear line of questioning, one that’s unadulterated by flowery language. So I ask whether Lotus can actually do it this time.

  11. “Absolutely. I don’t do failure real well, so I wouldn’t be involved if I didn’t think they can deliver. In five years, Lotus will be on its way to being seriously competitive, and I see it doing at least three times the current volume.”

    It’s worth remembering at this point that among Lutz’s fellow board members at Lotus are F1 legend Gordon Murray; Frank Tuch, the former quality czar at Porsche; and Wolf Zimmermann, the AMG engine builder who’s already got the bespoke Lotus V8 developing 600bhp on the bench back at Hethel. These are not bit-part kind-of guys.

    Just as he finishes talking, Bob pulls us up out of the low-level blast. The g-load forces me to tense every muscle in my lower body, desperately trying to push the blood back into my head. Fair to say that it’s probably not a pretty sight - I’d imagine this is how I’d look giving birth. Bob doesn’t bat an eyelid. We turn and climb up and onto our flight ceiling of 17,500ft in the blink of an eye.

  12. Directly in front of us is the heartland of the US car industry, laid out like some giant game of Monopoly. In the distance is the original Motor City, Detroit. To our right is the Chrysler proving ground, and on our left and away a bit is the GM test centre.

    As we look out across the centre of US car culture, where does Lutz see the industry of which he’s been such a fundamental part heading in the future? “The cleansing effect of Chapter 11 [basically, the part of the US bankruptcy code that allows a company to restructure debt without getting sued, with the eventual result that the company involved can continue to trade] for two out of the three companies [GM and Chrysler - Ford didn’t take Chapter 11] has left us dead and reborn but in much healthier shape, with very little debt on the balance sheet and a new United Auto Workers contract.

  13. As a result, all three companies are now led by individuals who are not steeped in the old way that the automobile business is run… in my judgement, that’s a good thing.”

    “But what about the emerging markets?” I ask, gulping hungrily at nothing in particular.

    “Once the Chinese develop - and they’re developing very rapidly - wages will go up, supplier prices will go up, and eventually it will just be a huge country that produces cars for that huge country… China. The real threat for any mainstream automotive manufacturer - Ford, VW, BMW - is from Korea. Kia, Hyundai… the cars were always fine from an engineering point of view, but now, with Peter Schreyer’s work, they look fantastic. That’s where the threat is.”

  14. At the barest mention of the word threat, Bob starts making the little Albatros dance, just for fun. He flicks the plane perfectly around its axis and we roll over Michigan.

    “You ok?”

    “Um. Sure.” I reply.

    “Ok, we’ll go for a four-point roll.”

    What happens from here on in is best described like this: GM proving ground. World upside down. Chrysler thing with roads on. Upside down. Some sky. Ground. Sky. Ground. Detroit. Sky.

    “You Ok?” asks Bob. I mutter something to the affirmative, trying to make “yes” sound very much like “no”.

  15. “Because, if you’re OK with that, we’ll try a barrel roll. Now, if I do this right, we’ll land dead in line with our current direction of travel and at the same altitude. Ok, three, two, one…”

  16. We pull up hard, child’s play for an ex-fighter pilot, somewhat other-worldly for a soft civilian. The plane climbs effortlessly, the horizon snaps over and, as we approach the bottom of the loop, the g begins to build. And build. Gurning desperately, I’m being squished into the seat, but as we begin to level out the g decreases. My sweats don’t.

    “You OK?” comes Bob’s calm voice - I have noticed he’s asking me this question a lot.

    “Erm. Might need a bit of time to recover from that one…”

    “Sure. Tell you what, let’s take a closer look at the GM proving ground: can you see over on the left the section we developed that directly copies elements of the Nürburgring? We built it when we were developing the CTS-V.”

  17. The story is fascinating, and nearly has my mind off my roiling guts. During Lutz’s tenure, the GM proving ground underwent development, and the section of the track known as the ‘Lutzring’ was created, simply to give GM a circuit that emulated the off-camber turns of the Nürburgring. Tired of having American cars labelled as straight-line fast, but incapable of dynamic cornering, it was Lutz who decided to try to answer the critics. He ended up muting them with the brutal Cadillac CTS-V.

    “But does the ‘Ring have much resonance in the US?” I ask, feeling not a little clammy.

    “Oh yes,” exclaims Bob, and I can hear his grin. “With the guys that know, the guys who buy performance cars like the CTS-V, it is the benchmark.”

  18. I fear I may not be listening properly. Even though we are no longer doing tricks,
    I’m still struggling to distract myself from the imminent rearrival of my breakfast. We turn right and back over the proving ground. Bob has clearly decided to do a low pass over the high-speed bowl. Unfortunately my stomach has decided it doesn’t like the idea. I reach for the bag.

    “You OK back there?”

    “Erple! NAAAAARG!” I announce, with some sophistication.

    “OK, we’re on finals now anyway.”

    “Willow Run Tower, this is Albatros.”

    “Albatros, this is Willow Run Tower: you’re clear to land on 23.”

  19. With that, Lutz starts to reel off pre-landing checks with the same calm reassurance that had started the process, and I pause in my intense investigation of a plastic bag just long enough to note: “Landing gear down and engaged…”

    The landing itself is so gentle it’s barely perceptible. We roll up to the hangar and debrief. A debrief which consists of a gently delivered: “Charles, the accuracy of your puking is greatly appreciated.”

    With that, the flight is over. I feel like a nice lie down, but Bob’s day is only just getting started. So what does that afternoon hold? A gentle walk, a quiet snooze?

    “No, I’ve got a good friend of mine coming round, and I’m going to take my new BMW HP2 Sport out.”

  20. Obviously. The friend sends a message to me later to say that the speeds were ‘interesting’ and he struggled to keep up with Lutz. As I head back to the airport, I try to process the last few intense hours. It comes down to a quite simple thing…

    In this industry, the term ‘legend’ is bandied around far too frequently, and has lost some of its potency as a result. With Robert Anthony Lutz, it is in danger of being an understatement. Lotus may have a massive challenge ahead of it over the coming few years, but has a much better chance of success with people
    like Bob Lutz on board.

    He’s one hell of a guy to have as a wing man. And mainly because he’s not just maximum by name - he’s maximum by nature.

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