The Successes And Impact Of Two Industry Giants: Bob Lutz and Ferdinand Piëch

A tale of two giants of the auto industry and their lasting mark on their respective companies

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Image: Stan Honda/ Marcus Brandt AP (Getty Images)

Both are auto industry icons. One was uniquely an enthusiast who, in the latter half of his life was Vice Chairman at GM, while having had a hand in many performance toys coming to market. The other, a grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, worked his way up through the ranks of the Volkswagen Automotive Group and influenced the development and engineering of some of VW’s most over-engineered and complex vehicles.

But were they successful in what they had their hands in? And can their influences still be seen or felt in their respective companies today? You have to look at their histories to judge.

Bob Lutz

Lutz begin his automotive career after leaving the Marines where he did an 11-year tour of duty. After receiving an MBA from Berkley in 1962, he started at GM at the age of 31, working out of New York. Not long after, he transferred from New York to GM Europe where he worked with Opel.

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By the mid 1970's he went to BMW where he was Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing for three years. Apparently Lutz had a light hand in creating BMW M. On the other side of that, sitting on the sales board of the company in the ‘70s he was quoted as saying that the brand “should concentrate and consolidate our activities in motorsport.”

Lutz also had his hands in the first generation E24 6 Series, rejecting the initial design by designer Paul Bracq and approving the production version we all know.

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1982-1987 Ford Sierra
1982-1987 Ford Sierra
Image: Ford

By the 1980's he had became an executive VP at Ford of Europe. While there he was one of the designers of the Sierra. When he returned to the U.S., he initiated the development of what would become the first generation Explorer.

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Image: Stellantis Media Archives

After leaving Ford, Lutz moved on to Chrysler. Even though he was passed over for the chairman spot by the executive board, he would famously have a hand in developing the original Viper and the industry-changing LH cars. But he left Chrysler in 1998, right around the merger with Daimler Benz.

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Image for article titled The Successes And Impact Of Two Industry Giants: Bob Lutz and Ferdinand Piëch
Image: Bill Pugliano (Getty Images)

Lutz became chairman of GM North America in 2001. He would eventually stay until his retirement in 2009. His actions tended to push fun and performance on all of GM during his stint. But all but a couple of what are said to be his initiatives are still around today. His legacy at GM included:

  • The push for the import of the Holden Monaro as the Pontiac GTO
  • The Cadillac Sixteen concept car that sadly never came to fruition.
  • The Kappa platform twins (Sky, Solstice)
  • The Pontiac G8
  • The revamped 2008 Chevy Malibu which was touted as being competitive with the Japanese and named Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 2009
  • The game-changing first-generation Cadillac CTS
  • The Buick Enclave
  • The Cadillac Converj concept which became the ELR
  • The Camaro Concept that led to the successful 2009 relaunch of the famed muscle car
  • The Volt which was supposedly started to “leapfrog” Toyota’s EV efforts

Was Lutz successful? In my opinion, that depends on what you read and what models you look at. He liked his toys, just look at the SSR. And some models that he had good intentions in starting, fell flat like the GTO or ELR. Sadly though, GM couldn’t escape the bankruptcy or the quality problems, even with some of the impressive models Lutz had brought to the table.

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Image: Sean Gallup (Getty Images)

Ferdinand Piëch

Grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, Ferdinand Piëch was the top dog CEO at VW from 1993-2015. He began his career at Porsche in the engine testing department from 1963-1971. By the end of his tenure, he had made his way onto the executive board. He would make his way to Audi next, where he has been given credit for making the brand a rival to Mercedes and BMW. A mechanical engineer by trade, he was responsible for VW making upward moves in the early 2000s with cars like the Phaeton and Touareg, which were near Audi-like in their engineering.

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Piëch oversaw the purchase of Lamborghini and Bentley, and the return of Bugatti, which lead to the eventual creation of the Veyron. He was also apparently the brainchild behind the early W18 and eventual W16 engines.

An early sketch of the W engine by Piëch.
An early sketch of the W engine by Piëch.
Illustration: Volkswagen
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He specifically sought to purchase Bugatti so something could be worthy of these monster engines as nothing in the VW portfolio at the time could fit it, nor did anything have enough brand prestige for an engineering undertaking like a 18 cylinder engine. His brand building with the acquisition of Lamborghini and Bentley gave VW a luxury group similar to Ford’s failed PAG group.

Piëch had high and sometimes wild engineering standards, such as wanting the VW Phaeton to “sustain 186 mph all day, in 122-degree weather, with an interior temperature of 72 degrees.” Why though?

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His looking over the shoulders of the development of the Veyron, which Porsche chairman Wendelin Wiedeking called a vanity project shows how committed he was to perfection. Sadly Mr. Piech passed away in 2019 at the age of 82.

Was Piëch successful? Again, depends on your research and what you look at. He was known as a hard ass management wise, being quoted as saying he fires any subordinate who “makes the same mistake twice.” Some even say he created a toxic work atmosphere. Keep in mind that this very management style is what got him ousted from the board after he and his wife tried to get VW chairman Martin Winterkorn out.

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I may have glossed over a lot of other highlights and staples of the two’s careers, but it’s worth noting both Lutz and Piëch did leave lasting impacts on their companies, and the entire auto industry. Maybe Piëch was the more extreme of the two, but had it not been for either’s ideas, it’s hard to say that any of the companies they worked with would be where they are today.