By TOM KRISHER
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
DETROIT – General Motors Corp. said Monday its product development chief, Bob Lutz, will retire at the end of this year.
The 76-year-old GM vice chairman is credited with revamping the automaker's product line and shepherding its efforts to roll out the Chevrolet Volt electric car.
Lutz will be replaced by Thomas Stephens, who now is executive vice president of global powertrain and quality.
The company said in a statement that Stephens will take over the product development post and become a vice chairman April 1. Lutz will stay as a vice chairman and senior adviser until the end of the year.
GM said it is integrating its powertrain functions into their respective global GM functions, so Stephens, 60, will still have responsibility for global quality and powertrain engineering, but powertrain manufacturing will report to Gary Cowger, GM's group vice president for global manufacturing and labour relations.
GM said the changes are part of its efforts to restructure and become more efficient.
Lutz, who served as Chrysler's vice chairman, president and chief operating officer and headed product development there from 1986 to 1998, was largely responsible for the automaker's wild success in the 1990s, said Michael Robinet, vice president of global forecast services for auto industry consultant CSM Worldwide of Northville, Mich.
"The whole renaissance of Chrysler, a lot of it was due to products he championed through the system," Robinet said.
During that time, Chrysler came out with the new, more aggressive Ram pickup truck, vaulting the company to a much larger share of the market, Robinet said.
"He was a risk-taker, but he also had a pretty good pulse on what the public wanted and didn't want," Robinet said. "It's a sad day in Detroit. This industry will be different without Bob Lutz.''
Lutz, who started his career at GM in 1963 and also worked at Ford Motor Co. and BMW AG in Europe, may have made his biggest contribution to the industry by leading GM's move to globalize its vehicles, Robinet said.
Globalization of design, engineering and manufacturing saves GM about $1 billion per vehicle platform and gives it far greater ability to get cars to market faster, Robinet said.
"That was necessary medicine to really set GM up for survival in the future," Robinet said.
Lutz also pushed the Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac CTS, two of GM's top sellers and symbols of the next generation of GM products. He pushed to upgrade GM's vehicle interiors, making them at least competitive with Japanese models.
GM's future, though, is still in doubt because it is living on $9.4 billion in government loans and is racing against the clock to develop a viability plan that will persuade the Treasury Department to lend the company another $4 billion.
Lutz, a former chairman and CEO of battery maker Exide Corp., also championed the Chevrolet Volt, an extended-range electric car that is due in showrooms in 2010.
Even though he is the icon of American muscle cars powered by big internal combustion engines, Lutz saw the need for fuel efficiency and independence from foreign oil with the Volt, which he has promised will be able to travel up to 40 miles without using gasoline.
"He pushed it through the system," Robinet said.
Shares of GM rose 5 cents to $2.89 Monday morning.
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