The Fast And The Luxurious

Detroit isn't known for its fashion shows, but this past Sunday it hoped to create a buzz machine that even New York would envy. To set the stage for a big coming-out party at this week's auto show, General Motors spent nearly $1 million converting the august Detroit Opera House into a trendy cocktail lounge for one night. The Italianate theater's seats were covered with a wood floor and redecorated with modular leather furniture and indigo lighting. As a string quartet played against a techno backbeat, the silhouette of a long, low-slung car appeared behind an opaque curtain and slowly revolved on a turntable toward the audience. Its engine roared to life and the dark sedan eased down a draped runway. It's the most outrageous car to come out of Detroit since tail fins flew: a $250,000 Cadillac made entirely of aluminum, with a steroidal 1,000-horsepower, V-16 engine. The car's driver--and driving force--is Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman and chief of product development. "This car will show the world," he boasted to NEWSWEEK before the debut, "that we simply will take a back seat to no one."

Lutz's latest creation, dubbed the Cadillac Sixteen, is his boldest bid yet to make Detroit iron-hot again. While it is only a design concept for now, the car will become a reality if Lutz gets his way. Outfitted with silk carpets, a crystal Bulgari clock, smoked-glass roof and a chilled-champagne compartment, the Sixteen is a homage to the elegant Caddys of the 1930s that served as chariots for presidents, Hollywood stars and gangsters. But that mammoth engine beneath its gull-winged hood--the first V-16 Detroit has churned out in 62 years makes it something new: a luxury muscle car, meant to be driven, not driven in. (Although you can retire to the Tuscany-leather rear seat, which reclines into a bed.) This is the kind of car that Detroit built when it ruled the road, but seems to have forgotten after decades of losing ground to foreign competition. Now Lutz, in his second year of overhauling GM's new-model machinery, wants to prove that the world's largest automaker can once again build the world's best car. He aims to end Detroit's inferiority complex. "Everybody is tired of taking crap," Lutz says in his smoky rasp.

They say you are what you drive, but in the Motor City, you are what you build. And this car's development--which NEWSWEEK tracked exclusively over the past year, interviewing dozens of execs, designers and technicians inside GM's top-secret studios--provides a window into understanding one of Detroit's most-storied car guys and how he brings his design dreams to life. In four decades, Lutz, 70, has worked for every automaker in town and fathered some of Detroit's biggest hits. At Ford in the '80s, he greenlighted the Explorer, unleashing the SUV boom. At Chrysler in the '90s, he turned out hot models like the Dodge Viper and the PT Cruiser. But the Swiss-born Lutz never really fit into Detroit's clubby, conservative culture. The cigar-swinging former Marine fighter pilot disdains golf and spends weekends screaming through the skies in a fighter jet once owned by the Libyan Army. Unlike most car execs, Lutz drives himself to work--in his own helicopter. He's survived rollovers on racetracks (his racing nom de plume: Umberto Bigone), a copter crash and a belly landing in his jet (he forgot to lower the landing gear). At work, he also has a high tolerance for risk, rejecting Detroit's reliance on focus groups and insisting on designs that appeal to his gut. Lutz's No. 1 law: "The customer is not always right."

That maverick personality has kept Lutz from ever holding the wheel as CEO of a car company. But GM CEO Rick Wagoner, struggling to recapture GM's faded glory, is now turning to Lutz for answers. And NEWSWEEK has learned that Wagoner plans to extend Lutz's contract beyond the three years he signed on for. Lutz gave a hint of what he could do for GM last year when he rolled out the sporty little Pontiac Solstice concept car. Lutz has promised to deliver more "gotta have" cars. The Sixteen is his definitive mission statement.

And like everything Lutz seems to do, the project is fraught with risk. A back-to-the-future Caddy with an enormous engine may seem out of step with the post-9-11 urge to sip, not guzzle, gas. There is a risk, too, that GM can't produce a car with the fit and finish needed to compete against the likes of Mercedes's new $300,000 Maybach. After all, Cadillac's last attempt to create a "halo car"--the $50,000 Allante roadster introduced in 1987--was riddled with glitches like a leaky roof. But the biggest gamble is the one Lutz is making on his instincts. He's betting that his signature car will be such a hit that it will go straight into production. "This car is something I've been bottling up inside myself for years," he says.

Lutz first sketched out his vision for the Ultimate Cadillac while president of Chrysler in the mid-'90s. At a cocktail party, he offered his idea as free advice to a group of GM execs. Lutz wasn't giving away secrets since Chrysler didn't have a luxury line. By then, Cadillac had suffered through two decades of shoddy models. What Cadillac needs, Lutz told the group, is a "noble, heroic" model styled after the hand-built coach cars of the gilded age. It would be priced out of reach for everyone but moguls. But it would elevate the entire Cadillac lineup. "You'd make a statement," Lutz told them, "that says, 'Hey, don't mess with us, we understand luxury'." The GM men smiled and nodded, but said such an outlandish car couldn't be done.

As soon as Lutz went on the company payroll on Sept. 1, 2001, he set out to prove them wrong. Lutz got GM's design chief Wayne Cherry going on the Ultimate Cadillac in their first meeting. Within days, Cherry brought Lutz into Cadillac's soaring studio, where his young designers laid out plans to unveil an uber-Cadillac with a V-12 or V-16 engine at the Geneva Motor Show in March 2003. Lutz pushed the bar higher: build the V-16 two months sooner for the Detroit show. "That's the American auto industry's show,'' he said. "It's the right venue to make a statement.'' The timing would be breathtakingly fast for a car this complex. Some concept cars are little more than a fiberglass model riding on an electric golf cart. For maximum impact, Lutz said, the Sixteen had to be a real car, requiring a new body, a new frame and an engine no one at GM had ever engineered.

That huge engine provided an early challenge. With Detroit's gas guzzlers suddenly looking unpatriotic, Lutz worried his V-16 would have people asking, "How can you guys be so stupid?" Lutz found a solution at an auto-supplier show. Alcoa CEO Alain Belda showed him the ultralight aluminum chassis it builds for the Ferrari Modena, which makes that $250,000 rocket go faster and farther on a gallon of gas. "I know you want to reshape GM products," Belda pitched Lutz. Lutz laughed and said: "Have I got a project for you."

Making a V-16 seem green would prove easier than getting the look right. Lutz wanted an elegant, flowing car like those he remembered from his childhood in Zurich (his Swiss banker father drove Cadillac's 1934 LaSalle model). But GM had already committed $4 billion to reviving the Cadillac lineup with an edgy new look. Lutz hated it. He even went public with his dislike of the knife-edged styling of the new $30,000 Cadillac CTS. Lutz's aversion to the stealth-fighter look didn't play well. "I told Bob, 'You're wrong on this'," says Gary Cowger, GM's North American president.

Lutz's classic sensibilities and Cadillac's cubist style soon collided. Four days before Christmas 2001, Cherry invited Lutz to review the results of a "sketch-off." Hundreds of colorful 18-inch drawings covered rows of easels inside GM's cavernous "design dome." Lutz liked nothing. The drawings were "too angular or too bricklike or look like something out of 'Buck Rogers'," Lutz recalls thinking at the time. Cherry counseled patience. Still, Lutz was despondent, and the clock was ticking. The week after Christmas, Cherry's designers gathered to start over. They were incredulous that Lutz didn't like their drawings. Leading the postmortem was Brian Smith, a soft-spoken 30-year-old whom Cherry made chief designer of the Sixteen. "Calm down," he told his crew, "Bob wants a car that's easy to love."

Hundreds of sketches later, Cherry called Lutz in late January: "I think we've found it." Lutz rushed to the studio to inspect four brown clay models, one third the size of the actual car. He was immediately drawn to one that had the "romantic gesture" he wanted, with voluptuous fenders and a cockpit nestled low between the rear haunches. "Make it more dramatic," he urged the designers. "Don't be afraid to push the roof down and make it faster."

The car Lutz loved, however, didn't have sharp angles. Cherry, the architect of Cadillac's new look, had to persuade his boss to give the V-16 a hard edge. After all, Cadillac's new identity seemed to be paying off. The CTS had become a surprise hit, racing through TV ads with Led Zeppelin wailing "been a long time since I rock 'n' rolled." And Cadillac's boxy Escalade SUV was winning street cred among rappers. Cadillac's marketing chief implored the designers to iron a few creases into the V-16.

The tension came to life in a two-faced, full-size clay model worked up for Lutz in March: on one side was the softer look he favored, and on the other was an edgier version that Cherry had requested. Smith worried he would have to blend the two designs to keep both his bosses happy. "When you mix and match designs," Smith fretted, "it usually ends up bad."

The Sixteen's styling debate finally came to a head in a tense "patio shoot-out." On a chilly morning in early May, Lutz gathered with the designers on the Ponderosa, an outdoor courtyard hidden within GM's design studios. Before them sat Smith's two-faced car and a surprise late arrival from GM's London studio. Silver vinyl stretched over the models made them look painted. Cardboard wheels covered black Styrofoam tires. A paper grille hung from each car's nose. Smith's model was morphing into a singular style that was heavy on heritage, with a few crisp lines. The London model featured a sharp, forward slant, more in keeping with the new Batmobile look. A debate erupted over retro versus modern, with Cherry appearing to favor London's model. A Detroit designer stepped up to Lutz and said: "Our car has more heritage, which is what we've been talking about all along." Lutz by now was warming a bit to Cadillac's stealth-fighter look. Still, he didn't want his dream car to be a "gigantic CTS." So he chose the Detroit design, but with the two sides blended to give its classic lines a modern edge.

Smith now had just four weeks to turn over a finished design to the engineers. On "design-freeze day," Lutz swooped into GM's Tech Center and touched down in his red and black helicopter. Looking like a big-game hunter in a khaki shirt, Lutz flipped off his shades and slid on rimless glasses as he arrived. Ribbons of clay littered the studio floor around the big model, which now had sharp edges jutting from the sides and trunk. But in a nod to bygone Cadillacs, Smith designed the hood to open like gull wings. That allows the engine to appear "like a diamond in a setting," Cherry explained. Looking tense and tired, Smith watched as Cherry and Lutz flyspecked his creation. "We're getting to where it's bold," Lutz said, "but has a nice classic texture."

The next challenge: to build the Cadillac vault tight. Under the glare of auto-show lights, a concept car can rise or fall on the fit and look of its body panels. That responsibility fell to a nervous and wiry engineer known as Bolo. In 17 years at GM, Dave Bolognino, 38, has become a specialist in bolting together concept cars. But he's never seen a car this complex or stakes this high. GM and Alcoa are investing $3 million into the Sixteen--three times more than a typical concept car. By Labor Day, just a few ribs of the skeleton have come together. "This car is nowhere near where we need it to be," says Bolo. "Before this is over, I'll be walking around with a pack of Marlboros and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol."

Lutz couldn't wait to test-drive the V-16. So Bolo had a body shop stretch the nose of a GMC Yukon SUV by 15 inches to accommodate the V-16. On the early December night that Lutz arrives to drive the test "mule" at GM's Tech Center, the roads are blanketed with snow. Bad news for Lutz, who wanted to burn rubber. But he's undeterred. Wielding a big cigar, he punches the gas. The Yukon fishtails. His interviewer goads him on: "I'll bet you could do great doughnuts with this engine." Grinning, Lutz says, "We probably could," and throws it into a 360-degree spin. We barely miss two trucks. "Ah," he says, "the mighty 16."

On New Year's Eve, the car is finally ready for its paint job. There is no holiday for the two dozen craftsmen building the Sixteen. Instead, they carefully apply 20 coats of "midnight silver." The grille still hasn't arrived from California. The interior is a mess of wires. The leather seats and walnut dash are still not in. The smoked-glass roof is resting in the corner. In a caffeinated, around-the-clock frenzy, the Sixteen finally comes together just before showtime. To Bolo, it's the most exhausting and important concept car he's ever assembled. "For the rest of your life," Lutz tells him, "you can say you worked on this car."

Now that the ultimate Cadillac has come to life, what will become of Lutz's dream car? The answer to that question will be the true measure of Lutz's impact on GM and, ultimately, Detroit. Getting scrappy little Chrysler to build the Viper was tough enough. For Lutz, it will be infinitely more difficult to persuade GM's bean counters to greenlight a quarter-million-dollar luxury car that will sell, at most, 1,000 copies a year. GM, which sells 8 million cars a year at more pedestrian prices, would have to come up with an entirely new business formula. It would cost close to $1 billion to put the Sixteen into production, but the profit margins in that rarified air can be enormous. Days before the auto show, Lutz sounds like he's honing his pitch. "Think of this car reduced by 10 percent," he says. "Cadillac needs a flagship, something wonderful, exclusive and expensive that would radiate out over the whole brand."

If Lutz can convince GM, a bigger question remains: does GM have the skill to build it? Even Lutz sounds concerned. "An extreme luxury sedan like the Sixteen would have to be silky perfection," he says. "Yeah, you'd worry about that, but I think it's doable." Lutz has made a career out of showing Detroit what's doable. And he's done it again by bringing his supercar to the stage in such a fast and furious fashion. With the Sixteen's arrival, America's car capital is at the proverbial crossroads. It has a chance to prove its best days are not in the rearview mirror. But if it all ends here, Lutz's drive to restore Detroit's confidence and reputation stalls. And then history just might record that one of the best cars Detroit ever created was never built.