How do bad cars happen? How, for instance, did Pontiac's Aztek—the greatest failed model in recent history—get all the way from flawed design to ugly product? We asked Bob Lutz, our industry expert and man-about-town, what he knew. Turns out, he knows quite a bit.
I kind of got hired [as GM's vice chairman of product development] because of the Aztek. I was getting an award, and [then-GM chairman] Rick Wagoner introduced me and took a couple of funny digs. When I gave my speech, I said, "It's curious that the man who oversaw the Aztek would comment on my failures." It brought the house down. When I apologized later, he said, "Ah, I was expecting it. We're disappointed in the Aztek. I'd enjoy hearing what you think we're doing wrong." After three conversations, he offered me a job.
A bad car happens in stages. The Aztek concept car was a much leaner vehicle. Decent proportions. It got everybody excited. At the time, GM was criticized for never doing anything new, never taking a chance. So Wagoner and the automotive strategy board decreed that henceforth, 40 percent of all new GM products would be "innovative." That started a trend toward setting internal goals that meant nothing to the customer. Everything that looked reasonably radical got green-lit.
These things require a culture of complete acquiescence and intimidation, led by a strong dictatorial individual who wants it that way.
The guy in charge of product development was Don Hackworth, an old-school guy from the tradition of shouts, browbeating, and by-God-I-want-it-done. He said, "Look. We've all made up our minds that the Aztek is gonna be a winner. It's gonna astound the world. I don't want any negative comments about this vehicle. None. Anybody who has bad opinions about it, I want them off the team." As if the public is gonna give a shit about team spirit. Obviously, the industry is trying to get away from that approach.
Early on, the Aztek obviously failed the market research. But in those days, GM went ahead with quite a few vehicles that failed product clinics. The Aztek didn't just fail—it scored dead last. Rock bottom. Respondents said, "Can they possibly be serious with this thing? I wouldn't take it as a gift." And the GM machine was in such denial that it rejected the research and just said, "What do those assholes know?"
The danger with the totalitarian management style is that people won't speak up when there's a problem. They'll get their heads cut off or the messenger gets shot.
Of course, when I saw it for the first time, at the Detroit auto show, I thought it was a joke. How could a group of people who call themselves automotive professionals do something that bad?
Many people in the car business do not understand that a vehicle has an image. To them, a vehicle is a collection of attributes. If your attributes are better than the other guy's attributes, you're gonna win. It's engineer thinking, along totally rational lines. Their advice to an alcoholic is "stop drinking—is there something about that you don't understand?" That's not how people actually think.
One guy I informally interviewed about how the Aztek happened was one of the top guys on the project. And this guy, he looks at me and he says, "I'm proud of it." Proud of the Aztek? "Yup. That was the best program we ever did at GM. We made all our internal goals, we made the timing, and I'm really proud of the part I played in it." He had tears in his eyes. It was almost tragic. Everybody wanted to will this thing to succeed, and it didn't work. All the emotional commitment and pride in the program was that it achieved all its internal objectives. And it was probably one of the great defeats in his life, or in his career.
This appears in the November 2014 issue of Road & Track, and at RoadandTrack.com.