March 4, 2010 at 8:32 am

GM's 'car guy' Lutz to retire May 1

General Motors Co. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, 78, has complained recently about below-market compensation for GM's top executives. )

General Motors Co. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, an industry icon who has helped lead a product renaissance at the Detroit automaker, is retiring May 1, the highest-profile departure since Chief Executive Fritz Henderson's forced resignation in December.

Lutz, 78, has complained recently about below-market compensation for GM's top executives, and his departure comes amid a sweeping shake-up within the automaker's North American operations.

"At some point you have to do something new," Lutz told a group of reporters today at a restaurant outside Geneva, Switzerland, on the sidelines of the Geneva Motor Show. "It really is time to move on. Early retirement is finally here at age 78."

Lutz has held senior positions at each of the Detroit Three automakers and has overseen some of the industry's most daring vehicles, from the Dodge Viper sports car to the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car, scheduled to debut later this year.

"The influence Bob Lutz has had on GM's commitment to design, build and sell the world's best vehicles will last for years to come," said GM CEO and Chairman Ed Whitacre Jr. "I, along with many other men and women in GM and throughout the industry, have greatly benefited from his passion, wisdom and guidance."

The announcement comes a day after a shake-up of GM's management in North America..

"I cannot imagine anybody wanting to force out Bob Lutz," said analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics in Birmingham. "He brought product conscience, which hasn't lived at General Motors for decades."

It's unclear whether the departure will hurt GM's efforts to build vehicles that appeal to customers.

"We'll know that in five to seven years," Hall said.

Last month, Lutz told The Detroit News that GM's top 25 senior executives, whose pay packages are being reviewed by the Treasury Department, were "way, way, way" underpaid.

His comments came as Treasury officials review 2010 pay for GM executives, whose salaries must be approved by the agency's pay czar, Ken Feinberg. That's because GM is among companies that received billions in federal money under the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.

"The bottom line is General Motors got itself in that position because it didn't have people like Lutz at the wheel earlier," Hall said.

Since 2001, Lutz has helped GM draw rave reviews for products such as the Pontiac Solstice, a two-seat roadster unveiled in 2005. The Chevrolet Silverado full-size pickup won Truck of the Year and the Saturn Aura midsize sedan took the top prize for cars at the 2007 North American International Auto Show.

Lutz has said the Cadillac CTS and Buick LaCrosse are evidence of GM's design renaissance.

Lutz initially announced his retirement from GM in February 2009, complaining about government oversight attached to billions in federal aid that kept GM afloat.

He later chose to stay with the company, heading the marketing and communications department. But his continued employment at GM drew criticism from bailout and GM critics who pointed to Lutz as evidence that the automaker was resistant to change.

In December, Whitacre named Lutz a special adviser.

That month, hours after Henderson's forced resignation, Lutz was noncommittal about his future at GM.

"Whether I stay or go is always a board decision," he said.

Lutz also said at the time he would stay at GM as long as he felt his input was welcome and that he was making an impact. He wasn't working because he needed the money, he said.