Thursday, June 12, 2014

Bob Lutz. The man behind the motorcycles.

In 1973 BMW turned the motorcycle world on its head. The sometimes conservative German company set the Paris show alight with the simply stunning R 90 S. The man behind this classic Hans Muth motorcycle was legendary automotive figure, American, Bob Lutz. 

The beautiful Silver Smoke livery complimented the elegant and practical fairing and the seat-cowl was like no previous BMW – or in fact any other motorcycle. With 67 hp the R 90 S was a fast, fine handling machine capable of over 200 km/h and became an instant classic, which brought immediate attention to BMW motorcycles. Not only did it help sell the R 60/6, R 75/6 and R 90/6 models, it made a profit. At that time it saved BMW motorcycles from almost certain death as the BMW Board were starting to lose interest in motorcycles.

In 1971, Eberhard von Kuenheim was mapping out the future of BMW. The newly installed, 43-year-old CEO enticed Lutz, the then 39-year-old sales-and-marketing executive from General Motors' Opel subsidiary to join him in the effort. The task was to take BMW from a small European manufacturer to a world brand.

Lutz (pictured left on a 1973 R 75/5 – the 500,000th BMW bike – in front of the BMW Museum) was a master at creating brand awareness and making products that excited buyers. ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ and ‘The Ultimate Riding Machine’ tag lines were two of his early decisions. He wanted to create agile and sporting products that were true to BMW’s historic past. 

From 1972 to 1974 he was on the BMW Board with responsibility for sales. In that time he had a profound effect on BMW, an effect that is still very much with us today. He saved BMW motorcycles and laid the platform for the launch of the first 3 Series car, the basis of BMW’s ongoing success.

At that time BMW was beginning the climb from being a German producer to becoming a genuine worldwide brand and had a far simpler structure than today. BMW motorcycles were produced with a fragmented structure within the company and although the /5 Series launched in 1969 had taken BMW forward, it was bikes like the Honda CB 750 Four that had really altered the landscape. 

The /5 in some ways looked old and far from exciting, even with some special versions, such as the ‘Toaster Tank’ model released in some markets (such as the USA) to grab extra attention and sales. As a passionate car man and motorcycling enthusiast, Bob could see a future where others could not, and it was the R 90 S that he is immensely proud of, even four decades later.

“The R 90 S was the fruit of getting all the dispersed ‘bike guys’ at BMW together in one room and shaking our heads over the ‘Toaster Tank’ and other misbegotten models, and quickly agreeing what a really great Jap-thumping BMW would look like,” he said. “The result was the R 90 S in Silver Smoke and to my mind, the somewhat less attractive Daytona Orange. I could write a book about the product development and marketing lessons that programme taught me and could teach the world. It saved the BMW motorcycle business and showed the Finance guys, who were arguing that we should exit the motorcycle business because there was no way we could compete with the Japanese. There was money to be made with superior product, priced at a premium.” 

“The bike was an instant success. We sold out immediately and, importantly, made more money than we did on a lower spec 1600 car. Yes, in all humility, I give myself some credit for saving the bike arm of BMW. I still love the R 90 S and I am immensely proud of it,” said Lutz.

From 1954 to 1959 Lutz was a US Marine fighter pilot (he remained as a reservist to 1965). He was the ‘squeaky clean marine’ as depicted in the film adaptation of Tom Wolf’s, ‘The Right Stuff’. If he had not taken to the auto business via a degree in production management and marketing at UC Berkeley, he may well have found his way into the NASA space programme. 

The ‘fighter pilot’ has never really left him. His passion for fast cars is equal to that of his love of fast flying. In his extensive garage he has some wonderful cars and an Alpha jet fighter trainer – the German built aircraft – providing an outlet for his love of speed. It is not all in the air or on four wheels though: in his garages in both Switzerland (the country of his birth) and the USA he has several BMW motorcycles to satisfy his two-wheeled thirst.

Lutz’s career took him to the top echelons of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors before his ‘retirement’ in 2009. Now 81-years-old Lutz is still active in the industry and he can look back to 1973 with pride, in having helped create the iconic BMW R 90 S, one of the great motorcycles of the 1970s – and arguably of all time.

Historical Significance of the R90S

If not for the introduction of the R90S model in 1974, you would most likely 
not be riding a BMW motorbike today, unless of course it was of the vintage 
variety. Top management was ready to toss in the towel, yes pull the plug 
on the motorrad division as sales were steadily declining and losses were 
mounting in the early seventies. As Robert A. Lutz explains in my 
correspondence with him:

" The (finance) vultures were circling over the motorcycle division. Sales 
were low, mostly to police fleets (low margins); low retail sales (mostly 
older, conservative riders.) There was no hope, at that point, of matching 
Japanese multi-cam, multi-cylinder technology. We were in a gradual downward 
spiral. Butler and Smith did not help at that point. They wanted to see the 
bikes "Harley-ized", with more chrome (hence those horrible battery covers) 
and way smaller gas tanks, again covered in chrome (the dreadful "toaster 
tank" series, a joke in their day, now, for some reason, a coveted collector 
bike!). At any rate, the R90S turned everything around." ......(Robert A. 

Lutz goes into more detail in the 19 minute video he produced for our 
upcoming R90S 40th Anniversary Celebration about how dire the situation was 
for BMW motorrad when he arrived around 1971. Although he was hired to 
increase sale in automotive, he had great passion for motorbikes and 
desperately wanted the division to excel and to be profitable. In his spare 
time he quickly reorganized the division and accessed the situation and knew 
what had to be done to turn things around.

The stunning R90S was born, sales skyrocketed and put BMW back on the map 
and the rest is history. A very successful racing campaign of course only 
added to it's popularity. Whatever BMW you are riding can 
thank Bob Lutz for his vision and foresight. Bob is 82 years old, is still 
riding and has a nice collection of BMW motorbikes in his stable.

The video production is very informative and well worth viewing.

Mit freundlichen Grüßen,
Todd Trumbore

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