Reading some of what’s appeared on the Web, over the last 24 hours, I was surprised by some of the references I saw to the earlier, abortive attempt by Chrysler and Fiat to merge. The April 1990 deal was scuttled, as I first reported on TheDetroitBureau.com on Tuesday, just hours before it was to be inked.
Over the following months, there was an endless stream of reportage suggesting that Chrysler would have to find yet another merger partner if it were to survive, an argument not entirely scuttled by former CEO Lee Iacocca. The only one, among senior management, who seemed intent on keeping Chrysler independent was Bob Lutz.
And, in his typical, shoot-from-the-lip manner, he explained his position, following a speech at the annual Management Briefing Seminars, in Traverse City, that following August. I recall it well, as I was the one that threw the question, which was, in departure from my typical, multi-part query, quite straightforward: “Does Chrysler need to find a merger partner to survive?”
I could see the former Marine fighter pilot warm to the topic, even as his PR handler frantically signaled him to stick to the company line – say little to nothing. But Lutz had a good one, and a better one. After a long draw on his ever-present cigar, he blew a puff in my direction and explained, “You can’t find a bridegroom when the bride is lying on her deathbed.”
Like a shot, the wire service reporters were off to find phones to file (it was, after all, pre-cellphone). Within 30 minutes, Lutz was hearing from Iacocca, who ordered the maverick exec to fly back to Chrysler’s old headquarters, in Highland Park, Michigan. Were it not for a few friendly members of the Chrysler board, Lutz would’ve been fired. But it was then and there Iacocca firmed his resolve to brush the Swiss-born president aside and bring in an outsider – Bob Eaton – as his eventual successor.
The clips I see, this morning, insist that Lutz was referring to Fiat as the dying bride. That’s absolutely incorrect, though by then, the Italian maker was having problems of its own. Lutz knew that in its current condition, Chrysler couldn’t get the best partner, nor the best deal. Recall, this was just before the launch of the “cab-forward” LH cars which, briefly, made Chrysler a success again, and a leader in automotive design.
Oh, and, yes, I mentioned Lutz had two quotes he was toying with. Several well-placed sources say he wisely chose not to follow his original instincts and proclaim that “You can’t find a bridegroom for an ugly bride.”