Automotive History: The Cars Of Claus Luthe

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When writing for a wide audience, it’s best to explain that which not might already be known, but since we readers of Curbside Classic pride ourselves on our vast collective knowledge of automotive history and trivia, it’s difficult to gauge whether Claus Luthe needs an introduction.  Certainly, his cars are famous and almost unanimously well-regarded, but as someone who’s worked for manufacturers in-house, he many not have benefited from the same degree of name recognition as, say, Giugiaro or Michelotti.  I will do my best to rectify this lack of fame, as the cars he penned are easily some of our favorites.

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Perhaps Mr. Luthe’s success in creating a very diverse portfolio has influenced how he is recognized by car buffs, for while he famously created some famous, high-end designs, he also left his mark on some more-modest vehicles.  Such is a fitting narrative when considering the life of a person whose personal timeline coincided with of his homeland’s utter devastation and rebirth following World War Two.  Luthe was twelve years old when his father died, on Germany’s Eastern front, in 1944, and only sixteen when he began his first apprenticeship with a coach builder helping to design buses.  After six years, he joined Deutsche Fiat, where he helped design the front end of the Nuovo 500, a car whose adorable face left its mark all across postwar Europe.

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He is more well known for his work at NSU, where he landed a job in the late ’50s through family connections.  Up to that point, the company did not have a design department, so the young Luthe was given a position which allowed him both some degree of freedom as well as a great deal of responsibility.  The first cars he created in his new position were the NSU Prinz 4 of 1961 and the NSU Wankel Spider.

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BMW’s 700, another rear-engined car, had just been introduced when the Prinz’s design was being finalized.  Disturbed by this similarity and inspired by a board member’s recent trip to the U.S., where the Corvair had also been recently introduced, Luthe experimented with the addition of a ridge entirely surrounding the perimeter of the car, which resulted in the design we see above–no small feat for an inexpensive car so advanced in its planning stages.  Of course, the Prinz was more than a mere rip-off of the Corvair, but its influence is distinctly obvious.

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NSU, hoping to break out of its role as a maker of economy cars, began experimenting with that relic of futures past, the Wankel engine.  As a way to get the first versions of their new engine onto the road, NSU created the Wankel Spider, a rare car even when new, built on the Prinz’s chassis.  As the first production car with a rotary engine, it wasn’t cheap for its time, and Luthe’s styling reflects the corresponding need to justify its price.  While perhaps his least distinguished design, with influences from Loewy and Pininfarina, its very clean detailing and deference to prevailing attitudes are an excellent depiction of his sensitivity as a stylist.  Luthe didn’t allow his talent to cloud his good judgement and as such, the results of his labor always demonstrated good taste.

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While working on these cars, Luthe furthered the work on what became his most famous design, the Ro80.  Easily one of the most influential cars of its time, it helped set the stage for sedans in the 1980s and 1990s and while not his most widely seen work, it’s been widely copied and remains the most frequently cited piece in his portfolio.  One factor which allowed such a progressive design was the freedom afforded by not having a predecessor model whose styling themes would have to be taken into consideration when designing the new car.

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Designed around a small Wankel engine with the goal of accommodating a full load of passengers and cargo, the low nose and high decklid dominate the shape of the car, along with the very large six-light greenhouse.

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The dashboard that Luthe had designed for the Ro80 was rejected by NSU management, who insisted on the very dull design which made it into production.  Other elements which changed when the car went into production were its overall width and the ride height, with no corresponding alteration in the front wheel opening to compensate.  The front end of the car, incidentally, was to be even lower, with a big air intake under the bumper and the license plate concealed behind glass (as on 1970’s Citroen SM).  Minimum headlight height requirements in some export markets nixed this plan, but looking at the front of the car, it’s not impossible to imagine such an element being integrated into its design.

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A continuation of ridges and indentation which grace the decklid and the hood of the Ro 80 were initially planned for the roof as well (as on today’s Prius), which was to be a brushed stainless steel surface, but fitting a sunroof to such a panel would obviously be expensive, so a flat, painted surface was used instead.  This seemingly brilliant touch shows amazing foresight when considered in light of the fact that wind tunnel testing was only commenced when the car’s design was nearly complete.  The Cd was revealed to be about .36, which was impressive for the late ’60s, and subsequent models achieved figures as low as .34.

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The Ro80 set the stage for NSU’s next sedan, the K70, which was smaller, less expensive and which used a traditional four-cylinder engine, ahead of the front wheels.  So while many aspects of their design are similar, the K70 is altogether more upright and traditionally proportioned.

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By the time the K70 was introduced, NSU ended up in VW’s coldly rational arms where, in 1971, Luthe was made head of the Audi design studio.  He is responsible for the Audi 50 (though curiously, the nearly identical VW Polo is credited to Bertone) as well as for starting work on the B2 80/90/4000 which was completed by, and is credited to, Giorgetto Giugiaro.  The interior of both the Audi 50/Polo and the C2 (second generation 100 and first generation 5000) were also his designs and show a direct link to the work originally planned for the Ro 80.

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Luthe’s time at NSU and Audi was one where he felt limited, from the placement of the chrome strip on the Prinz to the canning of the original dashboard design of the Ro 80 to VAG’s insistence of there being two separate design studios, where certain cars were kept out of his reach.  He departed for BMW in 1976, where he was made head of design, succeeding Paul Bracq who had departed just after having introduced a new design language with the E21 3-series, E23 7-series and E24 6-series.

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Luthe was therefore initially constrained in what he could accomplish in Munich, much like Bruno Sacco at Mercedes.  In addition to those limitations, his first design in Munich, the BMW E28, was also compromised by BMW’s budget and the need to base the car on the outgoing E12, designed by Marcello Gandini. Like the Prinz, this car’s design was inspired by an American company, though much less directly.  Upon viewing the 1976 Ford Taunus, Luthe considered how that car could was redesigned quite extensively around an existing passenger cell and sought to apply this philosophy to the new Five, which was to be redesigned on a budget of $100 million.

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Much to Luthe’s consternation, the new car ended up costing BMW 400 million rapidly depreciating, late ’70s US Dollars to redo, but not due to any excesses on his part.  Fortunately, BMW’s rising star gave him more space to create the kind of design he thought would be best for the brand in the ’80s, the first example of which was the famous E30 3-series.

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Luthe, quite unlike Chris Bangle, championed an evolutionary approach to BMW design, maintaining the importance of creating a lasting impression of what BMW is.  This logic speaks volumes for the cars created under his watch, especially the now iconic E30.  At the same time he wanted to consolidate the brand’s identity, however, he also had to further the company’s goal of establishing itself as a first-rate Mercedes competitor.

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Perhaps the best expressions of this plan were the E32 7-series and the E34 5-series, both designed by chief stylist Ercole Spada under Luthe’s watch.  While not as big of breakthroughs as the Ro 80, they still achieved great success in merging the Neue Klasse’s ’60s-inspired look with late ’80s aerodynamic sensibilities.

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Luthe left BMW following a well-publicized family tragedy in 1990, but Wolfgang Reitzle helped continue the designer’s influence, rehiring him as a consultant beginning in 1992.  The well-received E38 and E39 are good examples of the continuation of the styling themes established by the E36, and the design of E31 8-series was also completed under his leadership.

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Asked to list their favorite BMWs, a good portion of enthusiasts will undoubtedly mention Luthe’s work.  As the Ro 80 shows, he definitely knew what was fresh and new, but his general aversion to fads and outré design elements meant that his cars never unnecessarily challenged onlookers.  One must be careful sharing very strong opinions when writing about design, but it’s safe to say many wish his successors felt similarly about the way a car should look.  It is to Luthe’s credit that the brand has managed to withstand the indulgent design language heralded by Chris Bangle, who oddly enough was chosen by Reitzle.  Had Luthe had a similar desire to reshape BMW’s identity, it’s unlikely his replacement would have had the budget or leeway to create the designs he did.

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If the changes which took place after his departure from BMW prove anything, it’s that management knew Luthe’s work was difficult to beat and was desperate for any chance for their design to evolve.  One need only look at Audi’s underwhelming designs of ten years ago to see what they were worried about. While his influence was evident in the very clean cars designed after his departure, notably Harmut Warkuss’s C3 Audi 100 and also Jay Mays’s B3 Audi 80/90, and while both those designers had extensive tenures at the company and created some great shapes, they lacked his ability to move the game on.  Luthe understood that moderation and sensitivity were different from ultra-conservatism.

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Though he passed away in 2008, he left his mark on an entire generation and did a great deal to define The German Car.  His designs have a very clean look and do not call attention to themselves, not unlike the under-recognized man who created them.  When the press first speculated that the Ro 80’s design was Italian, no effort was made to correct the assumption, but as we see, for the everyday motorist, Luthe’s influence is perhaps even more pervasive than those of the Italian design houses.  Perhaps it’s only fitting that the subtlety of his work has made him somewhat of an nameless figure, but for car lovers, Claus Luthe is a man to be remembered and admired.

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