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The Silent
Do you know who was head of BMW design prior to Chris Bangle’s era?
No? Well read on to find out all about Claus Luthe, the man behind the 1980s BMWs
O ver the years, the automobile industry
But who was the man who preceded Bangle at
BMW? Who was the man who established that
neat-but-conservative style for which the marque
became so famous? Unless you are a real BMW
anorak you will not know the answer, because he
was one of those quiet achievers who was rarely in
the spotlight. I admire quiet achievers, people who
simply get on with the task at hand with no
fanfare, no histrionics. And for that reason I
admire Claus Luthe. A quietly determined man, he
has avoided the glamour and glitz of the
international spotlight, preferring instead to let his
designs do the talking for him. Interestingly this
quiet achiever was, for many years, the design
director for one of the world’s most extrovert,
high-profile manufacturers – BMW.
Claus Luthe began his career at NSU back in
1958 and retired from BMW in 1990 with a
stint at Audi in between. Luthe’s first contact
with BMW was through Wilhelm Hofmeister who
approached him at the Geneva Salon in 1975. ‘I
was on the Audi stand when he came over and
asked me to meet with him later. When I did he
inquired as to whether I would be interested in
working at BMW. After a brief conversation he
asked me to call him in a couple of months’
time,’ said Luthe, who continued, ‘I did not
believe his proposal so I didn’t call him.’ That
simple question set off a period of turmoil in
Luthe’s life. About four months after that initial
contact Hofmeister rang Luthe at home in
Ingolstadt, the phone being answered by Luthe’s
wife, Trudi, who thought the caller was a
salesman! Apparently he had to go through
has had more than its fair share of
charlatans; smoke and mirrors guys
who have made extravagant claims as
to their achievements. Thankfully most
have a very short shelf-life.
For most of us, though, the person who styled
our favourite car is immaterial – it looks attractive
to us and performs all the functions we want it to,
end of story. Others like to know who designed
their car and seem to feel some affinity to that
person. Where BMW is concerned, the media has
made sure that those who want to know will
realise that the current range of BMWs was
designed by a team under the leadership of
Christopher Bangle. He seems to attract the
media like bees to the honey pot.
JUNE 2006
The E28 was Luthe’s first
BMW design, but he only
tweaked the details as the
shape had already been signed off
by the board when he arrived at BMW
Luthe meets Giorgetto Giugiaro at
the formal presentation of the Torino
Design Award for his E32 7 Series
quite an explanation before she was willing to
hand the phone over to her husband.
It was not long before management at Audi
became aware of the approach to Luthe, and in
particular Ferdinand Piëch who was unhappy
about possibly losing him and was quite blunt
about it. Nonetheless, despite the tense
atmosphere at Ingolstadt, Luthe and Hofmeister
concluded an employment agreement in October
1975 with a view to him starting work in Munich
in April 1976 as Design Director.
Luthe inherited a staff of less than 30 people
in the styling department. One of his first
initiatives was to go out and recruit new team
members. In the next few weeks he enticed
Boyke Boyer away from Ford in Cologne and
Hans Braun from Porsche. Boyer was given
responsibility for the Exterior I design studio,
Braun for the interiors. Modellers, too, were in
short supply at BMW and again a recruitment
drive was set in motion. Within a year Luthe’s
team totalled around 100 people – 25 stylists
and around 75 modellers.
‘At first we looked at recruiting established
designers from our competitors but more and
more I wanted to attract young people from the
universities and various colleges to get new
ideas in our team,’ said Luthe. ‘We also needed
skilled modellers, too, and I followed much the
same strategy there.’
Included in the original team inherited by
Luthe was long-time BMW stylist, Manfred
Rennen, who was placed in charge of the
Exterior II studio. Recruitment really never
ceased as the demands on styling grew, and as
the years passed the team included people like
Klaus Kapitza (recruited in early 1984) who was
given responsibility for the Exterior III studios,
Johannes Hirschler, who had responsibility for
colour and trim, Klaus Gevert whose responsibility
was styling the famous BMW motorcycles, and
Wolfgang Kilian, who was the technical liaison
between styling and engineering. That group of
people would remain the nucleus of Luthe’s team
from 1976 until 1990.
The first BMW that Luthe worked on was the E28,
released in 1981 and roundly criticised by the
media. Not an auspicious start as Luthe conceded
but with the explanation, ‘I knew it was a
conservative style but by the time I arrived the
design had been signed off. I was only able to
change minor details. However, you must remember
it was what the board wanted.’
Much the same criticism was encountered with
the release of the E30 in 1982. Again Luthe was
adamant that the board chose the design they
wanted but in his defence he said: ‘we do not have
to create models that are radically different from the
ones they replace. To maintain our tradition we do
not need to design ‘way out’ designs. The important
thing to keep in mind is to make sure there is
continuity from the old model to the new model. It
is absolutely essential that we build a lasting image
of what a BMW is and not be swayed by ever-
changing fashion trends.’
From the beginning, Luthe enjoyed the full
support of the Board, in particular Eberhard von
Kuenheim. Importantly, he was given as much time
as was needed to get a design right, and a budget
that was more than adequate. However, as he said
with a grin, ‘The caveat was that we had to provide
the board with the best options to carry the BMW
image forward,’ and added with some emphasis,
‘Mistakes in design should never occur!’
As the manager, Luthe gave each designer a great
deal of freedom and independence to produce his
own ideas on any project through sketches and
technical illustrations. ‘I believe this ‘ownership’ of
ideas stimulates the team to develop higher quality
solutions to a given project which leads to superior
team dynamics,’ he said.
With any project, Luthe’s strategy with the board
was always to present three proposals, the ones that
have the greatest potential for further development.
Luthe added: ‘At this stage we would have been
working in close consultation with Dr Reitzle, with
whom I had the most professional of working
relationships and who admired our work.’
The E30 platform became the most exploited to
that time in the company’s history. The two-door
was released in 1982 and was followed by the first
four-door 3 Series a year later: the Cabrio in 1986
and the Touring (wagon) in 1987. Where the original
Touring had been a hatchback development of the
02 Series, Luthe’s team developed a stylish wagon
from the four-door sedan, he commented:
‘Marketing studies showed that there was an
emerging niche for what some people call a station
wagon. But we didn’t want to design something like
the Volvo that was boxy and lacked the style BMW
buyers demand. I think the Touring that we designed
was well accepted by the market, don’t you?’
‘And don’t forget the M3 in that time. The design
team really enjoyed doing that one, too. It’s a very
collectible car I hear,’ said Luthe.
Following the criticism of his first BMW designs
Luthe was determined to push the envelope for the
next generation of 3, 5 and 7 Series, and the
The four models E30 model were overseen by Luthe, but depite critisism from the press he liked the design and is keen to point out that it was what the BMW board wanted
70 BMW car
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replacement for the 6 Series that had achieved
classic status in its own lifetime.
The first to be released was the E32 7 Series that
was presented to the press in 1986 and was
exceedingly well received and reviewed. Claus Luthe
smiles when he thinks back to the time of its design.
He said, ‘Von Kuenheim stopped by my office one
day and said that he wanted what he called a ‘noble
car’ to really challenge the S-Class Mercedes-Benz.
My designers accepted the challenge and we came
up with a car of elegant style with classic proportions
which became the best-selling luxury car in
Germany.’ The first styling sketches for the E32 were
drawn in 1979, seven years before the car
appeared. This unusually-long gestation was
deliberate according to Luthe, who added, ‘So we
searched for more classic styling that would remain
undated on the market.’
Two years later BMW released the E34 5 Series
which was, to many critics, little more than a
shrunken 7. ‘Not so,’ countered Luthe quickly ‘Yes,
there are some similarities in style, particularly at the
rear (they both featured the distinctive L-shaped
tail-light units) but that apart they are their own
models with their own character.’ Both models were
immense sales successes and were still selling well
when replaced many years later.
Claus Luthe is particularly proud of the E32 7
series, because it won the 1987 Car Design Award
presented in Turin. At the gala presentation he met
and chatted with the famous Giorgetto Giugiaro, a
time that Luthe cherished. So proud was BMW of
this achievement that it presented him with a fully
detailed 1:10 scale model of a 750iL and a replica
of the trophy. Both are displayed in a prominent
place in his Munich apartment’s Hall of Fame.
The E36 3 Series was awarded the Torino Design
Award, too. He smiles and says, ‘You know we had
to fight very hard for the E36 3 Series because
many board members thought it too radical, too big
a step forward over the old model. I actually
prepared an even more radical, aerodynamic
proposal for the presentation that my designers and
I liked, but I knew it would not be accepted.’
The E31 8 Series is a design that he is particularly
proud of too, even though he admits many in the
media disliked it. ‘It was another occasion where we
took a large step forward in design terms from the
classic and much-admired 6 Series. Klaus Kapitza,
who later became the chief designer at BMW
Technik, was responsible for the exterior design. It is
a strong design that I think has matured and is
something of a classic now. I liked it because it was
different and distinctive.’
Luthe’s lasting legacy at
BMW has been the successful
blending of form, functionality
and elegance into every BMW
that was designed on his
watch. So much so that BMW
now challenges
arch-rival Mercedes-Benz
for market superiority
When Claus Luthe retired in 1990, after a family
tragedy, he had overseen the completion of the
styling work on the next generation 5 and 7 Series,
the E38 and E39. Both would continue that
conservative extension of the corporate styling
envelope while at the same time develop new
themes, particularly the 5 Series with its coupé-like
rear roofline. Both models, despite some criticism
from the press (mainly aimed at their
conservative design), have been enormous
commercial successes for BMW and their
designs have achieved that timelessness that
Luthe strove so hard for.
But no matter what Claus Luthe’s recent
successes have been, he has been forever
etched into motoring immortality for his
stunning NSU Ro80. Considered somewhat
controversial at the time, it became the
beacon leading all other automobile designers
down the path to aerodynamics, its shape
highlighting one of Luthe’s favourite themes:
Die Keilform (the wedge).
Conceived in 1963 – more than forty years
ago – Luthe was asked by NSU’s Managing
Director, Dr Ing Gerd Stieler von Heydekampf, to
build an car that would showcase the advantage
Luthe’s legacy at BMW has
been the successful blending of form,
functionality and elegance into every
BMW that was designed on his watch
of the Wankel engine’s compact dimensions.
Luthe’s comments would make many
modern-day stylists very envious indeed: ‘I was
free to do as I wanted. There were no boundaries
to the concept because it was not going into
production. Well, not at first anyway. The wedge
shape and its application for aerodynamics
fascinated me and so all my sketches for it
featured the wedge in one form or another.’
Classic two-door E30; Luthe oversees fitting the windscreen into place on a 1:1 scale model of the E30; Luthe and his team who created BMW’s look of the 1980s and 1990s
JUNE 2006
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Luthe is particularly proud of the
E32 7 series, because it won the 1987
Car Design Award presented in Turin
Displayed at the 1967 Frankfurt IAA, the Ro80
was the star of the show, especially among the
technical motoring press who raved about it. The
car-buying public wasn’t so enthralled, apparently,
according to Luthe: ‘for most people the car
seemed somewhat strange, a totally different
form from what they were used to. It was not
helped by NSU not having an image as a maker
of luxury automobiles. And the Wankel motor was
suspect, people didn’t trust it yet. I was
disappointed with the initial reaction to it.’
Nonetheless, the Ro80 was a walk-away
winner of the 1967 Car of the Year award,
something NSU’s executives did not expect. That
award catapulted tiny NSU and its small but
brilliant team of designers and engineers,
including Luthe, into the world spotlight.
‘The Ro80 was my work entirely and no one
else,’ emphasised Luthe, clearly indicating that
this is one ghost from the past he wished to
exorcise. Luthe’s first complete car, apart from
rebadging the odd Fiat or two for NSU and
modifying the Sport Prinz coupé body in
collaboration with Bertone to create the Wankel
Spider, was the Prinz 4 of 1961. This Corvair-ish
design evolved into the NSU 1000, TT and 1200
that were good money-spinners for the company.
‘The first sketches and models I did for the Prinz
4 had been approved for production. Albert Roder
and I visited the Geneva Salon in March 1960 and
when we saw the new BMW 700 that Michelotti
had styled I knew that I would have to draw a new
design because ours was too similar!
‘I quickly sketched another design that
Frankenberger (the technical director) approved on
the spot. The first prototype was ready on October
10, 1960, and the first car left the assembly line on
August 2, 1961. Better than anyone can do today!’
Born 71 years ago in Wuppertal, in central
Germany, Luthe lived in Wurzburg for much of his
youth. As a young car enthusiast he admired the
work of Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell at General
Motors. ‘I loved the show cars they did. You
know, I used to spend hours drawing them
from photos in the car magazines. That’s what
inspired me to study to become a car
designer and modeller.’
Luthe lives in retirement with his wife Trudi in
Munich. The stairwell in his neat penthouse-style
apartment is decorated with memorabilia of his
many achievements including a 1:5 model of the
Ro80 hanging vertically on the wall. Ill health has
reduced his mobility but he still enjoys his
grandchildren, music and reading.
The only comment Luthe would make about
Bangle’s BMWs was, ‘I believe he will develop a
new BMW design philosophy that will be quite
different from mine. Whether it will be as good
for BMW we will have to wait and see.’
You gained the impression that he was almost
afraid that all the years of cleverly establishing that
styling continuity so important in BMW’s aura
were in jeopardy
NSU Ro80 was all Luthe’s own work ; E34, E36, E31 and E38 were all designed under Luthe’s watchful eye; BMW board initially thought E36 Three was too radical a design
72 BMW car
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