. This talented stylist created some beloved BMWs by David LaChance. Photography courtesy of BMW. For his creation of a generation of handsome, though conservative, designs in the 1980s and ’90s, Claus Luthe has the admiration of many knowledgeable BMW fans today. In fact, he’s responsible for the styling of many enthusiasts’ favorite BMWs: the 3 series 1982 and 1990, the 5 series of 1981 and 1987, the 7 series of 1986 and the flagship #BMW-8-series
coupe of 1989.
That would be enough for any designer’s legacy, but Luthe has another major credit: the hugely influential NSU-Ro80 , the star of the #1967-Frankfurt-Motor-Show
and the winner of that year’s European Car of the Year award. Even more impressive, the Ro80 was the first design that Luthe could claim was entirely his own. Luthe was born December 8, 1932, in Wuppertal, in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia district. He was the second of five children, the son of a cabinetmaker. His father was conscripted into the Wehrmacht, and died on the eastern front in 1944; Luthe was 11.
He had wanted to become an architect, like his older brother, but instead became apprenticed to Karosserie Voll, a Würzburg coachbuilding firm, working on bus designs. As a young man, he was a great admirer of Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell at GM. “I loved the show cars they did,” he told the magazine BMWcar in 2003. “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 modeler.” After six years with Voll, he got a job at the German branch of Fiat, where his major contribution was to restyle the nose of the Fiat 500 for the local market.
In 1958, Luthe made the jump to NSU in Neckarsulm, where his first major task was to style the Prinz 4, the second generation of the company’s rival to the Volkswagen Sedan. When NSU launched the world’s first rotary-powered production car, the Spider, it wore a body styled by Luthe. The Ro80 project was a reflection of NSU’s high aspirations, meant as a direct competitor to Mercedes-Benz. Luthe had a free hand in the styling, and created a legend. With its low nose, high tail, airy greenhouse and clean lines, this aerodynamic wedge influenced designers everywhere. Unfortunately, the sedan was let down by its Wankel powerplant, and the cost of warranty claims led to the company’s takeover by VW.
Wolfsburg inherited both Luthe and one of his last designs for NSU, the K70 sedan, which became VW’s first front-wheel drive car. He designed the Audi 50, which was the basis of the firstgeneration Polo, and laid the groundwork for he 80/90/4000 cars. He was recruited by BMW in 1976 to succeed Paul Bracq as chief designer. His old bosses at Audi were unhappy, but Luthe had the opportunity to significantly expand BMW’s design studios, adding 70 positions to what had been a 30-member team.
His first work would be to finish up the design of the secondgeneration 5 series, the E28. The press criticized it for its lack of daring, but Luthe was unapologetic about his careful approach. “We do not have to create models that are radically different from the ones they replace,” he told BMWcar. “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.” Under his guidance, boxiness evolved into elegance and refinement, and BMW sales soared. On Good Friday 1990 came a shocking turn of events: Luthe stabbed and killed his 33-year-old son, Ulrich, after an argument. Ulrich, the first of Claus and Gertrude Luthe’s four children, had become increasingly addicted to alcohol and pills; the stabbing was the culmination of years of conflict. Luthe was convicted of manslaughter, but was not required to serve his full 33-month jail sentence.
After Luthe’s release, #BMW
offered to take him back, but he instead chose to retire. In his later years, he was a valued member and enthusiastic supporter of many #NSU-Ro80
clubs. Luthe died in Munich on March 17, 2008.