Claus Luthe: Designer of the daring Ro80

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The Independent Online

New cars today rarely flare the imagination as the NSU Ro80 did in 1967. It was, quite simply, the most daringly modern car on the road – Lamborghini, Porsche and Jaguar notwithstanding. It was even more apposite that, as the wraps were coming off this German masterpiece at the Frankfurt motor show, resolutely old-tech relics like the Morris Minor and the Austin Cambridge were still rolling down British production lines.

At the heart of the Ro80 was an amazing engine. Designed by Dr Felix Wankel, this power unit dispensed with traditional cylinders for twin rotors in its combustion chambers. It was a compact motor and also one that gave the Ro80 extraordinary smoothness.

But just as impressive was the car's stunning, wedge-shaped styling, honed by the designer Claus Luthe. For a large five-seater saloon, it had unusual elegance. But there was science to its form too: the Ro80 was supremely aerodynamic, its co-efficient of drag, at 0.35, unparalleled for such a car.

It still looked sleek and modern in 1987 next to such wind tunnel-shaped cars as the Ford Sierra and Audi 100. Its stylist, Luthe, though, received acclaim only among a small circle of car industry insiders.

This relative lack of recognition is unfair. Luthe probably did more than most to shape the modern German car, with all its visual solidity and confidence. Arguably, with the success of BMW, Audi and Volkswagen, he's more influential than many of Italy's so-called "masters".

Claus Luthe learned his design craft at the Voll coachbuilding works in Würzburg, designing buses, before joining Fiat in Italy, where he was part of the team that styled the much-loved Nuova 500 that made its début in 1957.

By then, he had already been with Germany's NSU for a year. This successful scooter and moped manufacturer decided in 1958 to re-enter the car market it had quit, to stave off bankruptcy, exactly 30 years earlier. Its Prinz was a tiny economy car and, as head of the company's expanded design department, Luthe was involved with the styling of this and, more importantly, the subsequent Prinz models, for which he drew inspiration from Chevrolet's fashionable, high-waisted Corvair.

NSU's ground-breaking foray into rotary engines led them first to the Wankel Spider and then the Ro80, which was intended to take the company upmarket into Rover and Mercedes-Benz territory. Sadly, warranty claims relating to Ro80 engines that proved to be mechanically fragile saw the firm brought to its knees. The car's enormous thirst for fuel did it few favours among buyers.

Just two years after the Ro80 astounded the car world, NSU was taken over by Volkswagen and merged with its Audi division. NSU's upcoming K70 saloon, designed as a cheaper, more conventional alternative to the Ro80 and also sharply styled by Luthe, then went on sale as the Volkswagen K70. It broke new ground as the German brand's first front-wheel drive car with a water-cooled engine.

Luthe seamlessly transferred to the new Audi-NSU organisation as a key member of its design staff. From 1971 until 1976, his input shaped such cars as the Volkswagen Polo and Audi 50, 80 and 100 – excellent, crisply styled cars that raised the currency of German "premium" models enormously.

Luring him away was quite a coup for the rival BMW, where he succeeded the colourful Paul Bracq as chief designer in 1976. He oversaw the team that evolved successive 3 Series, 5 Series and 7 Series ranges into the quintessential sports saloons of the 1980s – cars that made BMW an extraordinarily profitable company.

Indeed, the luxurious 8 Series coupé was only just on sale in 1990 when the tragedy of Luthe's family life blew his world apart. During a violent row with his drug-addicted son, Luthe fatally inflicted multiple stab wounds on the 33-year-old. He was jailed for two years and nine months for the killing but released shortly after commencing his sentence.

It was probably a mark of the sympathy people felt for him that BMW offered him his job back. Luthe shortly afterwards took early retirement, but his accomplished car design skills were employed by BMW right up until his death, as a consultant. However, it is debatable whether any other car he was involved with equalled the impact of the Ro80, despite its tarnished reputation.

Giles Chapman

Claus Luthe, car designer: born Wuppertal, Germany 8 December 1932; head of design department, NSU Motorenwerke AG 1956-70; designer, Audi-NSU Auto Union AG, 1971-76; chief designer, BMW AG, 1976-90; married (two sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Munich, Germany 17 March 2008.