Klaus Luthe’s 91st Birthday

You might be shocked to find this out, but I have a serious thing for cars. To the point that might be an understatement. And slight character flaw. In middle school and high school I dreamt of becoming a great car designer, constantly doodling cars instead of doing my math homework. Although being the pre-internet days, I didn’t really know who any of the designers were other than the father/son Porsche legacy. The generic car books generally didn’t attribute the designers other than the passing mention of Bertone or Pininfarina. 

My first car was handed down to me by my pop when I was 17. A 1974 Karmann Ghia droptop in Saturn Yellow. In the mid 90s it was a bit of a joke to my friends, but I loved it. I had grown up in the back seats of aircooled VWs mostly, so it was a familiar mode of transportation to me. And I thought it was cool, which is said, is all that matters. But I can’t say I knew who the designer was other than it was someone employed by the Italian design studio Ghia. 

But that’s the way it is in most industries in fact. Heck, I’ve designed several things that are in tens of thousands of peoples homes and nobody knows who I am! 

But an elite few designers rise to the very top of the industrial design field. 

When one thinks of BMW, sure, many might quickly gravitate to some of the latest offerings, namely, their technically impressive ///M cars and SUVs. Others might celebrate or lament the E60-86 creations from the peak of the Bengal era. However, it’s impossible to understate the significance and timelessness of the automobiles produced in the 1980-1999 era of BMWs under the design direction of Klaus Johannes Luthe. 

Born on December eighth, nineteen thirty two, Mr Luthe would have been 91 today. I won’t rehash his career (or tragic personal life) here, as many bloggers have already done fine jobs of that. But suffice to say, he worked his way to the top starting with busses, contributed to the design of the original Fiat 500, and surely at least commented on the development of the E36/7-8 and E46. Pretty cool.

This is after all, e30update.com, so I want to focus on the masterwork itself. What makes it so great?

First I want to get a pet peeve off my chest. I absolutely loath automotive styling cliches. Trends are one thing, and BMW – until recently – hired designers who were masters of translating design and styling trends into sophisticated transportation packages that reflected a focused design and engineering philosophy. 

Cliches on the other hand, are the recycled, and rehashed, stolen, overused, and stolen again styling details that are obvious ripoffs of styling details from competing manufacturers. And it’s almost always totally cringe. Think tail fins in the 50s. Although some of those were pretty rad (I’m looking at you 1959 Chevy Impala)! 

I get it. you’ve gotta stay relevant. You’ve gotta keep up with the times. Sure. And everyone’s guilty of it. Heck, my Ghia has tail fins. And not even very good ones by the time ’74 hit. Speaking of which, that reminds me of another cliche pet peeve: ginormous tail lights. Happened to the Ghia. Even happened to the E30. 

Sometimes it’s regulations I’m sure, but did the original Lincoln Navigator really need tail lights that big? I mean, they literally looked like translucent toboggans. Totally horrendous. But I digress; I’ll do a separate styling cliche blog post some day because those only scratch the surface of my list. 

Luthe was certainly fortunate to have inherited an in-place styling platform with a refined set of cleverly thought-through and developed cues. I’m obviously referring to things like the kidney grilles, Hofmeister kink (which yes, was a styling cliche…), sharp, full-length body crease, quad-round headlights, and long (but not too long) hoods. However, one need only take a look at todays raft of BMW offerings to see how this seemingly straightforward set of guidelines can be grotesquely implemented. 

But grotesque wasn’t Luthe’s thing. He was of course an old-school German designer, no doubt influenced by the Bauhaus school of design, Dieter Rams and the Northern European “less is more” philosophy of design. In fact Luthe coined his own phrase for his distain of over-baked styling cliches calling them “optical environmental pollution”. Which I’m sure sounds awesome when spoken in German. 

Although styling cues such as horizontal creases, four round headlights, forward-slicing window lines, or even two vertically mirrored grill openings weren’t exclusive to BMW, it was the combination of those stylistic elements and the consistency across models that made BMW styling so distinctive, then and now. 

The other, and arguably more important factor of automobile design is proportion. Don’t believe me? Look at the difference between the VW Rabbit and Ford Gremlin. Sure, that’s an extreme comparison, but it can also be seen in the transition from the E21 to the E30. Not to say that the E21 is an irreparably hideous catastrophe of car design, but there is a special proportional balance in the E30 that simply doesn’t exist in the models that came before it. Or perhaps after. 

And that takes incredible skill and talent. 

To this day the E30 is still one of the first models that comes to mind when the letters BMW are mentioned. Yes, the Neue Klasse models like the 2002s brought BMW roaring into the second half of the 20th Century. But even those are pretty obscure today. The incredibly popular E39 5series is perhaps what most might visualize, but to be fair could almost be mistaken for an E36, if not an E30. 

The BMW 3 series manufactured from 1982-1992 lives in this magical realm between the minimalist restraint of the mid 20th century, while simultaneously revving up for the 21st. In my opinion it really wasn’t until the 2010s that the E30 even looked that dated. Which interestingly is right about the time the values started to climb. And not all cars values start automatically moving skyward after 40 years. That reward is saved for the ones that are well engineered, well built, and of course, well designed.

So here’s to Klaus on his birthday; the incredible talent behind “God’s Chariot”. Hopefully some day not too soon, I’ll get to hear him say “optical environmental pollution”. 

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