From NSU to BMW: The Design Legacy of Claus Luthe

BMW the company was already 16 years old when Claus Luthe was born. But he was to play an iconic role in the direction taken by one of the world’s most innovative and successful automotive manufacturers. Initially, he worked for FIAT, but soon joined NSU, and was responsible for innovating some of the American General Motors Corvair design features in to the NSU Prinz. Regarded at the time as a rival to the VW Beetle. The NSU was Claus’ first design.

Pretty soon, NSU became interested in the development of a larger car to match the growing demand from the expanding German economy.

Claus was given the brief for the design of the mid-size NSU RO80, which introduced the Wankel rotary engine to the mass market. While the engine was a massive departure from convention, it was the body design by Claus that still stands today as one of the most aerodynamically efficient designs. The name of Claus Luthe and NSU RO 80 became almost synonymous. Claus also worked at Audi for a period prior to joining the BMW design team.

Audi archive.

In 1976, after receiving an offer from BMW that included becoming chief designer, and having complete design freedom, Claus became chief designer for BMW and set about moving BMW design in a new direction. He remained chief designer until 1990 when a personal tragedy overtook his life, and he left BMW. He was later offered a consultancy by BMW. 

BMW Group.

His arrival at BMW initiated some major changes. He was one of the first designers to embrace the digital approach to design, passing his design from the drawing board to the engineering department in digital form.

Claus’ move to BMW coincided with the company heading in the direction of developing performance cars. The M division was born. The M division released its first road car, a mid-engine supercar, in 1978. This was followed by the M5 in 1984 and the M3 in 1986. Also in 1986, BMW introduced its first V12 engine in the 750i luxury sedan.

BMW 5 Series E28 (Period of production: 1981-1987). BMW Group.

One of his early projects was to design a facelift for the E12 5 series. The budget blew out from $100m to $400m despite reusing the main body structure. The result of this was the new E28, with new engineering and design features. However, BMW management was satisfied that the massive investment was worth the cost.

His next project was the redevelopment of the E21 3 series. A four-door version was added. The low front profile was retained as were the round dual headlights to distinguish the model from the larger 5 series.

BMW 323i E21. BMW Group.

After that his attention, and that of Chairman Herbert Quandt, turned to challenge the Mercedes-Benz W126. The story of the BMW challenge to the Mercedes W126 was all about Claus Luthe.

Herbert Quandt was reported to have said; “We have to overtake Daimler-Benz with the new 7 Series!”

The question was whether to play the Mercedes conservative design game, or design something completely different. So of course Claus took the latter route, making his design less conservative and more dynamic and imposing. There is a story that the advertising agency employed at the time, was against the new design. But the BMW board was so enthusiastic that they prevailed, and the advertising agency were to ones to go.

By 1990 Claus was named the head of BMW’s design department, supervising the creation of the E31-8 series coupe, and the third generation E34-5 series.

He coined the phrase “optical environmental pollution” and set about avoiding it. He created two generations of the 3 and five series cars, and the 7 series, which in hindsight were the cars that changed BMW from just another quirky European brand, to engineering and design excellence, and something to be aspired to. The balance of style and practicality was near perfect, and the rest is history as they say. Mechanical innovation also played a part, as BMW was one of the first mass-produced cars to introduce fuel injection. 

BMW 7 Series E32. BMW Group.

Sometimes there is a leap forward that changes everything. Eg, in a museum setting, mention VW, and people think of the beetle, mention Fiat and they think of the 500, mention BMW and they think of the Isetta. Claus Luthe was the person responsible for changing the public perception of BMW. The Seven Series was praised by motoring writers as being a superb car in every way, designed by Claus Luthe, and backed up with state-of-the-art chassis and engine design, the Seven Series was lauded as the ‘best car in the world’ at the time. By none other than world champion GP driver Jack Brabham. Road test writers were lavish in their praise, and it all gave BMW a huge lift against its arch-rival Mercedes-Benz.

Simple designs like the Claus BMWs can be easily identified as far away as you can see them. By comparison, many modern cars can only be identified by their badge at close range. There are no inspirational designers like Claus anymore, or if they are they are swamped by restrictive safety regulations and cost counters.

Delving to the life and times of Claus Luthe, one gets the impression that he was very unassuming and did not seek credit for his iconic work. There are several references to some famous designer names taking the credit for his work. 


BMW the company is in fine financial health today, and still has two of the Quandt family members as part owners. Owning 42% of the $65 billion company. There is nothing like ownership to focus on the management of any company. 

Claus’ influence was not just on BMW cars of the period. He was also credited with design input for the K100 motorcycle in 1983. This motorcycle was a design revolution for BMW, which had used the same basic design since the 1920s. And was BMW’s answer to the engineering onslaught from Japan in the 1970s. True to form, BMW did not try to out-Japanese the Japanese, but instead with the help of Claus, designed a brand new motorcycle from the ground up. Today, their motorcycle range is very wide, and the BMW GS model is almost the first choice of adventurers worldwide. 

Peter Colwell

My life-long passion has been about mechanical things, especially engines, and how they work. I especially enjoy the sweet sound of a perfectly tuned engine, and have an affinity and understanding of them as almost a living thing…

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