Mystery and intrigue on the banks of the Neckar.
It all began with a casual conversation at a motor show, which touched on the Ro80 and its stylist, Claus Luthe. An acquaintance, with an extraordinary nose for the rarely trodden byways of automotive history said “You do know that Luthe probably didn’t design the Ro80?” I confessed I didn’t, but I was keen to know more.
“It’s in an old copy of CAR”, I was told. I asked if there was a possibility of a scanned copy of the article. “I’ll do better than that”, I was told; “I’ll send you the magazine”.
My informant sometimes needs a little reminding and cajoling, and a few months passed until the evidence arrived, the Car of the Year edition from March 1968, with the victorious Ro80 in frontal aspect on the cover. It didn’t disappoint, and anybody who shares my enthusiasm for this extraordinary car should seek a copy out.
Naturally, I went straight to the pages headed ‘So who really designed the Ro80? The Wind?’ written by Jerry Sloniger. It’s based around an interview with Luthe which is enlightening on many matters but evinces a sense of tension between the journalist and the “stocky close-cropped Klaus (sic) Luthe, product of a typically NSU artisan background”. With the conversation concluded, Sloniger drops the bombshell in the final three paragraphs:
To be equally honest, we at CAR doubt whether Klaus Luthe’s hand in the Ro 80’s styling was quite as sweeping as he makes out. No doubt he was the coordinator, but our own inclination is towards motor industry gossip which links the car’s aesthetic conception with the name of one Pio Manzù, 28 year old son of the Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzù. Pio studied at Ulm and now lives in Germany, although he works as a consultant on – of all things – tractor design. His career on cars began when he won Automobile Year’s styling competition in 1962 with a design for an Austin Healey 3000 body that was built and shown by Pininfarina. He did other work for Farina, including allegedly a special Fiat body called the Losana (sic) which appeared in 1964.
This had distinct affinities with the Ro80 and was followed by a body actually built on an NSU chassis – a two-seat coupe called the Autonova which appeared at Frankfurt three years ago and which Manzù designed in collaboration with a group of young Germans who also produced the NSU-based Delta sports car for last year’s Frankfurt show.
In the meantime, according to our information, but most decidedly not according to NSU, Manzù had worked in Neckarsulm for several months at exactly the time when NSU would have been freezing body designs for the Ro80. Whether it was really he, or the unknown Klaus (sic) Luthe (whose previous work with all due respect hardly shows world-shaking potential) was responsible for the body sculpture of this fascinating car we cannot say.
Whoever it was, we wish NSU would stop talking about wind tunnels and honour a truly original human talent.
At the outset of composing this piece, I had intended merely to report a largely forgotten, piece of speculation from almost half a century ago. That didn’t seem like value, and I was beginning to question what Sloniger suggested. Was he putting two and two together and making five?
My research took me down some curious routes, and to some enlightening discoveries on the way.
The ‘Pio Manzù as Ro80 designer’ story is absent from most authoritative accounts of the car’s history, but I found a couple of appearances.
One of Luthe’s obituaries states “Claus Luthe has always defended himself against these legends (or historical misrepresentations?). Always in a friendly tone, but always very determinedly; once he said, ‘old rum gains by aging, old rumours do not’.” Is this some old Westfalian folk-aphorism, or was Luthe a connoisseur of the rather unfashionable spirit?
Stephen Bayley also puts an odd twist on the rumour in his snappily titled book ‘Cars: Freedom, Style, Sex, Power, Motion, Colour, Guff’:
“To avoid nagging questions of personal vanity, no design or engineering credits were ever given. So rumours began that this dramatic shape had been sculpted by Giacomo Manzù.”
Hold on – does the revered authority on all matters of design know something new? Was Pio’s dad behind the Ro80’s styling? There is no evidence of Manzù senior ever being involved in car design, so it is remotely possible that Stephen may have been sloppy in his researches on this occasion.
To make some sense of Sloniger’s speculation, I set myself a catechism. I’m never going to have Jerry’s access to the scuttlebutt of the mid-‘60s European automotive design community, but what passed thereafter may hold some clues.
First question – did Pio Manzù work on the Pininfarina show car which Sloniger claims to have influenced the Ro80’s styling?
“He (Manzù) did other work for Farina, including allegedly a special Fiat body called the Losana (sic) which appeared in 1964.”
The matter is more complicated than appears. Losanna (the Italian name for the city of Lausanne) was the third of a series of Pininfarina studies for a two seater coupe on the Fiat 2300 platform. The Cabriolet Speciale, second of the series, was shown at the Geneva Salon in March 1963.
The fixed head Losanna was exhibited at the Swiss National Exhibition in Lausanne, which opened in April 1964.
Both designs are credited to Tom Tjaarda. Did Manzù contribute to the designs? It’s possible he had some involvement, or at least knowledge as a visiting prodigy, but these do not look like Manzù cars. There’s a sensual curvaceousness which is quite alien to Manzù’s solo designs, which look chamfered and radiused – skilfully and sensitively – from geometric solids.
Pio Manzù’s reputation was founded on the Firrere, the winning entry in the 1961 Automobile Year design competition with Henner Werner, and Michael Conrad, fellow students at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, West Germany. It’s not exclusively Manzù, but the functional, rational forms are close to his later designs. The proportions of the body were fixed by the Austin-Healey 3000 chassis which it clothes. It was exhibited at Earls Court and Turin in 1962, and on the Pininfarina stand at Geneva in 1963, along with the Tjaarda’s Fiat-based Cabriolet Speciale. Comparing the two, the reader may draw their own conclusions.
Next question: Whether or not Manzù was involved, did the two Pininfarina designs influence the Ro80?
The evidence is before us to consider, and I’d suggest emphatically that they did. Earlier in the Sloniger interview, Luthe reveals that the original Ro80 concept was a 2+2, evolving into a four door saloon as the design process progressed. Luthe also admitted to hating the biennial Frankfurt IAA, but enjoying visits to the Turin and Geneva shows for “refreshment”, and I don’t think he meant rum.
At the time of the Ro80 launch, Luthe was not just NSU’s chief stylist, but the sole designer in a department comprising himself, two prototype body builders, and six modellers. His best regarded work was the Prinz 4, which was inspired and informed by the Chevrolet Corvair, but Luthe’s design demonstrated mastery of the task of adapting an existing shape to a smaller ‘canvas’. Could have applied a similar process, starting with the Pininfarina concepts?
Was Pio Manzù working at NSU at the time when the Ro80 was being designed?
Sloniger wrote “according to our information, but most decidedly not according to NSU, Manzù had worked in Neckarsulm for several months at exactly the time when NSU would have been freezing body designs for the Ro80.”
It’s highly likely Pio Manzù was at Neckarsulm, given that the second of the Autonova projects, the two-seater GT was based on the platform and drivetrain of the Prinz 1000TT. By this time – probably late 1963 – Henner Werner had dropped out of the trio, to be replaced by influential writer and polemicist Fritz B Busch, who was able to corral the support and contributions of NSU, Glas, Recaro, VDO and BASF. The Autonova GT was accorded semi-official status by its appearance on the NSU stand at the Frankfurt IAA in September 1964. But was it the harbinger of the Ro80, its secret half-sister?
Judge for yourselves. As with the Fiat 2300-based Cabriolet Speciale and Losanna, the Ro80 does not fit in with the Manzù oeuvre, before or after, or his philosophy of the automobile as an “object of use”:
“On the object of methodological research, in fact, the car has to be considered much the same as any other product: It’s a subject of design like a tractor or a pre-fabricated home. There is no reason why cars should be considered a product apart, and even less as the exclusive concern of a limited circle of initiates”
Pio Manzù “L’auto come Sistema” Style Auto no.3 1964
Despite its supposedly aerodynamically-led form, the Ro80 is very much a stylist’s car. Claus Luthe, in a much later interview, admitted that the final shape was arrived at “intuitively”, and after wind tunnel testing only minor changes were proposed, to vent intakes and outlets. These changes never made it to production; they were abandoned on grounds of costs. The wheel arch shapes were altered to make their shape more pleasing to the eye, without regard for aerodynamics. A Citroen SM-like glass panel between the headlights had to be replaced by a radiator grille as the cooling load for the Wankel engine had been underestimated.
A brief interlude: Ulm HfG and the Heilbronn Forschungabteilung
From 1960 until 1965, Pio Manzù was enrolled as a student at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, an easy 100km drive from the Heilbronn / Neckarsulm conurbation. It was far from being a hotbed of car design talent. The HfG’s faculty heads, who had a strong left-wing and anti-luxury tendency, all but forbade automotive design, considering cars “an unacceptable subject”, according to Michael Conrad in a 2006 interview. The Automobile Year competition was therefore something of an act of rebellion on the part of Conrad, Manzù and Werner, but the positive publicity their success generated for the HfG had the paradoxical result of an automotive design section being established under Professor Rodolfo Bonetto.
This largely explains why Pio Manzù’s thesis subject was “The design of an 80HP tractor, and ergonomic problems in the design of a tractor”. A tractor was not a car, but an object of utility, and therefore an appropriate subject in the ethos of the faculty.
Pio may have envied Tom Tjaarda, five years older, who studied at the Architecture School of the University of Michigan. He was allowed to present the design of an automobile – a sporting type of station wagon – rather than anything resembling a building, for his senior thesis.
Between – and possibly before – his 1965 graduation and his move to Fiat Centro Stile in 1968, Manzù spent periods as a consultant at Fiat’s experimental design and research centre in Heilbronn, known as the Forschungabteilung. Here some of Fiat’s finest talents, including Ettore Cordiano, Felice Cornaccia, and Sergio Camuffo were nurtured on special projects, far away from the tensions and robust vigour of the Turin design office, which Dante Giacosa described as “a closed and secret circle, so jealous of its own methods and traditions”.
The Agnellis were Manzù’s patrons, but not his masters, and this was a period of intense and diverse creativity for him, producing designs for furniture, office equipment, exhibition stands, lighting, signage, graphics and packaging, as well as the 850-based City Taxi.
My final question – did NSU bring in outside help to style the Ro80?
Sloniger writes, “his easy smile goes out like a candle in a blizzard if you hint at Italian influence in the Ro80”.
Bayley’s statement that “no design or engineering credits were ever given” is partially correct. At the Frankfurt IAA launch in September 1967, NSU’s management took a last minute decision not to mention individuals in press releases or publicity material. Six months later, with several major awards won, and huge critical acclaim, Claus Luthe and Ewald Praxl were out in the open, taking the credit and spreading the gospel.
At the time NSU was a proud and independent carmaker, and for some time in the 1950s had been the world’s largest manufacturer of powered two-wheelers, but it stretches credence to imagine that every element of the Ro80 was designed and engineered without recourse to external consultants. Some time ago I was shown this picture of a rather mysterious Ghia prototype from 1962. It’s not the Porsche saloon, and it is suggested it might be a study for Tatra for a T603 replacement.
If Jerry Sloniger had suggested that Tom Tjaarda had designed the Ro80 I may have been more easily persuaded…
The Corvair-inspired Prinz 4 demonstrated that Claus Luthe was something of a design ‘magpie’, and a capable one at that. Perhaps by the time the Ro80 was being shaped, he was capable of mixing and manipulating more diverse and complex influences.
Was Sloniger being mischievous, suggesting Pio Manzù’s name in order to flush out another, better-known designer.
To apply a legal verdict only available in the Scottish Courts, the case presented by Jerry Sloniger for Pio Manzù’s involvement appears to be ‘not proven’.
Writing some time in February 1968, Sloniger could have not imagined that both Luthe’s and Manzù’s careers would end abruptly, in the worst of circumstances.
Pio Manzù would only live another 15 months. On 26 May 1969, driving his wife’s 500C to a meeting at Fiat Centro Stile, he was killed in a collision near the Brandizzo exit on the Turin autostrada. He was only 30 years old.
The meeting he was to have attended had been set to select the design for the car to replace the ageing Fiat 850. Manzù’s design was chosen and, as the Fiat 127, stands as his most significant memorial. Apart from the millions produced worldwide from 1971 until as late as 1996, the influence of the car’s shape is evident in the Volkswagen Golf and Polo, Ford Fiesta and nearly all other small hatchbacks designed in the 1970s and 1980s.
Claus Luthe outlived NSU and the Ro80 by nearly 31 years, playing a major part in the irresistible rise of Audi to the ranks of the German premium brands. In 1976, he shocked his VAG masters by ‘crossing benches’ when he succeeded Paul Bracq as design director at arch-rival BMW.
He left his post at BMW after being accused of fatally stabbing his 33-year-old, chronically drug-dependent son, Ulrich after an argument on Good Friday in 1990. Luthe was eventually convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 33 months in prison, but was released before having to serve the complete sentence.
In the many good years before, he had risen to become a true grandee of the German automotive world, and an outstanding manager of designers, confounding Sloniger’s rather snobbish depiction as him as the low-born Facharbeiter made good, but lacking the talent to be capable of truly progressive and original design.
And poor lost Pio… Manzù was the golden boy cut off before his prime, a sort of Buddy Holly or Duncan Edwards of the automotive design world, who was set to take his place among the glorious group of design maestri born between 1937 and 1939; Giugiaro, Gandini, Fioravanti, and Spada who were all already establishing themselves as the foremost practitioners of their art.
Not that Pio Manzù considered car design to be an art, which is what sets him apart from his celebrated contemporaries in the automotive design firmament, as a star of a rather different chemistry. The sculptor’s son saw car design as no more than a branch of the wider discipline of shaping industrial products, and was emphatic in his view that industrial design and fine art were not cognate, but serve wholly different functions in the human experience.
Manzù was a prolific writer even in his early twenties, and a visionary whose ideas came to pass long after he was gone. He foresaw the future of cars as objects of utility, exemplified by the compact, affordable proto-MPV FAM, the more rigorously designed and appealing harbinger of the multitude of Scenics, Picassos, and Zafirae which would appear more than three decades later.
He also wrote of personal transport becoming part of an integrated system of human mobility, with manufacturers having a redefined role to provide this. Electric power and autonomous vehicles also featured in his visions of the future.
Not long after Sloniger’s article was published, Manzù became – all too briefly – a permanent part of Fiat’s establishment, an Agnelli protégé with his own studio and team at Centro Stile in Turin.
He even had a company Dino, a far more substantial and dynamically competent vehicle than the 500C he chose to use for that fateful drive from Bergamo to Turin. If he had surrounded himself with more metal, a 78 year old Pio Manzù might have been around to answer Sloniger’s speculation, and lay the half-century old rumours to rest.
CAR: March 1968
Forty Years of Design with Fiat. Dante Giacosa. Automobilia srl; 1979
Pio Manzù: When the world was modern. Pietrantonio, Fagone, Finessi. Electa; 2008
NSU The Complete Story. Mick Walker. The Crowood Press 2009