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Form follows human: Recaro’s roots as coachbuilder to the Germans

Reutter seat production for Porsche, 1961. All images courtesy Recaro.

[Editor’s Note: Seatmaker Recaro’s PR folks were kind enough to dig through their archives for photos and information enough to put together this history of the company, going back more than a century.]

The history of Recaro seats starts in 1963 in the German automotive “capital” Stuttgart in very close range to the iconic brands and companies Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. But: The legacies of these brands are closely intertwined and cover a much longer time-period.

Reutter

Actually, the roots of Recaro go back to the year 1906, when a young saddler master, Wilhelm Reutter, founded his “Stuttgarter Carosserie und Radfabrik” to produce complete horse-coaches and the first bodies for motor-vehicles. Coaches were a business to make a living but motorcars were the real dedication of the young company. Reutter saw the future of mobility very clearly and invested in the upcoming industry. His calculation was easy to understand: Nearly next door there was the oldest producing car manufacturer of the world, the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft. The engine and the basic chassis of these cars were built in the car maker’s factory. The body was ordered by the customers at a specialist – custom-made to their wishes. These possible orders looked interesting to the young entrepreneur. And there were more carmakers on the rise.

Reutter team with Wilhelm Reutter at left, 1908.

History proves him right: From the start, Reutter was successful and over the years became one of the most renowned car body suppliers in Europe. Many innovations come from Reutter – for example, the first patent for a convertible car-top or a first standardized car body, the “Reutter Reform-Karosserie,” which could be used as a convertible in summer and covered with a fixed top for the winter. Over the years the re-named “Stuttgarter Karosseriewerke Reutter u. Co.” became a legend, building customized and series bodies for all important German automotive companies including Daimler, Benz, Wanderer, BMW, Opel, Adler or Horch. The fame even reached the United States where Reutter was commissioned to do car bodies for luxury cars from Nash, Hupmobile and Cadillac.

In all these years, Reutter did not only design and produce car bodies. The company always supplied the interior of these vehicles too, including seats. So from the very start Reutter was a real pioneer in automotive seating, developing seat benches, driver and passenger seats and looking for more and more comfort for the users. For example, in 1938 Reutter took over an English patent for seat tracks, refined it and advertised “adjustable seats for motor vehicles.”

Yet the most important economic opportunities for the Reutter family developed out of personal contacts with a small, new engineering-bureau owned by a man by the name Ferdinand Porsche. In 1932 Porsche ordered a prototype for a Wanderer streamline body and the work of the Reutter team was so convincing that the two companies started a long lasting relationship. The perhaps most interesting cooperation evolved around the Volkswagen-concept: In 1935 Reutter was commissioned by Porsche to build the first prototypes of the later VW and then in 1938 to produce the first 40 “Beetles.” These cars were successfully presented to government and public. But the war ended the project.

Reutter team building VW prototypes, 1938.

The Porsches remembered the trustworthy relationship with the Reutters when they were back in business in the late 1940s. So, when the idea of a completely new sports car started to fall into place under the project number 356, in 1949 Porsche commissioned the “Stuttgarter Karosseriewerk Reutter” to build 500 Porsche 356 cars. The first one was delivered on April 4, 1950. After that and until 1963, the Reutter factory in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen (today part of the Porsche production facilities) produced 78,000 Porsche vehicles. And even the prototype of the new Porsche 901/911 came out of the Reutter workshop.

circa 1954.

Finally in 1963 Porsche took over the car production and the Reutter factory in Zuffenhausen, the family sold their stakes and left the car building business. A splendid automotive story was over…

But at the same time a new fascinating story started: As Reutter had been quite successful with car seats, adjusters for backrest, and seat tracks since the early 1950s, now a new company was founded under the name Recaro – derived from two words “RE”utter and “CARO”sserien. Its business purpose: production and sale of car seats. The first customer: Porsche. From then on Recaro built the seats for all Porsche sports cars until 1997 when the business arrangement ended. From 1983 onwards this happened under the roof of the family owned KEIPER Recaro Group which acquired Recaro.

Sportsitz, circa 1967.

The fame of the brand Recaro, however, developed out of a completely new idea, a real innovation: the presentation of aftermarket seats for cars, sportive, safe, ergonomic, in distinct design and in perfect craftsmanship. A substitution for normal standard series seats. The first “real” Recaro seat was the “Recaro Sportsitz”, introduced at the Frankfurt Motorshow in 1965.

Rennsitz, circa 1974.

While the company has made inroads into offering seats for commercial vehicles, its motorsports shells stand out. First shell seats by Recaro were introduced in 1967, the first purebred racing shell made from Kevlar followed in 1974. There were times when only Recaros were used in racing.

Idealsitz, circa 1976.

From competing on the race track to sportive driving on the road it is only a short distance. But the demands of the users are quite similar. It is not about going fast – it is all about controlling the car and getting the right feedback from the road. Race track proven, but comfortable and ready to use every day. The “Recaro Sportsitz” from 1965 was the first one – mostly installed in the then all new Porsche 911. But the line of sporty and innovative Recaros over the following 50 years is long. There was the “Recaro Idealsitz” from 1971, the “Recaro LS” from 1983, the “Recaro A8” from 1989 with the first ever backrest made from glas fibre reinforced plastic.

Idealsitz, circa 1981.

And then there is the health issue: In the early 1990s, together with renowned scientists, physicians, designers and engineers, the Recaro team developed the Recaro philosophy of seating ergonomics. This basic idea of the optimal layout of a vehicle seat is called “the Recaro DNA” internally and is – although refined and reviewed regularly over the decades – still in place today, mostly unchanged. The general motto here is: Form follows human.

A car seat does not only have to be comfortable in a short view. It has to be designed to make sitting in a car healthy and comfortable for hours. To reach this goal the seats follow the form of the human body (especially in the backrest) and have to hold the body in place even in sportive driving conditions to reduce movement and muscle contractions (through side bolsters, the form of backrest and cushion, foam materials, seat covers…). All seat development at Recaro starts at the Design Studio in Kirchheim/Teck, Germany. Frank Beermann, head of Recaro design for almost 30 years, makes sure that all products carry the Recaro DNA and fulfill the requirements.

Ergomed.

So all Recaro seats for street use follow the ideas of the Recaro philosophy. Yet there have always been seats in the product line-up that supply the decisive scrap more of assistance to people with physical problems. The luxury “Recaro CSE” from 1984 was in this line, with electric adjustment possibilities and memory functions, the special seat for taxi drivers “Recaro T-Line” from 1986, the “Recaro Variomed” with asymmetrical bolster adjustment from 1991, or todays “Recaro Ergomed ES” and “Recaro Orthoped.”

Finally, let’s talk about original equipment – during the last 55 years there has been almost no important global car manufacturer that has not used Recaro seats in some of its cars at one point of its history. Most of the time Recaros have fit perfectly into special series or niche vehicles. The list of brands is almost endless – but it includes Aston Martin, Audi, Bentley, BMW, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Fiat, Ford, Honda, Kia, Lamborghini, Lotus, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Pontiac, Porsche, Toyota and VW.

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