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Designer Luigi Colani dies after decades of curving the world

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If Syd Mead were as consumed by the pursuit of aerodynamic perfection as Alex Tremulis and stripped of any and all regard for design precedent, the result would come relatively close to the works of industrial designer and futurist Luigi Colani, whose hypercurved designs have shown far-flung automotive futures, and who died this week at the age of 91.

Born in August 1928 in Berlin, Colani – who changed his first name from Lutz while in his late Twenties – studied sculpture and painting in Berlin and later aerodynamics in Paris. In 1953, he found work at McDonnell Douglas in California, but he soon switched to automobiles, penning designs for Fiat and others as a styling consultant. At the time, his designs remained largely grounded and straightforward, though with hints of the bio-mimicry style that he would later come to adopt.

Take, for instance, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta that Carlo Abarth commissioned Colani to design and build in 1957. From the windshield back, it looks rather like Abarth’s double-bubble Zagato-bodied 750, but ahead of the windshield it stretches forward and down, as if Colani were designing a shark-inspired Corvette for the late Sixties. In 1959, he followed the Alfa with a take on the BMW 700, another small sports car with a severely tapered front end that some claim was the first plastic monocoque car.

“Why should I join the straying mass who want to make everything angular?” Colani wrote on his website, defending his design philosophy. “I am going to pursue Galileo Galilei’s philosophy: my world is also round.”

As Colani himself boasted, his designs were always decades ahead of other industrial designers. “People need at least 20 years to come up to my level that I have at the moment,” he told CNN in 2014. “All kinds of transport must be done but better,” he says. “We have the knowledge today, we have the technology today, we have the materials today. But we don’t have the brains and the companies who should say yes to good ideas. There are too many conservative brains in positions where they should not be conservative. They should go ahead to give the youngsters jobs, ideas and freedom to think.” For an idea of how far-out some of Colani’s ideas were, take a look at the gallery of cars designs on his website.

Perhaps his last hurrah for production-based auto designs came in 1960, when Colani introduced his GT fiberglass-bodied kit car. Designed to use Volkswagen mechanical components, it sat so low, the Volkswagen four-cylinder engine needed its own bubble for the bodywork to contain it. He reportedly sold 1,700 of the kits.

Photo by Dael Bravo.

While Colani turned his attention to boat and furniture design – and over the years has designed everything from kitchen appliances to cameras to coffins – he often returned to auto design over the years, though with wilder and less easily produced concepts. Perhaps his most celebrated concept, the 1970 Miura Le Mans concept, started out as an ordinary Lamborghini Miura that Colani stripped of all but its mid-engine drivetrain. While he added some bodywork that, at the rear, wouldn’t look out of place on a Can-Am car, he eschewed a traditional ladder frame or even a monocoque chassis for a two-part design that hinged above the transverse V-12. The drivetrain inhabited its own pod while the two passengers reclined between the two non-steerable front wheels and under the low, laid-back canopy of the forward pod.

The same year, he took on his C-112 concept, a design inspired by the Mercedes-Benz C-111, though sleek and laid back enough to cut through the air with a coefficient of drag of 0.2. Not long after, he applied that focus on extreme aerodynamics to semis and other large trucks in an effort to reduce fuel consumption. His ultimate achievement in building fuel-efficient vehicles came in 1981 when he built a stock-engine, stock-chassis Citroen 2CV capable of covering 100 kilometers on just 1.7 liters of gasoline (or about 138 miles per gallon).

Later in the Eighties, he took to speed records as proof of his aerodynamic design capabilities. His Colani-Egli MRD-1 land-speed motorcycle, which incorporated its upper fairings into the rider’s suit, set a land-speed record at more than 170 MPH with a top speed of 198 MPH. Then in 1989, he introduced Automorrow, a series of 13 vehicles that Colani designed and built to set land-speed records at Bonneville. Among them was the Ferrari Testa d’Oro, a twin-turbocharged take on the Testarossa with an uninterrupted canopy line stretching from just above the front splitter to the massively upswept tail, incorporating vestigial bumps reminiscent of the double-bubble Alfa Romeo he designed 30 years prior.

Though galleries began to display Colani’s work toward the end of the Seventies, Colani found his techno-utopian optimism for the future out of favor during the Eighties, leading him to leave Europe for Japan and, later, China, where his ideas found more support. Only with the turn of the Twenty-First Century – and with images of his fuel-saving semis circulating on the Internet – did the West re-discover Colani, leading to retrospectives of his work in Germany.

Other noteworthy automotive designs of his attempted to bring back the Horch brand (1996, with a cheeky hood mascot hanging on for dear life); cash in on the neoclassic craze (1976, with the L’Aiglon); and update the boxiest of boxy cars, the Lada (1987, the Gorbi).

Colani died Monday in Berlin after a long illness.