Currently reading: Stellantis' Klaus Busse named 2021 Autocar Awards Design Hero
As vice-president of design for Stellantis, Busse has embraced the challenge of reshaping Fiat, Maserati and Alfa for a changing world
Richard Bremner Autocar
8 mins read
8 June 2021

Most design chiefs would be happy to surprise a motor show press day with a single, brightly lit, knockout concept. But at the 2019 Geneva show, Klaus Busse and his team fielded a pair of concepts that were considered best of show. One was the handsome Alfa Romeo Tonale, now delayed until next year, the other the Fiat Centoventi. The electric Centoventi was both a celebration of Fiat’s 120th birthday and a strong hint (we hope) of how the next Panda will not only look but also be propelled.

Admiration for the Alfa revolved mainly around its handsome proportions and fine detailing, but the Centoventi explored the kind of city car we need for the 2020s, which is why it’s electric. Its examination of customer and environmental needs is appropriate to Fiat’s history of groundbreaking baby cars and perhaps a rejuvenation of the kind of deeper-thinking design that once characterised Italy’s car industry.

The Tonale and Centoventi have since been followed with two notable production models. The all-new electric Fiat 500 and the shapely mid-engined Maserati MC20 supercar are decidedly more exciting than the dull Fiat Tipo and the short-falling Maserati Ghibli of recent times. Busse leads design not only for Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Fiat but also Abarth and Lancia. It’s a quintet that has had him thinking long and hard about the essence of Italian car design and how cars fit in society, which has “dramatically evolved” from where he was 10 or 15 years ago.

“Back then it was about trying to do something cool, beautiful, that gets noticed,” says Busse. “It was all about design, and I was very design-centric. Sure, there was a package, there was a customer, there was some functionality and it was all about quality. But today it’s very much about our role within society.

“It’s easier to see this in the 500, but you also see it in the MC20.” For the new, electric 500, Busse and his team were working on something that is currently considered an icon.

“Rather than just looking at new designs,” he continues, “we looked at society in the context of 1957, when the 500 was a big part of the democratisation of mobility and la dolce vita, while for the 2007 500 it was pop culture and the ‘yes we can’ political movement. There was a positive attitude in the world.

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“When work began on the car we released last year – a few years ago, of course – we thought: ‘Okay, what has changed in society?’”

Unsurprisingly, Busse lists environmental awareness as the reason for the 500’s electrification, but he adds that while this thought process nevertheless occurred pre-pandemic, there were already “sober notes” within society: “There was uncertainty about where everything might be heading with technology.”

The challenge for Busse’s team was to acknowledge this shift in the new 500’s design. One way was to launch the car with sophisticated colours – “something that reflects a more respectful approach”, he adds. More obvious has been the reworking of the 500’s face, a process happily eased by the fact that, like the rear-engined 1957 original, an electric 500 doesn’t need air intakes up front.

Three proposals emerged, swiftly whittled to two. One maintained the headlight position of the 2007 car, creating “a very optimistic look”, while the lights of the other were much more upright, as with the 1957 car, complete with a bonnet shutline sitting above the lights. “It produced a more serious look, but people would have said: ‘They just went back to the 1957,’” says Busse. “They liked both, but how to combine the two?”

Busse suggested a design that would split the lights horizontally, their upper sections lifting with the bonnet. “The upper part is the eyebrow and the lower part is the eye,” he explains. “It did add cost, but everyone was on board.” The changes are subtle, but as Busse says, “the car has matured as society has matured”.

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The same thinking applies to the Maserati MC20. “The societal part is incredibly important because the MC20 is a supercar,” says Busse. “It’s much harder to make a supercar relevant today. People might see it and think this car was bought by someone who is financially fortunate, but we wanted to add visual value to the environment. We wanted to create a rolling sculpture that people would appreciate and actually like to see in traffic; something that enriches the environment.”

To that end, this is a (slightly) less flamboyant supercar, whose subtlety suits the refined elegance of Maserati design. Unlike many other supercars, the MC20 “is not about air intakes and air outlets”. The car has them, of course, but in their purest, minimalistic form. “They became part of the sculpture,” says Busse.

Despite acknowledging the risk of sounding pretentious, Busse cites the Renaissance era as a distant influence on Italian car design. “For Michelangelo, the beauty was in the creation of sculpture,” he says. “That is relevant for an Alfa Romeo. Evolution has trained us to find beauty in objects with soft shapes under tension, whereas angular and sharp objects have a subconsciously negative impact.”

The Da Vinci inspiration for Maseratis revolves around the question of whether he was an engineer or an artist. “You could even argue that his art was born out of research from technology, and that, for me, was very much guiding us with the MC20,” continues Busse. “Yes, it has that pure, sculptural approach in the upper part of the car, but at the same time the lower part is closer to raw engineering.”

Amid all this, Busse has agonised over his right as a non-Italian to be designing Italian cars. “But when I was sitting on a piazza in Torino drinking espresso, which I like to do, one day it dawned on me that espresso beans are not Italian. I realised that not only me but also many others – we have 14 or 15 nationalities here – can consider ourselves as coffee beans. The crucial thing is not the origin of the ingredient; the crucial part is the process, which you follow to create that iconic Italian cultural beverage.”

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Busse, 51, is from Minden, a part of Germany that he says was “not an area where you would be exposed to a lot of car culture”. Instead, his interest was fired by television shows such as Magnum PI and The Fall Guy, in which the respective hero’s wheels were a Ferrari 308 GTB and a GMC truck. He went to art school and made a couple of mates, and “we ended up going by chance to Pforzheim University for a degree show”. Spotting a guy with a beard who they concluded must be a lecturer, they asked if they could show him their portfolios. Their sleuthing was off but – a happy coincidence – the bearded, besuited target was the person running Mercedes-Benz’s design internship programme. Despite their portfolios being declared “pretty useless”, they were invited to Mercedes to understand the internship programme and, after further study, were enrolled.

The trio went to Braunschweig University, but after a year Busse found the course wanting and instead joined Coventry University’s industrial design course, where he says he had “a really good time”. From there, he gained a place on the Royal College of Art’s vehicle design programme. But instead of further study, Busse chose to join Mercedes-Benz full time in 1995, learning from luminaries including Michael Mauer, Steve Mattin, Stefan Sielaff, Peter Pfeiffer and Murat Günak. “I learned a lot not only about design but also management and leadership,” says Busse. “It was very helpful.” Although his decade with Mercedes was Busse’s “formative years”, he says he cannot claim “a single design” as his own. “It was always teamwork, and fighting for the team,” he says.

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A particularly big moment came when Busse created a full-size interior proposal for the 2001 R230 Mercedes SL. “I got to manage the budget and do it all,” he adds. That included overseeing the build of the full-size model, which was contracted out to specialist Stola in Turin.”

“I remember the moment I walked into Stola for the first time,” he recalls. “We opened the door to the workshop and there was a full-size model of my SL interior. There were five or six people looking at me saying: ‘Okay, tell us what to do.’ It’s then that you realise there’s expectation and responsibility, too. But it was an incredible moment.”

Busse’s interior didn’t make it, although he later got to work on the next SL, as interior design manager. That programme was cancelled and, having seen this dream evaporate, Busse asked to be transferred to DaimlerChrysler’s US operations. What he did there you can read in the box above, but it was certainly a change from working on Mercedes SLs. A valuable change, too, that would eventually send Busse to Turin and an immersion in not one but five storied Italian marques.

Busse is “extremely optimistic” for all of those brands, not least because the Stellantis merger has brought together what he calls “a hall of fame” of designers. But he underlines once again that he works as part of a team. “They make me look good,” Busse says. “They inspire me, and they do the hard work.” Of which there should now be plenty to come and, let’s hope, more that will actually appear in showrooms than it did under FCA.

Chrysler: An inside job

Take a look inside a 2007 Dodge Ram pick-up and you’ll see a simple, very plastic dashboard whose only real lift comes from a set of white-faced instruments. And even they look cheap. Now look at a 2010 Ram dash and see the difference. By today’s standards it’s not so special, but it is compared with its predecessor. It adds a level of sophistication and design flair that is entirely absent from the model it replaced.

When Busse arrived at Chrysler, he discovered no specific interior design department. The task was considered second best to exterior design, and that approach does much to explain the sometimes dire cabins of the Jeeps, Chryslers and Dodges (remember those?) sold here in the early 2000s.

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Design boss Ralph Gilles was intent on changing that, and he tasked Busse with assembling a team and persuading engineering of the need for change. After a few years, Busse was working with what he calls “a band of brothers”, reshaping the interiors of all the Jeeps, Dodges, Rams and Chryslers. Their work didn’t go unnoticed. “When a new car was launched, international markets would request the interior designer to present it because there was so much more to talk about,” says Busse. “That was a wonderful result.”


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