The Designer’s Story: Albrecht Goertz
Mr. Albrecht von Goertz was born on January 12, 1914 in Brunkensen in Lower Saxony to a German Aristocrat Father and Jewish Mother, spending his youth at the family estate in northwestern Germany.
He first worked as a bank clerk in Germany, but as Hitler ascended to power in pre-war Germany Goertz decided to leave for London, remaining only briefly and in 1936 emigrating to the United States. He eventually settled in Los Angeles and in 1938 opened a shop, where he specialized in modifying Model A and B Fords. It was in that shop that Goertz created his ‘Paragon’ coupe, a handmade concept car which was presented at the World Exhibition in New York the following year.
In 1940, he closed up shop to join the U.S. Army and five years later he returned and drove the Paragon to New York, where a chance encounter at the Waldorf-Astoria parking lot changed everything. Goertz, driving the Paragon had gotten out to inspect the car in front of him. Likewise, the passenger of that car noticed the Paragon and had gotten out to have a look. Raymond Loewy, was the man in the other car who then met with Goertz and ultimately got him a job at the Studebaker design studio.
Goertz established himself as an independent designer in 1952 with his own studio and principal residence in New York (Goertz Industrial Design Inc.). His talents as a designer were not exclusive to the automotive industry, as he would eventually pen products for several world firms, designing clocks, watches, bicycles, kitchen appliances, refrigerators, cameras, fountain pens, sportswear and furniture.
By 1953, Goertz had established his business and befriended Max Hoffman, BMW’s United States importer. Goertz learned through Hoffman that BMW was planning new cars for the US market and won the bid to design the cars, which became the BMW 503 and 507.
Often polling very near the top of ‘The Most Beautiful Car Ever’ lists, the BMW 507 is unquestionably stunning and is arguably Goertz’s finest and most famous work. The styling cues penned by Goertz for the 507 are still part of the design language on new BMW roadsters and have influenced many designs since.
Business-wise however, the 507 was a disaster for BMW, a commercial failure that lost money on each car produced, taking the company to the brink of bankruptcy. Rising production costs in Germany saw the BMW’s target retail price of of $5000, end up doubling at $10,500 by the end of production in 1959 (approx. $84,000 in 2014 money). Only 252 ended up being built, and only 202 are known to remain today, making the 507 one of the most exclusive cars in existence, commanding enormous price tags.
Even though this car represents a very turbulent point in the company’s history, it is heralded, respected and most likely serves as a well learned lesson for BMW. It does seem however, it’s easier to forgive something when it’s so beautiful. Perhaps this is why in 1999 the design cues were resurrected for the spiritual successor to the 507, the BMW Z8.
After BMW, Goertz worked for a number of other car makers, including Porsche, Toyota & Nissan, although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what specific levels of involvement Goertz had, with with a lot of patchy sources and conflicting information clouding the facts.
People often believe Goertz was solely responsible for designing both the 2000GT and the 240Z because it’s been widely reported in the press as fact, with multiple publications citing Goertz as the “Father of the Z Car”. While most evidence suggests that he wasn’t solely responsible, he most likely had a strong influence on the design team. The issue came to a head in the 1980’s with Nissan releasing this statement about Goertz’s involvement with Nissan:
(A Correspondence Between Toshikuni Nyui of Nissan and Albrecht Goertz)
Dear Mr. Goertz:
At your request, we have examined the relevant evidence pertaining to the development of the highly successful Datsun 240Z which was first introduced in 1969.
You were retained by Nissan during the period from 1963 to 1965 as an automotive design consultant. During that period, you consulted with Nissan on the basic methods of styling a general sports car. You were also the sole design consultant on a two-liter sports car which Nissan was trying to develop as part of a joint venture with Yamaha. This car was not produced.
While it is our view that the design of the 240Z was the product of Nissan’s design staff, Nissan agrees that the personnel who designed that automobile were influenced by your fine work for Nissan and had the benefit of your designs.
Signed Toshikuni Nyui
NISSAN MOTOR CO., LTD.
General Manager, Legal Dept.
Whatever the level of involvement Goertz had, it’s not hard to imagine that whatever he touched, he left his mark of genius. In November 2006, Albrecht von Goertz died at the age of 92, leaving behind an influence and legacy that will no doubt, live forever.
Photography by Pierpaolo Romano and by Otis Blank and Afshin Behnia for Petrolicious