Klaus Busse: Fiat Group Renaissance Man?

Growing up I was forever doodling the silhouettes of cars when I was supposed to be listening in class, and always imagined that I would work for a car company when I was older. Two things I now realise made things turn out very differently than I had imagined. The first was the fact that the Germans and Japanese took over the UK car market back then and the timing was wrong as the UK car industry was struggling. The second was that I should have spend more time in class and less time drawing what always looked like a Ferrari 250 SWB.

Anyway back to the point, Klaus Busse not only followed his dream of being a car designer, you could argue that he has been fairly instrumental in the recovery of the Fiat Group. His influence will be felt for years to come in the same way as that of Marchionne. He is head of Design for Fiat, Abarth, Lancia, Maserati and Alfa Romeo. He is a similar age to myself and went to Coventry University to study; if things had been different then we might even have been on the same course together.

His role as chief designer has a unique challenge, which designers for German cars don’t face to the same extent. German cars are supposed to be about technology and understated class, whereas Italian design is always influenced by the Italian philosophy of Bella Figura. Bella Figura is the idea of always wanting to make a good impression; this can be in the way you dress, your home, your cooking and the way you conduct yourself for example. Italian cars are supposed to be much more about the way they feel and the way in which they make you feel.

The Fiat Group always seems to be at a crossroads and is always struggling against the fact that it is still a relatively small car company. There are very positive signs for the future and design will be crucial to this success. So how are they doing?

Fiat – It is no secret that the 500 effectively saved Fiat as a brand, with its higher profit margins and still very high sales for a comparatively old design. There is a new version in development and the effectiveness of its design, and its timing, will determine the future for Fiat. Sales of the 500L and the 500X have not been as high as desired and so hopes rest on a new Giardiniera. The signs are good though, with Klaus being heavily involved in the Riva special editions for example.

Abarth – This brand has seen a great deal of success in a few major countries, and its continued success will depend on the effectiveness of the new Fiat designs.

Lancia – This brand is expected to fade quietly into the sunset as it is now Italy only, and fills a gap between Fiat and Alfa Romeo which is not really there.

Maserati – This is a difficult one for the Fiat group as it fills the space between Alfa Romeo and Ferrari. Designs cant be too sporty because that would start to compete directly with Ferrari, but they must be sporty and luxurious enough to distance themselves from Alfa Romeo. They now have a 4×4 and a smaller 4 door car, with recent facelifts for many of their models designed by Klaus. Although these have seen big improvements to the design and the range, sales are still way off target.

Alfa Romeo – After many false dawns, the design of Alfa Romeo cars has really started to show through. There are many exciting new designs in the pipeline and the emergence of Alfa Romeo as a global, near premium brand may finally be in sight. The Giulia’s design has been very well received and the future looks promising.

You could argue that the design improvements at FCA were already underway before Klaus arrived, but the models where he has had an influence definitely stand out. This bodes very well for the future success of the company, although it makes me jealous that he now has the job which I dreamt of at school.

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