Fast Friends: Stars and Heroes in the World of Cars

Karl Ludvigsen reflects on 23 automotive luminaries through essays and interviews

Acclaimed author and historian, Britain-based Karl Ludvigsen’s experience spanned the entire spectrum of the automobile industry. Beginning in 1953, he held senior positions at General Motors, Fiat North America and Ford of Europe.

A noted Porsche expert, Karl Ludvigsen wrote the classic three-volume work, “Porsche: Excellence Was Expected,” in addition to “Professor Porsche’s Wars,” “Mercedes-Benz: Quicksilver Century,” and dozens of other books. His expansive archive is now part of Revs Institute’s library. Over his years in the auto world, Ludvigsen met and interviewed many of the most famous names in the business, from industry executives and designers to engineers, racing drivers, renowned photographers and journalists.

“The lives of all have much to inform and inspire us,” Ludvigsen writes and proceeds to prove it in this small, but fascinating, book of interviews and essays with 23 automotive luminaries. No matter how well you think you know the industry and these personalities, you’ll learn something new.

Karl Ludvigsen’s early life

Ludvigsen’s ability to get close to his subjects speaks to the level of respect he had for them, and they reciprocated. He begins with his father, Elliot Leon Ludvigsen, who became President of Fuller Manufacturing, a firm that produced truck transmissions, before being acquired by the Eaton Corporation. As a young person, Ludvigsen accompanied his father to work on Saturday mornings. He eagerly read Automotive Industries and other journals, while his father worked, and credits this and subsequent jobs at Fuller Manufacturing with his “growing passion for automobiles.”

E.L. Ludvigsen

Elliot Ludvigsen was an observant, hands-on executive. As Karl Ludvigsen tells it, he spent the summer of 1954 in the Fuller Manufacturing experimental workshop, making parts for the new Roadranger transmission under his father’s watchful eye.

“While milling the slots in the main gears of the auxiliary gearbox… I didn’t index them properly. Checking with my boss, we decided that we could salvage the pieces by cutting fresh slots in the remaining metal, leaving the earlier ones in place. Wouldn’t you know it? My father showed up at the workshop to check the jobs in progress. He spotted the slotted gears.

“‘How come those gears have those extra slots?’ he asked my chief.

“‘You’d better ask your son about that,’ he replied.”

Elliot Ludvigsen went on to become Eaton’s Chairman. From him, Karl Ludvigsen learned that keen attention to detail comes from the top.

Throughout the book, Karl Ludvigsen gives the reader many anecdotes and observations on some colorful automotive characters. Although some of the material is old, it’s not dated.

The Porsche legacy

Ludvigsen’s fascination with Porsche cars and the Porsche dynasty allowed him to know Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche and his equally talented older sister, Louise (née Porsche) Piëch. Quiet and composed, very different from his autocratic father, Ferry led Porsche AG while Louise headed up the family’s Austrian import company for Porsche and Volkswagen, based in Salzburg. Ludvigsen reports that they had a close but tension-filled relationship.

Ferry Porsche and Louise Piëch

“Brother and sister found a Solomonic solution,” observed Ludvigsen, ”taking joint ownership in their respective companies, while remaining separate in their management.”

He notes that Ferry Porsche often “confided in his sister more than he did with his wife.”

Seeking the meaning of Porsche, Ferry once told Ludvigsen, “No one makes a car like we do, made especially for the purpose, down to every last screw and bolt. Others in Italy do it, but their cars cost twice as much.”

“This summary of what makes Porsche, Porsche was sustained well into the 21st Century,” Ludvigsen confirms.

Ludvigsen reveals that Ferry’s sister, Louise Piëch, was not just a superb business manager. She was a skilled, fast driver with a unique twist.

“I have only ever driven my family’s cars,” she told him. “First the cars of my father, then those of my brother and now those of my son.” Not many people could make that statement.

Karl Ludvigsen & Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz

In “Karl Ludvigsen’s Fast Friends: Stars and Heroes in the World of Cars,” Ludvigsen tracks Bob Lutz’s meteoric career from Ford of Europe, where they worked together, to BMW to Chrysler and then to GM and on to Exide. An admirer, Ludvigsen shares a few behind-the-scenes tales of how the peripatetic Lutz was able to star in different corporate cultures. Despite Lutz’s many successes, he had some little-known failed ventures. First, with the promising but star-crossed revival of the Cunningham sports car, and then the VLF Destino, a bizarre Corvette ZL-1-powered Fisker Karma, showing that the marketing master’s touch wasn’t always magic.

Albrecht Graf von Goertz, Designer of the BMW 507

Albrecht Graf von Goertz

Ludvigsen’s admiration for Albrecht von Goertz is evident. After a stint with famed designer Raymond Loewy, the multi-talented Goertz was discovered by Max Hoffman in New York City, and the latter’s elegant design proposal led to the production of the timeless BMW 507 roadster. Ludvigsen reveals Goertz’s significant impact on the design of the Nissan 240Z, as well as his influence on the Toyota 2000GT.

Goertz facilitated the design education of Ferdinand “Butzi” Porsche, Ferry Porsche’s son, and that led to a styling opportunity. But when Goertz presented his fastback proposal to Ferry and Louise, he was doomed to disappointment.

The two Porsche siblings conferred, and Ferry said, “This is a very beautiful car, but it is a Goertz, not a Porsche.”

“This was a priceless lesson to me,” Goertz told Ludvigsen. “It is easy to design a car for oneself, but much more difficult to design one specifically for others.”

Rudolf Uhlenhaut

Rudolf Uhlenhaut

The legendary Rudolf Uhlenhaut was a mixture of British and German, engineer and race driver, and he proved to be the man of the hour for Daimler-Benz to regain its prewar racing and passenger car development form in the postwar period. There’s never been anyone like Uhlenhaut who, as Ludvigsen reminds us, could lap a circuit as fast as some of the company’s most seasoned racing drivers.

Uhlenhaut retired in 1972 with no real successor, as Ludvigsen states, “Partly because he’d failed to groom one. It wasn’t the kind of task that interested him.”

As one of Uhlenhaut’s aides later told Ludvigsen, “When he was gone, there was a big hole.”

Anatole Lapine and Zora Arkus-Duntov

Anatole Lapine

Talented and iconoclastic, Latvian-born designer, Anatole “Tony” Lapine, is pictured with the father of the high-performance Corvette, Zora Arkus-Duntov. Ludvigsen and Lapine both worked at GM Design in 1956. Flamboyant studio chief, Bill Mitchell, impulsively ordered Lapine to the Rüsselsheim studio.

Lapine modestly told Ludvigsen, “I think Bill just figured Opel needed a new kind of car to replace its retirement car image, something a young European chemical engineer with a blonde wife could picture himself owning.”

Lapine’s big chance was to design what became the Opel GT. It shocked European carmakers because the auto brands, especially in Germany, were supposed to adhere to their traditional roles.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” a reporter said, “There’s a sports car on the Opel stand.”

“You must be crazy,” he was told. “Opel doesn’t build sports cars.”

Not long afterward, Lapine let Ludvigsen into his secret workshop, a real “skunkworks” that helped give Lapine the chops needed for a coveted assignment at Porsche.

Giorgetto Giugiaro

A piece of history 

Fascinating chapters follow packed with anecdotes and insights on Carlo Abarth, Juan Manuel Fangio, Phil Hill and Giorgetto Giugiaro. The book delights the reader with Ludvigsen’s behind-the-scenes coverage. It’s a real bargain in more ways than price.