Tony Lapine tribute 1930-2012

You could always rely on Tony Lapine for an opinion. Design director at Weissach for almost 20 years, Lapine, who died on 28 April, worked at the heart of Porsche, yet was an outsider in spirit.

A wartime refugee from Latvia, after a brief apprenticeship at Daimler Benz in Hamburg he was resettled in Nebraska, where he maintained snowploughs by day and studied and learned English, his fourth language, by night. By 1954 he was working in car design under Fred Walther at Fisher Bodies, a GM subsidiary. Then Bill Mitchell, GM’s mercurial styling chief, heard that one of ‘Fred’s boys’ was ex-Mercedes Benz. “Kid, you’re coming to work for me,” he told Lapine. Mitchell put him and another refugee, Larry Shinoda, to work in his famous Studio X, where the pair styled, among other projects, the Chevrolet Stingray, the Corvair Monza Coupe and GM’s repost to the Ford GT40.

Then Mitchell despatched him to Opel to bring some pizzazz to GM’s rather staid German subsidiary. Applying the ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ principle, Lapine turned the humble Opel Rekord into a racer capable of showing a clean pair of heels to the Group 5 establishment of BMWs and 911s. The ‘taxi’ sign affixed to the Rekord’s roof was a typically irreverent Lapine touch. He also styled the Opel GT, which did much to dispel Rüsselsheim’s fuddy duddy image.

Lapine was a passable racer, too, competing in a Jaguar XK 120 and a Porsche 356 in the US, and his Porsche and a Volvo Amazon in Europe. He’d known Ferry Porsche since 1957, and met him again on his return to Europe. The offer in 1969 to work for Porsche was perfectly timed; he was settled in Germany and had long admired the Zuffenhausen company. In Lapine, Ferry saw a designer able to marry style and engineering at a time when Porsche was at a crossroads with the 911. Though he kept his beloved black 356A till the end of his life, Lapine never liked the 911, and was not afraid to say so. In this regard, he was the ideal candidate to build ‘the next 911’. But if in the early Seventies the 911’s future looked bleak because of the direction in which US safety legislation seemed to be heading, by the time the Car of the Year-winning 928 was launched, the threat to the 911 had evaporated.

If he felt bitter about the cold reception Porschedom gave his 928, he never let it show. Besides, the transaxle 924 and 944 styled by Lapine’s team contributed a decade’s worth of vital turnover, and he intercepted third-party contracts for his design studio intended for Porsche Design in Austria. Weissach redesigned the Airbus cockpit for two pilots, eliminating the flight engineer’s position and produced a new evolution of the Linde forklift truck. These projects required the kind of lateral thinking Lapine enjoyed. He would set his designers against each other to get the best out of them, and just as his American boss had poached him, he enticed most of his team from Opel. Opel chief Chuck Jordan telephoned to threaten that “if he took any more of my guys” there would be trouble. Lapine simply laughed with the confidence of a man who knew where he was going.

And for years he did. Through the Seventies he got on well with CEO and 928 enthusiast Ernst Fuhrmann, but the revival of the 911 under Peter Schutz frustrated him, as the limited styling changes allowed for the 964 left little for his team to do, and he was vocal in his disappointment that so few of the advances of the 928 were carried over to the new 911. With too many non-mainstream projects, both its styling department and Porsche itself were starting to drift. The US market collapsed, and CEO Schutz and engineering director and Lapine’s boss Helmuth Bott resigned. In an atmosphere of uncertainty, everyone was under pressure. Unwisely, Lapine chose this moment to suggest in a magazine interview that the man who had given the 911 the reputation it had (because he had turbocharged it) was Fuhrmann. This caused umbrage with the family, who saw it as a slight on Butzi Porsche. Lapine later suffered a heart attack, prompting his departure from Porsche in 1988. Happily, Lapine recovered both his health and his sense of humour, describing later how new CEO Heinz Branitzki had told him “nothing has changed, you just don’t come to work anymore.”

Lapine always preferred to talk about people rather than cars. He was an unabashed admirer of Ferry Porsche, and said he understood his “disappointment” that none of his sons could take the business on or stand up to Ferdinand Piëch. He would wax lyrical about the quirky Austrian management style, or mock the seriousness of some of the Germans. He was at his most entertaining when recounting stories – for example, about his time with GM’s Bob Lutz. He could be fascinating, too, describing how on a tedious test drive in the Moroccan desert with the intensely private Bott, had suddenly opened up to him after several days of travelling in silence. Lapine also recalled his first meeting with GM’s Russian engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, who said “ah, that’s wonderful – you speak Russian too! We must get drunk tonight!”

Lapine’s abiding memory of Porsche, though, is not his first visit to Le Mans, but the invitation to the family home near Zell am See. He was clearly entranced. “It was like being a Christian and going to heaven: they were all there, all the family, even Ferry’s sister Louise. He would never take a big decision without consulting her.” It was classic Lapine – his admiration tempered by a pithy reflection. He always kept his perspective.

History will remember Lapine principally for the Porsche 928. Those who knew him will miss his detachment, enthusiasm and wonderfully subversive humour.

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