Sunday, November 18, 2018

“Runs good, some rust, RECARO seats, needs bodywork”: As the taste of car enthusiasts evolves, a legendary seating brand endures—and looks ahead to our driving future

Martin Klein, CEO of RECARO Automotive Seating with RECARO seats at SEMA 2018
RECARO Automotive Seating CEO Martin Klein at SEMA 2018.
Photo by Bill Hayward
By Bill Hayward
Quick, how many brands of automotive seats can you think of, off the top of your head?

Don’t cheat. No Googling allowed.

Chances are, unless you’re highly steeped in automotive-industry minutiae, the list of seating brands you can think of is very short, with only one entry: RECARO.

Sure, every car has seats. And among the cars you’ve owned and driven over the course of your automotive life, you have no doubt liked some seats more than others.

But, among the likes and dislikes, can you name the manufacturer of any of those seats?

First, if you think that the automaker brand that nominally built your car also made the seats, think again. With some exceptions—especially on the high-end of the market—automakers generally outsource seat manufacturing to third-party suppliers.

So someone other than GM probably made the seat in your Chevy. And unless your Chevy came equipped with RECARO seats, you probably don’t know who that someone is.

On the other hand, if your car does have RECAROs, you almost certainly know it—not only because your seats may be clearly branded with the RECARO logo, but also because RECARO seats have for decades been a strong differentiator, at least in the car-enthusiast community.

For instance, how often have you seen a private-sale ad for a used vehicle mention that the car is equipped with a specific brand of seat, unless that brand was RECARO? Some research on automotive classified ads from the 70s through the 2000s uncovered phrases like these, for example:

  • “CAPRI 1981 RS, loaded, 6 cylinder. T top, Recaro seats, TRX tires & suspension” (Canton Observer, March 31, 1983). 
  • “2003 Honda Civic Hatchback, SiR 2.0L DOHC VTEC, 4 alloy rims, 4 steel rims, good tires, Recaro seats. Some rust. As is. Needs brakes” (
  • “VW SCIROCCO/S -T- 79, 5 spd, air, Recaro seats, mags, am/fm stereo, rear w/w, halagon [sic] headlights, 38,000 mi” (The Franklin News-Record, November 5, 1981).
  • “BMW, 1978 S20i, 4 speed, air. Blaupunkt stereo, sun roof, Recaro seats, stored winters. Gray” (Westland Observer, March 3, 1983).

It was from reading through classified ads like these as a young enthusiast that I first became aware of the existence of RECARO seats, or even aware of the possibility that an automotive seat could be something special beyond just the place in a car where you sit your butt down.

Yet as often as I would read those classifieds, dreaming of the cool used cars I’d like to buy, ranging from E-Type Jags to Triumph Spitfires to first-gen, 289-equipped Mustangs, never do I recall seeing a reference to a seat brand other than RECARO.

According to Research and Markets, the top two seating manufacturers are Lear Corporation and Adient—the latter being the parent company of RECARO.

But who, aside perhaps from those closely connected to the industry, is familiar with Adient? And wouldn’t more people, upon hearing the name “Lear,” be inclined to think of aircraft rather than automotive seats, even though, despite their common origins,  Lear Corporation the seating manufacturer and Learjet the aircraft company are separate companies?

But let’s stay on that subject of origins for a moment—because the origin story of RECARO goes a long way toward explaining the singular status of the seating brand’s name recognition. In a nutshell, it’s easy to see how being associated from the beginning with another brand that is all but synonymous with the very definition of a performance automobile could easily give a seating brand a huge head start.

If you don’t already know, or haven’t already guessed it, that brand just happens to be Porsche, with which RECARO’s history is closely intertwined. Martin Klein, CEO of RECARO Automotive Seating, related the story this way when I spoke with him in the RECARO booth at the 2018 SEMA Show.

“The first two letters—R E—are actually the first two letters of the last name of the founder,” Klein said. “His name was Wilhelm Reutter. One of the coolest stories to tell, actually, is that Wilhelm Reutter had a pretty weird neighbor. That neighbor lived a few doors down and the neighbor’s name was Ferdinand Porsche, so when Porsche wanted to start building cars in the 20s, he knew how to build an engine and to design a car, but he could not build a car. So he turned to his local coachmaker for support. Long story short: all Porsches until 1954 were built by Reutter, not by Porsche.”

Klein also cited one key fact that should really drive the point home, especially for Porsche enthusiasts, of just how closely intertwined RECARO’s history is with the destiny that took shape for Porsche as a maker of cars that became paragons of success in the racing and sports-car domains.

“The last project Reutter did for Porsche was the prototype 901, which then led to the 911 Porsche of today,” Klein said. “So I always phrase it like, ‘Reutter was the obstetrician for Porsche.’”

If playing a major role in the birth of the Porsche 911 line isn’t an “And the rest is history moment” in the high-performance automotive world, I don’t know what is.

However, the arrangement changed in 1954 when, according to Klein, Porsche decided that they wanted to officially be the builder of their own cars. Porsche bought Reutter’s body building business. And Reutter then shifted his company’s focus to interiors, setting the course for the RECARO Automotive Seating brand that we know today.

Currently, RECARO seats are original equipment in models from some of the most elite marques in the industry, like Aston Martin, Lamborghini, and Lotus. Yet they are also OEM in such accessible models as Ford’s Fiesta ST and some editions of the Volkswagen Golf.

It isn’t cheap to retrofit a vehicle with a new set of RECARO seats. For example, a CARiD search on November 18 for RECARO seats with vehicle-specific fitment for a 2008 Mazda MX-5 Miata retrieved seats with prices ranging from $920 to $8,149.

No, that’s not for a full set. It’s per seat.

Yet the range of vehicles that have had their seats installed as original equipment shows that RECARO is not an inherently elitist brand.

“The core customer is clearly defined as ‘everybody,’” Klein said, adding that their seating lineup extends well beyond the racing and performance space. “We have orthopedic seats for people with serious back problems. Whether you’re rich, poor, big, small, tall… whatever car you drive, we can fit you in an orthopedic seat. And racing, for us, is a pretty blue-collar thing. You don’t have to be rich to be talented.”

That said, it does seem that the owners of the used cars in the classified ads referenced above viewed their RECARO seats as features that could lend some prestige as an additional selling point. According to Klein, however, it isn’t really fair to view RECARO as a luxury brand, because the intent is more practical and utilitarian.

“We build our seats around the consumer,” he said. “We want the customer to sit in the seat and not on the seat, because the seat basically communicates between the body and the car. It’s all about being safe. We don’t design fancy pieces of furniture. We put a component in a car that helps the driver to become one with the vehicle. And that’s the same 112 years ago, and that’s the same 50 years ago, and that’s the same thing today.”

But what about the future? Today, the automotive industry appears to be approaching a tipping point into a period of major change, with the shifts we see now toward electrification and AI-assisted or even autonomous driving—not to mention the slinking, not-so-organic-feeling entrance of mobility into the vernacular as the automotive industry’s buzzword du jour.

As uncomfortable as the idea may make many car enthusiasts and driving enthusiasts, soon we even may be facing fundamental shifts in the very concepts of vehicle ownership and in the models of what vehicle usage will look like in our lives.

So in another 30 or 50 years, if the scenario of an individual owner placing a used car up for private sale still even exists to any relevant degree, will we still be seeing phrases like “needs work, RECARO seats” in the future equivalent of the classified ad or Craigslist post?

When it comes to that specific scenario, only time will tell. But one thing we do know is that RECARO already has product lines serving other sectors, such as public transportation, that will almost certainly be factors in the “possible futures” of motoring, mobility and transport that we see beginning to emerge today.

According to Klein, RECARO’s role in the more specific domains of electric and autonomous vehicles is also taking shape in ways that right now are tangible enough to strap yourself into.

“We’re actually in a pretty good position,” Klein said. “Let’s start with battery electric vehicles. Most battery electric vehicles have the battery in the floor, because of the center of gravity. So that makes the floor come up. If you don’t want to raise the roof, if you want head space, you want to sit low. So, being in the performance business, we know how to sit you low. We can provide you with the best possible substructures for the seat, with length adjustments, height adjustments, tilt mechanisms and everything, but still give you a headpoint of 155 millimeters, which is as low as any Ferrari and so forth. So a lot of the companies working with battery electric vehicles, they look very closely at our seats.”

“For the autonomous vehicles,” he continued, “it’s actually pretty fascinating engineering work, because if your vehicle operates autonomously, you can do anything you want. You can sit sideways. You can sit with your back facing the front, and so forth. So all the electronics have to take into account, from where can an impact come? Which airbags and belt systems do I use? So the fundamental again is that when you sit in the seat, with the seat wrapped around you with a good seatbelt system, it is much easier to create a safe environment, compared to only sitting on the seat where you would shift sideways or go anywhere, in case of an impact or a radical maneuver, or whatever might happen.”

In the seat, not on the seat. While it isn’t an official marketing tagline for RECARO, I find it significant that it’s a concept that came up twice in the conversation with Martin Klein. It’s a short phrase that seems to wrap up the company’s long-term vision, along with the factors in the longevity of the brand, quite nicely.

Even with the emotional uncertainty that the idea of a “driverless future” might create for those of us to like to be the one in the driver’s seat, you have to acknowledge that being securely seated is among the essential first steps toward being securely in control.

So at least there is that. And hopefully that next essential step—truly “taking the wheel” as the occupant of that seat, with the freedom to drive what we want, where we want, taking the route of our choice—will remain an option for at least part of our “mobility lives” well into the future.

But either way, it’s clear that RECARO is planning to have a place in that future.

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