RRM@21 – 5: Chancing upon the Glass Casket

The Rowing Gallery at RRM. The Glass Casket hanging from the ceiling in the middle. Photo: Tim Koch.

25 February 2019 

By Chris Dodd 

A chance encounter in Germany led to the acquisition of a remarkable boat. Chris Dodd meets Luigi Colani, whose fish-inspired eight-oar found its way to the River & Rowing Museum’s prototype collection.

Luigi Colani, famous for his designs of everything from Ferraris to cameras, headphones and computer mice, produced a revolutionary lightweight boat for the West German eight in 1972, just in time for the Olympic regatta in Munich.

Consisting of a welded titanium frame with a very light composite skin, it weighed-in at approximately 70 kilograms, which was much lighter than contemporary boats. Designed to fit the physical characteristics of the individuals in the crew, it constituted a new approach to racing boat design and materials. When secret trials were exposed in the German press, its speedy performance caused a sensation. However, problems with seats sliding on three runners and inflexible riggers caused its crew to abandon it before the Olympics. It was dubbed the Glass Casket and became a rare and forgotten Colani lost cause.

Twenty-odd years later, when reporting from the regatta in Essen, I was passing the stall of Rudern magazine when Trond Patzpahl, the publisher, called me over and introduced a larger-than-life flamboyant figure puffing a Churchillian cigar. Recognising the name, I grasped his hand and told him ‘You have a remarkable boat and I have a museum, and I would like to put your boat in it.’

Luigi Colani. Photo: Wikipedia.

‘Well then, I will restore it, and give it to you,’ came Luigi’s reply. He wrote down a phone number for his European office before setting off for home in Shanghai.

Two years passed in silence before a fax arrived out of the blue announcing that the boat is ready for collection. Melchior Bürgin of Stämpfli located it in Switzerland and trailered it to Henley, where it was suspended in the rowing gallery just in time for the museum’s opening in 1998. When the Queen officially did the honours, Colani turned up in a black cab from Heathrow to witness the occasion before heading back to the airport. I have not seen him since.

The designer drew inspiration for his boat from observing the movement of fish. He wanted to carry the cox in a flexible tail that would act like a rudder, while making the boat as light as possible but stiff enough to be rowed – in keeping with his statement to an interviewer that ‘I am not a designer, I am a three-dimensional philosopher of the future’. Colani takes inspiration from elliptical orbits, such as the passage described by a blade, rather than angular structures.

Luigi Colani’s Glass Casket. Photo: Tim Koch.

Perhaps if he had unveiled his boat a couple of years earlier to allow more time for trials, and if titanium had been cheaper, boat design would have taken a different direction at the 1972 Olympics. As it turned out, the West Germans used a state-of-the-art conventional Empacher. But the Glass Casket is an excellent example of a prototype that fits the River & Rowing Museum’s collection policy like a glove, all from a chance encounter at a regatta.

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