Form is Permanent, Class is Temporary — The Mercedes Design Meltdown

More about Mercedes Benz.

While no other brand in the UK speaks luxury and prestige more than Rolls Royce, the association is far from universal. In most other locations, the so-called world cities and emerging economies, the three-pointed star has arguably gained a much wider following than the Spirit of Ecstasy. Merc is the Word.

Every dictator from Fidel Castro to Saddam Hussein to Mao Tse Tung owned and rode a Mercedes 600 Grosser; the R107 SL-class was the stereotypical Miami vice car of the 80s, and still remains one of the best-selling luxury convertibles of all time; W140 SEL-class Mercs with tinted windows were the vehicle of choice of the Japanese Yakuza. In the oil-rich sphere of the Middle East Sheikhs and Shahs, top-spec S-Class fleets of the latest generation are more populous than taxis; while the largest current Mercedes collection belongs to nobody other than the Sultan of Brunei, with 500-plus units ranging from the McMerc SLS supercar to a fleet of bulletproof 4x4 G-Wagen, and counting.

Despite having the world’s highest Rollers per capita, Hong Kong has not been immune to this particular phenomenon — to a generation brought up during the booming economy in the 60s-80s, the commanding view of a three-pointed-star on the bonnet speaks volumes. The origins of such a strong association of the brand with wealth and opulence, however, remain unclear to most, but I believe the key to unravelling this “mystery” lies in understanding the methods of car designer Bruno Sacco.

Sacco was where Italian passion meets German rationality — for almost a quarter of a century (1975–1999), he had been the chief designer of the renowned brand, and his designs were exactly the “Mercedes look” I grew up with. Sacco led his team to place an emphasis on the life of designs, to think 30 years ahead and imagine how they would then be viewed by the contemporary eye; he is also largely responsible for the family face we see across ranges of most automakers nowadays, and the wider design and creative industries, through pioneering the concepts of “vertical affinity” and “horizontal affinity” to best represent the essence of the brand image. To say he’s influential in the automotive world is an understatement.

Most of the resulting designs therefore took the toll of time fairly well — you could associate them with a particular period, but they never look out of place amidst the sea of modern-day bloated barges with angry, pointy lights and laughable grilles (yeah Peugeot it’s you and your mid-00s in-house designs); massive carbon fibre bits that serve no practical purpose (ahem, Aston Martin why did you ruin your otherwise-beautiful design with that carbon front clip anyway?); and faux-aero and -tailpipe detailing (the latest Benzes are unfortunately clear offenders).

Let’s take a closer look at the Sacco era W126 series — the lineup consisted of standard (S and SE) and stretched (SEL) wheelbase saloons, and an elegant pillarless SEC coupe. Engines ranged from the poverty-spec 2.8L inline-6 in the 280S to the fire-breathing 5.6L V8 in the 560SEC/SEL, with the choice of several diesel engines in some markets. The saloon was decidedly formal in its profile but truly modern with its slightly-protruding grille, integrated light units, vents and bumpers; while the coupe featured a simpler single-bar grille, no B-pillar to break the flowing lines of the hardtop, and a C-pillar that intersects the boot line at a rather tasteful angle, all of which amplified its relaxed sporty grand tourer character. Both variants were set with handsome and precise proportions that seamlessly merged all its design elements and practical functions together, detailed with care and subtlety in equal measure.

These cars carry an air of authority without trying too hard. The styling is as restrained as it is refined — every line is distinct and dignified, every crease crisp and clean, while Mercedes’s traditional over-engineering approach to mechanicals is also apparent in the serene ride quality and the bulletproof reliability — i.e. if you never cut corners and skip your annual service. This proven formula has won over customers worldwide, which was also why on the very rare occasion when Mother came across one, she noted how the doors always shut with a satisfying and slightly intimidating thump, a reassuring indicator to the build quality. These seemingly minute details all add to the Teutonic character and flair, and in turn the understated, almost austere, luxury image of Mercedes.

Even when the upmarket brand decided on broadening the product line with a compact car to lure more customers, the resulting W201 190E saloon did not dilute the essence of the brand in any way — the same principle of solid engineering and build quality, draped with purposeful but restrained looks, remained central to its development. The 190E became an instant hit — the baby-Merc is still prized as one of the best modern classics, and to top it up a certain Ayrton Senna beat all of the top F1 drivers in a one-make race to demonstrate the racy Cosworth-engined 2.3–16 version (to be discussed separately).

Sacco’s Horizontal and Vertical Affinity shown across the range, from compact to mid-sized to full-sized saloons, along the years.

In other words, during his dedicated service at the revered company, Sacco made sure Mercedes had a solid following, and that it would be a difficult act to follow.

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Fast forward to the present day, and we’re in the territory of (the one-and-only, in-your-face) Gorden Wagener, CHIEF DESIGNER of MERCEDES BENZ. Gone is the classy understatement — it’s all bold, loud, shouty, and in my opinion, plain unnecessary. The latest W222 S-class might not be the worst offender of the current lineup, but for the sake of fairness let’s quickly run it head to head with the W126.

As you approach the car you’re met with a jumble of confused design elements — the lines are not resolved, but rather fiercely competing against each other to stand out among the bunch; the profile with the converging creases along the side panels (aka “swage lines” in the industry, but more about that later) looks like it’s been bashed in by a lorry bumper; the fully-chromed radiator grille is a garish, swoopy, oversized ovoid, that seems more befitting on a Chinese knockoff than on a real Merc; the front and rear light clusters both look like afterthoughts moulded in clear jelly, hastily plastered on once the hard points of the design were finalised; the front splitter with gaping vents which are mostly providing cooling and downforce that are never needed, are eerily echoed by the fake quad exhaust tips at the rear to give a hint to the power, the list goes on forever.

Just what the heck happened? Engineering-wise it’s still industry-leading for sure, following the tradition of the S-class as one of the best equipped cars on the market with all the latest toys and gadgetry, but its lacking in fluency and logic in its design is shocking. It is, as a fellow petrolhead so rightly pointed out, as if someone left a life-sized W126 plastic model in the oven for too long, and all the lines and detailing went a bit, er, melty. Perhaps making reference to the brainmelt condition which must have been required for the gestation of such a jumble of confusing and conflicting design elements?

Worse to come, the whole line-up seems to be affected by this hideous melty syndrome — from the A-class hatch to the S-class saloon, to the pseudo-crossover-sport-coupe-utility-hatch-whatever GLAs, GLCs, and GLEs, the theme of unresolved lines and over-ornamentation has prevailed. It seems that Herr Wagener has taken Sacco’s affinity concepts and spun them into revenge to, literally, deface the brand and ruin its image.

Not quite hatchback, not quite crossover, the GLA, particularly in GLA45 AMG guise, is a childish Hotwheels fantasy with inappropriate, oversized aero bits but no particular purpose…
…while the GLE is a bizarre coupe / fastback on stilts with all the unforgivable design sins of excess ornamentation

They say form is temporary but class is permanent in football. The reverse is, unfortunately, only too true if we follow the Mercedes design trajectory. I do understand that design and aesthetics are obviously subjective, and trends come and go, but I simply can’t see any reason or logic behind this meltdown.

Call me an old fart. At least I’m glad I grew up with the Sacco-era cars.

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