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2018-07-03 08:00:00
by Christopher Butt
(comments: 0)

The Fat Of The Land

The era of German car design superiority has ended.



In a sense, Gorden Wagener was first to read the signs. Who ever had the misfortune of listening to Daimler AG’s Chief Creative Officer blabber about Bauhaus and how it informs current Mercedes design understands that Herr Wagener has not got the first clue what Bauhaus is really about.

Aesthetically, the Sensual Purity® form language Wagener and his minions have devised is virtually the exact opposite of Bauhaus. But Bauhaus is to German design a bit like what Beluga caviar is to luxury food: both are effective shorthand for something few truly know. 

In that sense, Bauhaus is almost as over- and abused a term in the automotive design realm as ‘premium’. With each (mis)use, both these cyphers appear to have lost some meaning. Gorden Wagener’s utter lack of understanding of German design heritage underlines this in equally drastic and tragic a fashion - and betrays the lack of substance in the work of today’s supposed scions of Walter Gropius, Max Bill and Otl Aicher. 



This lack of intellectual rigour is one sign that the sense of superiority that forms the core of the German ‘premium’ brands’ image is eroding. The product itself betrays this, as well. 

Thirty years ago, when Mercedes-Benz churned out the cars designed, rather than styled according to the Bruno Sacco-devised concept of Vertical Homogeneity/Horizontal Affinity, a ‘Benz’ was a much safer, more long-lasting, more diligently engineered automobile than any other. During this period, the appearance of Mercedes-Benz cars manifested this reasonable (rather than excessive) superiority for everyone to see. The solidity of these cars’ construction was made visible through equally solid, yet sophisticated shapes and forms that instinctively suggested that this was a device not just of superior build quality, but also usability, safety and fitness for purpose. 

No car maker has ever built a range of cars as in keeping with the intellectual ideals of Bauhaus as Mercedes’ Vertical Homogeneity/Horizontal Affinity range. Gorden Wagener has openly described these designs as ‘forced’, which is just as well, given his sensually pure concoctions are more gin palace than Bauhaus anyway. 



However, Mercedes current (as well as first) Chief Creative Officer is but a symptom of the greater malaise the German ‘premium’ manufacturers are facing. Despite overwhelming sales success for the past few years and decades, the justification for German ‘premium’s’ premium becomes increasingly threadbare, certainly in terms of aesthetic added value. 

A visit to any major motor show paints a rather bleak picture. For the German brands’ stands overwhelm with their size, the sheer number of models on offer and, in recent years, an onslaught of increasingly confusing sub-brands that muddle the main marques’ image above all else. Yet at the same time, the design on show underwhelms. 

The ‘premium’ brands are, of course, mass market players today. And this shows in car designs that feature few original or even focused messages. The clean, uncompromisingly high-quality appearance of the best Audi models has given way to a clumsily geometric (‘but that’s totally Bauhaus!’), ornate, heavy, aggressive aesthetic. BMW’s traditional, rationalised-Italianate visual identity is  just as absent in 2018 as the boundless, occasionally ill-advised creativity of the Bavarian cars styled under Chris Bangle. Today, BMWs achieve the feat of being simultaneously generic and fussy. Rather than Bauhaus, this is visual Esperanto, barked with a shout of affected conviction. 

Against this background, and disregarding Mercedes-Benz’ rich heritage (to which Herr Wagener pays so little regard), one could almost be led to commend Mercedes’ stylists from Untertürkheim and elsewhere for at least being consistent in their pursuit of faddish vulgarity. But then again, their most recent, avowedly ‘crease-free’ creations suggest that the previous models’ success was more of a lucky accident, rather than the result of thorough deliberations. Which in turn leads to the conclusion that today, we are not so much dealing with design, but rather fashion.



As in fashion, speed also matters greatly in the German automotive design scene of the 2010s. Model after model is launched, niche after niche exploited, with increasingly little changes of substance coming about. It is not diligence anymore, or fastidious attention to detail, or visual deliberation that is putting the premium into a ‘premium’ car design, but soft touch plastics, stitched-on leatherette, aluminium look switchgear and digital displays. 

Sustainable design is design that does not age, both metaphorically speaking and in tangible terms. It is also what Germans used to excel at, and which put cars built between the Kiel Canal and the Alps in sharp contrast to charming, but wonkily built British fare, exciting, but brittle Italian motors and the products from Detroit, that used to offset their simple ruggedness by means of planned obsolescence. German cars were never the most exciting to look at, but pleased the eye for a longer period than the more fashionable competition. That is obviously not the case anymore.

The German word Strenge means strictness, as well as rigour and austerity. German design, no matter whether one is talking about the Third Reich’s intimidatory edifices supposed to ‘last a thousand years’, Bauhaus’ radical eschewal of the decorative or the Ulmer Schule’s Gute Form, has always had more than a bit of Strenge to it. Lightness of touch and originality were always the domain of design cultures other than Germany’s. Like many other areas, design has traditionally been no laughing matter to those Germans pursuing it in earnest, no matter what their aesthetic or political leanings. Which makes it even harder to fathom how the German automobile could become an item of fashion, rather than design. Mainstream fashion even.



In contrast to design in general, and German design in particular, fashion is all about the new. It is about speed and instinctive reactions, rather than thoughtfulness and intellect. Given the frantic turnover of new models of automobiles, it is hardly a surprise that the German marques almost inevitably had to stop upholding traditional principles of measured design. Instead, they go with the flow, adding ‘expression’ to any frontal aspect that is not deemed imposing enough for the Chinese, or a tertiary touchscreen, on behalf of that elusive ‘tech-savvy’ customer. That the first case is a sellout of aesthetic values, whereas the latter constitutes a break from the previously sacrosanct devotion to fitness-for-purpose is not just taken into account, but celebrated as an act of free-thinking. 

The German ‘premium’ marques’ past success was hardly undeserved. For quite some time, the German design formula simply was, all things considered, that bit more diligent. But neither fluidly animated displays, nor a proliferation of sharply stamped creases are worthy substitutes of long-lasting, visually sustainable forms and superior functionality (which includes omitting unnecessary, distracting frills).



It is not without irony that it was these traditionally German traits and qualities that allowed the ‘premium’ brands to thrive in the first place. But success sometimes devours its children - which means that rather than applying Strenge, German designers (or those working for the German brands) prefer to pander to what ‘the customer’ supposedly demands. Which, given the results this entails, appears like a highly patronising stance to take. After all, there is still an industry selling Bauhaus furniture to people all over the globe, at a considerable, well, premium.  

With German automotive design as we knew it being no more, it will only be a matter of time before ‘the customer’ realises that he is not, in fact, buying a device of superior design, but the emperor’s new clothes. With plenty of soft-touch plastics, animated digital displays and conspicuous stitching. 

And that, eventually, will not be worth any premium. 



Photos: Audi AG (1), Bauhaus Dessau (2), BMW AG (2), Daimler AG (6), all rights reserved

Text  ©, all rights reserved

Christopher Butt

car enthusiast, writer, critic

biased, elitist, German 

Comment by Freerk de Ruiter |

In complete agreement here. How do you see this development in regards to the one premium brand not named in this article: Porsche. And also how does it apply to brands that are considered less premium, like Opel and Volkswagen.

Reply by Christopher Butt

I deliberately left Porsche out of this. They are pursuing a more conservative (in the literal meaning of the term) tactic than the others, which works well for them. And in terms of craftsmanship, they've been on a bit of a roll in recent years. 

Opel I find exceedingly hard to judge, simply because there have been so many changes of direction - they are no coherent brand anymore. VW, on the other hand, delivered a fantastic range of car designs with the previous generation of cars. The Passat B7 facelift and Polo V in particular were highly impressive. But the current range is going for a Germanic false aspirational style I find highly debatable.

Comment by Thavash Govender |

There is hope- I find the new 5 series to have some of that classic design, but the problem is that the brand has been diluted by those rubbish GTs, X4s and X6s

Comment by Austin O'Brien |

Great article! You so completely articulate and explore these feelings i have had about the failure of the modern vehicle anesthetic, or lack there of. The cars are technically better in every way than they were 20 years ago. This article explains how my experience of them is so much worse.

Something is very wrong when with 20/20 vision at 500ft in evening traffic a lexus and a bmw could pass for one another.

No one mistook a W140 orE38 for a LS400 in the 90s. A big bodied MB or BMW just had presence that you can't buy from those marks at any price today.

Comment by Karl Maiterth |

I do not usually submit comments in response to journalism (print or otherwise), but do have to thank you for your quality opinion pieces that mirror my sentiments precisely, but with a precision and creativity of phrase that I couldn't muster. Keep up the great work, please. On a related but different note, I would be interested in your thoughts on the c140, a car I acquired while shopping for an R129. While the aesthetic superiority of the SL is easy to see, I am constantly fascinated by the c140, which is one of the few cars I simply cannot truly understand as a whole. It seems to present as an entirely different design depending on the angle from which it is viewed. Bruno Sacco at his best or perhaps worst?

Reply by Christopher Butt

Thank you!

While Sacco always publicly defended W/C140, he internally very much opposed the basic concept early on in the development process, which resulted in him being far more hands-off than during the creation of R129, for example.

C140's design process obviously involved a lot of soul searching, which arguably resulted in a finished car that lacked the coherence of W140. You might enjoy paying Car Design Archives a visit, who feature quite a few most interesting photos of sketches and prototypes, which help shed some light on this matter. 

Personally, I find C140 a strange beast indeed. It still exudes the solidity that used to be an inherent part of the Mercedes brand, but the challenges involved in creating something remotely elegant on the basis of such a huge package (whose size is exacerbated by the wheel sizes available when launched) are in plain view. I hope you don't take offence when I compare it to the Rolls-Royce Camargue in that regard, which was similarly challenged - and interesting. 

Comment by jlaa |

Bravo. You have, once again, eloquently articulated exactly what I have been feeling and observing over the past 15 years, but have yet been unable to summarize myself.

What is it about the state of German car design that allows for two if not three of its manufacturers to betray its roots in intellectual rigor for the fleeting sugar-high of fashion?

Do you see this betrayal elsewhere in German society? I am a long time admirer of manufactured German goods - for example I am known to sit and admire the design and manufacture of the elegant tilting/swiveling windows you so often see used in German architecture/office buildings/hotels - and I wonder if this succumbing to fashion is indicative of some other change in modern German society.

Reply by Christopher Butt

Germany is a complex country (aren't they all, in some way?), so I cannot offer a simple answer to your highly interesting question. 

There was a time, about 15 years ago, when there was a strong feeling here and elsewhere that the German way had become obsolete - holding onto the mass manufacturing of goods in a Western European country and keeping regulatory systems like the Meisterbrief intact felt anachronistic in those feverishly neo-liberal days. Obviously, this renitency turned out to be rather wise, with hindsight - and highlights the German strength, which certainly isn't alacrity and the willingness to take risks, but a certain thoughtfulness (which can obviously turn into inertia all too easily).

Trying too come ever so slightly closer towards answering your question, I'll state that professionally organised handicraft businesses still exist (which results in a comparatively high construction standard), just as the dual education system and the Mittelstand still act as the beating heart of this country's economy.

However, looking at big business, the impression is drastically different. Zetsche's and Wagener's 'Steve & Jony' double act marks the desperate end of corporate Germany trying its utmost not to be seen as inferior to Silicon Valley and all those cool American upstarts, who earn so much money in such miraculous ways. This is obviously but a matter of self-expression, but it depicts how certain big shots' inferiority complex on an international stage manifests itself. In those circles, German qualities (literally and figuratively speaking) are nothing but a means to an end and often serve marketing purposes above all else. Yet tthe arrogance exhibited by the German 'Premium' marques mostly covers up the latent insecurity at the heart of this industry in particular, which fears that its best days may be behind it. 

In a nutshell, one could say that the bigger the German business, the more superficial its commitment to traditional German business practices. The diesel scandal, for example, has now engulfed all German makes - apart from BMW, who enjoy the benefit of being owned by the Quandt Family, and hence are somewhat less at the mercy of Wall Street. In that sense, despite their size, they still possess certain mittelständische qualities. 

Comment by StefanSK |

Danke für den Artikel, der mir aus der Seele spricht. Meinen etwas ausführlicheren Kommentar dazu habe ich in meinem eigenen Blog (siehe oben) sowie im W126-Forum veröffentlicht; die dortigen Reaktionen sprechen für sich.
Ich hatte beim Design deutscher Fahrzeuge der jüngeren Vergangenheit bisher immer nur ein diffuses Unbehagen ("gefällt mir nicht") und war lediglich bei der Technik und Qualität schon lange der Überzeugung, dass die asiatischen Hersteller da seit Mitte der 90er Jahre uneinholbar vorne liegen. Dass das deutsche Design jetzt aber auch der Mittelmäßigkeit der Fahrzeuge entspricht, ist frappierend. Leider sind halt die Preise hierzulande immer noch "premium", ohne dass der Rest mitkommt.
Danke nochmal für den Artikel.

Reply by Christopher Butt

Die eigenartige Mischung aus Arroganz ('wir sind Premium') und Unsicherheit ('der Markt will das so') ist ein typisch deutsches Phänomen. Ich bin sehr gespannt, ob und inwiefern ein Umdenken stattfindet. Ich würde es mir jedenfalls von Herzen wünschen.

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