Analysis: Chronology Of A (Three-Pointed) Star Tearing Itself Apart
Once the definition of supremacy, Mercedes-Benz has become just another car brand. A retrospection.
The Mercedes-Benz stand at the Geneva Motorshow of 2017 brimmed with grinning faces. Doctor Zee/Zed himself, aka Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Daimler AG, and his right hand man for all stylistic matters, Gorden (sic) Wagener, were not just visibly pleased with themselves and their success. Depending on one’s perspective, they either did ‘a Marchionne’ (unlikely) or a very German sartorial impression of a start-up entrepreneur by appearing in ‘casual’ style in front of the press, with Doctor Zee leaving his tie at home and wearing sneakers, whereas Gorden (sic) engaged in some kind of Teutonic sprezzatura and put on a grey sweater. How very kool and ‘now’.
What this does shed some light on, apart from personal clothing preferences, is how the representation, even the values of Mercedes-Benz, have changed. Once the epitome of a brand that certainly wasn’t kool and didn’t care about what others considered ‘now’, the three-pointed star has turned into an also-ran. An also-ran at the top of the automotive hierarchy, admittedly, but just one brand among others, nonetheless. Its grand, exalted position far beyond the humble competition is most certainly passé.
With a CEO doing a clichéd impression of a modern manager and a design boss lacking any sense of grace, it is blatantly obvious that there has been a paradigm shift taking place at Stuttgart Untertürkheim. And this was set in motion at a time when Doctor Zed was, at best, starting to grow a beard, while the Burberry check ties Gorden (sic) now likes to leave at home weren’t even available for sale.
1980s: The faintest of cracks
The Eighties were a stellar decade for Mercedes-Benz. Its entire range was the envy of the industry, thanks to the game-changing 190E (W201 in Benz speak), indefatigable W126 S-class and, after initial quality woes, the W124 E-class, which proved that Mercedes could stretch its product range to include saloon, estate, coupé and convertible variants in most convincing fashion.
These cars, penned under chief designer, Bruno Sacco, adhering to a rigorous styling scheme dubbed horizontal affinity/vertical homogeneity, were almost too convincing as Mercedes products for their own good. Their sense of solidity, attention to detail and eschewing of short-term trends made them appear a bit boring and predictable, but then again, this was what the Mercedes-Benz brand was all about.
Despite such a convincing range of products (even the ageing R107 SL roadster continued to perform well in the marketplace), trouble was brewing behind the scenes. From 1983-’87, the Vorstandsvorsitzender in charge of Daimler-Benz AG was Dr Werner Breitschwerdt, a Stuttgart-born engineer, who had played a critical role in the development of the W126 S-class and W201 190E. An eminent authority in his field, Breitschwerdt nonetheless appeared to be overwhelmed by the politics involved with his post. He was consequently unable to fight his corner when a power struggle between CFO, Edzard Reuter, and Mercedes brand director, Werner Niefer, escalated.
Eventually, Reuter came off victorious and immediately started to change what had been an automotive business with excessive cash reserves into an ‘integrated technology corporation’ conglomerate.
An intellectual and son of erstwhile mayor of Berlin, Ernst Reuter, the new CEO didn’t much care for the mundane product that had made Daimler-Benz such an exceptionally successful and wealthy enterprise. Instead, he envisaged a Daimler-Benz AG more similar to corporate giants à la Siemens or GE. Such ambitions, obviously, needed to be paid for with the money earned through the cars that weren’t at the centre of attention of the highest executive level anymore.
Throughout this decade, all horizontal affinity/vertical homogeneity cars proudly wore the three-pointed star on their bonnets, apart from the SEC coupé, whose star was integrated into the front grille instead.
1990s: Hubris Engineering
Given the success in all areas during the preceding decade, Mercedes-Benz was bursting with confidence by the beginning of the ‘90s. The newly-launched next generation SL roadster (R129 in Mercedes parlance) proved to be an instant success and redefined the open-top GT sector. And with the mighty new S-class, the W140, the success of that Bavarian upstart, the BMW Seven series, would be crushed, once and for all. Alas, things turned out slightly differently, for the engineering-dictated one-upmanship of the W140 arrived just in time for a recession. The European press and quite a few clients therefore took exception to the Big Benz’ lack of modesty, which led to an image crisis that remains unmatched in the model range’s long history.
Whereas the W140 had been victim of a combination of perfectionism, lack of humility and the first, faint indication of actual nerves in the face of the competition, the other, more long-lasting failures of the 1990s were driven by hubris of an altogether different kind.
Despite the company’s metaphorical vaults were still bursting with stashes of cash, Daimler-Benz management under Reuter and Mercedes-Benz CEOs, Werner Niefer and Helmut Werner, had embarked on a cost optimisation programme that would result in the new E-class for the 1990s, the W210, being a third cheaper to produce than its immediate predecessor. While Daimler-Benz manufacturing was hardly known as a stronghold of efficiency, this move certainly smacked of greed. Unlike the W140’s failures, which were ultimately motivated by the inherent ambition and arrogance that had made Mercedes-Benz what it was, the W210 was about cutting corners and delivering to the customer what was deemed to be sufficient a solution, rather than the best solution to the product’s requirements. After all, Edzard Reuter’s foray into technological conglomerate territory had proven to be an exceedingly expensive move, which needed to be paid for by the car side of the business.
Simultaneously, a dramatic change in terms of styling was implemented. With much of the blame for the W140’s perceived failure put on the shoulders of design boss, Bruno Sacco, it appears in retrospect as though some kind of coup may have taken place behind the scenes. For the W210 wasn’t just different from its predecessors in terms of perceived and actual quality, but stylistically, as well. Gone was the horizontal affinity/vertical homogeneity ethos, replaced with ham-fisted detailing and a clumsy attempt at trendy styling that made the ‘Fintail’ saloon of yore appear utterly restrained.
This change wasn’t entirely incidental, as Mercedes management had consciously relegated horizontal affinity/vertical homogeneity to the bin and instead proclaimed design freedom. This was even more drastically symbolised by the all-new A-class, that was supposed to give the VW Golf a run for its money and ended up harming the reputation of Mercedes-Benz to an extent that would’ve ruined almost any other brand instead.
As an technological concept, the A-class actually wasn’t without merit, and certainly an engineer’s car in the old Mercedes idiom. It wasn’t developed as far as intended though (the envisaged alternative propulsion options were never brought to market), and the cost-cutting measures were even more obvious than in the W210’s case.
These changes in attitude were also obvious in the development of the A-class’ styling. The shape of the Vision A93 prototype, albeit not handsome in the classical sense of the word, still possessed some traces of the gravitas and seriousness of Daimler-Benz of yore. It was a car whose origin one could imagine to have been the studios led by Bruno Sacco. The production model, on the other hand, was another wannabe-trendy effort that established a regrettable fad by featuring a DLO/window graphic that obstructed the driver’s visibility and would, for that reason alone, have been considered unacceptable by previous Mercedes management.
The A-class didn’t posses a proud star on its bonnet, either. Instead, it was included into its ungainly front grille, as with the roadster and SUV ranges.
2000s: Licking wounds
Quality issues would remain one of the mean issues plaguing Mercedes-Benz into the new millennium. Before that, Edzard Reuter’s integrated technology corporation had given way to new CEO, Jürgen E. Schrempp’s, vision of a Welt AG, a global automotive giant with the newly-formed DaimlerChrysler holding at its centre.
With personnel deployed around the globe to help out at the new subsidiaries, the range of Mercedes-Benz cars - still the number one money earner - didn’t appear to be at the forefront of the considerations of Schrempp et al. And why would it? Sales figures were still very buoyant, and the range expansion was both in full flow and met with success.
After Bruno Sacco had been, somewhat unceremoniously, retired, his deputy, Peter Pfeiffer, took over. He very much continued the style established post-W210, which meant that there was no return to timelessness, tasteful restraint and a preference of engineering-, rather than styling-led solutions. Pfeiffer, a trained porcelain painter from Upper Franconia and credited with the exterior form of the sublime W210 190E, always appeared to be a rather weak chief designer. There was no overall styling ethos devised, which added to the wayward impression of Mercedes-Benz design during this period. Most notable was how certain designers working under Pfeiffer gained an unusually high profile, such as Steve Mattin (who would later on head Volvo and then Lada design) and a very self-confident man by the name of Gorden Wagener.
During this period, the proud stars on the bonnet remained the privilege of the saloon range of cars. New additions, such as the R-class MPV and CLS four-door coupé, had to make do with the star in the front grille. On top of that, the second-generation of the SLK roadster, and a supercar dubbed McLaren-Mercedes SLR, featured the star in a grotesque beak that was supposed to evoke the looks of Formula 1 racecars.
After more than a decade of crises, new DaimlerChrysler CEO, Dieter Zetsche, rid the company off its Chrysler component, of which he’d been in charge himself before - and where he’d established his Dr Zee alter ego for marketing purposes. Upon his return to Stuttgart, he decreed a focus on the core car business yet again.
This resulted in an even bigger product onslaught than before, most prominently in the compact car class (which, historically, had never been the Swabian’s domain). Instead of continuing the ill-fated pursuit of unusual engineering solutions, the Zee-devised A-class became an utterly conventional Golf class contender. What set it apart from the competition was its loud, unashamedly crass and vulgar styling. If there was no three-pointed star in its grille - which could even be specced with funky matrix pattern -, the casual observer would expect such a design from some Asian upstart, but not from the world’s most establish maker of automobiles.
Further up the product ladder, the styling changes weren’t as drastic, but an overall change towards vulgar detailing and limp shapes became apparent across the range. That this ethos was given the tag of sensual purity remains one of the most poignant, elaborate unintended practical jokes of the automotive industry.
The man proudly in charge of implementing this sensual purity is, of course, none other than Gorden (sic) Wagener. A tall, mighty man, Wagener presents himself in a fashion that’s drastically different from the restrained elegance of a Bruno Sacco or the mousy demeanour of a Peter Pfeiffer. Wagener likes hyperbole and isn’t shy to boast about his own talents and the quality of his work.
It probably takes such a man to ignore decades of stylistic heritage and turn an elitist brand into a common one.
There is no stronger symbol for this change than the treatment of the three-pointed star. For today, it is only fitted to the bonnet of the S-class as standard. For E- and C-class models, it is only available by specific order. For all other models, it isn’t available at all.
Along with Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz was the only car manufacturer to have continually fitted a bonnet mascot to its car range. This also signified the market position of this formerly exceptional brand: at least at eye level with The Best Car In The World, and always one rung in front of the premium hoi polloi, which always made do without bonnet mascots.
Great success comes at a price. In this instance, Mercedes-Benz has traded in singularity for popularity.
The star has fallen to Earth.
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