Retrospective: Fading Star
Once the definition of supremacy, Mercedes-Benz has become just another car brand. A retrospection.
The iPhone is not just some smartphone. A Leica is not just another camera. Château Margaux is not any old kind of wine.
Some brands serve not as mere differentiators, but as definition of the kind of product they represent. ‘The Ritz’ would therefore never be mistaken for a youth hostel, just as Ryanair will never be associated with luxury or style of any kind.
For decades, the Mercedes-Benz brand enjoyed a similarly distinctive reputation. A Mercedes, any Mercedes (or ‘Daimler’, as the company and brand used to be referred to in its home territory) was simply the best car of its kind. Not the most fashionable, nor the fastest or loudest. Just ‘the best’. And, usually, the most expensive too.
This kind of (self-)assessment inevitably entailed a particular modus operandi, also as far as matters of design were concerned. After all, when one is in the lead, there is nobody in front to follow, which resulted in Mercedes-Benz ploughing its own furrow for years and decades. Or, in the words of Hans Scherenberg, Mercedes-Benz’ Director of Research & Development from 1965 to 1977: ‘True elegance means staying within earshot behind fashion.'
In recent years, Daimler AG/Mercedes-Benz executives have forcefully tried to align themselves and their products with the financial market’s favourite business sector: consumer electronics. Or, more to the point, Silicon Valley. For that reason, wearing ties during official presentations was abolished, just as sneakers became a requirement. Staying behind fashion in any way, shape or form is obviously not an option anymore.
What this does shed some light on, apart from personal clothing preferences, is how the representation, even the values of Mercedes-Benz, have changed. Traces of that very Swabian latent sense of superiority are still present (there can only ever be one car brand that invented the automobile, after all), yet that is but an historical veil - memories of a past evoked to distinguish an otherwise potentially mistakable product.
Mercedes-Benz’ grand, exalted position far beyond the humble competition is most certainly passé. Tracing the beginning of this process back merely to the moment when a certain Chief Executive left his brogue leather shoes in the closet, in favour of a pair of Converse sneakers would be an utterly insufficient analysis though. The degradation of the Mercedes-Benz brand started far earlier than this.
1980s: The faintest of cracks
The Eighties were a stellar decade for Mercedes-Benz. The Swabians’ entire range was the envy of the industry worldwide, 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 Vertical Affinity/Horizontal Homogeneity (VA-HH), marked a high point not only as far as Mercedes-Benz was concerned, but (West) German car design in general.
In a peculiar twist of fate, these vehicles’ designs were as clear a manifestation of progressive German design virtues as the work of Dieter Rams at Braun - which would serve as obvious inspiration for Apple designer, Jonathan Ive, decades later, whose work has since served as (alleged) benchmark to current Mercedes designers, as well.
However, despite the quality and success of this convincing range of products (even the ageing R107 SL roadster continued to perform well in the marketplace), this was the time when the process of brand erosion set in - albeit barely perceptibly. 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 did not 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 and rather ironically, needed to be paid for with the money earned through the cars that were decidedly not at the centre of attention at the highest executive level anymore.
Throughout this decade, all Vertical Affinity/Horizontal Homogeneity cars proudly wore the three-pointed star on their bonnets, apart from the large SEC coupé and SL roadster, whose stars were integrated into the front grille instead.
1990s: Hubris Engineering
Given the success in all areas during the preceding decade, Mercedes-Benz was understandably 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 truly mighty new S-class, the W140, the runaway success of a certain Bavarian upstart - the 1986 BMW Seven series - would be crushed, once and for all. Another threat, emanating from Japan, would also be contained, courtesy of W140’s sheer superiority.
As is well known, it all 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. In the US, where its size was not an issue, this S-class that was so much bigger and more expensive than its predecessor might also have made it easier than was strictly necessary for repeat customers to give that new Lexus a chance. A car that, ironically, was very much informed by the W126 S-class in terms of its appearance.
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 competition, the other, more long-lasting failures of the 1990s were driven by hubris of an altogether different kind.
As Daimler-Benz’ acquisitions (AEG, MBB, Dornier, Fokker, MTU, Cap Gemini) were proving to be a drain even on the Swabians’ copious cash reserves, the Mercedes side of the business was required to further increase its already very robust profit margins. Thus, management under Reuter and Mercedes-Benz CEOs, Werner Niefer and Helmut Werner, 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 unmasked greed. Unlike W140’s failures, which were motivated by the same ambition and aloofness that had made Mercedes-Benz what it was in the first place, 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.
Simultaneously, a dramatic change in terms of styling was implemented. As a considerable share of the blame for W140’s image issues was attributed to its appearance - which, size and proportions apart, was very much in keeping with VA-HH - a different, supposedly more up-to-date approach was pursued. Simultaneously, most members of the ‘old guard’ within both management and design, retired, among them Josef Gallitzendörfer, Bruno Sacco’s deputy.
Vertical Affinity/Horizontal Homogeneity thus gave way to ‘design freedom’. As the term - regularly employed by Mercedes-Benz brand chief, Jürgen Hubbert - suggested, ‘design freedom’ was about breaking the shackles of the past. These shackles, one can assume, consisting of design integrity, sobriety and ‘staying within earshot behind fashion’.
It was a (neo-)liberal edge that was added to the conservatism hitherto utterly inherent in Daimler-Benz and the Mercedes brand. Growth and increasing profit margins became the overriding priority from a management perspective, just as stylistically, fashion was not something to be avoided, but chased with a vengeance. These processes were very much in evidence in the W210 E-class. For just as its well-reported quality issues betrayed the cost-cutting, the car’s ham-fisted detailing and rather clumsy attempts at ‘on-trend’ styling were utterly at odds with the kind of visual sustainability the VA-HH cars had come to represent.
An even more drastic symbol of the changes inside Mercedes was the all-new A-class. Not only that was this model supposed to give the VW Golf a run for its money (a task that in itself would have appeared below the Mercedes brand a decade ago), but its execution was so utterly woeful that it ended up harming the reputation of Mercedes-Benz to an extent that would have ruined almost any other brand. From a distance of two decades on, the A-class appears even more absurd a product for the marque though - for while its contemporary rival, the VW Golf IV, has matured into a timeless German design classic, the A-class remains an eyesore, on almost any conceivable level. Evidently poor build quality, ill-advised ‘fashionable’ colour options, timelessly odd proportions and a blatant lack of attention to design detail saw to that.
One can imagine that this A-class did not come into being easily - after all, there were still a great many proud engineers employed at ‘der Daimler’, just as Bruno Sacco was still in office by that point.
The struggles about the brand’s direction, and the A-class in particular, even manifested themselves in a public manner. To be precise, in the shape of the Vision A93 prototype, a concept car precursor to the production A-class that - 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 same studios that had created the cars from a decade earlier, even though it by no means matched their design quality. The production model, on the other hand, was an effort desperately trying to distract from its hardly athletic architecture through brash, cheap graphics. As a consequence of this, the A-class 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 did not posses a proud star on its bonnet, either. Instead, it was included into its meek 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 - did not 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 - but only after the likes of Patrick le Quément (then at Renault) and Walter de’ Silva (who had just joined Volkswagen’s SEAT brand) had rejected the offer to come to Stuttgart. Pfeiffer 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, clearly lacked the ambition and nous to devise a coherent design ethos in the vein of VA-HH. As a consequence, Mercedes-Benz design remained firmly stuck a few inches behind fashion during this period, before falling well behind towards the end of Pfeiffer’s tenure. By that point, disastrous forms like that of the R231-generation SL, unveiled in 2012, did eventually have an impact on the marque’s sales performance. Just as the company had suffered from a quality crisis a decade prior, it was now firmly undergoing a design crisis.
Also notable at the time was that for the first time, certain designers working under Pfeiffer gained an unusually high profile - a sharp contrast to the past, when Mercedes design presented itself as an anonymous collective (chief designer excepted) to the public. Hence stylists like Steve Mattin (who would later on head Volvo and then Lada design) and a budding exterior designer by the name of Gorden Wagener gained the opportunity to make their mark.
During this period, the proud stars on the bonnet became the privilege of the saloon range of cars. New additions, such as the R-class MPV and CLS four-door coupé, made 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 race cars. Both these models’s exteriors were penned by Gorden Wagener.
After more than a decade of crises, new DaimlerChrysler CEO, Dieter Zetsche, eventually rid the company of its Chrysler component, which he himself had been in charge before - and where he had overseen a range of cars of utterly insipid design quality, such as Dodge's Caliber and Avenger.
Upon his return to Stuttgart, Zetsche decreed a focus on the core German car business yet again. This resulted in an even bigger product onslaught than before, most prominently in the compact car class. Instead of continuing the ill-fated pursuit of unusual engineering solutions, the Zetsche-era 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, the casual observer would have expected such a design from some Asian upstart, but not from the world’s most established maker of automobiles.
Further up the product ladder, the styling changes weren’t as drastic, but an overall change towards crass detailing and ill-defined shapes became apparent across the range. This ethos was given the tag of Sensual Purity - a term of outrageous vacuity and incoherence, which nevertheless set a precedent within the wider industry.
Sensual Purity is, of course, as closely associated with Mercedes’ current chief designer as Vertical Affinity/Horizontal Homogeneity was with Bruno Sacco. The difference being that VA-HH was an intellectual construct not employed for marketing purposes, whereas Sensual Purity is a pure marketing term lacking any substance whatsoever.
In that sense, it serves as a most fitting metaphor for the reign of Gorden Wagener. A physically mighty man, ‘Flash Gorden’, as he used to be called among colleagues, presents himself in a fashion that is drastically different from the restrained elegance of a Bruno Sacco or the mousy demeanour of a Peter Pfeiffer. Wagener likes hyperbole and is far from shy to boast about his own talents and the quality of his work. He has also gone on the record expressing his 'hatred' of the Vertical Affinity/Horizontal Homogeneity cars' design.
It probably takes such a man to ignore decades of stylistic heritage and finish off the process of turning 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 - the one model that, undistinguished appearance excepted, remains the brand’s most clearly defined product. For E- and C-class models, the proud star is only available by specific order and seems decidedly ill-at ease attached to car designs lacking the kind of stateliness required for such an emblem to appear coherent. For all other models, it is not 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 ahead of the ‘premium’ hoi polloi, which always made do without bonnet mascots.
So the (three-pointed) star has finally fallen to Earth. Mercedes-Benz is no more sophisticated a marque than Audi or BMW anymore. Yet, as fate would have it, these competitors have fallen into dramatic design crisis, just as the Sensual Purification of Mercedes-Benz design has been somewhat appeased.
The most recent Mercedes models are by no means designs for the ages. Some are simply bland, whereas others remain rather unsophisticated - their lack of flashy adornments, compared with the previous generation of Sensual Purity designs, sees to that. But compared to what the competition from Munich and Ingolstadt sees fit to bring to market these days, such shortcomings appear almost negligible.
In BMW’s case, even a ‘design philosophy’ to challenge Sensual Purity’s meaninglessness was devised: Precision & Poetry. The race to the bottom is on, and right now, Mercedes-Benz is certainly trailing behind.
Aficionados of Vertical Affinity/Horizontal Homogeneity or true German design values in general will obviously be left unmoved by either Mercedes’ unwitting renaissance or the fall from grace of Audi and BMW design. Instead, they would have to look northwest of Sindelfingen, to Weissach, where the last stronghold of Gute Form can be found. Where a car maker sees no need to coin some ‘design philosophy’ and simply gets on with the job of creating automotive shapes in keeping with its history, while (mostly) employing very high standards of craftsmanship.
Also for this reason a Porsche still is not just any car.
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