Mercedes’ First Wheelie Bin

It may have been 2001 or 2002 when I said to myself that in the A-class, Mercedes had finally built a car to be driven and thrown away without a care.

1997 Mercedes A-class bootlid badge, or part thereof.
1997 Mercedes A-class bootlid badge, or part thereof.

I can even remember where I was when I had that thought, in a Wimpey housing estate carved from a chalk pit near Greys, Essex. Now, 13 years later, my mental note was verified. If you want to get access to Mercedes privilige, €580 is what you need for a 1998 A140 Elegance with 186,000 km registered. For an equivalent VW Golf with 185,000 km you will need €450. That’s exactly the same ball park.

1997 Mercedes A-Class seen in Flensburg, Germany.
1997 Mercedes A-Class seen in Flensburg, Germany.

Here’s something even closer to worthless than the car listed at Rust has eaten at the rear wheel arches on both sides. The interior manages to look even less appealing than a Toyota of the same period. I never liked the jokey wavey profile of the dashboard. This car lacked gravitas. A Skoda Felicia gets small and serious right. So does any generation of Polo.

One day I’ll find the image of the Honda concept car that gave the world the wraparound rear window effect but here is the idea used to greatest effect. It seems like a smart idea: to disguise the van-like profile. The cost is a rising waistline and a disastrous conflict between shutlines, materials and graphics. It isn’t an idea worthy of Mercedes because it’s pure styling.

The passage of time only confirms that this car did not merit the Mercedes badge. And if there was one justification for Mercedes’s larger cars, it was that they lasted a long time, which is a form of sustainable design. This car fails to achieve even that.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

16 thoughts on “Mercedes’ First Wheelie Bin”

  1. Here’s to the disgracefulness of late ’90s Mercs!

    The A is just such a terrible, terrible car – I want to at the very least respect it for its idiosyncratic packaging and engineering, which bears a whiff of Ye Olde Daimlere Ethose, but the result is just so shamefully idiotic that I cannot get myself to give it preference over its ultra-banal-yet-vulgar successor.

    My theory regarding the A in particular and Mercedes styling in general is that Bruno Sacco was being disempowered at some point between the unveiling of the Vision A concept car ( ) and the production A-class. The former, despite its still ungainly proportions, still exhibited a lot of traditional Daimler matter-of-fact design. The production car was, in comparison, just insubstantial and flippant.

    Incidentally, I was passing a W210 E-class just this morning. There was heavy rust on every second body panel, and the whole car just appeared cheap and nasty in almost every regard. What a contrast to the supposedly less respectable competition, the E39 Five series, which has aged rather gracefully.

  2. “The A is just such a terrible, terrible car – I want to at the very least respect it for its idiosyncratic packaging and engineering, which bears a whiff of Ye Olde Daimlere Ethose, but the result is just so shamefully idiotic that I cannot get myself to give it preference over its ultra-banal-yet-vulgar successor”

    Strong words there, and only valid in the context of this car bearing the M-B star in my opinion.
    To me it just confirm a point I have been making ever since the A-class was first announced: that it would have made more sense had it been sold as a SMART from day 1 . That would have been a very easy way to address both the image issue for M-B and SMART’s own credibility issue.

    1. Have you ever actually piloted an A-class, Laurent? It drives like a a drugged hippopothamus, which sound cosier than it is, as the ride is crashier than Audi’s “let’s put concrete into the tyres to prove just how sporty we are” efforts. The first generation car’s perceived and actual quality were a disgrace. And it wasn’t even cheap.

      On a very theoretical level, I like the gem of an idea that underlays the engineering concept of the car – and with battery cells underneath its sandwich floor, it could actually have been a worthwhile machine. But it never gained those batteries and remained a deeply flawed vehicle. Which it also would have been if it had cost 10.000 DM less and sported a Daewoo badge.

    2. I’ve been in both Mk1 and Mk2 A-classes, albeit only as a passenger. Each time the word that best sums up my experience was ‘ appalling’.
      But you’re missing my point here. What I’m saying is: roll back the years to 1997 and instead of marketing the A-class as a Merc-Benz, i.e. a premium product which is incidentally quite clever in concept (if not in execution), call it SMART ForFour and make the clever packaging and youthful appeal central to your marketing plan (and still sell it at a premium, because you can) and suddenly it makes a lot more sense – you have a range topper for the start-up, new-century car maker taking sales away from VAG in particular, without debasing the timeless and venerable three-pointed star.

    3. The tyre concreteness (huh…) is thanks to the infamous “elk test” fiasco.
      In Germany the car’s been subsequently described as “Auto kippt leicht auf Seite, siehe Elchtest” (put together the first letters…).
      The pun is terrible, but the reputation was ruined almost irretrievably.

    4. But wouldn’t the car have been terrible, even if it had been wearing a Smart badge?
      Many, if not most A-classes sold found buyers because they are wearing the coveted (at least in certain quarters) three-pointed star. Had it been a Smart, Uncle Erwin and Auntie Sieglinde wouldn’t have bothered – and I doubt the Kevins and Sophias Smart is aimed at would’ve been there to take over.

      What we know for sure is that Daimler hasn’t earned any money with the first two generations of both the A-class and Smart, which was mainly due to lack of cost control, but, above all, bad product. The basic concepts of both cars are valid, but their execution was just dreadful, no matter which sticker they’d put on them.

  3. The idea to this car was one of many silly ideas created at “bullshit-castle or german House of Windsor” – its new headquarter in Möhringen. A town built quite far away from the Daimler factories and their workers with a high fence protecting it from any contact to reality.
    Chairman Edzard Reuter, a man without a single drop of fuel running in his blood, was always a fan of great visions with absolutely no concrete sense. So – after the megalomanian S-class of 1990 he decided to set a sign by building really small cars with optional electric drive. Smart and the A-class were the results.of it.

    But Reuter was never interested in adding real advantages for customers to his vision. So these cars are not demanding less fuel, they are not cheaper and not at all they are a fun to drive. And there was no masterplan for bringing electric or hybrid drive in these cars.
    The Mercedes-engineers never liked Edzard Reuter and his visions, probabaly they were never willing to try it. This is the only conclusion i can draw by regarding the massive combination of negative points.concerning roadholding, suspension, anti-corrosion, materials and qualty-processing. (The SLK of the same time showed that they still can create great high-quality cars).

    It was pure luck for Daimler that – instead of young urban people – some older rural people want to have a small Mercedes. They are used to sit in their farm tractors or always dreamed of driving a bus. The harsh funless ride was accepted as a sort of modern asceticism. And, once again good for Mercedes, those older people often ordered a lot of expensive equipment just to make asceticism more bearable.
    And they were absolutely convinced of the long-term quality of Mercedes, most of them had a rocksolid 190 and some of them a G-class too. So they would never think of cars like a Berlingo or a Honda Jazz, also because they do not really need the space of them.

    The A-class was perfect to damage the nimbus of Mercedes. We should thank Edzard Reuter and the A-class having done this.

  4. My sister in law’s dad would have been one of those rural types. He was a butcher and like that generation of Baden-Wuerttembuergers, very careful with money. He had a 190D which was flawless after 18 years. Anyone who thought the A-140 was cut from the same cloth would have been disappointed.
    Thanks for that nice insight!

  5. My reaction to the announcement of the A Class was to commend Mercedes on its bravery in not trying to build just a small Merc (which the Mk 3 version is, of course). But time suggests it was not courage, but hubris. The idea that, since they build such fine big cars, beating the established makers at everyday cars would be a pushover. It wasn’t

    The first A Class I saw was owned by a typical member of the original target demographic, a young Dutch graphic designer. If, as suggested by Laurent, it had been born a Smart, and had ongoing development, this might have remained the case.

    But the people the Mercedes star attracted in the end were, ironically, older people who presumably put up with the mediocrity for the snob cachet.

  6. My 70+ parents have one of these (2001 A190, stretched version). It looks appalling, but I have to confess I find it drives fairly OK. The view around is terrible, all pillars seem massive for some reason, and the seats are crap, but the engine and gearbox are quite alright. Leg room in the back is amazing and with the rear seats removed it does a pretty good job as a small van because of its internal squareness. This car proves my point that most cars are very boring, but finding a really bad one is nigh on impossible these days.

  7. Finding aesthetically bad cars is easy, maybe even easier now than ever before with all those horrible blobs spoiling our roads. I meant “bad” as in “technically bad” here.

  8. Is it hard to find aesthetically bad cars these days? In a sense yes and in a sense no. Some of the designs are not even wrong but inapproachable and inscrutable. They lack an anchor point to begin analysis. I need to think of examples. Some recent BMWs have had that “ignore me” look. The current 5-series is not worth even glancing at. Most of Toyota´s output is in the same vein. Maserati and Ferrari are in the same class. Other designs are comprehenisble but still wrong. I quite like those inasmuch as you can look at them and try to get at why the design fails. The Citroen C4 Grand Picasso is a good example. Alot of it is right and good but the entire side glass and window framing is a botch. They were really close to have a good, modern design but messed it up. Good current designs – hmm. My candidates are few and probably ones people would consider boring. I need to think about this before starting a list.

  9. “Auto kippt leicht auf Seite, siehe Elchtest”

    Are these epithets a commonplace German amusement?

    The only one I can think of is the VW 411: “Vier Türen, elf Jahre zu spät”.

    If there are more, I’d love to know.

    1. Well known ones are:
      “Fehler in allen Teilen” (faulty in all parts) or “Völlig wertloses Gefährt ohne logische Funktion” (completely worthless vehicle without logical function).

  10. Mother had an 05 second gen one.
    It was kind of OK and easy access for my ageing parents who could “walk in” to it far more easily than the 3er Compact that preceded it.
    It had 25000 miles on it when we bought it so it had a relaxed life prior to our ownership.
    It threw a rod and needed a second hand complete engine after a year and the CVT transmission sh*t it’s pants about 18 month later- we flogged as spares or repairs on eBay, what an infraction end for a 12 year old Mercedes. It’s not really the kind of behaviour you expect from a “premium” car (or any car in this day and age) even if it just wearing the exec badge.
    Honda Jazz for Mummy now, a bit tinny but nicely screwed together and well engineered.
    After an SLK, CLK and two C Class’s its Audi all the way for me now. The Mercedes brand no longer stands for the values that attracted me to it as I was growing up. Around 190E time, if you owned a Merc, you had made it.

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