Mercedes once valued their wheels. That’s just another thing they’ve forgotten.
In the 1930s, Mercedes introduced body coloured hubcaps with a central star, as seen on the 170. At the time, in fact, many manufacturers offered body-coloured wheels or hubcaps. After the War, some companies continued with this, Rolls Royce and various US brands in particular, but none did it with as much style as Mercedes.
Some of the more basic 180 models seem to have had plain chrome hubcaps but, generally, the body coloured hubcap became an integral part of Mercedes styling. Even the proto-supercar 300SL Gullwing came with them as standard, although it was available with the optional Rudge wheels that were a popular fitting to various German sportscars in the 50s – oddly, these were heavier than the standard wheels though they could be removed more quickly using the central knock-off spinners.
Throughout the Sixties all Mercedes cars made dignified progress on coloured hubcaps. The actual hubcap expanded to include a chrome surround in its one piece construction, but the look remained. In 1969, the W108 S Class saw the introduction of an optional aluminium wheel but, even then, this was a suitably Benz like affair. Nicknamed after a vague resemblance to a cake, these ‘bundt’ alloy wheels were manufactured by Fuchs and, as you’d have expected from Mercedes back then, they were of the highest quality. They were forged rather than cast, a more expensive process but one that results in a stronger wheel.
The 1976 W123 was the last new model to be offered with coloured hubcaps. Over time the bundt wheels supplanted the painted hubcapped wheels and they became, in their turn, a distinctive and inherent part of the design of any Mercedes. They lasted until 1985 and, despite a couple of attempts at a new classic wheel, since then it has been open season.
A true wheel afficionado might well recognise an alloy devoid of its star that had been removed from a current Benz but, for most observers, it could come from any car. In 1994, the S Class had no wheel options available. In the 2013 brochure for the previous S class there are 7 different wheels shown. The current one shows 8 types. A Mercedes wheel is no longer an integral part of the car’s identity, it is just an add-on.
Of course the plethora of wheel choices is a result of marketing departments convincing customers that they want choice in all things – because choice means individuality means profit. Once, Mercedes led with haughty dignity and we loved them for it. Now all other manufacturers offer choice, tasteful or otherwise, so they follow suit.
Despite the inaccurately termed concept of ‘colour coding’ being generally seen as irredeemably naff when applied to every part of a car, I have a sneaking liking for colour coordinated wheels and would like to see them come back. The problem with so many modern Mercedes is, of course, that they don’t come in any colours to coordinate with. However, I’ve cobbled up a quick idea for Gorden Wagener’s team, proposing both an overall colour and suitable wheel design that deviate as little as possible from Mercedes’ totally unsubtle 21st Century design direction, but still with a nod to its more illustrious past.
Incidentally, there is a nicely informative article on colour matched wheels and hubcaps here with a lot of applications on US vehicles right up into the 90s (the author is an entirely different Sean by the way).