Is this the best car there will ever be?
Just before Christmas I took a train trip, the last direct rail service from Aarhus to Berlin, itself part of the discontinued direct Copenhagen to Berlin service. Determining the fate of this service was Deutsche Bahn’s decision to phase out diesel trains. The ICE train running the Aarhus-Berlin route remained the only diesel main line train in Germany. The diesel carriages have no future in Germany and, as far I know will either be sold or scrapped. We won’t see trains like this again.
Apart from being a rather heavy consumer of fuel, the train set seemed to me to be the rail equivalent of the 1991 S-Class. Do they have something in common besides size and a propensity to consume fuel while in motion?
By coincidence around the same time as Deutsche Bahn and the Danish rail service ended the ICE’s Aarhus-Berlin service I was doing some reading on the successors to the Bauhaus school of design. The direct successor to the Bauhaus is generally assumed to be the Ulm School of Design in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. The architect of the school’s buildings was Max Bill who studied at the Bauhaus under Kandinsky, Klee and Schlemmerer. He served as the school’s first rector.
None other than Walter Gropius opened the school with a lecture on the misunderstandings of Modernism. Having read the outline of the school’s curriculum and a list of some of the graduates, I realise that both the 1991 Mercedes S-class and the now-departed ICE, designed by Siemens and Bombardier are possibly the unique and final significant fruits of a design attitude that demanded excellence and had the resources available to implement it. Graduates from Ulm populated design offices all over 60s and 70s Germany.
What did these graduates learn? The basic curriculum included “Visual experiments: two- and three-dimensional studies based on the perceptions and teachings of symmetry and topology” (Wikipedia). The product design departments curriculum is worth listing in full actually as it is breakdown of what design is.
- Instruction in manufacturing: product design, operational organization, processes, procedures, calculations.
- Technologies: Ferrous metals, nonferrous metals, wood, plastics and forming technologies.
- Construction techniques.
- Mathematical analysis of operations: Group theory, statistics, standardization.
- Scientific theories.
- Ergonomics: Human-machine systems.
- Theories of Perception, especially social
- Mechanics: Kinematic, dynamic and static.
- Copyright and miscellaneous.
What do the car and the train have in common? The Mercedes (1991) and the first generation of ICE (1989) were launched at a similar time. The designers and engineers on both projects were men and women at the top of their careers, in their 40s or early 50s. Many must have graduated from the Ulm School of Design or were influenced by people who had. The Ulm School is recognised as one of the most influential schools in 20th century European design (actually the second, after the Bauhaus). This was the most technically demanding and intellectually concentrated design course ever offered.
If you ever wondered why German designers notice things like curvature, joints, and have a preference for durability as well as robust functionality (think Dieter Rams or 1980s VW interiors) it’s because the Ulm courses drew students’ attention to these through the courses listed above. You can easily interpret German cars of the late 70s to early 90s in the light of this exacting design approach. And, as it happens, the trains produced by Bombardier-Siemens for Deutsche Bahn were conceived along the same lines.
Exacting standards are all very well. One must also have a customer willing to pay and a society tolerant of different ideals. When the S-class was conceived global warming was not on the horizon in the way it is today. Western Germany was at the height of its powers, unshackled from the weaker eastern states (which historically had always been a bit poorer – that’s geography for you). So there was the design talent to conceive of this car and the resources to put it into production.
At the same time, Deutsche Bahn was able to direct resources at a train capable of challenging the French TGV (1981). When the ICE was conceived the goals were high speed, ride quality and the highest standards of passenger comfort. That list is not unlike the one that might apply to the Mercedes.
Stylistically, the Mercedes is the last hurragh of austere modernism. The materials are excellent. Fit and finish are perfect and yet there is nothing superfluous here, no ritz or razzle-dazzle. It´s not needed. We find the same character inside the ICE train, unsurprisingly.
I wrote elsewhere about the Toyota Century having an interior resembling high-class public transport. The W-140 is out of the same mould. It announces corporate responsibility. Only the sheer scale of the car might send a signal counter to this. Such is the simplicity of the car you may not even notice its vast size. The train interior parallels the Mercedes though it’s more affordable to gain access to its comforts. Imagine, public transport as well-designed as the MD’s limousine. Nothing is too good for the common man, said Lubetkin the architect. You don’t hear that said today.
I remember where I was when Kurt Cobain died. And I remember where I was exactly when I heard about the Twin Towers attack. And I remember precisely the moment I first saw a W-140. These cars were events. Their era has passed. We might have greater technical competence but the almost moral seriousness of the design would not be accepted today and designers think along different lines having been educated in ways very unlike those practiced in the post-war period in Germany.
Thankfully the ICE is still in service as an electric set.