“Where all think alike there is little danger of innovation” – Edward Abbey.
17 years. You would think that was long enough to convince my girlfriend that a W126 is the ideal family car. It seems not. I’ve always loved the cars MB produced during Sacco’s time (I like to think he had called in sick the day they designed the W210) but his first S-Class (especially the coupe) is top of the heap for me. For some reason his theory of Vertical and Horizontal Affinity has always had a strong resonance.
With such a rich and distinctive heritage at his disposal, Vertical Affinity made perfect sense. In one shape or another we have been looking at that gorgeous grille for almost 100 years (Geiger and Sacco did it best). The family of three saloons available during the ‘80s embodied Sacco’s ethos perfectly. Each member of this trio was quintessentially Mercedes yet didn’t render previous generations obsolete (obviously the Baby Benz had no case to answer here). Despite the affinity between these three beautiful cars being unquestionable they each had a very distinct separate personality. One could never have been mistaken for another.
I love looking at new cars trying to spot where their inspiration came from. Volvo is often a happy hunting ground here but many brands are happy to disregard their history when designing new generations. Renault, Ford and most Japanese marques all spring to mind when I think of companies that are willing to regularly start with a clean design slate. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a different way of doing business.
However pretty much every manufacturer now has a design philosophy of Horizontal Affinity that means each of its models shares cues that are meant to show its “DNA”. We all know that as each year passes a new niche model or vehicle category emerges meaning that there are more SUVs…sorry I mean cars… to be designed than ever before. In 1989 there were 8 different models of passenger car sold by Mercedes. Today there are over 25. This deluge of “choice” of course makes it more and more difficult to retain a familial resemblance throughout the range while allowing each car to have its own individuality.
Audi’s interpretation of Horizontal Affinity really gets up my nose. Their cookie cutter approach sure is successful but to me it feels way too calculated and cold. The difference between the Q3 and Q5 is little more than size. The A6 is a fine-looking car but at a glance, especially from the front are you sure that’s not an A4 or even an A3 saloon? This is surely taking their proverbial efficiency too far. Such a safe perspective leaves me less and less interested in Ingoldstadt’s products. Looking back at the original Quattro full of straight lines and fury, the curvy 1991 80 (B4) and the classically beautiful A8 of 2002 I feel sad that there really is no passion in the design of the current batch of monozygotic siblings.
Opel on the other hand seem to have recently grasped both the spirit and the meaning of Horizontal Affinity. It is true to say that up until relatively recently they were Germany’s most adept purveyors of truly nondescript cars. The only Opel produced in the ‘90s that I might look twice at is the Calibra. Times change though. The current Astra, Corsa, Vectra and even Mokka are all sharply designed and attractive cars. Each has its own distinct charm and personality yet each one is unmistakably Opel. Thankfully they have left the blandness behind whilst showing us that you can be innovative designing cars that are distinctive yet still remind us of their common provenance.