Carl Heinz Bauer’s stylistic legacy isn’t necessarily one to shout about, but with the 2007 Mercedes W204 C-Class it could be argued he got at least one car (more or less) right.
It’s probably unavoidable. Over a lengthy career, every car designer worth his magic marker drops at least one absolute whopper on his CV, and frankly if the bulk of your time has been spent within Peter Pfeiffer’s dream factory, the chances of being responsible for anything even half decent is remote in the extreme.
But even by those famished standards, Carl Heinz Bauer’s portfolio stands out, having overseen the styling of the derided W212 E-Class saloon and Coupé. This alone would be reason enough to dismiss the man’s output, but something far murkier lies rotting deep within his portfolio. The howler of howlers, the reputation destroyer itself: Bauer was allegedly amongst the styling team responsible for the 1995 W210 E-Class. Is there a more shameful legacy in the latterday annals of automotive design?
Interviewed by freelance journalist, John Simister for The Independent newspaper in May 2009, Carl Heinz justified his work on the C212 Coupé, stating latter-day Mercedes-Benz owners were more fashion conscious and had shorter attention spans than of yore. Simister asked if this explained why Mercedes’ design had “become a little, well, overstyled and overwrought?” To which Bauer replied – (presumably through clenched teeth); “That’s what people want. They want something showy that marks their cars out as new.”
Of course satisfying one’s customers is probably a good idea, assuming of course said customers have a decent grasp on what they want in the first place. So if Bauer was factually correct in his assessment, it didn’t stop it from being a dolorous indictment of Daimler-Benz’s capitulation to market forces. Certainly, had these been the only cars the Carl Heinz had inked during his career at Sindelfingen, he would have good reason to cut off his trademark ponytail, put the frock coats back in the closet and change the subject when people asked him what he once did for a living.
Enter the saving grace. The W204 C-Class of 2007 could never be considered a Mercedes design for the ages, never mind the monument its W201 antecedent was, but it was a thoroughly competent piece of work, representing perhaps the most resolved, most durable statement of Mercedes-Benz’s post-millennial design characteristics this scribe can summon up on a clammy Wednesday afternoon.
Compared to its brittle-looking W203 predecessor, the 2007 car appears solid, substantial and what marketers would toe-curlingly describe as ‘on-brand’. To these eyes at least, it makes a far more convincing fist of traditional Mercedes values of permanence and imperiousness than anything else that emerged during Peter Pfeiffer’s drear tenure as design director, to say nothing of the melted blancmange that serves as today’s form language.
The W204 was a car I disliked intensely at launch, but in the manner of the better Mercedes designs, it’s one that has matured as it settled into my consciousness – indeed with each passing year, it appears more correct despite messy details like its poorly handled bonnet/wing shutline – a feature that still jars.
But whether saloon, estate or even the 2011 Coupé, each carries the Three Pointed Star with just a soupçon more gravitas than just about any of its contemporary Sindelfingen stablemates. Does it absolve the frightful W210? Don’t be ridiculous. But at least it gives Carl Heinz Bauer a reason to walk with his shoulders that little bit higher.