A Partial Absolution

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.

Mercedes W204 C-Class. Image via 3dtuning
Mercedes W204 C-Class. Image: 3dtuning

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?

Is that enough W210 for you? Image: kaskus.co.id
Warning, this photo contains images of W210 viewers may find distressing. Image: kaskus.co.id via katalog.samochodow.pl

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.

Mercdes design chief, Peter Pfeiffer and Carl Heinz Bauer with a W204 styling model. Image: carbodydesign
Mercedes design chief, Peter Pfeiffer (left) and Carl Heinz Bauer review a W204 styling model. Image: carbodydesign

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

11 thoughts on “A Partial Absolution”

  1. Apart from that clamshell bonnet and the strange arc that’s become a Pfeiffer trademark (along with those ovoid door handles, which may or may not be part of Bruno Sacco’s legacy), the W204 is quite a tide piece of design, I agree.

    The W204’s timing suggests its the offspring of the short-lived Eckart Cordes era at Mercedes-Benz, what with it having been the first Mercedes to be unveiled by Doctor Zed after he took over the post of capo for both Daimler(Chrysler/AG) and Mercedes-Benz cars. It is well documented that lending this C-class two optional grilles was the doctor’s main contribution to the model, and a fairly last-minute one at that. Which suggests that the rest of it was pretty much as Herr Cordes had left it when he decided to head to pastures/retail giants new.

  2. I too have always found the W204 stood out among modern Benzes as being actually coherent, which sounds a bit grudging, but isn’t meant to be. I would be perfectly happy with an estate version, if it wasn’t a bit too small for my preferences.

    I suppose that, as just part of the team that did W210, Bauer might have done just the good bits – except there are none.

    1. During a recent chat with a VW official, I was told that Volkswagen actually benefits from former Mercedes drivers who have since jumped ship, as they consider modern VW design more of the kind of sober styling that they used to associate with their tree pointed star.

      The W204 (and W221’s interior) were the last two faint instances of ‘Mercedesness’ of yore I could detect. Since than, all that remains is the star itself, and even that has been downgraded (starting with the ‘204, incidentally).

  3. I agree that this was one of the better Mercedes designs of recent years. However, I thought that the estate with its extreme RWD proportions and some too baroque details reminded me too much of the 1950s for a modern car. The saloon didn’t carry this resemblance so much, but, of course, was never something I’d even consider.

    Anyway, if it comes to 204s, obviously my choice would be an entirely different one…

  4. Mercedes lost it after the W140. I can honestly say nothing they have done in the last 25 years can ever come close to anything they did before. There’s nothing lasting in either design or execution. The cars look fuzzy and bizzy and badly detailed, they look incoherent like a bad pastiche of its former self. They look like a Chinese knock off, it’s a travesty and a tragedy.

    1. And yet their styling boss is the most boastful chap in the business. It’s all so utterly bizarre.

  5. I like this car. My step-father has a pre-facelift saloon in a light metallic blue and I still enjoy its neat elegance. He had the twin sunroof fitted and it makes for a very pleasant interior. I find the dash quite dour and looks a little low rent, but it rides quietly.

    Not a classic, but neatly cohesive.

  6. A timely article, I might add. On reflection, this C-class and the similarly styled GLK are not bad. Isn’t it unexpected that the youthiest Benz had the most sober styling? As you go up the range it gets more overwrought. I may be in the minority when saying this: the not unrelated E-coupe also featured coherent style while fibbing about its mechanical heritage. It channeled the values of well-off ladies and retired older folk very well and it thus did its job. It also replaced the horrible predecessor which in no way lived up to the W-126 CE.

  7. The melon-lamped W210 front end worked fine on the C208 CLK, although the contemporary W202 saloon looked like the car the 190E replaced, rather than the other way round. As Hume tells us “each mind perceives a different beauty”, but there’s no excuse for the oxidising rottenness of Daimler products of that era, which I find a constant source of distress. The unsurpassed W201 has the indestructibility of a cockroach, so we can’t blame the Sebaldsbrück water.

    This article reminds me that modern Mercs (and Audis) are about as memorable as Corollas. I suppose that 10-12 year model cycles are commercially unacceptable in the fast moving (but to where?) modern industry. A pity, as long production lives demand designing with conviction and vision, rather than pandering to fashion.

    1. I had to look up most of those W-numbers. The one to add to your fingertips list is W-201 but everyone knows it as the 190E so why bother? The W202 is known only as the disappointing successor to the W201.
      Robertas- you asked where is the fast moving industry moving to. Around, I answer, in circles. Design is not “where it’s at”. The focus is on electrical systems and weight reduction. Styling only has to be different to signal the changes whereas until perhaps 2000 there was some mileage left in styling. Why do we now have cars like the Prius I displayed recently? It’s either a stunning innovation or the marks on the bottom of the barrel where some desperate scraping has taken place.

  8. the W212 coupe is actually coded C207 (coupe) and A207 (convertible). the design of the W204 was leaps and bounds superior to the W203, which was as ugly as the W210 but lacks the latter’s decadent-cum-rot charm (as shown by DTW’s latest post).

    on a side note, the C207 was an oddball in MB’s lineup: not as sporty as a C coupe (the E lacked its AMG variants) and not so bigger than the C, not as upmarket as the CL (my dream car, in all of its iterations). maybe such an oddity makes me like the E so much, to the point of considering one as a possible replacement to my 1st-gen CLK when prices for used models in Brazil fall sharper.

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