Theme: Materials – Decay II (1995 Mercedes W210)

During a conference on ugliness, the participants wondered if something could be ugly and still worth a further look.

1995 Mercedes W210 in a state of advanced decay.
1995 Mercedes W210 in a state of advanced decay.

I didn’t mention this car but I could have done. We’ve discussed here the marked difference between this and the predecessor; this example exemplifies Mercedes’ dropped standards of material quality and diligence of assembly. Even when tatty, the W-126 retains dignity, like an old tweed coat with a few patches. The W-210, in contrast, never looked good new and when the polycarbonate lenses become clouded and the MB star has fallen off, it becomes even worse.

Evidently Mercedes had though long and hard about the over-engineering in the W-126 and set out never to do that again. Notice two things: the clumsy panel under the lamps and that the sculpting of the bonnet and wings can’t hide a fundamentally square shape. I think that what is unsettling here is the mismatch between the attempt at curviness and the underlying resistance of the oblong package to this goal.

If MB had designed this with a squarer front end, and with the grille at least as high as the lamps, then it might have been okay (the A-pillars are still ghastly). I can imagine a more oblong grille and lamp arrangement with perhaps larger radii, as with the rest of the car. In essence all the needed to do was to apply softer forms to a theme not unlike the predecessor.

Thankfully, the diminished material quality of this distinctly ugly car mean they are vanishing from our roads at a satisfactory pace.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

24 thoughts on “Theme: Materials – Decay II (1995 Mercedes W210)”

  1. I remember the first time I saw one of these and I couldn’t quite believe it had entered production looking like that. I also clearly remember seeing them with rust bubbling when they were no more than two or three years old.

  2. As shocking as the rust was that there was very little criticism of the appearance and some welcomed the lamps. It’s plainly a design ruined by a change in management. From the A-pillar back, it’s a separate theme. Had Kia produced it nobody would have been fooled.
    Turning to materials, there doesn’t seem to be a panel or exterior part that doesn’t rust, fade, peel or crack apart from the glass.

    1. … all of which goes to explain why it was some 30% cheaper to produce than W124.

  3. I thought of the ‘decay’ topic when I saw a E38 BMW 7 series yesterday. Its headlight lenses looked about as terrible as the ones of the Mercedes here. I couldn’t even tell if its indicator glasses once were orange or white. It’s from about the same period as the Mercedes (1994 to 2001), so the yellowing lenses seem to be a general problem of this time. I wonder if today’s headlights will look better in some fifteen to twenty years. Otherwise, the car looked fine, by the way, but it was let down significantly by its front end.

  4. Kris: where do you get access to information like that? Knowing that the car did cost so much less to make radically adds to my understanding. It doesn’t excuse the nasty, nasty appearance so much as explains the flimsiness of the car and its … well, detail appearance.

    1. That was actually claimed by quite a few German newspapers a while after W210’s launch and was never, as far as I understand, officially refuted by Daimler-Benz.

  5. I remember the first time I saw a W210, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I went behind it in a traffic light, and the rear lights weren’t aligned because of the enormous panel gaps. Panel gaps on a Mercedes? Are you kidding me? That was unheard of. I was just flabbergasted trying to comprehend what the hell I was seeing. The trunk had such panel gaps and was so misalligned that the rear light clusters were uneven. O tempora, o mores!

    1. Well, Mercedes was proud that the boot lid of the W210 did only afford 2 production steps where the boot lid of the W124 needs 8 steps to get the metal shaped correctly. Maybe this was a bit too simple…

      The W210 was surely a difficult task for the Mercedes people. They were not used cutting costs in such a big step and adding more standard equipment, comfort and room at the same time. And you can see that they did not like this kind of task very much…..

  6. The dead fish eyes look of old W210s underlines the cost-cutting. It’s certainly not the only car that suffers from yellowy misty polycarbonate lenses, but it’s possibly the most extreme. I’m no expert on PC grades, but the lenses on my Mum’s 15 year old Golf 4, parked outside Winter and Summer, remain crystal clear.

    1. Really? Does she drive it at all? On the Bora I have to polish the lenses twice a year to keep them like that.

    2. It does get driven, but only a thousand miles or so a year now. I don’t clean it (as you might guess from a previous article), so I can’t comment on how much attention they receive, but I was struck by how clear the covers were just the other week. And that’s the material, not the surface – no amount of polishing could restore those Mercedes items.

    3. Actually you’d be amazed how a mild abrasive and a brush can do to polycarbonate, but it only lasts 6 to 9 months before you need to apply it again.
      Maybe the Golf MkIV had better quality lenses than the Bora.

    4. Lokk mate, no more of that not any more no how, Right! Finally and with ultimateness we can reclame our grammer for us Britsh!!!

    1. Sean: very briefly I also asked myself did that Mercedes have a wrecked charm (we call this picturesque when applied to tatty old building). Then I decided no, it had the appeal of a used styrofoam cup. In fairness, I think every car now weathers or wears badly. In the case of the Mercedes the patina isn’t adding anything. Question: has anyone seen a mid 90s BMW or Audi at this level of overall sanded-down, scuffed and discoloured tattiness? The ones I see look quite fresh. Does this mean these cars are cosmetically fine until the day something serious breaks?

    2. Put it this way. Disregarding mechanical integrity, which is sometimes connected with the exterior state, would I rather be seen driving the above car around, or a pristine, shiny version (should one exist)?

      And the lacquer is peeling off my 1996 Audi disgracefully, though the rest of it has worn very well.

  7. Markus: Evidently Mercedes did not have the experience of cutting costs that Ford and Opel had. It´s worth noting (as I like to say) that I seldom see a tatty Mondeo or Vectra. The last Vectra is holding up quite well. Again, I´d love to know where information on details like costs and production methods for Mercedes come from. You and Kris seem to have a secret trove of nice facts.

  8. Perhaps it’s worth remembering that the book The Machine That Changed The World came out in 1990 from MIT. It was a highly influential book on the lean production being utilized by Toyota. The real conclusion was that cars had to be assembled with no errors – that there should be no “rework” area at the end of the line. No bodging, in other words. It consumes factory area and untold hours of extra work.

    Mercedes was by far the worst in the industry. Their rework area was enormous with white-coated technicians ripping out bad subsystems like that incredibly unreliable HVAC unit, and painstakingly reassembling it all. The hours spent making a car were over the top. Note this does not apply to the quality of the design itself – it merely shows how poorly it was productionized which is a quite different thing.

    So in the early 1990s, Mercedes reformed no doubt thinking if the Japanese can do it, so can we, and the process was a long time getting integrated into their way of doing things. Six or seven years. One of the dejected lumps they turned out during this changeover is shown in the main photo. Those nasty panels under the lights? Cheap but easy to slap together.

    I have no idea whether this book was as well known on your side of the pond, but it was prominent in North America, because we’d been Deming’d in the 1980s. GM couldn’t understand those Japanese either, and their chairman Roger Smith decided to go robot and darn near bankrupted the company. He couldn’t wrap his head around humans doing a good job if the job were designed properly, and like the Master of Empire he decided – robots. And GM really crashed during his tenure. Toyota is not particularly automated to this day, they use a fair amount of hand labour. Honda likewise. But the bits actually fit together. To gather an idea read this (written just a couple of weeks before the earthquake).

    If you haven’t read that book, you should. All those wonderful things you say about 1980s Mercedes didn’t reflect the experience of people here with regard to reliability. My best friend had a 1988 300E and it was assembled by people with their minds elsewhere. It drove as if a big ball of fluff was trapped between your foot and the accelerator, and always started off in a leisurely manner in 2nd gear, unless you tromped it. Bits failed, trim panels fell off. On the other hand, it was very structurally sound and my pal used to haul newspapers for his business from the airport, laden until the headlights blinded passing jets, and it never grumbled. It was a wonderful car not too well-assembled. He loved it. It was much MORE reliable than the three year old Audi 200 turbo (called 5000S turbo actually here) he traded for it. So there’s that.

    The mid ’90s example shown here looks like an early ML I see parked at my local pharmacy. Its headlight covers are even worse than those shown here, and the daylight running lights look like a personal torch with batteries on their last five minutes. MLs are much newer than this old beast but the polycarbonate spec hadn’t been changed, obviously. They bought Chrysler in 1998, whose covers were just as bad, so perhaps they thought it normal.

  9. Bill, thanks for this enlightening response – a veritable treatise in itself.

    From time spent at Toyota’s Burnaston site, I can confirm that the UK assembly operation largely works on ‘human robots’. I don’t mean this in a bad way – assembly line workers are paid around £26K per annum, and I was told that it takes around 3½ -4 years for an assembly line worker to become fully skilled. This is longer than it takes to obtain a university degree.

    Most assembly area mechanisation is used to reduce physical effort where heavy components are moved into place; the final fixing is left to a real person. Reducing the physically exhausting part of the process is important in an environment of 8-9 hour shifts.

    In Carver / Seale / Youngson’s “When Honda met Rover”, it was noted that the Honda people visiting the BL plants in the early days of the alliance were shocked at the extent of inappropriate robotisation. My own take on this was that this was a reaction to the British business’s notorious industrial relations problems; In a similar vein Fiat became European robotisation leaders through their COMAU subsidiaries as a deliberate “act of revenge” on the trade unions by the Agnelli family.

    Also in “When Honda met Rover” is a memorable quotation about cars designed for production about the CKD Honda Ballade kits sent to test the Acclaim assembly process:

    “We could have shaken the box and driven the car out”.

    From which we should conclude that the contemporary BL products demanded considerable skill and ingenuity to assemble. Mercedes-Benz’s slackness in this matter surprises me, but I’m happy to believe it. The margins in the days when they really were “Engineered like no other car” probably cut them a bit of slack in management of the assembly process.

    Not now – they’re seriously trailing their rivals, according to Automotive News:

    BMW: 9.4%
    Audi: 9.0%
    Volvo: 7.5%
    Mercedes-Benz: 7.1%

  10. The w210 was a children of Edzard Reuter´s time as CEO of Mercedes-Benz. A contradictional man who was not interested in cars but he likes utopic intellectual concepts. And he was convinced that the market for premium cars is a shrinking one and cars like the W124 or the W201 are heavily overengineered…

    So Mercedes was proud and stupid enough to pronounce that the W210 was between 20 and 27 per cent cheaper to built than the W124. And their loyal customers were trusting in Daimler-quality and buying a lot of W210, so the new CEO Schrempp could do some more foolish acquisitions by buying Chrysler (ironically called “the merger of equals”)….

    1. That dreadful piece of metal next to the grille is more than enough to offset any positive effect of the facelifted W210’s improved rear lights. And as for those indicators in the ‘reprofiled’ wing mirrors…

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