A sober brochure for a distinctly sober car – the 1982 Mercedes-Benz 190-series.
Daimler-Benz were not in the business of hyperbole when they presented the W201-series in 1982. Instead, they were offering a purity of an entirely different order. “The new Mercedes models will set the standards for the engineering and the styling of compact cars for years to come”, they said. Prescient words. The 190 was a benchmark car, arguably the apogee of a once-dominant, now deceased engineering-led Swabian modus.
The W201 series came about following a protracted scoping phase where a considerable variety of alternate concepts were evaluated before the definitive version was selected. Only then was the habitual eight-year development programme enacted by teams of studious Mercedes engineers. Because if there is one quality the W201 embodies it is depth, particularly in its engineering quality, its technical specification, its passive and active safety, its aerodynamics and above all, its style.
The 190’s styling was so advanced, yet simultaneously so utterly correct, it has yet to gain the roseate glow of nostalgia. See a W201 on the streets now – (and plenty remain in daily use) and over two decades since they were discontinued, they simply look like an older modern car. Is that a pejorative? Not really. It suggests the car’s appeal remains one that is relevant to those who continue to use them daily, but on the other hand it also means they have yet to gain a similar classic following to that of contemporary Benzes.
W201 pulled off the toughest visual trick of all – creating a coherent, visually robust, downsized version of a much larger, more self-important car. Yet it avoided looking coy or worse, insubstantial. It’s a masterclass of form and proportion; one that in the eyes of this scribe hasn’t been surpassed by Mercedes themselves or indeed anyone else.
Despite LJKS’ misgivings, the pioneering five link rear suspension – (said to have cost more than entire vehicle programmes of rivals) was the W201’s technical crowning glory and a first in the compact saloon market. Intended to give this much smaller saloon the same ride comfort and isolation as that of its larger siblings, the 190 brochure makes much of its qualities. In fact, the car’s technicalities are given precedence; matters of comfort, convenience and longevity being watchwords. Mercedes-Benz were moving downmarket and they were keen to ensure buyers were in no doubt they were buying a car that not only honoured marque standards, but would give the same honest service over innumerable miles and years as more expensive models. The brochure states; “In the showroom, all cars look good. But not all of them age as gracefully as a Mercedes.” Try saying that about an A-Class.
Now we’re embedded into an era of disposable Benz’s where fashion, ephemera and applique are employed to distract from the banality beneath, the 190 represents a lost era; much like a fossil of a long dead marque. In truth, the Daimler-Benz of 1982 might as well be, because the promotional material from this era truly rams home how precipitous the three pointed star’s descent has been.
Yes, the W126 S-Class was bigger, more impressive and carried with it the sombre gravitas of a statesman. The W123 would take you to the Moon and back – probably twice. The W124 was and remains a design icon. But the little W201 – (and it’s a dainty looking thing now) – is the single most impressive of all, largely because it had the toughest remit of the lot. That it succeeded so demonstrably is arguably why its star remains somewhat diffused today, yet still shines brightest.