Can’t, and Will Anyway

After sighting a few dark and tatty examples I saw this conveniently clean and pale W-201 yesterday. Where’s quality hiding?

You’ve seen it before

I asked this of a BMW 3-series (E-30) recently. Both came out the same year, 1982 (as did the Ford Sierra). So, presumably the cars gestated at the same time and without a large likelihood of designers and clay modellers migrating between studios. First let’s take a close look to find Ms. Quality…

What I am looking at here is fit and assembly, the principles of the joints which is, as David Pye noted, are where perceptions of quality reside to a large extent. I’ll get to the details as you know this car well. It’s the work of, amongst others, Bruno Sacco and Peter Pfeiffer. I see it as laying the ground for the W-124 of 1984 (cue discussion of chronology) in that some of the design solutions on the compact car ended up in more refined tune on the mid-sizer.

Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.6 and boring Danish architecture

Like the rear bumper (below). This is worth a whole essay, on how ideas are tested and how the winning concept makes the also-rans seems so idiosyncratic. This is Benz’s half integrated bumper which, unlike the front, does not meet the wheel arch. It gets points for alignment: compare to the 1975 Peugeot 604 which is conceptually the same but not as neat.

W-201 rear bumper: alignment, check.
1983 Peugeot 604. Image:

The A-pillar (below) is satisfying. Imagine ensuring the gap consistency at 180,000 copies a year. This plunging  A-pillar is a production engineer bragging. Such messages shoot over the heads of customers but frighten competitors. The lack of alignment and flushness signals mechanical necessity and objectively-valid solutions. This is serious stuff, it says; we don’t do pretty on the Neckar’s banks.

Very neat, very mechanical.

The C-pillar is conceptually as with earlier Benzes (see below). It’s a plastic component that neatly masks a weld and acts as a vent point.

As before, but smoother.

Good enough for Mercedes and for Jaguar (XJ-40) and the Opel (Omega A and B). Notice the absent brightwork, which means the car has a very industrial quality to it, compared to BMWs 3 of the same year. However, the absent gutter exposes this…

… the A-pillar and windscreen. It’s not as you’d draw it. The flush fit is in advance of BMW and Ford’s superficially aerodynamic Sierra.

Mercedes used matte-black non-flush door handles (points lost and gained):

It’s interesting that flush door handles have not the same impression of quality as ones that stand proud of the bodyside.

And black-plastic for the mirrors. Have they always had problems with this? This is unsatisfactory.

This is the body-side trim (below). I don’t consider this as well-elaborated as BMW’s E-30. It lacks relief. Shallow pressings are cheaper, remember. Notice also the black plastic trim on the sill and the black-painted area below. This is the car’s weakest area, as in the least refined. Audi covered the sills in a plastic cover to avoid this raggedness.

Squared-off wheel arch.

The W-201 is a mixed bag; conceivably if I saw this car in a proper colour and not matte white my perceptions might alter.

You don’t see those paints in Denmark. That said, I feel that despite the evident rigour of the design in some areas there is a coarseness that the W-123 and W-124 don’t have. The surfaces are missing the small degree of vitality found on the E-30 and Sierra too. The rear bumper is evidently an idiosyncratic in-house concept; I’d guess Audi got there first. The light-shade relations aren’t subtle either (see the Audi coupe for that).

It fits in, doesn’t it?

The overall lesson is that flushness flattens perceptions of quality because one’s sense of material thickness is reduced. You know this car is made of folded, stamped 0.6 mm steel because you can read the radii at the open panel gaps. The number of parts also suggest extra labour.

I can see why this design endured; at 5 metres it has a solidity and also at 2 metres distance. Other concerns were better at finessing the finest details though and that’s why the W-201 lacks warmth (without adding measurable effectiveness). I judge the E-30 to be as effective but lovelier. The Sierra is more lively.

Author: richard herriott

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

3 thoughts on “Can’t, and Will Anyway”

  1. The 1988 facelift added plastic panels over the whole sill, usually in a darker shade of the body colour. Seems to add a lot of visual weight.

    Although the rear bumper isn’t as nice.

    1. The face-lift didn’t address the rear bumper but it did conceal the watery mouldings and tidied the sills. For a supposed design
      master piece that’s not so convincing.
      It’s still a pretty good car in many ways yet Saab, BMW, Volvo and Audi did things more pleasantly.
      I notice the Benz came with larger engines (slightly) than the E30: the base was a 1.8, 2.0 and 2.3 and 2.5 L4 plus a bunch of diesels; the E30 was often sold with 1.6 L engines.
      The 190 (4420 mm) is smaller than the BMW (4450mm) too. It looks otherwise.

  2. I had no idea the E30 came out in 1982. If I’d have had to guess I’d have said 1978 because it’s out of step within other notable launches from that year: W201, Audi 100 (C3) and the Ford Sierra. However it’s a paragon of elegance compared to modern offerings from BMW. I particularly like the way the kidneys on the grille aren’t half the width of the entire car. Also, the E30 dashboard is a masterpiece.

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