Fleeting Star

A commercial hit for Mercedes-Benz at launch, but Father Time has not been kind to the 1997 CLK.

Image: carinpicture

We didn’t know it at the time, but when Mercedes-Benz ceased production of the C124 coupé line in 1996, its terminus would be more than a stylistic one. If not quite the final example of the legendary ‘Vertical Affinity, Horizontal Homogeneity’ design ethos overseen by Bruno Sacco, the C124 would prove to be the last mid-sized Mercedes coupe built upon its saloon counterpart’s platform for another two generations.

Cost management had made a late appearance at Stuttgart-Untertürkheim and with it, a strong measure of cynicism towards the customer. That same year, Mercedes announced the W210 saloon, a car built down to a price in a manner no Daimler-Benz product had been in living memory. It showed too, in the less than hewn-from-solid build, in its undisciplined shutline management, sloppy detail design and that was before one addressed its gormless visage, careless stance and the appearance of being three distinct entities barely co-existing in an uneasy truce.

If there can be some debate over whether the W210 represents Mercedes’ stylistic nadir (after all, there has been so much subsequent competition) it cannot be denied that it opened the door for such possibilities to enter and take residence. Something went badly awry at Sindelfingen – as if Sacco had been placed in a locked vault while the children ran amok with crayons.

Image: autoABC

Perhaps it was the shock of the new, or a hunger for change that pervaded not just within Stuttgart-Untertürkheim but amongst the fourth estate, because the W210 was (initially) well-received. This factor, probably academic by then, since the C124’s replacement, dubbed C208 internally was nearing production, being launched to a seemingly rapturous reception in 1997. It quickly became one of the most desired motor cars of the time, with waiting lists stretching a good two years ahead of demand.

Based on the floorpan and sharing the same 2690 mm wheelbase as the contemporary W202 C-Class saloon, the CLK was the first Mercedes four-seater coupé to eschew a traditional three volume silhouette, instead adopting a semi-fastback appearance. The car’s body styling, attributed to Michael Fink (later responsible for the W218 CLS model amongst other designs) was based around themes already established by the previous year’s E-Class, including the much vaunted four headlamp nose.

Image: RAC

By comparison, it wasn’t as stylistically incompetent as W210, but nevertheless, many errors and shortcuts embodied within that car made an unwelcome reappearance here. Particularly egregious was the treatment of the A-pillar, with its expedient cantrail shutline which was underscored by the unforgivably clumsy junction with the door mirror ‘sail panel’. Mercedes of all people should have been showing design leadership and it was in details such as this that it became clear that the Sacco doctrine had not only been suppressed, but stuffed in a bag and drowned.

Another aspect of the design which dated poorly was the bulky looking c-pillar treatment, which gave the vehicle an unfortunate tail-heavy appearance. In profile, the car’s deficiencies scream loudest, but even if one is prepared to make allowances for the kind of amorphous body surfacing that defined this period, the existence of the Pininfarina-penned Peugeot 406 Coupe (launched the same year) renders any such concessions moot. From a stylistic perspective alone, the Peugeot hammered home the complacency sweeping through Sindelfingen.

In July 1997, Autocar reviewed a 230 Kompressor Sport model, noting, “So strong is demand for the CLK that the price is largely academic.” The car’s 2.3 litre four cylinder power unit was highly sophisticated on paper, with twin overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and an Eaton Roots-type supercharger, developing 190 bhp and an impressive 206lb ft of torque at just 2500 rpm. But while its power delivery and outright performance garnered praise, its gruff and unrefined delivery did not.

With a modified (and in the test car’s case) stiffer setup of the C-Class’ suspension layout, the CLK’s handling was praised, it was at the expense of ride quality, Autocar’s testers observing, “Drop one of the fat 205/55 VR16 Pirellis into a drain recess or broken piece of tarmac and it thumps down with an undignified crash.” The recirculating ball steering borrowed from the junior Merc saloon didn’t lead to many superlatives leaping off the page either.

Image: motorstown

The CLK’s interior was well designed and from a safe distance at least, cleaved to marque standards. And while Autocar praised the build integrity, describing it as “beautifully constructed” this would be the first instance in latter-day Mercedes history when the quality of the plastics and fittings were not of a ‘to-the-moon-and-back’ nature. Furthermore, the Sport model’s carbon fibre decorative trim, while deeply fashionable at the time, appears unbearably tacky now.

Autocar made several summary points about the CLK in 1997 that are worth repeating, the first of which is unexpectedly prescient. Noting the extent of Daimler-Benz’s success, they stated, “Whatever it [Mercedes] builds gets snapped up at such a ferocious rate that it hardly seems to matter how good the cars really are. Our only concern is that, once the fervour finally dies down, some of the cracks might start to show.”

The comely elephant in the room for the CLK at the time was the Lion of Belfort and not just stylistically either, as Autocar pointedly made clear. “It [the CLK] is stable and surefooted, but it still feels rather blunt, ponderous and a little too much like a luxury saloon than an agile coupe. This may be the Mercedes way, but when Peugeot makes a car as pretty, fast and entertaining as the 406 Coupé, you have to wonder if it can follow that path forever.”

Image: autodeclics

The fact that to this day the C124 isn’t nearly as cherished and lionised as it deserves is perhaps as much a consequence of just how accomplished its styling was as any other factor. But its time will come, of that we can be certain. The CLK however is another matter entirely. Careless and ephemeral are just two adjectives that aptly summarise both the car and the period that encapsulated Sacco’s loss of influence and Pfeiffer’s ill-starred elevation.

Last year’s C238 E-Class Coupé was significant both for the abandonment of the C-Class architecture as well as the advent of Sensual Purity’s® latest iterative shift. By odd coincidence, this model is also a symphony in formless ephemera. Not so much has changed at Stuttgart-Untertürkheim in twenty years, has it? After all, Sindelfingen’s output is still being snapped up, regardless of merit. It appears, does it not, that by doing wrong, Mercedes can do no wrong.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

11 thoughts on “Fleeting Star”

  1. Perhaps an insider at MB will reveal why the design team found it so hard to do the mirror sail panels at this time. The car here handles the four-lamp concept way better than the W-201 did. That’s a blessing. However the a-pillar and mirror sail are still bulky. What was behind that? Is that solution slightly more aerodynamic?
    A neighbour of mine has one of these and it’s tatty and battered much like any other 21 year old car. The interior is especially unpleasant at this stage – whatever materials they used didn’t disintegrate. They also didn’t develop patina. I think it’d be instructive to find out what people under 25 think about this car. Since I can remember it new my impressions are coloured by being able to see “new” become “old”. Maybe an 18 year old would find the 90s organic shapes cool and retro.

  2. The C208’s B pillar and fixed rear windows were surely another real retrograde step. I think I prefer the idea of a pillarless coupe with windows and sunroof open than a convertible. The latest 2 E Class coupés have almost fully opening glass each side but the little strip of fixed glass at the C pillar annoys me every time I see it. That alone would prevent me even considering that car.

  3. If I wanted a genuinely ’90s car that’s appealing for its period charm, I’d get myself a Xedos 6. If I wanted an ‘it’s so bad, it’s almost good’ ’90s car, I’d get myself a Porsche 996. But why on Earth would anyone want that clumsy, cheap CLK? It’s cynical in an almost GM-like fashion. It hasn’t even got a whiff of an original, if misguided idea about it. It’s just a generic piece of half-arsed contemporary styling that’s trying to make do with as little effort as possible. It’s the exact opposite of all those VA/HH Mercedes designs. It’s a bit of a disgrace, really.
    I’d rather have a Mk1 A-class.

    1. The A-class at least tried to achieve an ambitious goal. It obviously failed miserably at it, but there’s a germ of traditional Mercedes engineering excellence/hubris at its core. The CLK, on the other hand, is just lackadaisically going about its business of selling an overpriced 3 series coupé rip-off to badge snobs*.

      (Eduardo, as you’ve obviously bought your car for a different set of reasons than Karl-Heinz did, back in 1998, I sincerely hope you don’t take my words to heart.)

    2. Kris: of course I don’t take your words to heart. No offence taken. Also, I got my CLK nearly 15 years after its release, so it wasn’t overpriced anymore and, as you said, I bought it for different reasons.

  4. Nice text, Eóin. Since 2011 I have a 1999 CLK 320 as a daily driver (in Elegance trim, so no carbon fibre here). I agree with your criticism on the A-pillar treatment but I beg to differ when talking about the C-pillar. I don’t think it’s bulky, this part of the design really works for me (which is why the side profile is my favourite angle). I’m not a fan of the four-headlamp nose but I can’t imagine how it could be solved: if you give it a W202 treatment, Sacco’s “vertical affinity, horizontal homogeneity” would clash with the fastback silhouette. The same would happen if you went C140. Do you think the C215 CL-Class nose is better? Maybe something like that would work, even if you would fell into the “one bratwurst, three sizes” German design doctrine when the next coupe were launched.

    The CLK isn’t nearly as much as refined as the W124; it is lower, the straight sixes were gone and by 1997 AMG had begun its rise. The 90-degree V6 would be considered an heresy in Sindelfingen in the 1970s but found its way into the bonnet. If I recall correctly, a rack and pinion setup replaced the recirculating ball by the time the C208 received a facelift, something unusual to be done in a mid-cycle refresh. The suspension and the ride height makes the CLK more BMW than Benz when you drive it into roads like Brasília’s, but without the “ultimate driving machine” part.

    In the interior, there are some things I really like (the clean, fuss-free clocks from the 1980s, the seats, the anachronically large steering wheel) and some I don’t (especially the buttons above the HVAC controls and the ridiculously small glovebox). Quality-wise, at least the CLK doesn’t suffer from the electrical gremlins or the lousy paint jobs that happened to the W210 and I credit its humble W202 underpinnings for most of it – it kept the car simple, whilst the W210 and the upcoming W220, W215 and W203 all had electrical issues.

    So, the W208 is far from being perfect. But I like mine for being a one of the best Benz offerings from the Daimler Chrysler days – as we all know, this is no feat at all, but not a problem to me. And, in the personal side, I moved from a Peugeot 307 1.6 to it, so the CLK, imperfect and controversial as it is, is the car that taught me what a cool grand tourer was supposed to be.

  5. I mentioned the other day that I was simply dumbfounded to find the 850 was 25 years old last year. Thinking about it a little more, I think a big part of it is that the 200 and 700 series defined Volvo so rigidly for me, for so long, that even though the 850 was not a truly revolutionary break stylistically, the shift it did represent probably took on more meaning than was immediately apparent.

    In many ways, Mercedes suffers the same affliction in my mind. For so long, Mercs looked, well, Merc-like, and clearly different to anything else on the road. This is especially true when one lives in a country where Mercs were not taxi fodder, still relatively expensive, and local industry concessions meant the majority of product on the roads was local and, er, less-than-exquisitely finessed in an aesthetic sense. Indeed, to this day I still remember my first trip to Europe in 1995, and in the distance, catching sight of a W201’s four-lamp setup in Geneva. Even though I’d never seen a press pic of the new design or even a spy shot, it was unmistakably a Mercedes. It sounds a little pathetic now, of course, and is. But I suppose in Stuttgart, with the winds of change at the beginning of the decade and all that, alteration was deemed as good as improvement. For a while, it worked.

    Which brings us to this CLK. I have to concede I quite liked these when they were new, albeit with the caveat there was some fine styling work in the coupe class at this point and these still wouldn’t crack my top 5. But this was also the point that, notwithstanding that they clearly have a family resemblance to the older Mercedes, this marked the point for me when Stuttgart started to be dictated to by the whims of fashion, which I suspect has something to do with why they haven’t dated at all well. My biggest personal stylistic bugbear with these is the rear, actually – the tail-lamps feel rather blobby and lacking in definition. With that said, mind you, the shot of the silver car in profile is hardly flattering but slightly deceptive as it hides the tumblehome evident in the second photo, which does a reasonable job of cloaking the car’s bulk.

    The two-tone steering wheel is either a particularly egregious piece of quality ‘control’ or a monstrous piece of design.

    1. The 740 arrived in 1983 and the 240 was already there. Both soldiered on until the 90s and remained common for a long time. Is it any wonder the successors had a hard time establishing themselves. I’ve only grudgingly moved the 850 to the same group as the 740 and 240. I had five-cylinder engines and appears to be quite durable. Only Saab and Mercedes had, for me, similarly fixed reference points. All three brands made cars for life.

    2. I would personally throw Jaguar in that lot as well. We can deconstruct the XJ40 all day on here and how it was a major step away from the ‘series’ XJs, but really, every XJ that Jaguar made from 1968 to to 2009 can be considered to directly evolve from the initial lineage. And obviously, the XJ-S speaks for itself.

    3. You are right that for anyone born in 1971 there were just two Jaguars – or one, the XJ. Jaguars didn’t loom large in my formative years though. They were as, Eoin might attest, rare in Ireland. Seemed very rare to me. BMW (the 325 and 528i) loomed larger. Still, yes, Jaguar had a slow-changing model range. Was that so very bad? Imagine having 15 years to tinker with a model: new bumpers, engine changes, two interiors, maybe add an estate/coupe as time goes by. Get it right and you could keep customers over the long haul – they’d maybe have three of the same car instead of one as now. Someone could own three new Saab 900s or four new Volvo 240s. Do you think firms lose customers with radical model changes every six or seven years? How many people will have two Opel Insignias or two Mercede C-classe of the same iteration?

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