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