Lionel Rewrote A List

In recent articles we’ve been looking at over-styling of one form or another. I’ve also been considering the driving forces behind the phenomenon. Counterfactual time…

Another bloody Merc

Let’s take a trip in our time machine. It looks like a W-114 Mercedes but when the car gets to 45 kmph and the fan speed is set to high the car slips back in time to 1990. It also gives the driver the power to
mysteriously appear in front of design directors around Europe. And it gives them the power to deliver persuasive presentations on the risks of over-styling in response to the need for product differentiation.

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So, what would happen then? The W-124 begat the W-210 which yielded to the W-211 which was replaced by the W-212 (can you visualise it?) and we find ourselves with the W-213 today (I had to Google it, sorry). What would those four cars have looked liked if Mercedes had resisted the urge for strakes and mere styling?

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The design presentation is the bit that would not make for good television if we were to turn this time-travel idea into a drama.

Neverthemind, let’s say we have driven back to 1990 and are telling Bruno Sacco and his imminent successors to not depart from the path of careful product planning. This raises some big questions.

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This isn’t about Mercedes by the way. We can include BMW and Audi in this consideration along with any of the car brands that have at times simply thrown styling features at clay models in a darkened studio. I ask this because I have doubts (just doubts) that the alternative path was not really possible.

Behind this moment of self-doubt is a lingering similar worry I have that if I was asked to design a building that met my criteria it would not look all that distinguished or, simply put, not be very good at all. I think people would not notice the building. Much the same worry applies to my design-philosophy. It’s not only me who is not very impressed with much of the car design we see, I should note. So the question is for me as much as for you.

So, the tough question is this: what would the last 25 years of car design have looked like if I’d been able to persuade designers not to give in to the pressure to over-style, to resist bombast? Would it have led to designs that anyone would have particularly liked? (Does anyone much like the main-stream of car design anyway?)

Which designs would have happened anyway and which ones would not have happened? Where would car design be if I had driven back to 1990 and warned them about life in 2018?

Author: richard herriott

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

7 thoughts on “Lionel Rewrote A List”

  1. I’m missing one component to the equation here. Why is it that they all felt there is no other way to distinction than (over)styling? What they always tell us is regulations, especially concerning safety and pollution/consumption. These diminish the margin of design freedom, they say. How true is this? My feeling is that it’s not the whole truth. There is a lot of safe-playing involved here, and I think by now they’re even just doing something because the strength of their brands allow them to get away with it. I wonder when this will backfire…

    But back to your question, I don’t think they were at this point yet in 1990. I will have to think about which designs were the crucial ones, the first step in the wrong direction.

  2. Minor detail: the featured /8 Benz is a four pot W115. Six pot W114s would have a fine chrome strip all around the door window opening on the window frame.
    It is to Paul Bracq’s everlasting credit that he redirected Mercedes from their baroque tailfin design into modern times with W100, W108/109 and W114/115. Look at the tons of chrome decoration on a W112 and you see that fresh thinking was urgently needed.

  3. Hi Richard, I note that, although you set your time machine to 1990, you chose the earlier W108/9 (1965-1972), W114 (1968 to 1976) and W116 (1972 to 1980) to illustrate your piece. There is something ironic in the fact that the 1970’s are often (and not unfairly) referred to as the decade that taste forgot. Certainly, the fashions and home decor of that decade look pretty vulgar and tasteless today, but it was a golden era for restraint and quiet formality in European premium car design. As an alternative to the Mercedes-Benz models featured above, one could choose from (amongst others) the following:

    None of these could be referred to as noisy or aggressive designs. They relied on strong silhouettes and careful detailing, rather than superfluous ornamentation, to project their individual marque characteristics.

    Alas, since the mid-1990’s, the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction and the current automotive fashion is for busy and aggressive designs. There are, however, small signs that this fashion might have peaked: the new E-Class Mercedes-Benz is a notably calmer design than its predecessor, allowing your eye to study the overall form, rather than being distracted by the noisy detailing . However, it that necessarily a good thing? A friend of mine bought a new E-class in white and I had the opportunity to look around it a recently. It was beautifully built, but the overall form was bland in the extreme, putting me in mind of a huge bar of soap. A darker colour might have helped, but it is in no way a match for the sublime Bracq and Sacco era cars. We can only hope that, if ornamentation is falling out of fashion, the fundamental “rigntness” of the design will once again take priority. It’s happened before, in another time and place:

    1958 Buick Riviera:

    1963 Buick Riviera

    1. I agree with your analysis, Daniel.

      I thought I’d look back through images of concept cars from each decade, from the 1990s onwards. Things started to get a bit frantic in terms design in the mid to late 1990s. The reasons? I’d guess safety legislation and Euroncap being established around that time – the need to break up great slabs of metal with feature lines.

      I’d also say that talented designers at Ford and BMW (e.g. Bangle, etc) allowed designers to ‘take the brakes off’ exploring new designs. The fact that we’ve ended up with a bad taste arms race is a result of people ‘going one better’ when they should have been more restrained. I’m sure things will swing back the other way (competently, I hope); various recent designs from Peugeot and others are encouraging.

  4. And I should have mentioned that improvements in production technology have simultaneously made things easier and worse.

  5. That was a very good set of replies, everyone.

    The bit I will attend to today is the notion of the 70s as the decade taste forgot. That was the judgement of the 1980s. With the 1970s now a good four decades back, can we re-evaluate them? What some call bad tastes I´d call humour and vibrancy. Many designers were reacting against the very good taste epitomised by Herr Good Taste himself, Dieter Rams. We may also want to distinguish the N American 70s with the European 70s. Even then I may be making a mistake and comparing the popular, vernacular American 70s with the elite and arty European 70s which would be unfair on the US. There was no shortage of talented American designers, I am sure. That I don´t know them off hand (excuse me) should not be the reason to write off the output of the US in the 70s. I could perhaps focus on US car design then which many agree was trending down; I´d put the nadir as taking place as the 70s ended, so really more of
    an early 80s thing.
    Aren´t some of those 70s saloon (all of them) very lovely. Both the Citroen and Peugeot are delightful; the poor Audi is forgotten and I think at the time it was a margina car compared to the 5 of the day. No Alfas there? The Alfetta fits into the time period. And Lancia´s Gamma – another striking bit of work.

  6. The state of US car design in the 70’s is an interesting one.

    I came across the film, below, which shows US Ford designers coming to terms (or not) with new government regulations. The thrust of the film is that ‘consumers have made our lives difficult, so let’s see how they like these monsters’. As technology developed and time passed, the industry learned to cope with the regulations and produce more ‘reasonable’ products. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on government regulation in car design, as there are many other factors (e.g. competition, wider societal, economic and technological changes, etc) which play a part. Nevertheless, I think it’s interesting to look back and see how it affected designers’ attitudes at that time.

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