The 1999 C215 Mercedes CL redefines the term ‘back of an envelope design’.
Like most major carmakers, Mercedes-Benz design under Bruno Sacco’s leadership at Stuttgart-Sindelfingen assigned individual design teams to specific product lines. However, it was policy that all members of the styling team, irrespective of discipline could submit proposals for consideration whenever a new model was in gestation.
These would be whittled down to a shortlist, the favoured proposals then going forward to be produced in scale model form. A further evaluation would see this being reduced to a final shortlist of three, which would be produced in 1 : 1 scale for final evaluation. This ensured that management had sufficient numbers of alternate styles to choose from and gave each member of the team a decent chance at producing a successful design.
Australian-born Peter Arcadipane had joined Mercedes’ Sindelfingen studios from Ford, having in his early years as a car designer adapted the design for the Ford Falcon-based Interceptor featured in the very first Mad Max movie. As the design process for C215 got under way in 1993, Arcadipane was determined to have a shot at the job. On a flight to Australia, he seemingly sketched a proposal for the Mercedes coupé on the back of an air mail envelope.
His note to self made clear from the outset that this was not to be a traditional Mercedes coupé design, but one with a “Jaguar-like flavour”. His notations underline the ethos behind the shape, with a “roof structure in one clean arch – architectural – like a bridge span!” The distinctive c-pillar treatment was a nod to the W111 coupé from the 1960s, with Arcadipane emphasising the study’s “big wrap to rear glass”.
Allegedly viewed as the most radical of the shortlisted C215 proposals, it nonetheless made it through to the final three, being produced in full-sized, see-through form for senior management to review. Despite there being resistance to it from members of the management team, Arcadipane’s study was eventually chosen.
The finished car was not as compact or lithe as first envisaged, but it marked a clear departure from the rather substantial-looking C140 which preceded it. It is believed that a convertible version had also been proposed for this model, but was overruled, allegedly on business case grounds.
From an exterior design perspective, the frontal aspect remains by far its visually weakest trait – the favoured four-headlamp setup flanking a somewhat undersized and gauche-looking grille, lending the frontal aspect a disappointing lack of definition and gravitas, but frankly neither of the latter traits were in abundance at Sindelfingen during this period.
The C215 went on sale in the Autumn of 1999, sharing engine, running gear (not to mention electronic and cabin architecture) with the shared platform W220 Sonderklasse saloon. Engines were initially either the 5.0 litre V8 or 5.8 litre V12 units, the latter featuring electronic cylinder deactivation, which disabled one bank of cylinders at cruising speeds for improved economy. The CL was also believed to be the first production car to be fitted with bi-xenon high intensity discharge head and side lamps.
Undoubtedly a fixture amid the annual migration of the privileged and monied to the Nordfriesland resorts of Sylt (arguably Germany’s equivalent to the Hamptons) the C215 saw the well-heeled Swabian, metaphorically at least, loosen his tie a little. And while no Mercedes coupé for the ages à la C126 or its predecessors, the C215 nonetheless remains perhaps one of the more accomplished (or should that read less unaccomplished?) of the late-Sacco, early Pfeiffer-era representatives of three pointed star art.
Peter Arcadipane was subsequently part of the design team who alongside Michael Fink created the W219 CLS of 2004 – a design he since appears to have claimed credit for, also suggesting that the shooting brake concept(which was later realised on its successor) was his.
Having departed Sindelfingen, first for Hyundai and later Mitsubishi, he journeyed by air to Beijing in 2013, having been appointed Design Director for BAIC Auto. Whether he sketched anything en-route however remains undocumented.