Pushing the Envelope

The 1999 C215 Mercedes CL redefines the term ‘back of an envelope design’.

(c) Autoevolution.com

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”.

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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.

(c) Australiancar.reviews

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

7 thoughts on “Pushing the Envelope”

  1. The C215 is certainly one of the less offensive millennial Mercedes-Benz designs, and the DLO treatment is interesting, but I think that it’s not just the front that lacks gravitas: the whole design is, to my eyes, rather ephemeral and lacks the visual heft one used to associate with large Mercedes saloons and coupés. This was a subliminal indication of the quality and durability of the underlying engineering, so perhaps the change was apt, given the shift in the company’s priorities around that time.

    In fairness to the company, the W140 and C140 had arrived at an unfortunate time and there was resistance to their designs, which some considered to be rather bombastic and just too much of a good thing, hence the radical shift. However, time has, I think, been much kinder to the C140 than its successor:

    1. I still think the headlamps give this C140 a curious, almost surprised look, but the rest of it is rock solid Mercedes dependability.

      The C215 is, however, alarmingly affordable, for anyone who wishes to enjoy the experience of owning a V12 motor car and is feeling brave or lucky. It will be a sought after classic one day, honest.

  2. I agree with jacomo, the C140 always looked surprised and the stock wheels and tyres are too small. The front of the C215 just reminds me of the horror of the W208/W210.

    1. How about this then? A C140 with the W140 grille and headlamps:

      Conversely, you can have A W140 with a C140 grille and headlamps, just to mess with your head:

      I found both images on Google and have no idea as to whether they are real or Photoshopped. I think that the problem with the C140 headlamps is not their height, per se, but the way they cut into the leading edge of the bonnet. This makes them look curious from an adult viewing height.

    2. This C140 with a W140 front end is, apparently, real:

      And Lexus apparently used the opposite mash-up as the inspiration for their 2000 LS430:

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