Four Lessons from History

Pininfarina and Mercedes – it wasn’t all bad. Just good – in parts.

1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SC by Pininfarina. (c) heacockclassic

There are certain carmakers and design consultancies who despite all positive signs to the contrary, never quite gelled creatively. Certainly, in places where the incumbent design heritage is sufficiently strong and embedded, there are few if any instances of a coachbuilder or styling house crafting a superior design to that created in-house. Mercedes-Benz during its patrician heyday and carrozzeria Pinin Farina (during its own) are cases in point, especially so if you consider its unlovely 1969 effort, the 300 SEL 6.3 Speciale recently featured on these pages.

That it formed the last Mercedes-based design the illustrious Italian coachbuilder created to date speaks volumes not only of its lacklustre design quality, but of its likely reception at Mercedes’ Sindelfingen studio at the time. However, deeply flawed as it may have been, it was neither without precedent, nor future influence.

The story begins in 1951 with the introduction of the W186, a handbuilt, separate-chassis marque flagship. The 300 saloon, built in various derivations from 1951 to 1957 was aimed at wealthy industrialists and heads of state – indeed it was nicknamed in honour of one; synonymous with West Germany’s post-hostilities Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who presided over the country’s remarkable Marshall-Plan assisted economic recovery.

If the 300 saloon was sobriety and steely-eyed rectitude personified, the 300S in coupé and convertible form were more frivolous in spirit, harking back to a more hedonistic pre-war era. Beautifully crafted in the true Mercedes-Benz fashion, if even by early ’50s standards, just a little old fashioned.

By the early years of the 1950s, Pinin Farina were at the vanguard of a revolution in car design – their Cisitalia 202 having been retained by New York’s MoMa for permanent display and companies as diverse as Peugeot, Lancia and Nash were retaining their services.

In 1954, the Torinese coachbuilder approached Mercedes, requesting a 300b for purchase with the aim of rebodying it. The Stuttgart carmaker, however it seems, first requested to see what Battista Farina had in mind. The proposed drawings having been approved at Sindelfingen, the donor car was duly dispatched, with the finished proposal, a large and expansive 2-door Coupé body style first shown the following year on the European show circuit.

A world removed from the production coupé’s sweeping 1930s-inspired coachwork, Pinin Farina’s reworking embodied an all-enveloping body, sheer bodysides, with a pontoon wingline, all in contemporary house style. Mated to a generous, slim-pillared glasshouse, it combined elements of similar work carried out on contemporary Fiat and Lancia chassis’ with a subtle nod to Facel Vega’s HK500 tail lamp treatment. While most of Pininfarina’s styling studies of this period eschewed traditional grilles for a more aviation-influenced ‘intake’ grille opening, Battista elected to retain the traditional Mercedes radiator, maintaining a sense of formality it might otherwise have lacked.

A little derivative perhaps, and for 1955 more modernist in appearance to what one might expect from Mercedes, Pininfarina’s 300b was elegant, finely executed and crafted. And while it might not have been deemed sufficiently in keeping with the tastes of Mercedes’ conservative European customers, there is likely to have been a market for such a car in the United States.

1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SC Coupe by PininFarina. (c) fanmercedesbenz

Sobriety was more of the leitmotif in 1956, when Pininfarina once more set themselves the task of converting a 300, this time turning their attention to the short-chassis, more powerful 300SC model, which employed a more lightly tuned version of the 300SL’s six cylinder unit. This time, the more close-coupled style was mated to a more upright grille treatment, a lower, more enclosed roofline and canopy and more considered use of brightwork.

Displaying stylistic elements which would be seen on later production cars from Sindelfingen, this proposal would not have looked out of place in Mercedes’ pricelists towards the late years of the 1950s and one wonders if there had been any thought of commissioning the Torinese atelier for a limited production run. To these eyes at least, given that it appears an almost note-perfect rendition, it seems something of a missed opportunity.

Pininfarina’s Mercedes connection didn’t end there. In 1964, the carrozzeria displayed their own take on the previous year’s W113 SL. The classic ‘Pagoda’ SL is now much sought after, but in the immediate aftermath of its launch, some Mercedes customers baulked at its appearance.

Pininfarina 230 SL (c) sellerie-cimes.fr

Designed by American, Tom Tjaarda, Cambiano’s SL combined much of his contemporary styling thought, along with elements of the Pininfarina house style. A more delicate looking car than Paul Bracq and Béla Barényi’s production version, and undoubtedly pretty, it nevertheless failed to outshine the factory effort in visual appeal.

Five years on, the rather blunt 300 SEL Speciale made its debut. With stylistic talents of the calibre of Aldo Bravarone, Paolo Martin and Leonardo Fioravanti in harness (Tjaarda had departed to Ghia by then), there was no shortage of creativity to go around, and yet, the finished product appears more akin to something completed by an intern – an curiously unsatisfying outcome – one shared by a later 1973 attempt to reimagine a modernist Jaguar saloon.

Yet, there can be no doubt that Mercedes recognised some merit in its design. Or more to the point, a certain Bruno Sacco, then a subordinate to design chief, Bracq, certainly can be said to have subsequently referenced the Pininfarina car, first in the DLO for the 1987 C124 Coupé, but later and more expressively in the canopy and body flank surfacing for the mid-’90s Coupé version of the creatively troubled W140 S-Class.

But where does this leave us? One reading might suggest that mid-50s efforts apart, the pairing of Pininfarina and Mercedes-Benz, no matter how appealing a combination on paper, was not a match made in automotive heaven. Another is perhaps more instructive, suggesting that even when results fall some way short of ideal, they are far from being fruitless.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

11 thoughts on “Four Lessons from History”

  1. Good morning Eóin. The 1950’s coupés are both rather lovely and seem to marry the Mercedes-Benz and Pininfarina elements seamlessly. The 300SEL Speciale is a very misbegotten creation, however. From the rear three-quarter angle, it looks very similar to the similarly bombastic Rolls-Royce Camargue, another Pininfarina dud.

    The C124 and even the C140 may owe something to the Speciale but are much better realised. The C124 is nigh-on perfect, the C140 needs the front end of the W140 to be so.

    1. I think it just needs less awkward headlights. Take the w140 lights and just shorten them a bit. Just like they did with the w126 to make the c126.

    1. At that time it was clear that Mercedes sports cars had to have the grille with the big star as a nod to the old W196 racers and saloons had to have the chromed grille with the star on the bonnet.

      Just look how incredibly old fashioned the works W186 coupé looked and compare it to the modern look of Pininfarins’s effort

  2. Mercedes did a coupé based on the smaller W180 that looks astonishingly similar to the Pininfarinas from some angles, particularly around the roof:

  3. The 300 SEL Speciale is a very weird design. In one way it’s leading to the future with its straight lines, and as seen in later Mercedes coupés, but all the rest is rather strange. At first glance from the angle as in the photo above, it almost looks like a BMW for me (except tha missing Hofmeister kink, but we have now learned that this is not really needed).

    The two examples from the 50 are rather lovely indeed. I especially like the black one. The other one is a nice design in principle, but not looking very much like a Mercedes – i.e. maybe a bit generic. And I don’t like the transition from lower body to greenhouse with these strange brightwork strips.

  4. Very interesting, as ever. These articles emphasize how vital it is for manufacturers to find a design house with a style that matches theirs.

    Farina seemed to suit Peugeot, Ferrari, Lancia and even BMC. Mercedes-Benz, who had more of an existing ‘house style’, perhaps less so.

    Speaking of Lancia, which was mentioned in the article, the Mercedes-Benz 300b particularly reminded me of the Flaminia Coupé.

    https://www.classicargarage.com/archives/lancia-flaminia-pininfarina-coupe-1963

    1. In pursuit of your opening point, Charles, I’ve been looking again at the 1955 300b and I think it might look even better with thinner headlamp surrounds and a Bentley radiator. But as I lack the photoshop skills to try it, I’ll get back in my box.

  5. The 1969 Mercedes 300 SEL 6.9 Speciale is surely a 6.3, isn’t it? I checked back to Mr Butt’s article, and he also says 6.9 to begin with in his article, then corrects it to 6.3 as the prose goes along. . The bigger 6.9 engine came along three or four years later in the 450 SEL 6.9.

    The subject 1956 300SC looks like a miniature 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II without the tire bulge on the trunk/boot. However, I prefer the Lincoln overall by a fair margin. It made the Cadillacs look ridiculous, cost a fortune and was special in the flesh. Good article in Wilipedia on it.

    I agree with the view that Mercedes’ styling was best left alone. As for Pininfarina, never did get their schtick except on Ferraris, Maseratis and Alfas, where it unerringly seemed right most of the time. Hardly a surprise. Knock-kneed BMC Morris Oxfords were bettered by the Peugeot 404 in stance, but neither turned my crank.

    1. Bill: What’s 600 cc between friends? To clarify, there were no misattributions whatsoever in engine capacity in Christopher’s earlier piece. There was however a typo to that effect in mine and in the images for the 300 Speciale – now corrected. So thank you for pointing it out.

      Incidentally, Pininfarina bodied comparatively few Maseratis. Frua, Michelotti, and Vignale were predominantly il Tridente’s go-to carrozzieri during the 1950s and ’60s. Ital Design and Bertone during the ’70s. The 1980s were largely in-house, before Gandini (as a freelancer) carried matters forward into the ’90s. The Quattroporte V and Gran Turismo were however, Pininfarina designs. As was a rather brutal looking version of the 5000 GT from the late ’50s – reprised on a one-off Ferrari. Not their finest work, by some margin. Prior to that, you’d really have to go back to the early part of the decade – or indeed the tail end of the previous one.

    2. There was at least one 300 SEL 6.8 (nearly there, but not quite) built by AMG called ‘Rote Sau’ (red pig) and used in long distance racing and German touring car championship.

      The original example got lost and a couple of years ago they sacrificed a rare origina, 6.3 to recreate a half baked lookalike fake that’s shown around nowadays.

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