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