Micropost: If Sacco had Prevailed?

We wonder if the 1991 Mercedes-Benz W140 might have fared better, both in stylistic terms and in the market, if Bruno Sacco had been allowed to realise his original vision for the car.

Bruno Sacco

One of the surprising nuggets I uncovered in my research on the W140 was that Bruno Sacco, Mercedes-Benz’s highly talented but modest and self-effacing Head of Styling, was an admirer of the Jaguar XJ saloon. Sacco very much liked its low and sleek lines. His original concept for a replacement for the W126 S-Class was a Germanic interpretation of that car. Unfortunately, his vision was corrupted by demands that the cabin should have generous headroom, even for two 190cm (6’3”) adults sitting one behind the other. This resulted in what most would adjudge to be an excessively tall glasshouse, making the car more suitable for monarchs and dictators on parade than fast and discreet point-to-point travel by captains of industry.

Sacco and exterior designer Oliver Boulay even tried to see if a further exaggeration of the glasshouse could be turned into a distinctive design feature, as can be seen in the photo of a W140 concept below:

Mercedes W140 prototype (c) Mercedes-Benz

Thankfully, they thought better of it.

But what if Sacco’s original concept had prevailed? Here is the production W140, below which is a Photoshop rendering with 50mm (2″) taken out of the overall height above the waistline and no other changes:

Image: the author

To my eyes, the transformation is extraordinary. The modified image has lost the ‘top-hatted’ look of the production car and is now strikingly handsome and dynamic looking.

Of course, given the insistence on the extra headroom, could it have been incorporated more discreetly? Here again is the production W140, below which is a Photoshop rendering with the same overall height as the original, but with a higher waistline and shallower side windows:

Image: the author

Although this version lacks some of the dynamism of the lowered version above, I think it is still better balanced and more pleasing looking than the original. What does DTW’s readership think?

Fellow author, Richard Herriott, made his own attempt at alterations to the W140 to cure its dropped waistline. That piece may be found here. Richard carried out an experiment on the rear end of the contemporary C140 coupé, to see if it could be improved. That piece may be found here.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

63 thoughts on “Micropost: If Sacco had Prevailed?”

  1. Good morning Daniel. I admire your Photoshop skills but not sure you can improve on the original. Good try though.

    1. Good morning Mike. Fair comment, such matters are always subjective! 🙂

  2. Fascinating – it’s amazing these little problems of proportion so easily fixed with Photoshop aren’t caught in the production phase – it’s like the creation of full size wall drawings and clay mockups completely fail to catch the very issues they are made for.

    1. Maybe , just maybe, the original designers were happy with what they produced taking into account the cost and time constraints they faced at the time.
      One of the “advantages” of PhotoShop is the ability to adjust images on Computer which, if my memory serves me well, was not available to Herr Sacco.
      Unsure if that is a benefit to be honest when one considers the criticism levelled at the current crop of designers.

  3. The version with the lowered greenhouse is an improvement. The one with the raised DLO base line isn´t. That one feels as if the base of the DLO is a shade too high relative to the boot and bonnet lines. If was feeling playful I´d rake the rear screen a bit and I´d add a crease at the base of the C-pillar to indicate a little step-in for the shoulder line shown on the full-size rendering of the proposal.
    We are in the vicinity of the C5 in terms of the number of small changes needed to make this car pleasing as well as imposing. That said, it´s an interesting challenge.

    1. Thanks for that, Richard, and for your further tweaks to my lowered version. I’ve embedded the image you sent me into your comment above.

  4. Good morning. I think your second proposal is remarkably like the W126? If they had gone down the route of an “updated W126”-theme this is the way they should’ve gone. I’m actually surprised how those subtle changes can do so much to point towards the W126, it’s actually quite remarkable.

  5. Designs featuring a shoulder like W126’s were investigated, but eventually completely flush sides decided upon. This was very difficult to achieve, with several window lowering mechanisms being tested before the final design was decided upon. A somewhat cruder take on this idea can be seen on the ’91 Chevrolet Caprice.

    Despite its size, MB engineers and designers paid considerable attention to W140’s aerodynamics, which may have been a factor in this process.

    1. The aerodynamics were probably very time consuming to sort out on this car and I believe M-B´s team applied the full force of their intelligence to this. I still think that there is a version of this vehicle where both aerodynamic and packaging needs were better balanced. When rational processes lead to an unappetising solution, the rationale needs to be evaluated. I think M-B thought that the public would accept their excellence, no matter what it looked like. And indeed, one can come around to thinking this is an okay design. However, I feel that asking the customer to hold their nose and concentrate on how clever the car is a little too much.

    2. Not everybody feels the need to make excuses for W140’s design. Michael Mauer (who didn’t work on it) adores it, and I can see why: No other Mercedes did the ‘cast iron’ surfacing thing as well as the Kohl S-Klasse. Even Porsche designers, who used to mock the Spießigkeit of all things Mercedes, were deeply impressed with the modellers’ capabilities.

      Like most (including Bruno Sacco, one can assume), I’d have preferred this Sonderklasse to resemble a four-door R129, but flaws and all, I believe W140 has truly matured into a monument.

    3. That´s interesting about the Porsche people and their admiration for the least modelled of all Mercedes. I admit there is probably some subtle work involved in the lead-in to the major radii. Howver, the main bodyside surface looks like it is modelled from one very large simple radius arc (front to back) and a slightly smaller one (top to bottom). I don´t want to appear inconsistent – simple surfacing is okay. It´s the proportions of the S plus the brute nature of the main forms that make it look so inert. Liking this car out of all Mercedes is a bit of an in-joke, surely, like a musician claiming to like most Robert de Niros role in “Meet The Fockers”.

    4. I understand what they were going after with the “one-line” arc without shoulder, what I’ve always have been wondering is it could’ve been saved by more tumblehome on the upper part of the greenhouse? A faster incliniation in the cross section? It’s the straight cliff sides of the side of the car that makes it so brutal looking.

      Also, when Mercedes facelifted the car they made the rear lights smaller? I always thought the car would’ve looked visually smaller with larger rear lights? Like if they would’ve done it like the W222 but with the more strict form language of the W140. As is, the smaller rear lights actually increases the visual heft.

    5. The flush side is the only thing I like about the W140. The proportions ruin it. Lowering the roof helps the side profile, but I’m not sure it works if you see the car from a 3/4 front or back angle. I don’t like the sagging belt line and also the way the rear lights were treated.

  6. Nice effort, Daniel. To round it off, the lower greenhouse could then be accompanied by a less vertical front fascia (e.g. featuring slimmer headlamps like in Fig. 2). Should the level of the painted side fascia be lowered too? In the revised version about half the door is either clad or in the dual colour.

  7. Thanks all for your comments. While I regret that Bruno Sacco’s vision for the W140 was compromised and I rather like the lowered version above, I’m still a great fan of the production car. It reflected great confidence, perhaps even arrogance on the part of Mercedes-Benz, but it was a tour de force and has a presence that is sorely lacking in the latest S-Class. The latter is fatally undermined by being little more than a Xerox enlargement of the C and E-Class.

  8. Are we really so sure that the W140 is such a troubled design? Over the years I have pondered as to what could have made it less sheer in its appearance and while I have a few ideas on this, I have instead come to accept the 140 as is and even to appreciate it. It’s even more of a colour and specification-sensitive design than most, but in its intended LWB form, on the right wheels and in the right colour, it’s a very fine looking car indeed.

    Certainly no S-Class that followed it comes within even a nautical mile of the W140’s inherent correctness, and utterly ruthless consistency of vision. It is (literally) a towering achievement.

    1. If that´s the case (and it is, pretty much) then the last pleasing S-class was the W-126. The W140 overshot the mark (we are not able to say unreservedly that it´s smashing) and the successors are all disappointments, which is 30 years of disappointment. The 7 series didn´t go down the drain until 20 years ago. The Audi A8 was the last to go; since 2009 it´s been a bit overwrought. Well, there´s always the S90 from Volvo if you want a lovely, big car, or perhaps the Espace (now out of production)
      Question: who makes the Arkana? Does anyone know the answer to this without checking with Mrs G?

    2. Well done, chaps. I had no idea the car existed until I rooted around at a brand´s French website. For anyone who doesn´t know, the Arkana is made by the same firm as the Kadjar and Clio. It´s a Renault product whose existence I either forgot or never noticed before. It is a high-floor five door hatch. I suppose it´s a Megane sort of thing.
      The RAC says: “The Renault Arkana strays into a market segment for mid-sized coupe-SUVs previously only occupied by the premium brands. To compensate for the lack of a posh badge on the bonnet, you get plenty of pavement presence and a dose of Renault latest hybrid technology, with both mild hybrid and full-hybrid petrol powerplants on offer. As for the inside, well here’s where the efforts made to imbue recent smaller models with extra cabin quality have paid off, enabling Renault to push up-market using the same interior technology. The result is a surprisingly polished proposition.”

  9. Yes Richard, I do who makes the Arkana. It showed up somewhere on my screen at some point. I’m pretty sure I’ll forget it soon, though.

    1. (This answer is in response to Daniel´s posting of the revised S-class. It appears out of sequence for some reason).

      That´s it – it doesn´t take a lot. Next, make it available in dark metallic blue, gold, bronze, metallic green (Skoda do a lovely metallic green). The actual S-class´s nose has that odd crease. It isn´t nice at all. The grille´s also a wee bit unsettling. The DOC version is a massive improvement.

    2. Yesterday I saw an Arkana in the flesh. Here it is:

    3. Hi Freerk. Well spotted, but I don’t think that black with black wheels shows it in its best light. The ‘stealth’ look is ubiquitous and a bit clichéd now.

    4. Agreed, Daniel. The stealth look isn’t that easy to pull off successfully. The only car I can think of right now is the Crown Victoria.

  10. Oranges are not the only fruit…

    Apparently this large Renault is made in Russia and South Korea and weighs over three thousand pounds. I’ve never heard of the Arkana before which is appropriate as it’s a Latin alliteration of secret. According the world largest encyclopaedia.

    As for Daniel’s altering the 140, do design teams try similar techniques if only to get a new perspective on matters? If not, they should.

    Nothing screams German heft better, but the coupé is the shape for me. After the S90, mind.

    1. German heft is the W-126 and the first BMW 7 series. I had the good luck to see a Mk1 728i again at the weekend. It was simply regal. The Opel Admiral was also very hefty – let´ not forget that. I had a look at the latest version, the W223 which was launched as long ago as 2020 and it´s not that hefty looking. The white one shown at Wikipedia has the heft of a Ford Mondeo Mk1 bumper moulding. I want to make this clear: the Mk1 Ford Mondeo bumper moulding was a fine, fine bumper moulding entirely correct for the price and function of the Mk1 1 Ford Mondeo. A Mercedes S-Class should not put one in mind of such a thing though. The current S has flush door handles. My feeling is that the Ford S-Max Vignale (speaking of Fords) is almost certainly a more delightful vehicle to look at and to drive than either of the big three´s biggest cars (which is unfair to the Ford as the S-Max is really properly lush). Their nicest vehicles are further down the range – the coupes and the sadly much hated X4 and X6 (I like those alot. And the BMW 2 series coupe (and Audi A3 convertible and saloon).

    2. Hi Richard. The W223 really isn’t great, is it? Here’s the example you mentioned on Wikipedia:

      Those odd, randomly shaped headlamps really jar against the huge bulbous grille, as does the crude blanking plate in the grille for the front radar. Is that really the best way they could have accommodated it? White is not a good colour for a car like this, but that’s the least of its problems.

      I’m sure the doormen at the Dorchester would prefer a ‘proper’ door handle, rather than faffing about with those flush items.

    3. So, what should an S-class look like? It should look more formal. The W-140 has that but not much charm. The current S has too much of the feel of a sports saloon like the C-class. I would make the S a shade more upright when seen in side view. There would be no banana on the window line and wrap-around lamps remind me of those horrid wraparound sunglasses that ski-snow people go for. The car needs a longer rear deck too. That stubby thing is far too small.

    4. This modest reworking if the W223 is an improvement, I think. Original first, followed by Photoshopped image:


      It has a more formal look than the production car, which is appropriate.

    5. Hi Richard. (Your comment on the Photoshopped W223 has appeared out of sequence above.) Sadly, I cannot take any credit for the reworking. I just stumbled upon it online and rather liked it, particularly as it has lost the clichéd design tropes that spoil the production car.

    6. Ah, I see. I see the Russian detail on the number plate of the revised car. The S-class as it is is trying too hard to be sporty. The creases extending into the grille´s surrounding edge is very poor and quite redundant. The surfacing and sculpting is suggesting a brittle shell. Go over to Volvo to see what a strong exterior looks like or take a look at Ford´s surfaces which are fluid yet not flimsy.

  11. Hi Daniel, interesting thoughts. I’m afraid the W140 never really lost its Russian “biznizzmen” associations for me. Apart from the waistline, the area between the front wheels and the front edge of the doors looks awkward to me, making the car look under-wheeled and giving the impression of the nose (and rear, by the way) leading up to the exceptionally bulbous passenger section. The stance isn’t ideal, either, the wheels a bit too far in-board. Still, as an exercise in fulfilling a brief, it is admirably focussed and unmistakeably a Merc, unlike the current offering (or, frankly, the adjustment you dug up – even if it is an improvement, it’s still a little anodyne).

    I tried my hand at some adjustments as well, raising the waistline, but also giving the bonnet a slightly more formal treatment. Maybe it makes the car look a bit more disciplined? It does smack of its predecessor, though, which was probably not what MB were after. It’s a quick job, so please forgive the wobbliness.

    1. Good morning Tom. I think we are coalescing around the view that the lower edge of the side glazing is the main issue, either because it’s too low, and/or because it appears to sag in the middle. A slightly higher, straight waistline is certainly an improvement.

      The W140 does appear to be under-wheeled, but I wonder if we are judging that against today’s norm for (overly) large wheels rather than the standard that prevailed in the early 1990’s?

      Incidentally, I’m struggling to identify the changes you have made to the bonnet. They must be too subtle for my ageing eyes!

    2. One thing I don´t go for is revisionism in wheel sizes. The W140s wheels are fine; large wheels aren´t always good. In the end I think the wish to make wheels bigger pushes the body to look bigger which makes the wheels smaller-looking. It´s a positive feedback loop that has probably been more than anything else responsible for the bloated look of modern cars. Circles have no inherent scale to them; our feeling for what a proper sized wheel is is elastic and vague. The designers have ended up chasing their tails on this.

    3. Wheel size and track width are the two main issues I have with W140, both of which were dictated by engineering and what was available at the time. This was addressed by certain wheel choices (regrettably of the ‘sporty’ variety) introduced late in the model’s life, greatly improving its stance:

      After so much complaining, shall we perhaps focus on an area where W140’s exquisiteness is beyond reproach: materials? The anodised aluminium trim on pre-Mopf cars alone looks more expensive than the production cost of an entire A-class:

    4. Christopher: you are absolutely right about the materials on the S. The anodised metal worked very well as an alternative to chrome and the car is obviously assembled in an excellent manner. An open question: did it do it better than the W-124?

    5. In terms of exuding quality, it did.

      Don’t get me wrong, I love W124 and all its variants, but there are some crude details to it, such as the a- & c-pillar bases (the same goes for W201). W140 is flawless in terms of its surfaces and graphics (if you can live with the ‘saggy’ window line). The combination of W124’s proportions with W140 exquisite detail design would make the perfect Mercedes – which exists, in the shapes of W126 and R129.

  12. Agree about the anodised aluminium trim, which looked very subtle and classy compared to the chrome alternative.

    Christopher’s first photo shows the post-facelift rear light arrangement mentioned by Ingvar above, an odd change merely which looked different rather than an improvement on the original:

    Of course, facelifts are meant to look different, not necessarily better!

  13. Daniel, the changes to the bonnet are that it’s just a little bit straighter, ending at the same height as the lower edge of the side windows, leaving an upward tilt to meet the lower edge of the windscreen, illustrated below (again, excuse the wobbliness).

    I wholeheartedly agree about wheel size: generally I think it’s a sign of quality when a design works with smaller wheels as well as bigger ones (although the ballooning of car sizes in the last decades does change things). What I don’t like about the stance is the track width relative to the rest of the car, something that BMW has always been good at, previous to its recent design crisis, but also something that the controversial second-generation Mégane (that of the derrière) did rather well (even if the wheels don’t seem to fill the arches, size-wise).

    I’m also in full agreement about the materials: the W140 looks a very well-appointed car without having to scream its expensiveness through excessive brightwork. Imagine that aluminium on the current model… The purpose of the W140 might not agree with me, but it is fit for it exquisitely: it exudes power to the point of arrogance, but an arrogance of the kind that simply states its superiority rather than having to blather about it.

    1. Ah, I see it now, thanks Tom. It also means that the wing top flows more smoothly into the lower DLO line. Nice work.

    2. I think you´d find that moving the panel gap down would make a less pleasing three-way junction with a strange blip or rat-hole effect. M-B got that right on the actual car.

    3. Indeed, Richard. The amended version is quite similar to MB’s earlier treatment of this area, which never seemed terribly refined.

  14. At the risk of flogging this topic to death, I’ve tried to synthesise all the ideas into a redesign. This comprises a higher, straight waistline, which continues in a subtle bodyside crease to the tail of the car, and another crease at the base of the C-pillar. Original first for comparison:

    1. You´re still not home and dry. The base of the DLO needs to be lowered at the front by a few degrees. There is something goofy happening between the line of the bonnet the DLO in your revision. This isn´t easy.

    2. 😩 I’ll get straight on it, Richard. (I so won’t!) 😁

  15. “At the risk of flogging this topic to death” – I’m hearing on the grapevine that a death certificate has been issued and the funeral has been arranged. Subject , of course, to Covid 19 restrictions applicable at the time…

    1. The old ones are the best! Brilliant – might be the best post of the day imho…

    2. Seeing as the Parrott sketch has been brought to my attention, can anyone identify the accent Cleese used. It´s a mix of east London dropped h´s, dropped terminal g´s (he says runnin´ not running) and upper class elements. I used to interpret this as the sound of a working class Londoner trying to sound more upper class. I´ve only ever seen it on British television of this vintage (Hancock´s Half Hour, Are You Being Served, perhaps). Presumably this melange accent is as dead as the parrot.

    3. Hi Richard. I’m not good on accents, but I would have imagined that it was simply Cambridge graduate Cleese effecting a comedy generic working-class accent.

    4. I hadn´t considered that option, that it´s just a bad attempt at an accent. My own theory is that it´s the accent of a certain type which is no longer around. My belief in this notion is based on having seen various other versions of this character (officials in comedy were likely to have this hybrid accent but also the officious manner Cleese is adopting).
      As a kid I really liked MPFC and I had the book of the scripts. These days I find much of it incredibly dated since, well, 50 years has gone by and the world the Pythons were satirising is now long gone. There´s a particularly odd sketch with Graham Chapman as a toff sitting in a circle with his toff family (butlers and maid standing around in the background). He enunciates the word “gorm” and discusses how awful it sounds. I really have no idea what they were getting at with that one and it´s not unusual. I suppose you´d had to have witnessed the upper class as close quarters to recognise the trope. Spike Milligan is another example of passé comedy (and the Goons). The Goons seemed quite old even by the 1980s when I first encountered them.

    5. Yes, re the parrot sketch, I think it’s representing someone being officious. Kind of a sub-Parker accent (Yus, m’lady. Would you care to see the waine list?).

      Re the ‘gorn’ sketch, I think they’re just making fun of the way some posh people said ‘gone’ and taking that to its illogical conclusion. A lot of comedy relies on its freshness / novelty and so loses its impact shortly afterwards. The Morecambe & Wise shows fall in to that category for me, although they were much anticipated at the time.

      That said, I find the Pythons’ Upper Class Twit Of The Year sketch funny, even now.

  16. Interesting; I hadn’t considered the panel gap, it was just a way to get the bonnet shutline to align with the lower edge of the side windows. As with so many details on that car, the original design got that right, like Richard says. I seem to be irrationally focussed on the offset between the bonnet shutline and the lower edge of the side windows.

  17. Surely the problem is that the W140 came after the handsome W126 and was followed by W220. I know the 220 confirmed the decline in MB build quality, but the first time I saw one I couldn’t believe how svelte it looked.
    I’ve always believed the 126 could run to a big mileage without breaking the bank, whereas the 140 could not…..
    Nobody has mentioned the blame that must attach to the 140 for the clunky styling of the contemporary Lexus 400.

    1. Hi Mervyn. You’re right about the W140 influence on the Lexus LS, but it took nine years to manifest itself in the 2000 third generation model:

      By the time the Lexus appeared, the W140 had been out of production for over a year. I wonder if any W140 owners traded in their car for a new Lexus LS430 rather than the frangible W220. With hindsight, it would have been a smart move.

    2. There´s another of those “persistently disappointing cars”, the Lexus LS Mk 2. Lexus were very silly to do what they did with that car – the first one didn´t owe anything to any other car. Only lousy management can explain the decision to ape the W140 so obviously. The proportiosns aren´t much good either. And the lamps… Oh, dear.

    1. Hi Ben. There is certainly a similarity. The Voyage has a marine influence in those heavily curved flanks, with the wheels almost hidden, thanks to its narrow track widths. Voyage is a very appropriate name for a ‘land yacht’. It made production, not as a Cadillac but as the 1991 fourth-generation Chevrolet Caprice Classic:

  18. Indeed track width and wheel diameter were issues, like said by one commentator. The solution might be around the wheels as I feel any efforts to change the lines of the car remove its uniqueness. Results are fine but not “Sacco”. May I suggest that in the photoshopped photo, you try reworking only the rear wheel arch, making it rounder (some will say Opel Senator-like), or just ever so slightly higher?

  19. A nice and refreshing article/exercise, Daniel.

    The reason MB didn’t opt for a slightly elevated beltline (as in Daniel’s second ‘lower’ photoshopped image), is purely down to visibility concerns: what with the W140’s A- (and other) pillars being
    real-estate-thick, they needed to ‘compensate’ this by making
    the cabin opulent with insolation, at the obvious detriment
    of its proportions.

    They were lucky, though: this very debilitated proportion, of its glasshouse ‘protruding’ in a top-hat way, actually pronounced the
    car’s inherent brutish, almost bullying posture (aided by its somewhat grotesque stance on standard, small-ish wheels, esp.in SWB guise), which later turned out to be its overarching USP among the nouveau riche in certain parts of the planet.

    Where the W140 excels, though, is its ability to combine its convincing Hulk-like posture with the skill to still look rather smart “in the right colour with the right tyre/wheel” – in its intended LWB version,
    that is. At the same time, exuding a seriousness of build that
    would put to shame many real-estate endeavours.
    (The grotesque profile of the SWB ‘earned its sales bread’ by catering perfectly to those other, aesthetically dubious target groups).

    As to the vicious circle of increasing wheel sizes: the 2021 C4 has 195/60R18 for its (most markets) entry-spec (on some markets the entry-spec. combo is 215/65R16 with massive sidewalls), whereas
    the 5-metre long C5X apparently dwells between 20″ and 22″ wheels…

    (This was started by LvDA on the last-gen Espace, I believe, in an effort
    to obtain a SUV-like ground clearance and overall height, without the
    weight/bulk/drag penalty of increasing the overall height of the cabin/car.

    Citroen have, apparently, recently embraced his approach
    as their styling leitmotif for this decade).

    P.S. It is not an entirely new thing, btw. – back in the early ’80s, I have done lots of sketches/concepts for such “shallow body-depth” SUV/Monovolume designes. Back then, they were considered technically/aesthetically not sustainable, but they are nowadays apparently the only way to achieve the aerodynamic & weight
    targets that seem inEVitable…

    (Come to think of it, the R10, the 2CV, the Beetle, et al., were all opting
    for a 15″ inch narrow tyre, which, at that time, in relative terms to the
    then-mainstream, was equivalent to the approach Renault, and
    Citroen, again, have recently elected.)

  20. Hi Alex. Glad you enjoyed the piece and thanks for your thoughts. The W140 was certainly a ‘serious’ car and, as you say, needed the right colour and wheel combination to look its best. I agree that the LWB version looks better proportioned and less ‘top-hatted’ than the SWB model.

    Cars like these should be designed to be enduring and not ephemeral. The current W223 S-Class is far too showy and vulgar for my taste. The Photoshopped version above (on more appropriate wheels) would be a huge improvement.

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