Third Time Lucky, but Second Time’s a Charm (Part One)

Circumstances prevented Mercedes-Benz from entering the compact saloon market on two previous occasions, but the company nailed it with the hugely impressive 1982 W201.

Image: Autoevolution

The 1982 Mercedes-Benz W201, better known to most as the 190E, was the company’s first foray into what is now called the compact executive market. However, almost two decades earlier, Mercedes-Benz came close to launching a similarly positioned but more radically engineered front-wheel-drive model, codenamed the W118/119(1). This followed an earlier proposal for a conventional small saloon, the W122, which was approved for development in 1953, but cancelled in 1958.

The official reason for cancellation was that, in the same year, Mercedes-Benz acquired a controlling 87% stake in the Auto Union combine of the Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer brands(2). The company was concerned that a new, smaller Mercedes-Benz saloon would cannibalise sales of the combine’s largest model, the Auto Union 1000, a medium sized saloon powered by a three-cylinder two-stroke engine.

This explanation is questionable, given that Mercedes-Benz almost immediately began work on a new compact programme, codenamed W118/119. It seems more likely that the W122’s Ponton styling, although pleasant, was beginning to look rather dated by the late 1950’s, hence its cancellation.

1958 Mercedes-Benz W122 prototype (c) media.daimler.com

Auto Union’s biggest selling cars in the early 1960’s were the 1959 DKW Junior and the 1958 Auto Union 1000. The former was a neat and contemporary looking small two-door saloon, but the latter was just a rebranded 1953 DKW 3=6(3). Both models were powered by small capacity two-stroke engines and the 1000 had 1940’s-style curvaceous bodywork with vestigial wings that was looking increasingly outdated by the end of the 1950’s.

Development of a replacement was already underway when Mercedes-Benz acquired Auto Union, and this model would enter the market in 1963 as the DKW F102. It retained the mechanical layout and three-cylinder two-stroke engine of its predecessor but was clothed in a contemporary and elegant bodystyle that would evolve into the late 1960’s Audi saloon car range.

The F102 presented a problem for Mercedes-Benz. The W119 was roughly the same size and really quite similar in appearance to the forthcoming DKW. The company was once again concerned that a compact Mercedes-Benz would cannibalise Auto Union sales. This risk was exacerbated by the fact that the W119 would be powered by a new 1.7 litre inline four-cylinder four-stroke engine. West German buyers of larger cars were increasingly shunning two-stroke engines, which they regarded as noisy and smelly, and only suited to small cars.

1963 Mercedes-Benz W119 prototype (c) media.daimler.com

Mercedes-Benz ultimately solved its conflict of interest by selling Auto Union to Volkswagen(4) in 1964 but, unfortunately, not before the highly promising W119 programme had been cancelled. Moreover, Ludwig Kraus, the engineer behind the W119, had been seconded to Ingolstadt in 1963 as Technical Director of Auto Union. His task was to modernise the product lineup and persuade the company’s engineers to move away from their adherence to two-stroke power units.

Kraus would remain with Auto Union after the company’s acquisition by Volkswagen and would go on to develop a new generation of Audi models that would ultimately provide stiff competition for his former employer. To add insult to injury, Kraus had taken with him the drawings for the W119’s engine (apparently with Mercedes-Benz’s blessing) and would use this to power the F102’s successor, the Audi F103(5).

The cancellation of the W119 was certainly a lost opportunity for Mercedes-Benz. It was a conspicuously clean and attractive design, with smooth flanks, a low waistline and large glass area with slim pillars. It resembled a four-door fixed-head version of the sublime 1963 W113 ‘Pagoda’ SL convertible. It even shared the SL’s recessed horizontal grille with its large central emblem, rather than the upright chrome grille traditionally fitted to the company’s saloon cars.

Mercedes-Benz would not enter the market for compact saloons for almost twenty more years, but when the company finally did so, its new offering was the highly impressive W201. This was every inch a Baby Benz, engineered to a similar standard as the company’s larger saloons. The new model was the product of an eight-year development process reputed to have cost around $1.3 billion (£600 million).

An early W201 prototype photographed by Hans Lehmann and published in June 1979 (c) Car Magazine

A new platform was developed for W201 featuring MacPherson strut and lower wishbone front suspension, a new design of multi-link independent rear suspension, with anti-roll bars front and rear and disc brakes on all four wheels. A Mercedes-Benz saloon car staple, the foot-operated parking brake, was abandoned in favour of a conventional handbrake. The wheelbase was 2,665mm (105”) and overall length was 4,420mm (174”). As ever, safety was a high priority: seatbelt pre-tensioners, ABS and airbags were available on the new model. The use of high-strength steel sections gave the new model a kerb weight of just 1,180kg (2,600lbs).

Bruno Sacco (c) media.daimler.com

The W201’s styling team was led by Peter Pfeiffer under the assured supervision of Bruno Sacco. The design observed Sacco’s principle(6) of horizontal homogeneity in that it shared design elements with the 1979 W126 S-Class and would in turn influence the 1984 W124 E-Class. Of course, as the first compact Mercedes-Benz, it had no predecessor to respect, so vertical affinity did not apply. It was a clean and handsome design, if slightly austere for some tastes, with no exterior brightwork apart from the traditional grille. It was also subtly aerodynamic, with a drag coefficient of just 0.33 despite its bluff three-box shape. This was achieved by careful detail sculpting of items such as the tail, door mirrors and wheel covers.

The W201 was formally unveiled on 8 December 1982. The car was launched with a 1,997cc inline four-cylinder engine in either carburettor or fuel-injected form. The former, badged 190, produced 89bhp (66kW) and had a claimed maximum speed of 109mph (175km/h). The latter, badged 190E, produced 121bhp (90kW) and had a claimed top speed of 122mph (196km/h). The engines, designated M102, had been introduced in the W123 larger saloon in 1980, but the power output of the carburettor version was restricted by fitting a modified camshaft, smaller valves and smaller inlet and exhaust manifolds.

The naming of the new model gave rise to some initial confusion. Traditionally, Mercedes-Benz had referred to their cars in terms of engine capacity, by simply multiplying the approximate capacity in litres by 100. The problem was that the entry level variant of the existing W123 model was fitted with a 2-litre engine and already called 200. The rather makeshift solution was the adoption of 190 to signify that the new model was smaller is size, if not engine capacity.

In Part Two we will describe the initial reception for the W201 and chronicle developments throughout its eleven-year production life.

 

(1) The W118 was intended to be powered by a 1.5 litre flat-four engine but was dropped in favour of the W119.

(2) Mercedes-Benz would buy out the remaining minority shareholders a year later.

(3) Surprisingly, this is not a typo: the 3=6 is the only example of a car model number that is oxymoronic and contains the mathematical equality sign that I am aware of (but you may know differently).

(4) Mercedes-Benz used the proceeds of the sale to fund a new commercial vehicle plant.

(5) The F103 was initially sold simply as ‘Audi’ then subsequently given the model number 72.

(6) Bruno Sacco set out two principles to guide his design team. Vertical Affinity, which required that successor models should not make their predecessors look outdated, and Horizontal Homogeneity, which demanded stylistic similarity between different-sized models.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

77 thoughts on “Third Time Lucky, but Second Time’s a Charm (Part One)”

  1. Good morning Daniel. Very interesting post, I didn’t know about those two stillborn projects for a compact Mercedes-Benz, with front-wheel drive no less! The W201 is my favourite MB modern classic from the 80s. I love its wedge side profile, perfect proportions, exquisitely detailed front end, and masterful surface treatment. The trapezoidal back end (chamfered rear corners) is a genius way of having a tall boot without the excessive visual volume. The 190 is not perfect however, and the two things that have always jarred my senses are the plasticky and blocky all-black dash and the tall front wheel-well opening. I prefer the pre-restyling version and would love to have a well-kept 190E in red with light tan MB-Tex interior and bundt wheels! Preferably parked besides a W116 🙂

    1. Good morning Daniel. I, too, didn’t know about the earlier prototypes – as you yourself said the other day, every day’s a school day! But why do both cars make me think of Peugeot….?

      Looking forward to the next instalment of the 190 story.

    2. Good morning Cesar. Yes, the 190E is also a favourite of mine. I was lucky enough to run one as a company car in the late 1980’s and there will be a report on that coming up after Part Two of the W201 story.

    3. Good morning John. Not sure I see Peugeot influences in the W119, but the W122 is a dead ringer for the Peugeot 403:

      Actually, the 403 was launched in 1955, three years before the W122 was canned. I wonder if it might have played a part in the decision? Given the similarity in appearance, Mercedes-Benz might have been accused of plagiarism, or at least launching an outdated looking car.

  2. On second thoughts, you’re right about W119; it’s nothing like a Peugeot! A Lancia, around the front, maybe…

  3. This is fascinating. I was always confused by Mercedes selling Auto Union just when it was starting to look interesting – presumably they made a good profit on the transaction.
    I really didn’t like the 201 when it appeared – I wasn’t really a Mercedes fan – but eventually I grew to appreciate it and did spend time scanning used-car publications looking for possible deals….

  4. Good afternoon (here in the Netherlands) Good morning (in the UK) Daniel. I wasn’t aware of the first attempt, but I’ve heard about the W119.

    As for the W201: what a car. I remember the waiting list in the Netherlands was over a year at some point. It was considerably more expansive than an entry level E30, but it sold very well. When I bought my first car (secondhand obviously) I narrowed it down to two options: an E30 or W201. At the time a good E30 was considerably cheaper secondhand, so that’s what I got.

    The W201 is a favorite of mine. There are only a few things I don’t like: the stalk on the steering column that controls the indicators, high beams and single wiper. I prefer the two stalks option. Also the steering wheel is a bit on the large side, seats maybe not the best, but other than that… If Das Haus would still make it today with a decent in line six and modern automatic it would still be on my shortlist. That says a lot for a longterm BMW owner.

    1. And the awful seats, front and back and the way the steering wheel gets in the way. I think these cars are over-rated and do nothing a 240 can´t do.

    2. Richard: How about the ability to go around corners?

    3. The Volvo 240 does corners more than adequately. I am not saying the form of the 190E isn´t good. It´s that the rest of it is less lovely.

    4. In what sense exactly? I’m simply asking as I hadn’t realised traditional Mercedes values & traits weren’t to your liking.

    5. The car is well-made and looks good and so to the Volvo. The Volvo lacks the 190E dynamic capabilities, I agree. It does however, provide a much nicer driver and passenger environment than the 190E which is not that charming. In fact, I´d go so far as to call it charmless, despite the intelligence applied to making it look so well considered inside and out. It´s the only Mercedes for which I have this special regard. There are at least five other cars that are, all things considered, better than the Mercedes even if on the design and engineering front the 190E is so well done. I do like looking at them though.

      Can’t, and Will Anyway

    6. As someone who spent a lot of time in Volvos of that era (and the 240 in particular), I’m afraid I can’t agree with my honourable colleague, Mr. Herriott. Not that the Volvo wasn’t a perfectly pleasant motor car – it was. But passenger space aside, I can’t for the life of me see how it offers a nicer cabin environment to that of the Mercedes. They are both plain to the point of austerity within. The Volvo’s seats might have been a little nicer, and the upholstery a little more cheerful, (possibly) but that’s about it from my perspective.

      One didn’t buy a Volvo 240 for its sense of luxury, it was very much a Swedish take on the (quite similar) qualities offered by the midline Mercedes it rivalled. And let us not forget that by the mid-1980s the 240-series was viewed as a very old-fashioned car in looks and in road behaviour. While the 190 probably cost as least as much as the Volvo to purchase new (possibly more), it was a very different proposition and most likely didn’t appeal to the same customer.

      The W201 was a very fine car, not only in its own right, but as a Mercedes. The Volvo has its own appeal. I don’t really see any real correlation, apart from a retrospective one. The Mercedes (and all Mercedes’ of the era) stood apart. They really weren’t comparable to anything. One didn’t buy a Volvo 240 in favour of Mercedes (unless one had deeply held reasons not to), one bought the Volvo (primarily) because it cost a lot less to purchase, and you got so much car for your money.

    7. Hi Richard and Christopher. I have borrowed one of Richard’s expertly taken photographs from his piece which, for me, captures the essence of the W201:

      The stepped shoulder line immediately below the DLO and, in particular, the careful radiusing* of the creases that form it, makes the bodywork look really thick and substantial. That radiusing detail is consistent throughout the car and gives it a real sense of heft. The W124 used the same detail to similarly good effect.

      In contrast, Volkswagen’s current obssession with multiple razor-sharp creases makes the bodywork of its vehicles look thin and insubstantial by comparison.

      I love the apparent austerity of the W201’s design. That door handle may be ‘only’ black plastic, but it operated with perfect precision and felt like it would continue to do so more or less forever.

      *I’m not sure this is even a verb,but it explains what I mean perfectly.

    8. I have opened a veritable hornet´s hotel of contention here. This could be a schismatic matter.
      The reason the 190E and Volvo 240 are paired in my thoughts is that the family garage had both of them (at different times). They also are long-lived cars that you often see on the roads; at birth they were after different markets but now occupy a similar niche, car for the urban bohemian. It´s time to cut hairs in half (along their length) and say the Volvo is a lot more comfortable than the 190 and the materials equally fit for purpose. The 190E is good because the materials and assembly is noticeably better and the Volvo triumphs because it´s a nicer vehicle to be in.

      I would guess the customary Savarin-throwing duel will be only way to decide this one. If you all turn up at the one time I am stuffed.

    9. I can’t help but feeling baffled by the love for the Volvo 240. Sure they’re safe (in their time), last long, have excellent seats, but that’s pretty much where it ends for me. I’d still have the W201.

    10. Gosh. I am very much outnumbered. Well, you guys are very welcome to a lifetime of discomfort in your design statement. I will be much happier on my my mustard pin-stripe velour, thanks.
      We ought to race both cars around the Nurburgring and so which one provides the best occupant safety when it oversteers into the crash barriers. Then we´ll see who´s laughing.

    11. While its interior ambience isn’t particularly charming (to say the least), I find it very difficult indeed to make an argument against W201 that wouldn’t apply to other ’80s Mercedes models in principle, too. The oversized steering wheel, recirculating ball steering, firmly sprung seats and sombre upholstery options weren’t limited to the Baby Benz, but could be found in every Mercedes model until R129 came along.

      Daniel, the quality you highlight – the ‘solid’ appearance of those Mercedes models’ sheet metal – is something I discussed with a former Porsche designer the other week. He mentioned how they’d basically mock their counterparts at Sindelfingen for their square, petty bourgeois ways, both in terms of their work and how they presented themselves to the outside world (Tony Lapine and Bruno Sacco were like fire and ice, though I have no information regarding any personal animosities). But even so, the Porsche man also stated that he and his colleagues were in awe of the fact that ‘Mercedes were the only company whose modellers were capable of making their cars appear as though they were made of solid metal, rather than sheets’. One can only imagine the levels of craftsmanship involved in achieving this effect.

    12. The solid look is related to the radii they used on the pressings. Presumably if you are interested in that characteristic one could do some trial pressings with different values applied to the same basic shape. Then assess by eye or by user-study which one comes across as most solid. Looking at the detail of the door it almost looks as if the thing is made of thick polypropylene rather than metal. The fillets are very uniform indeed. I would bet that if I went out the street to find any modern car there will be a large variety of radius values to be found and that creates a kind of visual noise that the 190E lacks. Or in positive terms, it is visually calm.

  5. The period Top Gear review used to be available on YouTube. Sue Baker related the enormous sums of money Mercedes had spent to develop the 190 and complained how little leg room there was in the rear.

    I still see one or two of these around locally. They look pleasingly small and low. I prefer the original 190E with the black plastic bumpers and aerodynamic wheel trims as pictured at the start of this piece. It still looks modern.

  6. Does anybody happen to know if the W201 was equipped with the single eccentric windscreen wiper at launch? I have it in my mind that it came later after the W124 was launched with that arrangement.

    1. I’m sure it was there from new. I have a Spanish brochure, undated, which describes it as the “New line in compact cars”, it clearly shows the single wiper and all the early model details: plastic trims, black plastic, stingy use of single door mirror(!)etc.

    2. Hi John, the single wiper was there from the off, but it didn’t get the mechanism to push it up into the corners of the windscreen until 1985.

    3. W201 was launched with a single conventional wiper. The ‘hopping’ eccentric one appeared later when W124 got it. You can easily tell them apart because the later type has a big heart shaped cover over the central mounting point of the wiper arm that’s clearly missing on this early example with normal wiper

  7. Yes 190’s have to be on plastic wheel covers with plenty of black plastic; it just looks so right. Not “Premium”, a term I suppose others invented to describe what the 190 unleashed- just apt. I can imagine Bruno Sacco looking at the final clay model, nodding and murmering “Proprio”, to signify his blessing of the characteristic. Interesting how the window brightwork on the spy shot car looks so naive and clumsy.
    The “Radiusing” I suppose implies thickness of material because everyone knows thicker stuff won’t fold tightly into a corner, so the eye sees a relaxed edge and the brain assumes it was pressed as tight a possible and so must be very thick. Does this contribute to the sense of it being a much larger car than it looks? It was smaller than the BMW 3 series (Which looks tiny in comparison) in a couple of dimensions.
    Finally it really needed to be on the move to be seen in it’s best light, as the single wiper described a mesmerising arc as in nonchalantly flicked from side to side and the front wheels seemed to drop-roll into corners in car park maneuvers.

    1. Hi Richard, my 190E had the wiper mechanism and it was a joy to watch it in action (and see the strange shape of the swept pattern it left on the windscreen).

  8. I think the 190E was a good product, despite some quirks. After all, the sales figures speak for themselves. Or as one of my former bosses used to say: “Empty shelves speak for themselves.”

    When the car came out, that same boss bought several of these 190 as company cars over time. From the “simple” 190E to this spoiler behemoth 190E-2.5-Evo-whatever.

    And yes, I drove them all. They were company cars, after all. But it was the late 80s and we were a commercial film production. That means all the cars were BLACK, outside and inside. (And inside all in black leather, I can’t stand leather.) I think the most colourful thing about the cars was the tag for the oil change in the engine compartment.
    So I can’t really judge the quality of the 190E, as I have more than a negative bias. I remember the (for me) much too low seating position and the steering wheel that was always a tad too big.
    But to put my judgement into perspective: Privately, I owned a Fiat Uno Turbo at the time. Do you think someone like that could even begin to judge the quality of the 190?

    Every now and then I come across a 190 here in our village (the mayor says it’s a town, but a town without a tram is a village to me). And what I have to say, the 190 doesn’t look old. Incredibly timeless.

  9. I’ll come belatedly to Richard’s defence – I can see that the Volvo 200 series interior is more cosy than the 190’s.

    https://www.veikl.com/d/Volvo-240-Brochure-1981-NL-45493/7

    That said, I find it very hard to be objective about the 190, or pretty much any M-B from that era, as I associate them with very happy memories. Various Volkswagens also fall in to that category.

    One way in which the 190’s design is clever, is that it is reminiscent of the W126 S-Class, but not a copy of it – it actually develops a new theme. 190s were available in softer, richer colours and I think they benefit from these, along with lighter interiors. I personally much prefer the pre-side cladding versions, though, and that goes for the W124 E-Class, too.

    Seeing the designers’ names together (Sacco & Pfeiffer), I’ve just realized that they translate as ‘bag-piper’.

  10. Was under the impression that engines and exterior styling aside, the DKW F102 and Mercedes-Benz W118/W119 were essentially one and the same though the latter preceded the former. Read Mercedes presented the W118/W119 to DKW management as a starting point for the F102 and trying to encourage them to ditch their love for two-strokes in favor of the four-stroke M118 to no avail.

    Find the W118/W119 a rather neat looking design and it is a pity nothing became of it as an entry-level Mercedes, assuming both the F102 and W118/W119 were related perhaps they could have taken a Triumph Ajax-inspired approach by converting the W118/W119 to RWD either prior to DKW being sold off to Volkswagen. Had of course Mercedes been in a position to develop both a small model as well as commercial vehicle plant after selling off DKW.

    1. There was a gentlemen’s agreement between Mercedes and VW that Mercedes would build no car with less than two litres and VW would not build a car bigger than that. This was part of their agreement of VW taking over the Auto Union shares in the early Sixties. Therefore a 1.7 litre Benz would have made no sense.

    2. Was there an expiry date to the gentlemen’s agreement or did VW (or was it Mercedes) simply decide it was not worth sticking to it in the end?

      Would agree in a 1.7-litre Mercedes making zero sense, was thinking of something more along the lines of the later M118-derived 2-litre VW EA831 used in the Audi 100, VW LT and Porsche 924 compared to the equivalent 2-litre Mercedes M115 engine.

  11. An excellent part one, Daniel which has proved something of hot debate. I’m blaming the heat too for that picture of the w119 has a banana like bend to things . horizontal homogeneity Is a wonderful phrase and I too am a fan of the 190e.

    For a modern day indent with radius, a proper door handle and the most correct feeling of heft I give you…


    Forward to part two!

    1. Just as I am working on fillets and radii, we get this masterpiece of a handle. Notice the graceful way the line between the chrome and body-colour flows around from vertical to horizontal.

    2. Hi Andrew. That door handle and surrounding bodywork is indeed very nicely sculpted, yes, but can anyone else identify the car from which it comes?

    3. On the insistence of Bela Barenyi Mercedes built door handles that made it possible to pull very strongly on them in case of an accident to open a jammed door.
      That’s why they made the pull-out handles of the R107/W116 where the movement of the handle goes into the same direction as the force to open a jammed door.
      Then Mercedes developed door handles that wouldn’t break off in case of a roll over – that’s why the W123 got handles made from aramide and not brittle metal and that’s why beginning with W126 the door handles became flush with the door skin combined with depressions in the door skin the older models didn’t have.
      What would these engineers make of the electronically controlled handles of the current S-class? I’m sure Mr. Barenyi would not have approved such nonsense.

  12. The W119 is an intriguing thing. Oddly insubstantial looking – had it gone forward would it have become more mainstream Mercedes-like?

    The M118 ohv engine with these clever swirl inducing inlet ports is also referred to as the’ Mexico’ engine, suggesting a plan to bring Mercedes-Benz ownership within the reach of customers in fast growing economies not yet in the top league.

    For a front wheel drive car, the front overhang is surprisingly short, at least if an Audi-type outslung in-line longitudinal powertrain layout is used. The bonnet looks too low for anything else, such as a K70 / Triumph 1300 arrangement. The M118 in Audi form was slanted at around 45 degrees, with the radiator offset to the ‘blank’ side. If the W119 had the same arrangement, it could explain the SL-type horizontal front air intake.

    Also much love for the W201 – after a break of 22 years, Sebaldsbrück was once again producing the world’s finest premium compact saloon.

    1. Hi Robertas. We also have a piece coming up shortly on the Audi F103 with the Mercedes engine. Stay tuned!

    2. The Mexico engine started as part of a project for the German Army which didn’t like diesel engines because their fuel would become solid in places like Stalingrad (and be sure that Germans in those days were convinded they’d return there one day…).
      To make it more frugal and give it more torque the Mexico engine had an exceptionally high compression ratio of 11.2 which was possible only with those corkscrew inlet ports (copied from MAN’s multi-fuel M-process engines) in combination with the Heron head.
      Regrettably this concept only worked in a very narrow band of revs and under very few load conditions, eveywhere else the thing was just noisy, unwilling to rev and anything but frugal. That’s why they lowered the compression ratio quite soon to still high-for-the times 9.7. How well this concept worked was shown by the 55/65 PS versions that were able to run on 91 ROZ fuel with a 9.0 compression ratio.

  13. At the risk of making the same point ad-nauseum, the achievement of Mercedes’ design team with W201 is to my eyes greater than with any other car amid this truly stellar period at Sindelfingen for the simple fact that the toughest task in car design has to be when working with a compact footprint. Don’t believe me? Contrast the 190E with the original X-Type of recent discussion. There really is no comparison.

    1. BMW E30 3 Series, I would guess, ran the 190E close and surpassed it in some respects. Audi was still some way adrift with the 80 B2, nice car though it was.

    2. The Ford Sierra appeared in 1982 as well as did the Citroen BX. If nothing else can be agreed on, that is quite a remarkable range of very different designs if set them up with the 190E and E30.

    3. If we must stick to the early ’80s, I would be moved to suggest the Saab 900 Saloon. A far nicer car to drive than I had anticipated and one I’d have favoured for a spirited drive on Irish countryside roads over anybody’s 3-Series, which never felt entirely happy on them. Were we to talk mid-late 80’s I might venture to add the contemporary Honda Accord, which was (ride quality aside) a deeply impressive car. The B2 Audi 80/90 by the way was a far nicer car than it looked. Really good chassis on them. Its 1987 successor sorted the looks department, but dynamically it took a huge step backwards. As to the BX, it was a superb car to drive, but after a cossetted BX 19GT began to self-destruct on me on the main Cork-Bandon road in 1989, I’d find it tough to recommend one. The Sierra always seemed to flatter to deceive, chassis-wise. In the right spec, it was a nice car, as long as the dampers hadn’t gone off.

    4. Good call on the Saab 900, Eóin. I had completely forgotten about it. The 900 was a great achievement for a relative minnow in the automotive industry.

    5. Thanks for that Eoin. I was thinking more about purely aesthetic terms. The Saab 900 is a charmer though but a strange coelecanth of a car and rather than a scientific application of rational simplicity, it´s very idiosyncratic (and I love that about it). Bahnsen´s Sierra is a design statement like the 190E. And so is the BX regardless of its fragility. If we add the Saab to the 1982 museum display we have another interesting car though.

    6. If we’re talking in design rather than dynamic terms, the 1981 Ascona C was a very tidy design. The 1984 Austin Montego wasn’t…

    7. Come now gentlemen, are we not forgetting ourselves? How could we possibly leave out the Trevi?

    8. That´d be the Ascona C of 1981. Much as I like Opel, the “C” is very sensitive to colour and trim levels. I was just looking at a few now at Mobile.de. Some of them are quite nice if they have a pleasant colour and a medium to high trim level. The base models really are a bit too spartan and not in a Mercedes 190E way. Anyone looking first at a 190E or an E30 and then at an Ascona would notice a stark difference in many aspects. Neat and all as it is, it is very straightforward mainstream design. Democratic, shall we say. About the Trevi: again, much as I like this car it´s not objectively a great bit of work. Charming? Yes. Likeable? Yes. Better to drive than the BMW or Mercedes? Most likely but also it is flawed and the interior quality is only barely acceptable (the dashboard assembly is hard to take even if the concept is brilliantly inventive).

    9. How about the Alfa Giulietta 116? I know it appeared in 1977 but in 1982 it still was ruthlessly modern in its unadorned simplicity and it was absolutely unique.

    10. The Giulietta (116) has a lot of character and unlike the modern version isn´t bulky and is, as you say, bracingly modern (still!). It isn´t really a competitor for the 190E though. I just can´t see much overlap with the typical customer. Thanks for reminding us of another very distinctive contender in the small saloon market of the time. Things are bleakly homogenous now.

  14. Richard – probably far too inflammatory a subject for this time of night.

    I’m om more comfortable ground with the ’50s. Guilietta was too small, the W120/121 were too big. The Aprilia was gone by 1949. The Javelin and Magnette could have made the grade if they hadn’t been blighted by all manner of uniquely British curses.

    Which leaves the Borgward Isabella, Peugeot 403, and Volvo 121/122. Tell it not among the Borgwarders, but the Peugeot might just be a nose ahead of the Isabella on all-round excellence.

  15. Size and image wise, I assume that the launch 190 was up against the Alfetta, Audi 80, BM 3 series and I’d suggest the Peugeot 505. I don’t think BL had anything that could come close to matching it; Triumph Acclaim too small, Rover 2000 SD1 too big and yet I suspect not car enough…

    The Italian launch was covered by Piero Casucci for le Grandi Automobili, who mentioned the Alfetta, Giulietta and new 3 series as rivals but only in terms of size, no other comparison was made. Incidentally he quoted overall length and width as being bigger than the 3, I’d believed despite appearances the 190 was smaller. The same issue covered the launch of the Lancia Prisma but only in 1500cc form and quoted dimensions were smaller again. A Trevi 2000 would be a better fit but would our imaginery car buyer consider it?

    1. The thing with these compact, high quality cars was that the size/price pairing was split. Up to this point the clienteles of BMW and Mercedes were very different to Ford, Opel and Renault and Peugeot. The 190E asked the Granada buyer to consider less length and more prestige for the same money.

      I imagine that the 190E acquired some sales from the low end 200 customer base but mostly conquered customers from mainstream brands, Granada, R30. 505 and Rekord/Senator buyers mostly.

    2. Dave, did they really offer the four colour options in one car, or was that just a brochure shot to display what was available in one picture?
      Btw, I am in constant awe of the breadth and depth of your knowledge. May I ask how you’ve accumulated so much about the nuts and bolts side of things?

    3. There really were four different colours in one car for the leather seats. The ‘Avantgarde’ option pack looked exactly like the picture.

    4. Yes, the 190E Avantgarde was Mercedes’ take on the Harlekin theme – I believe there were three or four different variants available, all with colour-coded interiors, all ‘limited editions’. This was intended to stir up some excitement at a time when W201 was past its prime and upstaged by the BMW E36. I don’t know whether these ended up gathering dust on dealerships’ forecourts or whether they were considered genuinely appealing.

    5. Here’s another Avantgarde interior:

      The horrible upholstery could have come straight out of a ‘limited edition’ (i.e. they only made 1.5 million of them) Opel Corsa B.

      Do I risk excommunication, or at the very least an intervention, by admitting that I rather like the full-on wood trim?

    6. But Daniel, if one puts wood in a car, why does one do one’s best to make it look nothing like wood?
      Nearly 40 years on the Honda E has a similar amount of wood, with a similar linearity, but it looks real (if too much like 70s hi-fi for my liking) but the supposedly classier MB has very shiny plastic.

    7. It takes real skill to make wood look like proper plastic, Andy. 😁

    8. Andy, believe it or not, but Mercedes’ wood was the real deal (unlike the Honda’s) – albeit polished and lacquered to such perfection that it indeed does look like plastic. If memory serves, W201 at least initially was offered without any wood trim whatsoever. The image above clearly features a late car, by whose production time MB might have introduced a factory wood option (which admittedly looks quite aftermarket) – the 190 E cabin clearly wasn’t designed for it in the first place.

      For a more comely representation of ’70s/’80s Mercedes wood trim, I suggest this example:

    9. With the W201 Mercedes tried some truly awful interior options like the multi colour leather or LSD hangover patterns for the seats. These ‘Avantgarde’ cars were toe in the water tests for the later’Esprit’ equipment levels of the C class.

      Wood came at extra cost in form of zebrano (code 230 without and 231 with cassette drawers) for the gearlever surround or walnut (731) for the lower part of the centre console. 2.6 six cylinders had some wood as standard equipment. There was no W201 with factory wood on the glovebox cover or around the central ventilation outlets.

    10. Boy does the 190 E dashboard put Hans Braun’s exquisite E30 cabin into perspective – and I say this as a W201 enthusiast. Even without taking the gulf in terms of development budgets into account, the BMW’s dashboard cannot be praised enough.

    11. Having owned both a W201 and E30, I would say that the latter’s dashboard was more driver-oriented and sophisticated looking, but there was nothing to choose between them in quality or ergonomic terms. The often criticised single column stalk on the W201 quickly became entirely intuitive to use. Here’s the E30’s dashboard:


    12. against

      You see the overdose of buttons in the BMW as soon as you left the absolute base of equipment levels. That’s a sharp contrast to Mercedes where the button count was deliberately kept low to avoid driver distraction.

    13. Those are very interesting counterpoints. I always perceived the E30 dashboard as a paragon in terms of ergonomics and legibility, but maybe that’s somewhat due to a certain bias (my first car experiences as a child were inside ’80s BMWs).

      Having said that, I do find those recessed elements on W201’s centre console rather unattractive and rough-looking. I have no doubt that it was built to a very high standard, using durable and expensive components, but a bit more sophistication wouldn’t have been wasted on that element.

    14. Dave’s photo shows the one thing I really didn’t like about my 190E’s interior, the incongruous piece of wood surrounding the transmission lever.

    15. @Daniel and Andy: regarding wood trim, car interior designers have historically proven to be too lazy to look at what Paul Reed Smith’s been doing with its “core” range of electric guitars, especially the “Private Stock” ones.

  16. The W119 looks like a Lancia – swap the star for a shield and it´d be complete. It has a rear-axle set well back and a large front overhang. It´s as neat as a Lancia too.

    1. So I wasn’t mistaken about Lancia…. What a fascinating exchange this piece has provoked and so much new knowledge to digest! To which I add nothing except a couple of observations from the perspective of one who took full advantage of the massive initial depreciation on some of the vehicles discussed back in their day and ran several for many years.

      The Volvo 240, in estate form, was without peer (although I always thought the 140 better looking). And sorry Daniel, but the only model to come remotely near to being a half decent successor to it was the Montego estate. But best of the lot was the Saab 900; the BMW E30 3-series was a great driver’s car but cramped for rear seat passengers and of far inferior quality to the Saab.

      As for the rest, anything Italian was out of the question (no dealer or service back-up available if anything went wrong) and anything thrown together in the UK was to be avoided like the plague. But missing from my list is the car we started with – for the simple reason that Mercedes models, for some reason, depreciated at a slower rate than the rest and by the time they fell to my levels of affordability, they were too old….. Of course hindsight tells us that the time to buy a Merc is when it’s reached absolute rock bottom because it will then climb and climb in value. Have you seen how much a W123 fetched these days?

    2. Good morning John. I think you’re right and the W201 surely cannot get any cheaper. There are some lovely examples here for £5k ‘ish:

      https://www.carandclassic.co.uk/list/31/190e/

      My perfect car would be a nicely specced 190E 2.6 in a metallic colour with original alloy wheels.

  17. A book I’m currently reading has a quote from Johann Joachim Winckelmann, which although predating the W201 by over 200 years, sums it up perfectly to my mind “Eine edle Einfalt und eine stille Grösse”, or roughly “noble simplicity and calm grandeur”. I wonder whether the occupants of BMW’s studio have ever come across this saying?

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