Hark! What Sound in Yonder Window Breaks?

An old name makes a barely audible comeback.

Audi A8L Horch Founders Edition. 20mn.fr

There appears to be something rather half hearted and unmistakably anti-climatic surrounding recent product activity amid the traditional full-sized luxury saloon car. Last year, Mercedes introduced a new-generation S-Class and the automotive world yawned. In fairness, the renewal of the Mercedes flagship has long ceased to be a notable event and truth be told, the W223 bears hallmarks of even Sindelfingen’s ambivalence, now that the EQS EV bears its electrified North star.

So too at Ingolstadt, where Audi’s A8 has this week been in receipt of a refresh, aimed at seeing the model through to 2024 and its reputedly more ambitious replacement, heralded by the recent Grandsphere concept. Speaking of which, the current A8 itself was previewed in 2014 by the striking Prologue, an indulgent 2-door coupé (remember those?) whose muscular proportions were somewhat lost amid the transition to a production-ready four-door saloon.

The current A8 arrived in 2017 and has since settled down to a fairly unremarkable career as (more or less) everyone’s third choice in the Teutonic luxury saloon three-way. Likely viewed by Ingolstadt management as the price of admission to the top table, these vehicles are for the most part viewed as technological pathfinders, with a good deal of trickle-down to the lower orders set to take place over the fullness of time.

That seems to be the justification at least, certainly one the carmakers would have us believe. Traditionally, these cars have been statements, not simply of industrial might, but of financial wherewithal – ‘we can afford to take a massive commercial hit on this product line’, being the tacit undercurrent. The trouble is, carmakers these days are finding it increasingly difficult to justify such profligacy amid a shrinking market, given the multitude of knottier issues they now face. Hence, any perceived lack of conviction isn’t necessarily all that startling.

There is little doubt that for Mercedes, the traditional S-Class, while still important in prestige terms, is now a fading star. And while certain (non-European) markets remain enthusiastic customers, the Sonderklasse is likely to remain – no longer quite the sine qua non of Untertürkheim’s dreaming, but there for those who still want it – whether in boggo Mercedes form or the one you really promised yourself: Maybach-branded.

For Audi, the eternal third party in this triumvirate, a dip into the Maybach recipe book probably seems as good a place to start as any, matters being what they are. This being so, we are presented with, not only a revised A8: a more ostentatious looking grille with reprofiled headlamps up front and some minor reshuffling around the back[1], but the introduction of a much-rumoured, but hitherto unrealised name from the past: Horch.[2]

Debuting at the forthcoming Guangzhou Auto Show, the A8L Horch Founder’s Edition will (for the time being at least) be confined to the Chinese market – one of the remaining territories where vehicles such as these still retain considerable allure. Based upon a workaday A8L, but with a further wheelbase stretch of 130 mm, it provides occupants with a rear compartment sufficiently commodious to conduct a really serious pillow fight.

Naturally, the Horch-trim level comes replete with all the mood lighting, electronic aids, tech-connectivity, diamond quilted stitching and throw cushions any (in this case) Chinese plutocrat could reasonably expect or require for that all-important sense of inner well-being, although the curious absence of rose gold interior highlights does betray a lamentable want of conviction on Ingolstadt’s part. They do this kind of thing better at Carlsbad.

What these changes haven’t altered is the A8’s vaguely flaccid exterior appearance. It’s a handsome enough shape – or would be shorn of all the scoops, bulges and needless accretions, to say nothing of the outsized grille up front – but perhaps this is a design theme which has been stretched and manipulated well beyond its limit? Inside: well, tastes differ, do they not?


Ford have pretty much given up on brand-Vignale, while Renault appear to have also ceased offering Initiale Paris editions. Yet Mercedes, and now Audi are ploughing a broadly similar furrow, only at a much higher price point – and for the three pointed star at least – with a good deal of success. In the case of Ford at least, (it’s difficult to be certain about Renault), the Vignale experiment not only lacked conviction, but carried a faint whiff of desperation. With regard to this German duo[3] it comes with an air of, if not finality, then something possibly approaching it.

Before long, this market is likely to be too small and too entrenched for the number of players currently therein. A hollowing out amid the big-name luxury saloons is therefore a reasonable likelihood. Equally likely is the survival of Mercedes’ offering – showing up year after year without fail does after all have its benefits. Can we say the same for Audi (or Horch for that matter)? We await to hear.


[1] Now offered in a wider variety of flavours than of yore

[2] Audi have toyed with reintroducing the Horch nameplate on and off since the late-1980s, when they re-acquired the rights to the brand name from Mercedes-Benz, who briefly controlled Auto Union (from whom Audi is derived). Audi is the Latin translation of the German verb Horchen, which allegedly means ‘listen’!

[3] When you have Rolls Royce amid your portfolio, one supposes you don’t exactly need to stoop to this kind of thing. However, Mr. Zipse may well have other ideas.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

43 thoughts on “Hark! What Sound in Yonder Window Breaks?”

  1. For a modern top spec luxury saloon its not so bad, and i like the colors – way more tasteful then the maybach, though the front end is a bit messy.

    Not surprisingly, i also like the good old 90s inspired slab sided alloys, though they would have looked better without the grooves, as that would almost have turned them into x300 XJR alloys 😉

  2. Good morning Eóin. Yes, big yawn from here too. They could have called it anything (The Audi Humungous XXXL has a certain ring to it.) but instead chose cynically to exploit a name that deserved to be treated with a certain respect within Audi and enjoys almost no recognition or resonance beyond Ingolstadt.

    Has Ford already given up on Vignale? (Amusingly, my Google keyboard insists on correcting Vignale to ‘Big Name’.) Wow, that didn’t take long! Mr Herriott will be in some distress when he hears the terrible news. 😁

    Did BMW’s ‘Black Label’ (or whatever they called it) idea to segregate their showrooms so that 6 Series and above owners or potential buyers could smirk at the hoi polloi in their common-as-muck 5 Series ever get going? Hopefully, common sense prevailed and the company realised that annoying the vast majority of their customers was not a good idea.

    In better news, it’s just eight hours to Friday Gin O’Clock…yippee!

    1. I like the idea of DKW 12=24. 12 cylinder two stroke, bring it on

    2. If I remember correctly, Yamaha, I think it was in the 90s, had developed a V12 two-stroke. Performance, fuel consumption, smoothness – all better than a 4-stroke.
      But it led nowhere. I think the 2-stroke image was the killer of the project.

    3. My OCD tendencies couldn’t cope with the mathematical error implicit in that name!

    4. The two stroke engine had a sort of a revival in the late 80’s early 90’s if my memory serves me right. Chrysler was working on a two stroke for the Neon. Toyota had two engines developed, one with valves, the other without. Subaru had a V4 with mechanical compressor between the cylinder banks with direct injection and rotary valves in the exhaust ports. And there were a few others as well.

      None of these came to fruition. I think Achates Power is still working on an opposed piston engine, similar in concept to the Junckers Jumo 205.

    5. Thanks, gooddog. Every now and then I find myself thinking about two stroke engines, but never found a good reflection about the Orbital. I read a lot of articles about it when it was new, but I have lost all those.

  3. That´s a pity if true about Ford and Vignale. I´ve seen a good number of them here in Denmark – at least here it´s a popular option. They are also rather lovely too, more so than the “seven-star hotel” exaggeration we see in the Horch. It is probably just me but I find that the Laurin & Klement, Initiale and Vignale version of plush much more alluring. In my S-class I want none of that – just bullet-proof quality and ostentatious austerity. I wonder why Opel never had a distinct name for their lushest models.
    It is possible that you can´t make much of a statement with a big saloon anymore. The kinds of cars that are making a splash in my awareness are electric and mid-sized. BMWs i3 is definitely an important car; I think the much-hated Toyota H-RV was a significant offering for what it did for car styling; and both Hyundai and Kia are landing meaningful cars too (the EV6 GT and Ioniq5).

    1. We had the dear old Vauxhall Senator, which was a Carlton with an egg crate grille, fresh lights, and more wood trim inside (no doubt a CD changer in the boot as well). In reality, very appealing.

      I agree that a Vignale makes an appealing used purchase… saw an S Max Vignale the other day which looked like alluring family transport.

    2. Hi Jacomo. I think you’re short-changing the Senator somewhat. Both generations of Senator (the first called Royale in Vauxhall guise) were larger cars with a six-light DLO and a longer wheelbase than their Carlton/Rekord/Omega siblings, and were rather handsome too. Here are both generations:

      There was, of course, the Opel Commodore/Vauxhall Viceroy model, which grafted the nose of the first generation Senator/Royale onto the Record/Carlton body, and really was a bit pointless. 🙂

    3. @Daniel: The Senator didn’t have a longer wheelbase, insomuch it wasn’t an extended or lengthened Rekord floorplan. There was I think a 2 cm difference in wheelbase, but that comes from the Senator had a different rear axle setup which was mounted 2 cm further back in the wheel house. The Senator had the same floorplan within the wheelbase as the regular Rekord, with the same front end (on the series 2) with only a longer boot and revised DLO. Look closely and you’ll notice that the Senator and Rekord Caravan share the rear doors with each other. I always thought as you did that the Senator was an extended version but this is actually not the case.

    4. Senators are fundamentally cool bits of automotive design: there´s no bull-nonsense about them which is what makes the old 728 and 70s S-classes so attractive too. The current crop of flaghships are gilded lillies rolled in glitter.

    5. Hi Ingvar. Fair point about the wheelbase: the difference is, in fact, only 15mm. However, the the Senator A (Vauxhall Royale) is a substantial 215mm (4,810mm vs 4,595mm) longer than the Rekord E on which it is based, thanks to its longer nose (to accommodate the straight-six engine) and longer tail. The six-light DLO and longer roof also made it look much more substantial .

      The Senator B actually shared the 2,730mm wheelbase with the Omega A, which replaced the Rekord E. In terms of overall length, the Senator B was 158mm longer (4,845mm vs 4,687mm) and again a more substantial looking car, thanks to its longer roof and different front and rear end treatments.

  4. I too like the colours and also the wheels on the car shown. The profile is nice … and after that it all goes downhill. Way too many graphics, panel features, vents and what-have-you. The interior is either sumptuous or kitsch depending on your viewpoint. Good article, as ever. Thanks

  5. As a long wheelbase version of the long wheelbase version, it should be called the A8LL.

    We are a world away from Vignale here. That was a cack-handed attempt to offer ‘luxury’ features through a very workaday sales channel. Oh, so I can go have free coffee with my local Ford retailer and ask them for local restaurant tips… er, why? Audi already play in this market so essentially the proposition is: buy the Horch, and rest assured you’ve got the absolute top-of-the-line version.

    Hyundai seem to have at least thought about genuine value-added service with the roll out of its Genesis brand in Europe. Rather than designate an area of the showroom as somehow ‘exclusive’, the promise is that you never need to visit them at all. Genesis will collect and return your car whenever it needs servicing.

    This, at least, seems like a real benefit.

    1. It´s a bit harsh to call Vignale cack-handed. The mission was to get Ford customers to stay with the brand by widening the price range. It might not have succeeded but that doesn´t make it an embarassment. Ford should not discontinue the line – keep pushing it and people will come around especially as BMW, Audi and Mercedes are so ubiquitous.

    2. My beef with Vignale is a bit the same as Richard’s: if Ford were going to use the Vignale name, they should have doubled down and made it a bit more than a tinselled Mondeo – nice though that actually is. Some unique bodywork might have helped – a four door coupé Mondeo, anyone? (OK, four door coupés are already passé. But four years ago there might have been a bit of a halo effect.)
      Also, they need to keep plugging at it – building a reputation in Europe seems to take a generation. Of course, the electrification shift means Ford just don’t have that time now…

  6. Interesting post, Eóin. There used to be a time when the introduction of a new S-Class generation was an event; everybody sat up and noticed. Same with the VW Golf, by the way. For a long time now and rather more recently in the case of the Golf, I sense the feeling that these two solid references in the car world have become almost irrelevant. Maybe it’s the electric car news stealing the thunder nowadays.

    It’s sad, but there was a time when an S-Class, 7-Series, or A8 was a sort of low-flying road jet so your average plutocrat could blast along the Autobahn to the next meeting, or to the weekend home in the mountains or the beach. Now these cars, especially the S-Class, have basically become black private hire cars; sort of modern, super expensive re-interpretations of the Lincoln Town Car.

    1. Agreed. The same thing happened to Doctor Who. I don´t know and don´t care whose playing the timelord this year and I am not that bothered about the S-class. I do very much want to know what Suzuki does with the next Ignis though. And how is Volvo going to renew the S90 which is perfect as it is.

    2. You might want to look inside the Polestar coupe to see modern luxury done impeccably. They are only making 1500 of them. That´s real exclusivity. I saw one recently and I have to admit it was very, very appealing such that I almost forgot my preference for robust simplicity.

    3. Richard: I can’t help but think that there will be no S90 replacement, what with the really rather slow sales at least in North America. It seems like it does better in Europe, but again, the sad fate of the non-Teutonic luxo-sedan strikes again, with 56k max annual sales figures at best. With the electric platforms that are now coming out, CEO Samuelsson said that their new cars will have proper names “like a child” and no more alphanumerics, and with the flexibility of EV platforms, I wonder if maybe Volvo will develop their V90 wagon EV replacement without a sedan alternative since I would wager to guess the wagon represents much more brand equity to Volvo. It can even be “XC”‘ed for American success, though most simply go up to the XC90 around these parts.

      You say you ‘forgot your preference for robust simplicity’, but isn’t that kind of Polestar’s MO these days? i.e. high technology with minimal fuss, and executed far more competently than Tesla. I would say that short of a base-model Defender, Polestar/Volvo interiors are the least “maximal” and ostentatious compared to what other “luxury brands” have deemed posh these days. Part of the issue is, of course, the scope creep of “lesser” brands rolling out more and more luxury features so the established elite must contrive new gimmicks to be on top (MBUX Hyperscreen, anyone?) I forget that only two decades ago having heated and cooled leather seats in your Civic would have been not just impossible, but preposterous, but now new Civics generally run around filled to the brim with all the creature comforts of a ’90s S-Class. I suppose that is the implication behind the S-Class ‘predicting’ automotive feature sets before they become mainstream, but as mentioned in the main text, those days seem somewhat consigned to history. If my 2040 Volvo estate looks like the 2021 S-Class inside, I don’t want it.

  7. August Horch’s memory is celebrated in a more worthwhile way in the eponymous museum in Zwickau, in the buildings where Audi Automobilwerke GmbH was established. It is officially run by a “not for profit” company 50/50 owned by Audi AG and Stadt-Zwickau, but is very much an outpost of VAG’s heritage operations, with exhibits from all of the automotive behemoth’s brands, and impressive conference and catering facilities. The Trabant and DDR Horch sections impressed me most.

    I’d have given the museum a five star rating if the receptionist hadn’t welcomed me with “Ah! Estonian!” when I signed in.

  8. Excellent article. I believe the high end Vauxhall trim level was Diplomat for Carlton and Senator. I always wondered what a Lotus Carlton Diplomat may have been like? Ford had much success with Ghia although I always felt a little sorry for the Italian design house relegated to a trim level on a Ford Fiesta.

    I agree with many that Ford should perhaps have had the balls to make Vignale a stand alone sub-brand in the vein of Lexus. Perhaps the failure and withdrawal of Maybach and Infiniti put Henry off that idea and onto trim level badge engineering.

    My local Ford dealer failed to become a ‘Ford Store’ and therefore was not allowed to sell Vignale and RS products. The dealership owner was furious and claimed he had sold many hundreds of RS models over the years.

    He said he refused to divide his sales floor up when space was at a premium and pay for white leather Italian sofas, potted fan palms and Calligaris furniture. He said Vignale insisted on expensive glass display cabinets to display high end leather goods, keyrings, ladies lipstick and makeup. He felt his client base didn’t extend that far and nobody ever asked for Bentley leather in a Mondeo. He felt that his parts department wouldn’t have the first clue about selling foundation and lip gloss alongside alternators and engine oil.

    1. From this I get the idea there must have been a communication failure at Ford marketing. Some merchandise sells itself. Lip gloss might not be one of them. I didn´t know Ford expected this kind of showroom floor division. In Silkeborg the Vignales were parked with the others; in Dublin the Vignale Mondeo didn´t have its own space either. For the Mondeo at least it would have been better to give it some different sheet metal; ditto the Fiesta. For anything five-doored and hatchy that´s harder to do apart from a different bumper set.

  9. I agree Richard something certainly seems amiss if you can’t get your dealer network on board. When I actually visited a ‘Ford Store’ with separate Vignale ‘lounge’ it seemed like a minimal division and open to everybody. Only one Vignale Kuga model was on display. Apparently the leather is sourced from the same zero-barbed-wire hide supplier as Bentley.

    Perhaps Ford dealer network politics and/or ‘Ford Store’ buy-in set up costs for smaller Ford dealers was prohibitive. I heard on the grape vine Ford UK made it difficult for it’s smaller dealers as part of the bigger plan to reduce the number of Ford dealers here in the UK.

    I always felt Infiniti should have done exactly this with Nissan dealers with an Infiniti lounge just like Vignale. I’m certain I recall Lexus did exactly that in the early days while it established a foothold.

    Maybach was too ambitious and presumptuous from the start especially with an older S-Class platform and ridiculous pricing against Rolls Royce. Now it’s just a trim level badge sadly with no separate lounge in my local Mercedes-Benz dealer. Although the large piano black Maybach coffee counter remains.

    I will continue to watch the development and sales of Genesis, DS and Vignale with interest.

    1. Renault also wanted a special place for customers buying Vel Satises in the period 2000-onward. I think the best approach is to treat every customer very well, regardless of whether they pop in for a floor mat set or want to buy the highest trim level on the most expensive model. That way you don´t have to tell staff how to filter pond life from precious special potential customers. It´s a no-lose model since you please the people on the lower rungs who come back and you keep the posher ones happy too. Who can tell who is who anymore?

  10. It was only in early September that Merceds-Benz design chief Gorden Wagener was quoted as saying that “electric sedans look ‘s…'”.

    “Electrification will kill the three-box design of sedans. With a 15-centimeter-high battery pack, a sedan just doesn’t look good, it looks like shit,” Daimler’s chief designer probably said literally while talking to “Top Gear”. In the English interview, he is quoted as saying “s…”.

    Malicious tongues now claim that the current S-Class had to trundle into design irrelevance on purpose, so to speak, in order to make the farewell obviously programmed by Mr. Wagener an easy one.

    The only question that remains is why Wagener and his team had to deliver such an utterly low-quality design for the EQS?

    1. Hi Mark, IMO, your observations seem on point. I would go further to say that he is completely full of what his own Maybach Vision Sedan looks like:

      Rolls Royce Ghost height = 1550 mm (ICE, but tall and handsome)
      Mercedes EQS height = 1512 mm
      Mercedes S-Class height = 1503 mm
      Tesla Model S height = 1445 mm (not a three box sedan)
      Audi E-Tron GT height = 1410 mm*
      Lucid Air height = 1410 mm* (definitely a three box sedan)
      Porsche Taycan height = 1395 mm (some sources say 1379 mm)*

      * Employs “foot garage” technology, apparently unavailable to Mr. Wagener and his team.

      Not that Mr. Wagener would be completely alone in his misery†, he might find a soul mate in a certain Mr. Callum.

      † The EQS does not appear to distinguish itself technically either, seems like rough sledding ahead.

  11. VAG used the ‘trigger’ handle pretty much across the board until the arrival of the Audi 100 C3.

    It was a poor – or possibly cost-cut – design which sheared at the fulcrum with around 50K miles of normal use in northern European climates, unless the entire mechanism was meticulously and regularly lubricated.

    At least it was cheap and easy to replace.

  12. Count that as a surreal comment. Next time it will be 19th century northern Danish church organ builders, or the numbering systems used by the Hungarian State Railway.

  13. I can’t think of a car that had such a total shift in values in a single product generation as the S-Class going from the W221, which while pretty grotty in base spec with plastic door cards and ugly wood was very luxurious in a tasteful way when properly configured like an S600, even the warm orange glow of the ambient lighting was lovely, to the utterly vile W222 with it’s quilted stitched vinyl “leather” everywhere, acres of shiny black plastic trim, and purple curry house lighting.

    Nobody in Europe cares about the S-Class anymore, or the equally chintzy and vulgar A8 and 7 series; it’s an Uber XL to vomit in at the end of the night at best. As a lifelong fan of the Big Barge and disliker of SUVs even I would walk past all of the current crop to buy a new Range Rover.

    1. Hi David. Sadly, you’re right. Wherever the S-Class, A8 or 7 Series are designed for these days, it’s not Europe. We shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, because the big growth opportunities lie elsewhere. That said, you would think that at least one manufacturer would spot an opportunity for a Europe-focused luxury car that doesn’t look like the product of ADHD outside and a Las Vegas brothel inside.

    2. Isn’t that absurd…? The Europeans design for the Chinese market (I know, it’s more than just that, but…), and Chinese-owned Volvo somehow manages to serve European tastes.

    3. Yes, of course, the Volvo hits the spot, and would be my choice. I should have clarified that I meant “at least one German manufacturer” and I was really thinking of S-Class sized cars. The S90 is an E-Class, 5 Series and A6 rival (but large enough for all practical purposes. Anything bigger is just a status symbol).

  14. It’s mentioned that BMW has Rolls and therefore has no need for such fluff, but I also think that BMW’s close relationship to Alpina has allowed it to avoid sub-branding more exclusive offerings since they have a trusted partner to do it for them. That said, Alpinas have always been more about the drive and the Horch and Maybach are certainly cars “to be driven in”, so the Rolls equivalence makes more sense in that regard. Given that, though, could Alpina be considered more of a marque for “European tastes”? The focus is on long-distance touring comfort and the name is vaunted amongst the correct in-groups, not to mention the rather attractive (in my opinion) pinstriping and the wonderful multi-spoke wheels. I think CAR recently labeled the B5 a better buy than the M5, though that certainly seems a matter of preference. They are still rather blingy and Germanic, though, and that goes against all those who’d have a Citroen or Thesis. The S90 was mentioned previously as a fine, less-shouty alternative, but I think only the electrics (Taycan/Model S) can pull off the suave modernity of, say, the DS in a modern context, even if the analogy falls short of the goddess herself. The less said about Mercedes’ Civic EQS the better.

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