Pushing the Envelope

The 1999 Mercedes CL redefined the term ‘back of an envelope’ design.

Image: Autoevolution.com

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on DTW on 14 June 2019.

Like most major carmakers, Mercedes-Benz, under the design leadership of Bruno Sacco at Stuttgart-Sindelfingen, assigned individual teams to specific product lines. However, Sacco also permitted all members of his styling team, irrespective of discipline, to submit proposals for evaluation whenever a new model was being considered.

These would be then whittled down to a shortlist, the favoured proposals being produced in quarter-scale form. A further evaluation would see these being reduced to a final shortlist of three proposals, which would be produced in 1 : 1 scale for final selection. This ensured that management had sufficient quantities of alternative styles to choose from and allowed each member of the design team a decent shot at producing a successful design – a vital springboard for their careers.

Australian-born Peter Arcadipane had joined Mercedes’ Sindelfingen studios from Ford. In his early years as a car designer, Arcadipane laid claim to having adapted the design for the Ford Falcon-based Interceptor featured in the very first Mad Max movie. As the design process for the S-Class coupé got under way in 1993 (dubbed C215 internally), Arcadipane was determined to have a shot at the job. While on a flight to Australia, he is believed to have sketched a proposal for the forthcoming coupé on the first thing he had to hand – in this case the back of an Air Mail envelope.

Image: Formtrends

His note to self made clear from the outset that this was not to be a traditional Mercedes coupé design, but one with a “Jaguar-like flavour”. His notations underline the ethos behind the shape, with a “roof structure in one clean arch – architectural – like a bridge span!” The distinctive c-pillar treatment was a nod to the W111 coupé from the 1960s, with Arcadipane emphasising the study’s “big wrap to rear glass”.

Allegedly seen as the most radical of the shortlisted C215 proposals, it nevertheless made it through to the final three, being produced in full-sized, see-through form for senior management to review. Despite there being resistance to it from elements of the supervisory management team, Arcadipane’s study was eventually chosen for production.

The finished car, while not as compact or lithe as first envisaged, nevertheless marked a clear departure from the more substantial-looking C140 that preceded it. It is believed that a convertible version had also been proposed for this model, but was overruled, allegedly on business case grounds.

From an exterior design perspective, the C215 has withstood the test of time with a certain grace. However, the frontal aspect remains a visually weak aspect; the favoured four-headlamp setup flanking a somewhat undersized and gauche-looking grille, lending the frontal aspect a disappointing lack of gravitas, but frankly this was not an abundant trait in at Sindelfingen during this period.

Image: Autoevolution

The C215 went on sale in the Autumn of 1999, sharing engine, running gear (not to mention electronic and cabin architecture) with the shared platform W220 Sonderklasse saloon. Engines were initially either the 5.0 litre V8 or 5.8 litre V12 units, the latter featuring electronic cylinder deactivation, which disabled one bank of cylinders at cruising speeds for improved economy. The CL was also believed to be the first production car to be fitted with bi-xenon high intensity discharge head and side lamps.

Undoubtedly a fixture amid the annual migration of the privileged and monied to the Nordfriesland resort of Sylt[1], the C215 saw the well-heeled Swabian, metaphorically at least, loosen his tie a little. And while no Mercedes coupé for the ages à la C126 or its predecessors, the C215 nonetheless remains perhaps one of the more accomplished of the late-Sacco/ early Pfeiffer-era representatives of three-pointed-star art[2].

Image: Australiancar.reviews

Peter Arcadipane subsequently became part of the design team where, alongside Michael Fink, he was responsible for the body styling for the W219 CLS model of 2004 – a design for which he since appears to have claimed credit, also suggesting that a shooting brake concept[3] too was his. Having departed Sindelfingen, first for Hyundai and later Mitsubishi, he journeyed by air to Beijing in 2013, having been appointed that year as design director for BAIC Auto. What he sketched en-route, however, remains undocumented.

[1] Arguably, Germany’s equivalent to the Hamptons.

[2] One could be forgiven for calling the C215 and its contemporaries a transitional car, insofar as Sacco was edging (or being edged if you prefer) towards retirement and Pfeiffer was in the wings, awaiting his moment. The Sacco doctrine of ‘vertical affinity’ had fallen out of favour with the Daimler Benz supervisory board by then. It has since been dismissed by the current incumbent as being “forced”. 

[3] The shooting Brake body style was subsequently realised on its (X218) successor.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

15 thoughts on “Pushing the Envelope”

  1. Forty years I have harbored a quiet secret, today I will confess: It’s my affection for the C107 (450 SLC). That car’s would be successor appears on that envelope. Of course it was never going to happen, but seeing the drawing again has triggered that fond childhood memory and dream, because despite trying as hard they have, I still don’t think of the SL (or whatever they call it, AMG whatever now) as a true sports car. It is a louche personal luxury car, and IMO C107 was better off that way, and better off for not pretending to be what it never really was. They gave C107 (and R107) S-Class tail lights, an S-Class-like interior, and an S-Class engine (and sounded as quiet as its larger siblings), so it’s purpose was crystal clear to me, not to be confused with the subtly different purpose of a rorty four seat Lotus, Porsche, or Ferrari.

    While I understand the rationale behind replacing the C107 SLC with the impeccable C126 (and its successors, one of which we are regarding here now), my heart still pines for what seemed like the most reasonable, if quite pricey “best of all possible worlds” ultimate compromise car, as C107 seemed to me as a child growing up. The adults in charge however, saw things differently, as they always do.

    1. Ah yes, Pagoda W113, the sheep in wolf’s clothing.
      Great looks, shame about the engines and its swing axle (Erich Waxenberger’s unique example with 6.3 litre M100 was a legendary exception).
      When this car was new it was a common joke that its drivers didn’t have to overtake lorries but could pass under them because the car was so low (with its windscreen removed).

    2. I had some experience of the W113, in my case a 1963 230SL (with a 2.8 transplant). I would agree that even with the larger engine, it was no ball of fire, but then that really wasn’t the point of the car. The low-pivot swing axles were fine; no matter what I tried, I could never get the tail to unstick. It felt indomitable, from a ride and handling perspective. The steering on the other hand was vague in the extreme, which combined with the huge tiller of a handwheel, did little to inspire confidence in what the front end was doing. Still, a deeply impressive car for its age. I can understand why they are so coveted. Mercedes made more complete SLs, but never really recaptured the sheer glamour of the Pagoda.

    3. I have never driven a W113, but it’s a car I enjoy for it looks. I’m not particularly fond of the driving feeling a Benz. It always feels like the car is driving itself in a way. Great if you want your car to be an ideal butler, but I am not looking for that.

      The only car with swing axles I recall driving was a 356 and that was fine.

    4. in the context of its time and its German surrounding the W113 was a statement of luxury and excess but was a common and accepted sight among the well heeled.
      The 230 and 250 quickly gained a bad reputation for their antediluvian engines. The 230 only had four crankshaft bearings with one of the crankshaft’s counter weights sitting outside the engine in the fanbelt pulley, both 230 and 250 had paired cylinder bores which gave them a tendency for overheating and both needed lots of revs to deliver meaningful power which didn’t exactly provide them with a feeling of superiority on the road. The 280 was a big improvement but they didn’t go for the V8 engines in the R107 for nothing.

      Otherwise the W113 was a product of impressive elegance. For me the Bracq Benzes are at eye level with the Sacco cars and head and shoulders above any other of their products in terms of quality of styling.

  2. Good morning, Eóin. The roof has to be the standout feature for me. I like the way it flows into the rear pillar and the nod to the W111 coupé. However it also looks like a hardtop that has been dropped on a convertible, because of the shutline at the top of the a-pillar and at the bottom of the rear pillar (how does one call the rear pillar? B-pillar, because the car only has two pillars, or C-pillar and we assume the B-pillar is lacking?).

    The rest of the car is a bit generic, the front is a bit weak and I don’t like the body side moulding, but overall it’s not a bad effort.

  3. Returning to the C215, I never really ‘got’ the thinking behind the design of the roof until I saw Arcadipane’s sketch on the envelope. The arc of the roof and rear window perfectly mirrors that of the side DLO. Unfortunately, this is only evident in side profile, and even then one has to ignore line of the trailing edge of the C-pillar, the steeper angle of which conflicts with the other two lines. It is difficult to ‘unsee’ the latter, especially in cars painted in darker colours. From other angles what dominates is the slightly odd manner in which the C-pillar is narrowest at its base. The sketch ‘cheats’ by making the profile of the rear window more visible than it is in reality, highlighting the two arcs and downplaying the trailing edge of the C-pillar.

    This might be hard to appreciate, so I’ll annotate a photo to explain what I’m on about a little later.

  4. Here’s the W111, the car the W215 was supposed to reference.

    For me the W111 looks elegantly restrained and expensive whereas the W215 looks contrivedly kitsch and cheap, just like its saloon sibling.

    THe R/C107 were based on W114 underpinnings (the W108/109 would have been to old and the W114/115 was the only modern Benz in the cupboard) and the C126 finally made the jump to the S-class platform.
    I’d still take a C126 or R129 over any of their successors.

    1. I’d have the C126. I always thought the R129 was a bit of an ugly duckling. It’s probably the last proper Benz and you can still have a good example for relative little money, so I see the attraction. I don’t want to admit it, but I am looking at R129’s for sale now.

  5. Here we go:

    The first image is reality. In the second, the red lines show what the designer wants us to see. In the third, the yellow lines show what we actually see. The fourth shows an altered, more-conventional C-pillar treatment, which eliminates the visual conflict.

  6. For me, the disgusting wedge tail lights kill it, it looks like a Ford Falcon AU (i.e. as cheap and dated as 90s design gets):

    1. It’s not only the rear lights in the excessively long tail that directly link it with the cheap and nasty W220 saloon which marked an all time low in S class quality. The whole car has a cheap and chintzy feeling that’s in sharp contrast to the solidity of its predecessors.
      Just look at the three pointed star in its grille and compare it to the item used in older SLs and you see that the W215 is (like most of its contemporary stablemates) a fake of a Mercedes

      At least they spared it the disgrace of the fake-F1 nose.

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