The 1999 Mercedes CL redefined the term ‘back of an envelope’ design.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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 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.
 Arguably, Germany’s equivalent to the Hamptons.
 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”.
 The shooting Brake body style was subsequently realised on its (X218) successor.