It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land

Sometimes a quantum leap is called for, but care is required.

Image: internationalbanker
Image: internationalbanker

Editor’s note: Today’s piece is a revised version of an article first published on DTW in July 2016.

“Evolution: /e-va-loo’ shan/ n  The cumulative change in the genetic composition of an organism over succeeding generations, resulting in a species totally different from remote ancestors.”

What we’re looking at here is a collection of what we now would term E-Class Mercedes generations, from the W120/121 Ponton, up to the 2016 (and about to be superseded) W213 series. But this image is not the point of today’s exercise. What I would like to do instead is to direct your attention to the photo below, which illustrates the generations from the 1953 W120 through to the 2002 W211.

The first notable aspect to this collection is that the first three generations were each given internal names outside of the usual W-number all Mercedes saloons are denoted by. To my knowledge, no other derivations to this series were so treated. This in itself is interesting in its own train-spotter-esque manner, but more compelling (to me at least) is the (relatively) iterative nature of each model’s style from W120 Ponton to W110/112 Heckflosse, and from W114/115 Strich Acht to the 1976 W123.

Image: emercedesbenz
Image: emercedesbenz

The break in the evolutionary chain begins with the 1985 W124 which is stands out amid this company — not simply for its scientific approach to body design — but for the fact that it appears so dramatically at odds with Mercedes’ previously more cautious stylistic approach. It represents (then and now) a very big generational leap.

1995’s W210 represented a leap of an entirely different variety, one which in many ways defies characterisation, resembling an unhappy amalgam of at least three competing designs thrown together without any real care. While it is possible to imagine that the design started out as an evolution of the W124 shape, it was pulled and pushed in so many directions that any meaningful sense of continuity (and cohesion) was lost.

Sense and some sensibility resumed with W211, albeit, in such a bland fashion that today one struggles to recall the design without visual assistance. Creatively, it was an attempt to imbue the W210 template with a soupçon of visual dynamism (heaven knows there was plenty of scope); there are few glaring flubs, but taken as an entity it leaves little for the eye to linger upon. The W211 remains easily the least significant of the E-Class designs shown here.

photo (c)

2009’s W212 marked another stylistic leap, intended as a departure to a sharper, more clear-cut aesthetic, but the design team it appears remained captivated by past masters — the Ponton-referencing rear three-quarter haunch featuring in one of the shortest lifespans for any Mercedes saloon model and later subject to what has been termed the most expensive facelift of all time.

2016’s W213 marked a return to softer form lines and an element of classicism. Elegant, by latter-day Mercedes standards (and the standards of contemporary rivals), but hardly one for the history books. Which more or less brings us up to date, given the new for 2023 W214 is very much in an almost identical vein — although given its bookending fate, the latter’s place in history is assured.

2016 Mercedes W213 E-Class. Image: Carpixel

The fact that the W124 design was such an aesthetic shift may or may not have contributed to the stylistic free-for-all that followed; there were undoubtedly other factors at play. But it does suggest that when you sever four generations of carefully managed, iterative change, you might temporarily obtain a high water mark, but unless you carefully marshal your design talent, you can never be quite sure where you’re going to end up.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

40 thoughts on “It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land”

  1. The W124 on that picture is an end-of-line, post-facelift model. The original one with rectangular headlights held more of a resemblance with the W123 at the front-end. Still quite a departure from it’s predecessor, but more so than between W110 and W114? I’m not entirely sure. That said, breaking the lineage on two separate rows makes a lot of sense here.

    1. The question is really, does the W124 belong in the fron or in the back row. There is obviously a lot of discussion as to which is the Last True Mercedes (reminds me of similar discussions over big Citroëns, by the way). In the German motoring press, common understanding seems to be that it’s the W124. Some even try to argue for the W210, but that’s rather daring, I suppose.

      I see the W124 as an evolution of its predecessor, especially if the 190 is considered as an intermediate step. Its design is sober, solid and not too fashionable. All modernness can be argued with technical relevance (aerodynamics!), and not with subjection to a current design mainstream (and cost cutting). This only starts with the W210.

    2. For me W124 should sit right in the middle or closer to the back – while aerodynamic considerations on the outside were the biggest change, the rest is very much in keeping with the previous two generations at least, from the layout and finish of the dashboard to the bounceability of the seats…

    3. Yes. The pre-facelift version is my preference, all five of mine have the non-recessed grille and the ‘Sacco plank’ side trim.

  2. I don’t agree it’s the W124 that is the odd one out. The two first cars are more of o sort of assembled accidental design than designed as a coherent hollistic whole. The W114 to W124 are clearly designed by a coherent mind. First with the W210 they stray from the path and make that creased hood as a sort of retro design fashion statement. That’s straying from the path, the W124 didn’t stray from the path, it merely took the language into the streamlined age. It’s the W210 that’s not really sure what it is, the earlier cars are very self consciously Mercedes like.

    1. I think everyone would probably agree with you on that.

  3. I think Simon’s point about the 190 is relevant. W124 only looks like a step change if you view it in isolation. Viewed with the 190 and W126 S Class, it looks far more evolutionary. But then, so does the W210 really. It just looks like they’ve taken the W124 and tried to give it a bit more ‘character’. Yes, they did it badly, but they were still referencing past models.

  4. Here on Driventowrite, we’ve danced around the W210’s visual crimes without really delivering the coup de grace it so richly deserves, after which we can perhaps stop picking at the wound and move on. Lacking the design vocabulary to do so, I’ve avoided addressing it, but maybe more disciplined minds might consider it a service worth offering for the benefit of the collective?

    It might also save you from further posts like this one. Just saying…

    1. Yeah, on the other hand, this is fun! And some cars deserves all the scorn they can get. I also see discussions like these as a way of describing events in history that we perhaps have collectively lacked a way of expressing. It’s the discussion itself that creates the vocabulary to do so.

    2. Well Ingvar, I can’t disagree, and I’m gratified you’re enjoying the conversation. On the subject of W210, it was only by studying this image that I realised how much W210 owes to its larger W140 brother. If you look at the canopy area, it is considerably broader looking than that of its predecessor or indeed it’s replacement owing to the reduced tumblehome effect. Also, W210’s flanks ape those of W140 in their sheer-sidedness, which only serves to amplify the car’s lack of grace. I think Richard is correct in suggesting the 201 was altered at a late stage to give it more character. It has the appearance of a clumsy amalgam of three entirely different proposals. A committee car in other words, like Jaguar’s X200 S-Type – the 210’s spiritual brother.

    3. I agree to the committee styling of the W210. And if I have to give credit, I’ve never really understood why I never liked the car until I’ve read all the discussions about it on this site. To me, it seems to be the amalgamation of three different designs, a front, a middle, and a rear. And nothing really fits together. The front is in a too steep angle with too much of a cab forward design. The rear is simply too rear heavy to balance the front. And the middle part is a disjointed mess that don’t really fit with either front or rear. On top of that, arbitrary post modern styling cues like the double round headlights and the creased hood. Styling cues that aren’t brought together with the middle or the rear. It’s simply a mess, and just not as cohesive as it should be.

    4. Not so fast, my friends!

      You want coherence? I give you the W210’s delicious rear light, which, of course, elegantly refers to…

      those decade-defining headlights!

      You know a better-designed car, you show it to me!

      Sincerely yours,

      Hermann Weichprengel,
      President, Mercedes-Benz W210 Fahrer-Club Niederschwaben-Ost

    5. The right rear light cluster is still misalligned between trunk and sail panel. And the front has panel gaps wide enough to put a finger through. O tempora, o mores!

  5. The real nail in the coffin is to be found inside W210. You could forgive the quirkiness and lack of cohesion on the outside if the interior gave the same feel of rationality and durability as its predecessor, but it’s far from the case, and the finish didn’t withstand close scrutiny either.

  6. A year before the W210 came in as a lowpoint, the BMW 5-series had it’s highpoint in the E34. BMW made a really dramatic stule change after it because they felt their design language was at the end of its lifecycle. Probably, this was also the case after the W124. However, Mercedes-Benz, for all that it represents, is not the kind of brand to make dramatic change. Hence the W210 with all its lingering on compromises.

    1. The W210 and the E39 5-series were presented almost simultaneously, in the spring of 1995. I think I saw the first pictures of both cars in the same issue of CAR magazine. I couldn´t believe how bland the E39 looked (compared to his predecessor) and how incoherent was the W210 styling. At that time I knew the second half of the ´90s was going to be a bit “difficult”…

  7. Mercedes-Benz realised how stupid looking those taillights were and revised them in the facelift:

    They still couldn’t get the alignment right, however. Every W210 I’ve ever seen, pre or post-facelift, had the taillights misaligned, usually with the parts on the boot lid sitting higher than those on the wings.

  8. Even worse, in the facelift they eliminated the filler panels beneath the headlamps by incorporating them into the bumper moulding. That would have been fine, but they also altered the leading edge of the bonnet so that it no longer surrounded the grille, but stopped short on either side. The result was truly gruesome:

    The W210 really was big, flabby and dumb looking, and does deserve all the abuse it gets. Happily, thanks to Mercedes-Benz’s lack of rust-proofing, almost all have returned to dust by now.

    1. Hi Daniel. My god that front restyling is awful when looking at it side to side with the original design! I hadn’t noticed it until now and in comparison, it makes the original W210 front end an example of design virtuosity.

      I’d like to suggest that except for the four lights at the front, the overall design of the W210 is just a bigger, flabbier W202 C-Class, which itself is a modern, lighter on its feet, evolution of the W140.

    2. Hi Cesar. Agreed, and the W202 C-Class was itself rather flabby in comparison with the lovely, taut W201 190.

  9. I’d argue that the 114/115, 123 and 124 (there go those model codes again!) are the coherent, rational designs of the group. The 124 may look very different to its predecessor, but that car was on the market for a long time and the 124 is simply a rational reaction to a new(-ish) demand made on car design: aerodynamics. Like its little sister, it is a phenomenally well thought out update of classic Mercedes design elements to comply with the new demands made of them. The cars before are more or less haphazard or even rather baroque in the case of the W110. The cars after are a rather dramatic abdication of Mercedes from its throne of engineering excellence.

    I’d also argue that my analogy of large saloon design as butter stands: carve a W124 out of butter, let it stand in the sun for a while and through various snapshots (and an attack of a madman with a butter knife to produce the W212), you get all of its successors. Wagoner must really like butter. Or hate it passionately, as he never seems to put it back in the fridge.

    1. The W123 already had quite good serodynamics compared to its brick like predecesssor. I remember a test of W114 280E snd W116 280SE where the S was the significantly faster car…

    2. I didn’t know that. It’s really counterintuitive when you see a car like the type 105 Alfa Giulia and then read that it’s got good aerodynamics. Some modern EV’s are incredibly flat-surfaced and angular, which when done right also seems to help aerodynamics.

    3. Tom: You allude to the idea that the W123 was on the market for a long time, but in fact, the W123’s lifespan was in line with Mercedes-Benz practice. Ponton: 1953-1959 (6 years) Fintail: 1959-1968 (9 years). /8: 1968-1975 (7 years). W123: 1975-1985 (10 years). W124 1985-1995 (10 years). W210: Do we really care? Every year was one too many.

      We can say that the w123 was in production longer than some of its forebears, certainly (albeit, not by much), but lengthy production runs were by no means uncommon at Sindelfingen – at that time at least.

      One really shouldn’t play the man instead of the ball, but recent photos of his Gorden-ness, suggest he’s been hitting the butter (and lard) with gusto. Mind your arteries, Gorden. You’re getting on in life now…

    4. Thanks, Eóin. I didn’t mean to suggest that the W123 was on the market unusually long, just that perceptions, technology and fashion had moved on considerably during its lifespan. Maybe more so than for its predecessors and successors, come to think of it? I’m biased as I was at an impressionable age at the time of the 124’s introduction so it probably made more of an impact than other introductions. The 123 was something of an institution and the 124 carried on the tradition admirably.

      So it’s option one then: the butter’s never around long enough to fully melt.

  10. Tata continued to produce the W124 in Pune until 1997, according to Liepedia. I think it might have been later, as a certain unfranchised “car supermarket” in the UK brought in quite a few Indian-made cars registered with X and Y plates. Conveniently RHD, and possibly distressed merchandise, like Arnold Clark’s Tiidas.

    They were low-spec, and in flat, rather earthy colours never seen on German-supplied cars. A bit cheaper than a base C-Class, but not stupidly cheap. An interesting spot at the time.

  11. I’m half-German myself. I’ve always thought of Germans as being strict no-nonsense systematic kind of people. Like my Grossvater Petschack: if you want a job done properly, do it yourself, he used to say. I’ve been trying to learn to speak Mercedes. Yet the W-numbers seem to hop skip and jump around all over the place with neither rhyme nor reason. W123 was followed by W124 (logic! precision!) after which I’d expect maybe, oh, W125? Nein, Bauer: W210! And then they get logical again.
    Or the S-class: 116,126,140 (136 not good enough?) then all of a sudden we get the jump to 220, and they start going up by ones.
    I guess I’ll have to keep checking Wackypedia for the numbers.

    1. It’s even more fun.
      A W111 ‘long fintail’ is a W110 with a longer nose. A W112 is a W111 with air suspension.
      A W109 is a W108 with air suspension.
      In these cars the ‘L’ in SEL didn’t mean long wheelbase but Luftfederung (air suspension). Since air suspended cars always had a long wheelbase this didn’t mean too much but there were long wheelbase cars without air suspension which were called SE long.
      A W114 is a W115 with six pot engines, more chrome and a wooden plank on the dashboard.
      There are two model codes because the initial calculation was that the six cylinder cars would need a longer nose as in the fintails but in the end the nose was identical for four and six cylinder cars. Except for the 280 and 280E where the wide DOHC head left no room for the diagonal brackets in the engine compartment so these two got a different front end (made from thicker steel and different structures) – but no model code of their own.

  12. Thanks DaveAR for the interesting summary of 1960s Mercedes-Benz codification. I knew the general concepts, but not the details such as L for air suspension or the different front structure for the 280 W114.

    There was also the W114 230 with the SOHC straight six and the W115 230.4 with the 2.3 SOHC four. It’s great that throughout all that confusion they still kept the logic, unlike current Mercedes-Benz denominations (and BMW as well), which don’t follow any technical logic.

    1. That’s Benz engineering of the Sixties in all its glorious thoroughness.
      Here’s a standard W114/115 engine bay with clearly visible tubular brackets from bulkhead to inner wings.

      And one from a 280 without them. What you can’t see are the inner wings which look completely different from the ones seen above.

      Only Mercedes was mad enough to develop a completely redesigned front for just one rarely sold engine variant.

    2. Were the W114 280s really so rare? Perhaps in tax-constricted mainland Europe, but in the UK they seemed to be the favoured variant. Mercedes were very expensive cars and those who could afford them weren’t going to put up with a four cylinder engine and sluggish performance compared with cheaper Rovers, Jaguars, and Granadas.

      The 280E didn’t cost much more than a single cam 2.8 litre 250 – around 10% extra. There was even a UK-only 280E “Executive” variant with manual transmission only, but standard power steering and alloy wheels, apparently devised to stem defections of customers to the BMW 2800 and 3.0S/Si.

    3. Roughly 45,000 of 1,5M W114/115 were 280/280E versions. 12,000 of them were coupes.
      More than a million of the rest were diesels. A 200D was a car seen as a sensible investment in its home country.

    4. 45,000 W114 twin-cam cars says to me that the “above and beyond” bodywork alterations were well worth the bother, particularly as the engine was only available in the W114 for around four years, and found good use in parallel and succeeding Mercedes-Benz cars.

      Volvo managed to make around the same number of 164s in seven years. And that’s before we consider the Fiat 130 and Lancia Gamma, all-new stand-alone cars which didn’t even reach half the production number of W114 280/280E versions.

    5. That’s certainly true and anyway Mercedes wasn’t afraid of developing cars for smaller sales numbers.
      They made 10,000 F114/115 long wheelbase saloons and even 5,000 VF 114/115 long wheelbase ‘chassis only’ cars (F = Fahrgestell – chassis) in different stages of completion

      At that time Mercedes had a ‘special options’ department where anything could be built into the cars as long as it was technically possible and not detrimental to safety. Examples were tailor made orthopedic seats, early telephone installations, door cards with gun carriers.
      When a certain ‘individual option’ was ordered more than six times it was no longer considered ‘individual’. With this in mind it is amazing how many ‘individual’ cars they made.

    6. Thanks DaveAR. I didn’t know about the Special Options department, but makes perfect sense considering some of the brands more, ehem, institutional clients. For example, the gun carrying door cards being especially handy for your trusty military dictator 🙂

      Speaking of special options, I remember reading somewhere that MB offered optional seats with harder springs for its bigger (in size) clients. I think it was either for the W116 or for the W126.

    7. For their plutocrat customers there always was the option of a special rear seat bench with one centrally mounted extra wide seat.

      The variety of options Mercedes had to offer was mind boggling. The standard price list already held seats with higher or lower side bolsters, electrically adjustable sides, made-to-measure orthopedic contouring. If this was not enough there was the ‘taxi’ option with reinforced seat frame (and reinforced door locks, door catches and stain proof MB Tex upholstery of the extra hard wearing kind).
      You could choose between different versions of tinted windows. Since behind a tinted windscreen your pupils get less light and therefore are wider and as a result you suffer a reduced depth of field your ophthalmologist surely would have recommended to buy the option with tinted windows all round but a clear windscreen.
      Their price lists were kind of weirdly funny. Not only was the list of options endless, their prices were calculated very precisely. A Benz did not cost 20,000 Deutschmarks, it was yours for 19,857.43, with particular importance on the 43 Pfennigs. A heated rear window cost 43.18 Deutschmarks and ever so on. My father always laughed when he saw such prices and Benz was the only manufacturer doing it and getting away with it.
      At that time I could not see the value of a Mercedes.
      Wisdom comes with age and in my case in form of a C124 300-24 CE I had as a loaner from a friend for a couple of months. After a couple of hundred kilometres it all started to make sense. These cars are the perfect impersonation of an obedient servant. They will faithfully do what you demand from them but will never try to get in the foreground themselves. If that’s what you are looking for they are perfect.

    8. Door card with gun carrier (in a German police car, so no true special option)

  13. That police car door panel with gun actually looks very tidy and neat, but ultimately, I’m disappointed it was not a regular civilian option for the typical psycopath dictator to scare the bejesus out of his trusty assistants.

    That’s a great analogy about the butler and the 1970s Mercedes-Benz. I suppose the butler would apply to the S-Klasse whereas the lower W114/5 and W123 would be like your trusty, efficient house staff.

    Finally, I forgot to mention how magnificent that MB DOHC six looks (M110 in Mercedes-speak). The overhead cams capped in aluminium give it a massive, broad shoulder look that I’ve always liked.

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