The 1999 Mercedes CL redefined the term ‘back of an envelope design’.
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 decreed that all members of his styling team, irrespective of discipline could 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 alternate styles to choose from and allowed each member of the design team a decent shot at producing a successful design – a vital springboard to their career.
Australian-born Peter Arcadipane joined Mercedes’ Sindelfingen studios from Ford, having in his early years as a car designer 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 determined to have a shot at the job. As recounted by the designer, while on a flight to Australia, he sketched a proposal for the forthcoming coupé on what 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 nonetheless 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. The finished car, while not as compact or lithe as first envisaged, nevertheless marked a clear departure from the rather substantial-looking C140 which 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 frontal aspect remains by far its visually weakest trait – the favoured four-headlamp setup flanking a somewhat undersized and gauche-looking grille, lending the frontal aspect a disappointing lack of substance and gravitas, but frankly neither of the latter traits were in abundance 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 early Pfeiffer-era representatives of three pointed star art.
Peter Arcadipane subsequently became part of the design team who alongside Michael Fink created the body style for the W219 CLS of 2004 – a design he since appears to have claimed credit for, also suggesting that a shooting brake concept (which was later realised on its successor) 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.