German Car Design and The Emperor's New Clothes

Most Mercedes-Benz W123 owners don't have a lot of time for surfing the web between fixing rust on their cars' panels and getting tetanus shots. Those who do will probably be glad to find out that Mercedes-Benz will soon unveil a modern W123. Or so I am led to believe by the somewhat subtle marketing machine from Stuttgart.
Mercedes-Benz C-Class, E-Class and S-Class 1 photo
Photo: Daimler AG/edited by autoevolution
No, I haven't gone cuckoo yet, Mercedes isn't branching into the restomod car business. It won't resurrect the W123 and fit it with modern powertrains and gadgets. The three-pointed star is looking into its past more than most people would realize at first glance, though. Instead of the venerable W123, I could have actually chosen almost any E-Class predecessor, bar the relatively modern “four-eyed” ones.

You see, the soon-to-be-officially-unveiled 2017 E-Class is very likely to look like a bad police sketch of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or C-Class, but that in itself isn't a bad thing, especially in the long run. Let me explain.

Remember when pretty much all Mercedes-Benz cars from an era looked the same? I'm exaggerating a bit, but I'm sure that you know what I mean. I'm willing to bet my lunch (looking to downsize a bit, anyway) that a lot of people used to confuse same-generation Mercedes-Benz models all the time until the mid-1990s.

Take a look at the front end of a W202 C-Class and compare it to a facelifted W124 E-Class and the W140 S-Class, see any similarities between them? How about between the rear ends of the W123, the W126 S-Class, and the R107 SL Roadster? Going even further back you can probably say the same thing about most same-generation Mercedes models ever made.

Maybe it's just me, but I have a feeling that Mercedes-Benz is taking a lot of heat for something that it has always done in the past, and with great success, I might add. Stuttgart is far from being alone in this, as both BMW and Audi have been guilty of having the same principles over the years. I probably shouldn't even mention Porsche, since even the design language of its current lineup is based around the 911, which is itself based on that of the original Beetle.

In BMW's case I'm not talking about the “kidney grille,” the “Hofmeister kink,” or the L-shaped taillights, but about similarities between technically different models that are part of the same era at a given moment. For example, I'm sure that at least some of you think that the 3 Series E46, the 5 Series E39 and the 7 Series E38 kind of looked like different-sized versions of each other.

Back in the late 1980s, early 1990s, Audi's head honchos decided to enforce pretty much a paradigm shift in the company's image. No longer would the four-ringed carmaker play second-fiddle to Volkswagen as far as brand image went, but it would, in fact, become a true rival for the other two big guys, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

And it more than did, eventually. In less than two decades, the ugly duckling from the German trio that's ruling the luxury car market nowadays managed to sprint from a distant third right into the big league. Ingolstadt's first major step in this direction came thanks to the first-ever A8, in 1994, with pretty much every single Audi model after it using a somewhat similar design language.

So, why do I say that this downright exaggerated design conformity among German carmakers is a good thing in the long run? Well, there are some reasons, with the main one being that it works.

Most people want their neighbors and friends to know that their cars were made by a certain carmaker. It helps if said carmaker has been known for making luxury or sports cars over the years.

Some manufacturers - I won't give any names, but let's just say they are mostly Asian - have tried and substituted this design solidarity among their models with badge prestige, but that doesn't always work since badge prestige is something that can only be earned in time. In the minds of most top automotive designers, and there aren't actually that many remaining if you ask me, design conformity almost directly translates into higher sales.

People can recognize an Audi, a BMW, a Merc or a Porsche from a mile away, and when their cheapest models somewhat look similar to their halo cars, it can automatically tickle the buyer's “I want this!” gland.

Does this mean that design is the only thing that sells cars? Of course not, but it sure does help. And in a pretty huge way.

Do fanboys get angry when each car of their favorite brand starts following the “same sausage, different length” creed? Maybe, but at the same time, most hardcore fanboys aren't yet old enough to drive or afford a car. History has taught us that design homogeneity, even when taken to the extreme, actually helps create brands, not destroy them.

Heck, look at Apple products or Adidas sports clothing, most of their creations look like variations of each other and this hasn't stopped the brands themselves from becoming giants in each of their respective areas. So, don't brush off cars that adhere too much to a similar design language as their smaller or bigger brothers, they look like that for a well-thought reason.

Bruno Sacco, one of the greatest automotive designers of the 20th century, once said, “A Mercedes-Benz must always look like a Mercedes-Benz.” You should be able to say that about any car brand, me thinks, but so far only the Germans seem to have gone with the idea in the long run, with only a few exceptions.
If you liked the article, please follow us:  Google News icon Google News Youtube Instagram
About the author: Alex Oagana
Alex Oagana profile photo

Alex handled his first real steering wheel at the age of five (on a field) and started practicing "Scandinavian Flicks" at 14 (on non-public gravel roads). Following his time at the University of Journalism, he landed his first real job at the local franchise of Top Gear magazine a few years before Mircea (Panait). Not long after, Alex entered the New Media realm with the project.
Full profile


Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories