Spannerhead Dot

Evolutionary Leaps:
Mercedes’ Styling Transitions

June 29, 2011 by Matt

M-B CLS and W210

Most new cars have a tendency to catch my eye the first time or two I see them, especially if the design is particularly noteworthy (the first-generation Audi TT did this especially well). And while groundbreaking designs succeed in eliciting stares for a longer period of time than the aesthetic shelf life of most other new cars, even envelope-pushers reach the point where they don’t provoke more than a quick glance, if that. The newness and originality wears off.

There is one car, however, that catches my attention every time I see it, and so far, is still fresh after being on the market for 7 years: The first-generation Mercedes-Benz CLS. My first thought when I saw a picture of it in a magazine: “They’re really going to make that?” I don’t suppose the question would have carried as much weight had it been directed at a company with less of an upper-crust, staid and conservative reputation, but when applied to M-B, the appearance of the CLS was jarring, akin to Billy Graham being seen sporting a hot pink leisure suit.

Except that in Mercedes’ case, it actually, well…works. As intractable a curmudgeon as Jeremy Clarkson declared, concerning the CLS’s looks:

So far as I’m concerned this is certainly the most spectacular looking car Mercedes has made and possibly one of the all time greats from anywhere.

I don’t know if I’d go that far, but regardless of whether you feel the car is hot or not, it’s indisputably a bold departure from the more upright, stately profile Benzes had had up to that point. In other words, even if it doesn’t appeal to me subjectively, I can’t argue that the car’s looks aren’t bold. Gutsy. Aesthetically courageous.

It isn’t the first time Mercedes has done this. Back in the mid-’90s, they replaced their much-beloved midsize W124 E-Class with the W210. That changeover was arguably a bigger styling gamble than even the CLS—most notably, the headlights went from unassuming and rectangular to brash and ovoid, well, overnight. The new look turned off a lot of traditional customers of the brand, but Mercedes stuck with it, refined the idiom and applied it, in varying degrees of boldness, to other cars in their lineup. Lo and behold, it “took,” the buying public warmed to it, and the new design direction freed the automaker from a self-imposed evolutionary approach to styling. Upper management, which must have been quaking in their boots when the W210 was released, breathed a collective sigh of relief, and the kind of atmosphere that allowed Benzes like the later CLS was created.

As a designer, it’s always nice when the qualities of beautiful and significant converge, like when a band creates music that is not only great to listen to, but also influential and popular. Those qualities, in design as well as music, don’t always come as a package deal. That said, I’m still always ready to acknowledge designs which may not be dripping with curb appeal, but whose arrival resonates with stylists. It’s the influential designs that fascinate me, not necessarily the beautiful ones. Even if automakers get lucky sometimes.

Filed under: Aesthetics, Mercedes


  1. John D says:

    How I’ve missed your insights (as in, superior to mere opinions) on automotive topics, both large and small. Now I can get a regular fix again! Everyone has opinions and will give them to you, but there are but a handful of people who’s opinions I respect and admire because they are more than just quick judgements or uneducated blitherings. You are one of those people, hence my excitement at your new blog. Very well done. I like the look and I will definitely be frequenting this new establishment of yours.


  2. Diane says:

    Geeks, the both of you. ;)

    I’m proud of you, honey!

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