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Unmistakably Sacco: The Titan of Post-War Design

“A Mercedes-Benz should always look like a Mercedes-Benz.”   —Bruno Sacco, Mercedes-Benz Design Chief 1975-1999

Bruno Sacco defined the style of Mercedes-Benz for almost three decades. He was born in 1933 to an Italian father and an Austrian mother. As a boy, Sacco’s mind was full of imagination and he showed an early passion for mechanical things. Specifically, he had a fascination with railroads and collected precision-made Märklin model trains. Bruno attended the Technical Institute of Udine and graduated in 1951. It was that same year that he attended the Turin Auto Show—an experience that would forever change his life and define his future career.

At the Turin show, he saw the Raymond Loewy-designed Studebaker Commander. The sight of this aeronautically-inspired futuristic car spurred an “A-ha” moment for young Sacco. From that day forward, Sacco knew he would become an automobile designer. Sixty years later he reflected on seeing the Studebaker for the first time: “That car was like something from another world.” The Studebaker was the spark that ignited Sacco’s passion for automotive design.

The Studebaker Commander that caught young Sacco’s eye Photo: Studebaker

In the early 1950’s, Turin was a burgeoning industrial city—with an emphasis on automobile design and coach building. Turin was home to famous vehicle design companies like Ghia, Pininfarina, Alfredo Vignale, Bertone, and Lancia. Sacco spent time visiting many of these design studios and ultimately landed an internship at Ghia in 1955. Young Sacco was at the right place at the right time and he seized the opportunity to work with the talented Ghia designer Sergio Sartorelli. In 1957, he met the legendary Sergio Pininfarina and even did some work for him. Ultimately, it was an interview with Daimler Benz’s Karl Wilfert that eventually took Sacco to Germany. Luckily for Sacco, he had learned some introductory German in grammar school and he could communicate “auf Deutsch” with Wilfert. On January 13th 1958, Sacco was hired by Mercedes at the salary of DM 650 per month.

When Sacco joined Mercedes at age 24, the Design Center in Sindelfingen was under the leadership of Friedrich Geiger. The head stylist was Paul Bracq (who also ultimately became a very accomplished designer at Mercedes and later helped design the high-speed French TGV train as well as several significant cars for BMW, including the E24 6-Series). It was here that Sacco learned how to sketch designs, work with mechanical engineers, create full-scale drawings, and build plaster models of automobiles. He carefully studied the great Mercedes designs of history, including the SSK of 1929, the 540K of 1936, as well as Wilbert’s iconic 1955 300 SL Gullwing. Sacco also did a stint working outside of the design studio to better understand (and integrate into design) the advancements Mercedes was making in passive safety. In the 1960’s, Sacco climbed the ranks at Mercedes and was involved with many of the great designs of that era, including the Mercedes W100 600 and the W113 230 SL “Pagoda” roadster. He also project-managed experimental vehicles like the futuristic C 111-I of 1969 and the C 111-II of 1970. He was deeply involved in the W123 design which was the predecessor of the E-Class line and one of the best selling cars in Mercedes history. By 1975, Sacco was chosen to succeed Geiger and became head of design at Mercedes-Benz.

The Mercedes-Benz 600. Photo: Mercedes-Benz

Sacco’s first significant design was the all-new W126 S-Class. The S-Class had long been the Company’s most prestigious and expensive model. The new car was introduced to the press in 1979 and its distinctive lines ultimately influenced the appearance of the entire Mercedes-Benz lineup over the next twenty years. Even today, the W126 stands as an impressive and classic design. Because of their vault-like build quality, many W126 cars are still on the road. On the heels of the W126, Sacco introduced the groundbreaking W201 “Baby Benz” 190E in 1982. This vehicle opened up an entirely new younger demographic for Mercedes-Benz. In Sacco’s own words, the design represented “the perfect example of how to marry innovation and tradition.” Over a decade after its introduction, Sacco reflected on the new C-Class (the W201’s replacement) and his comments indicate of just how revolutionary the 190E was at the time of its introduction:

“The design of C-Class reflects our method of gradual, unspectacular evolution. It is a design without unusual extravagances, a configuration characterized not by concessions to trends but by an autonomous modernity. The previous model, the 190, was meant to capture a new market. Its design required a certain aggressiveness: a general wedge shape, a clean-cut tail, the seaming of the rear window. The current C-Class, on the other hand is addressed to an established clientele so that we can configure it with ore serene, much less dramatic characteristics.”

1979 Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL (W126) Photo: Mercedes-Benz

An early 190E Photo: Mercedes-Benz

Sacco’s next groundbreaking vehicle was the mid-1980’s launch of the new W124 E-Class. This vehicle replaced the venerable and successful W123 and was characterized by its triangular rear lights and angular shape. The W124 became known for its bulletproof durability and timeless design. Over the decade-long production run, the W124 was available as a sedan, wagon, coupe, and convertible. During the latter years of its production, the W124 was available in a hot-rod V8 collaboration with Porsche—the rare (and now collectable) 500E/E500. The late 1990’s saw the launch of the iconic R129 SL. Sacco himself referred to this creation as “the most perfect car of my career.” This car was a technological and design tour de force featuring a fully automatic soft top, removable aluminum hardtop, and a pop-up roll bar. While the R129 was very advanced, the previous generation R107’s DNA was evident. In many ways, the new R129 maintained several critical overall design characteristics of the outgoing R107—the new car was also a two-seater convertible with a front engine/rear drive configuration.

Post-facelift Mercedes-Benz W124

The groundbreaking Mercedes-Benz R129 Photo: Mercedes-Benz

In 1992, Sacco unveiled the new W140 flagship S-Class. These massive and technically complicated cars were the subject of several costly delays which ran into the billions. Certain employees even lost their jobs over the development delays and cost overruns of the W140. From soft pull electronic doors to double-paned glass, the opulent car truly represented an era of excess. The automotive press panned the W140—they generally considered it overweight and less elegant than the prior generation W126 S-Class. Sacco himself once lamented that the W140 was “four inches too tall.” Regardless, the W140 sent a strong message to the rest of the luxury car market that nobody could build a car as massive or advanced as Mercedes-Benz. The new S-Class was over-engineered and enormous. Early cars were plagued with vibration problems that were caused by soft high-performance tires warping under the weight of the vehicle. The W140’s mission was to end the luxury car arms race with a decisive blow to Lexus, BMW, Audi, and Infiniti—all of whom had been more or less trying to copy critical design elements of the W126 cars during the prior decade. In one sense, the goal was achieved and exceeded—even today, no other car of this era has the feel, quality, and gravitas of a W140. The W140 (particularly the V12 coupe version) represents the zenith of Mercedes engineering, quality, and design and is currently underappreciated in the collector car market.

The W140 S-Class sedan Photo: Mercedes-Benz

The classical “Sacco” front end of the W140 S-Class V12 Coupe Photo: Mercedes-Benz

The early 1990’s saw a slew of new and exciting cars born from Sacco’s talented team of design professionals. In 1993, the new C-Class was launched followed by the groundbreaking new SLK hardtop convertible. The all-new E-Class arrived in 1995 and the ultra-modern CLK came in 1997. The first-generation Mercedes M-Class SUV arrived as well. Sacco’s 3rd and final S-Class redesign occurred in 1998 with the W220. The new flagship car dramatically slimmed down the weight and bulkiness of the W140—the W220 almost appeared wimpy when compared to the outgoing car. Finally, as his swan song, Sacco greatly influenced the replacement for the R129 SL. This new SL was known as the R230 and its evolution adopted some modern styling cues (such as oval headlights) from the new CLK and E-Class. The all-new SL was a breathtaking car with outrageous performance—especially when outfitted with the 500 horsepower AMG performance package. Its design boasted a low hood line, raked windshield, and a retractable hardtop.

The new E-Class with bold quad oval headlights Photo: Mercedes-Benz

The 1997 CLK coupe

The Mercedes SLK

The new 2003 R129 SL Photo: Autoevolution

Throughout his career, Sacco applied his philosophy of “horizontal and vertical affinity.” He described “horizontal affinity” as the familiar design cues between all the models in the Mercedes-Benz lineup. The idea was to create a powerful and recognizable relationship between every model. This was a philosophy that his entire design team embraced and still lives on at Mercedes today.

Sacco ultimately created a brand image that was immediately familiar between various models of Mercedes products. The concept of “vertical affinity” meant that his designs would build upon stylistic influences from prior models thereby giving a timelessness and longevity to new designs. This design philosophy ensures that when old models are replaced by new ones, the outgoing car does not look outdated. The goal was that the outgoing car evolves into a classic. This philosophy had to do with his long-term view on design and the fact that the product lifecycle of a single automobile (from the cradle to the grave) can span decades. Sacco stated,“The development cycle for a new vehicle is typically three to five years. This is then followed by a production life of about eight years. The last car off the assembly line will have an average life expectancy of twenty years. That adds up to a product life cycle of approximately 30 years!” Sacco’s design philosophy is well characterized by his quote below:

“It sometimes happens that a project is elected on the basis of a precise, planned obsolescence of the product to ensure future demand for new models. This is particularly noticeable when new models are so different from those of the preceding generation that the latter seem antiquated and obsolete. This method is termed “styling,” a term that arouses a certain aversion among our designers and has never been utilized at Daimler-Benz Our models have stylistic similitudes (horizontal homogeneity) and follow an evolutionary line constant with the models of the previous generation (vertical affinity). This makes it possible to recognize immediately any new creation from Mercedes-Benz.”

The evolution of the Mercedes SL Photo: Motor Trend

Sacco also commented on his view of the core elements and guiding principles that defined Mercedes style during his tenure:

“Experience has taught us that forms that are too trendy and flamboyant are consumed more rapidly than those that purposely avoid special effects. Of course every from tends to exhaust itself aesthetically sooner or later. Design can help accelerate this process. By artfully programming product obsolescence, in fact, it is possible to ensure a frequent demand for new models over a long period. I object to this system of product manipulation. I therefore believe that since this tactic is not in the Mercedes style, nor should it ever be, each model has a certain potential to later became a classic.”

Sacco further comments on the key principles of Mercedes design:

“How do we conceive our company’s design today in the context of our history and current technical demands and possibilities? We follow three basic principles:

  1. A Mercedes must always be recognizable as a Mercedes
  2. For customers it must symbolize the values associated with it, which the customer expects
  3. Its design must express the maximum innovation compatible with the tradition of our Company”

Over his long career, Sacco received many high-profile awards for his designs and achievements. He won the Raymond Loewy Foundation Designer Award in 1997 and was given an honorary doctorate from the University of Udine in 2002. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2006 and the European Automotive Hall of Fame in 2007. Sacco retired from Daimler-Benz in 1999 with an unparalleled list of impressive design accomplishments. From the W126 S-Class of the early 1980’s to the R230 SL of the late 1990’s, Sacco influenced every Mercedes-Benz product for over three decades. His all-time favorite design was the W201 190E and the R129 SL. At 84 years old, he still drives a black Mercedes-Benz C126 560 SEC. Bruno Sacco’s legacy is secure as one of the most influential automobile designers of the post-war period.

Sacco at home enjoying his SEC

Sacco behind the wheel of a W140

Sacco’s speech at Dearborn Michigan for his induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2006:

Photographs and video courtesy of Mercedes-Benz.

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2 Responses to Unmistakably Sacco: The Titan of Post-War Design

  1. Roger Morrison August 12, 2018 at 5:34 pm #

    He was a very well respected honorary judge at Pebble Beach for many years.

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