Bruno Sacco is one of the most influential automotive designers out there; his work at Mercedes defined the company’s whole look for decades.
When he took over as the company’s head of design in 1975, Sacco had himself an automaker company with excellent design sensibilities but without a defined ruleset for what made a Mercedes a Mercedes. In figuring that out, Sacco set some design trends and penned some of the best-looking cars we still love Mercedes for today.
It seems Sacco took his time getting to grips with what defined his designs as a Mercedes design. Born in Italy, it took him some time to understand the culture of the company. He earned his stripes working under Paul Bracq, eventual designer of the TGV high speed train and the sharknose BMW 6 Series, and managed several projects before he stepped up the big chair at Benz’s design department.
He took Gottlieb Daimler’s mantra “nothing but the best” to heart. He came to understand it as the core design philosophy of his era of Mercedes-Benz. His two defining ideas were “horizontal homogeneity” and “vertical affinity” which both sound like nonsense to the casual observer but actually carefully fastened the entire Mercedes model range together as a singular cohesive whole.
Horizontal homogeneity is the idea that the smallest and largest cars in a model range should share cues and have a distinct visual language that traces through from top to bottom. If you’ve ever seen a Sacco designed Benz, you know that this was an anchoring ideology.
Vertical affinity is a legacy-protecting idea, where the new car should not visually or stylistically obsolete the old car, where timelessness is a pervading design ideology rather than aiming for something contemporary. Again, almost every Sacco Mercedes achieves this.
Because of this, it’s easy to identify any Sacco-era Benz, but also easy to mis-identify some earlier designs as Sacco cars because of his design beliefs. His ideas didn’t just apply to the cars he made, but answered the Benzes of the past like the 300SL Gullwing or the W113 Pagoda SL. From beginning to end, Sacco elevated Mercedes design and made some of the most beautiful cars of all time.
The W201 190, the W124 E-Class, and the W126 S-Class show the clearest example of horizontal homogeneity of any era of his cars. Each car has a clear visual relationship while defining themselves with proportion and slight detail work. The W124 and W201 in particular share a lot of visual characteristics, but I think the W201 is the standout classic of the pair. It is the best proportioned and designed compact sedan of all time, and I also can’t help but swoon at the C-pillar vents. Look at how each car’s design speaks to one another.
Sacco designed more Benzes than just these golden-era cars, from a time when Mercedes spent as much energy making the five-link independent suspension for the W201 as BMW did making the entire E30. Yet, these cars are the most recognizably Sacco cars. Sacco was a master of proportion and restrained detailing, and strong unbroken lines that not only link one design together, but the design of an entire brand.
Breaking down what makes an iconic Sacco Benz could be (partially) boiled down to the instantly recognizable face. The Mercedes grill stands slightly proud of the rest of the hood and bodywork, folding over the front of the car as a defining design element. The greenhouse of the W201 and W124 share almost everything, while the W126 S-class has an altered greenhouse with design elements that carryover, like the inset windshield relative to the A-pillars. The tail lights, not pictured, share identical styling across all three models.
It is tough to assign one single element of Sacco design being a unique hallmark, but the whole speaks for itself. There isn’t a single bad angle from these cars, showcasing a carefully considered and observed design process. I can just see the designers experimenting with light and environment, making an attempt to achieve perfection.
Of course, how can you forget Bruno’s own magnum opus, the R129 SL. He himself called this “the most perfect of my career.”
We see a similar nose on the SL, with the grill standing proud of the hood and headlights, and tail lights that call straight back to the sedan trio. The flourish of the front fender vent calls back to the 300SL Gullwing, while the proportions, detail work, and shape remain classically Sacco. There are no strong character lines on the R129, but the beltline remains unbroken and the light profile of the car has a steady gradient from front to back, still suggesting continuity.
Bruno stayed at Mercedes until 1999, and oversaw the emergence of the company into its more modern designs like the SLK, the W220 S-class, and even the R230 which was beautiful in its own right. The R230 did have a tough time being the R129’s successor, but it was still a beautiful SL with exaggerated proportions and a shrunk greenhouse that leapt its way into the 2000s.
So that’s your quick guide to the golden era Bruno Sacco Benzes. I get very confused with the chassis codes, but trust me, they are all correct in this piece. Which Sacco Benz is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!