Bruno Sacco left his mark on Mercedes design between 1975 and 1999. Many of the models created under his aegis are now among the brand’s classics. Bruno Sacco is now 90 years old.
By Thomas Wagner
Bruno Sacco is one of the most influential automobile designers of the 20th century. As a person as well as in his function as a constructor and designer, he epitomises the successful combination of German engineering and Italian design that has made Mercedes-Benz so successful over the decades and still bears the reputation of the brand with the three-pointed star today. From 1975 to 1999, he was responsible for the appearance of the brand, first as chief stylist and later as chief designer. An outward sign of how influential Sacco has been over almost a quarter of a century is the countless awards he has been honoured with. Just two stand out: in 2006 he was inducted into the “Automotive Hall of Fame” in Dearborn, and in 2007 into the “European Automotive Hall of Fame” in Geneva.
Design Cannot Compensate for Technical Shortcomings
Sacco’s principle that the aesthetic quality of a product can never compensate for a lack of technical quality separates styling from design. And characterises the well-balanced symbiosis of technicality and aesthetics that basically characterises all his designs. Nothing is too much, no detail seems unnecessarily overloaded. For him, functionality is just as little an end in itself as the glass bead game with extravagant body shapes. If it weren’t for the unmistakable elegance of coherent (and aerodynamically optimised) lines, one might be inclined to describe his designs as matter-of-fact. By brilliantly succeeding in merging function and form into a coherent whole (for example in models such as the 560 SEC (C 126) or the 190, the “Baby Benz” (W 201)), Sacco came close to the ideal of allowing technical and formal innovation to progress in perfect harmony. Convincing body design, lightweight construction, safety and aerodynamic efficiency replaced any kind of ornamentation – which clearly characterises Sacco as a modernist. Post-modern gimmicks of all kinds were never his thing. Which is why the sober elegance of his designs paid far less homage to the fickle zeitgeist than confidently adding something to it that pointed to the future. In an industry in which model development (at least at the time) was many years ahead of schedule, this was quite a feat. Only the design of the S-Class (W140) from 1991 onwards, which was rightly criticised for its dimensions and rather bulky appearance (other models were much more petite in comparison than today), threw the whole thing out of balance.
Constructor and Designer
His career can be summarised as follows: Bruno Sacco was born in Udine on 12 November 1933. After his school years in Tarvisio and Udine, he gained practical experience in designing car bodies while studying at the Polytechnic in Turin with Ghia. He subsequently realised commissioned work for Ghia and Pininfarina. In 1958, Sacco began working as a designer and constructor at Daimler-Benz. The fact that he was not just a designer, as well as the wealth of experience he was able to gather under the guidance of Karl Wilfert, Friedrich Geiger and Béla Barényi, give an idea of why his later designs had nothing in common with mere styling. He was involved in projects such as the 600 (W100) and the Pagoda roadster 230 SL (W113). He is also responsible for the rolling test laboratories, the C 111/1 and C 111/2 sports car studies.
From 1970, Sacco headed the body design and dimensional conception department. Five years later, he became chief engineer and successor to Friedrich Geiger, who had previously headed the “Styling” department; in 1978, Sacco was promoted to head of the Styling department; in 1987, he became director of the Design department. His most significant achievements include the S-Class models of the 126, 140 and 220 series, the aforementioned “Baby Benz”, the timeless SL roadster of the 129 series, the A-Class and the SLK, which he smilingly calls the “good-mood car”.
Perfect Sideline, Successful Front, Beautiful Rear
When it comes to his own top 3 – the most beautiful rear, the most successful front and what he considers to be the perfect side line – of the models from his era at Mercedes-Benz, Sacco has clear preferences: For him, the C 126, the large coupé based on the S-Class again from 1981 (which Bruno Sacco also drives himself), has the most beautiful front end. For Sacco, the perfect side line (especially when the roof is closed) is the R 129, the fifth generation of the SL-Class, which brought innovations such as the automatic roll bar and the integral seat to the road in 1989. And the rear? It is probably that of the 190 (camouflage name USHIDO) with its recognisable “diamond cut”, which was introduced at the end of 1982 and of which almost 1.9 million were built.
“A Mercedes-Benz,” Sacco once said, “must look like a Mercedes-Benz. That has actually always been my guiding principle. Not only that. I did my best to make sure it was like that. It was important to me that you could recognise it in the rear-view mirror: There’s a Mercedes-Benz approaching. And, just as important: harmonious model development. The successor was never allowed to make the predecessor look really old.” The great car designer Bruno Sacco, who celebrates his 90th birthday on Sunday, can take the fact that it is a simple detail that is associated with his name in everyday life with a sense of humour: Even today, the protective side panelling on Mercedes vehicles from the 1980s and 1990s is still affectionately known as “Sacco boards”.
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