The morning is clear and cool. It’s just before nine o’clock. Bruno Sacco is already standing at the door of his home in Sindelfingen, waiting for the photographer and the author to arrive. He’s looking forward to doing something he’s never done before: “Taking a two-day road trip with people who I barely know.”
The Italian-born designer, who was responsible for the visual appearance of the brand from 1975 to 1999, first as chief stylist and later as chief designer at Mercedes-Benz, was famous for replacing chrome-plated opulence with straightforward lightweight design and aerodynamic efficiency.
Bruno Sacco lives on the idyllic outskirts of Sindelfingen, not far from Stuttgart. A black-and-white cat roams the garden, with a lot of grass and a few bushes and trees. The property, with its terrace and sunshade, backs directly onto the edge of a forest.
Favourite car: Bruno Sacco with his 30-year-old 560 SEC en route from the Danube to the Rhine.
Bruno Sacco: “Of all the Mercedes-Benz models I was responsible for designing, the C 126 has the most beautiful front end.” Back in 1981, Mercedes-Benz reverted to basing its large coupés (SEC) on the S-Class. This is the car that Bruno Sacco drives.
The plan for the coming two days: visit some spots of his choice and drive through southern Germany and a bit of Switzerland, including an overnight stay wherever we happen to end up. On the way Bruno Sacco will tell us his top 3 – the cars from his era as head of design at Mercedes-Benz that have the most attractive rear section, the most successful front and the perfect side profile. “No problem,” answers the maestro. He has planned the route himself. Above all, he wants to see two major rivers – the Danube and the Rhine. And he wants to sit at the wheel himself, in his own car.
There is a double garage beside his house. Next to a 560 SEC (C 126) from 1989, there is also his E-Class Coupé, built in 2019. They both have dark blue paintwork – so that answers the question as to the 86-year-old’s favourite colour. He nods. He associates the colour blue with “the sky, open space, beautiful weather, holidays and relaxing.” And of course with Italy, where he grew up with his parents (his father was an officer, his mother a housewife) and went to school.
Why does he drive these two sporty, elegant coupés in particular?
“I often find that coupés are like the fillet steaks of the model series. Yes, I like coupés a lot – otherwise I wouldn’t own them.”
We head off in the C 126. The charismatic German–Italian, who rolls his “Rs” so beautifully, had his 560 SEC checked specially for the trip, by his trusted workshop. “This car is 30 years old, after all,” says Sacco. But the master mechanic assured him he could drive his favourite car all the way to Palermo on Sicily if he wanted to, without any problems.
Back to the source: The origin of the Danube – Bruno Sacco first visited Donaueschingen 62 years ago.
“Our first stop is the town of Donaueschingen, a good 100 kilometres away, where the source of one of the most significant and longest rivers in Europe, the Danube, is to be found,” says Sacco, as he steers the C 126 smoothly onto the motorway after a few kilometres of urban driving. The speed limit is 120 km/h; he strictly adheres to it. He says he often used to “enjoy” driving at speeds of 250 km/h – “only when the road was clear, of course”. But since his 80th birthday he has adopted a very relaxed driving style.
“To me, driving a car means total freedom,” says this man, who is one of the most important designers in automotive history.
He was responsible for the record-breaking C 111-III; the 126, 140 and 220 series S-Class models; the “Baby Benz” (W 201); the timelessly beautiful 129 series roadsters; the A-Class – Sacco is delighted by its global popularity – and the SLK, which he smilingly calls the “good-mood car”. Sacco is a member of the European Automotive Hall of Fame as well as the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, USA, and he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Udine, Italy.
Twenty years ago, a jury of experts pronounced him one of the five most eminent automotive designers of the century – alongside such illustrious names as Giugiaro, Bertone, Bugatti and Pininfarina. Does that make you proud, Mr Sacco? He takes a few seconds to think. “Not too much. A little bit though, yes.”
What was the most enjoyable business trip he ever took? Bruno Sacco indicates after overtaking and moves back into the right-hand lane. Thinking back to times long past brings a smile to his face. “I actually remember one business trip particularly fondly. I was driving a very successful car, the Evo II, from Milan to Genoa. The last part of the journey, through the mountains, looking out across the Mediterranean – that was fantastic.” Another time he crossed the USA from the west to the east coast in several one-day stages in an S-Class Saloon. That was also “an unforgettable adventure with the ideal set of wheels.” So why exactly are we visiting the source of the Danube in Donaueschingen? “I have happy memories of this spot,” answers Sacco, as he stands by the barrier above the river’s source. “This river simply fascinates me. It’s almost 3,000 kilometres long – the second-longest in Europe, making it an important trade route – and from here it flows through ten countries to the Black Sea. Always moving, never stopping. I like that.”
Lunch break: The German-Italian loves the Mediterranean cuisine of his country of birth. His favourite dish? Spaghetti vongole.
He came here for the first time in 1958. At the time, his colleagues were Paul Bracq and Karl Wilfert, and he had just moved from Italy to Germany to start in his job at the Daimler-Benz stylistics department.
Sacco, who wasn’t especially interested in cars as a child, had only recently started to notice outstanding automotive design. He explains: “I saw a Ghia Gilda. That car was a sensation.” Was seeing it his lightbulb moment? “Perhaps,” replies Bruno Sacco. “The beautiful 300 SL already existed at that point. I even owned one in the mid-1960s; it was the one with chassis number 0001. Yes, the unfussy, sporty design of this piece of art on wheels appealed to me. It encouraged me to start on the path that I would follow throughout my working life – although my parents always wished I would somehow pursue a career as an engineer, even long after I had become responsible for the stylistics and design department.”
Was there a motto, an overriding idea, a design philosophy that guided him? Bruno Sacco smiles quietly to himself as we head towards Switzerland, keeping a constant eye on the traffic ahead and the frequent speed limit signs. He thinks for a long time: “A Mercedes-Benz needs to look like a Mercedes-Benz. That was what I always said. And I didn’t just say it. I always did my best to follow it through as well. It’s important that you can tell when you look in the rear-view mirror that it’s a Mercedes-Benz coming up behind you. And another thing that’s just as important is harmonious model progression: the next model should never make the previous models look old.”
After a lunch of steak, we take a final look at the wildly raging waterfalls on the Rhine near the town of Schaffhausen in Switzerland. And then it’s time to head back on the last leg of our trip in the 560 SEC. To Sindelfingen.
Natural wonder: Near Schaffhausen in Switzerland is one of the three largest waterfalls in Europe: the roaring, wildly romantic Rhine Falls – 23 metres high and 150 metres wide. Bruno Sacco enjoys the stop and the view.