“I had my most wonderful and happy years at Daimler-Benz – a period of around ten years, from 1957 to the late 1960s. That time was the heyday of automobile engineering anyway.” The legendary body designer Paul Bracq had already told me this on the telephone. The Pagoda, the Stroke Eight, the Grand Mercedes – the French maître carrossier and passionate designer created many automotive icons, and belongs in the foremost echelons of the grand old masters.
A personal meeting with him in Bordeaux, the city famous for its wines – and his home town – in south-western France? Now, aged 85, Paul Bracq has a number of health problems. His wife, Sigrun Alice, 78, a painter with a diploma in textile design who has been married to the master for 58 years, tells me that her husband no longer gives interviews to journalists. But after a few weeks of reflection and recovery following an operation, and for Mercedes-Benz Classic magazine: “We’ll make an exception for you. Come to Bordeaux.”
Familiar: Paul and Sigrun Alice Bracq have been married for 58 years.
Masterpiece: Maître carrossier Paul Bracq worked in his studio in Bordeaux over Easter to complete the painting for the cover of the Classic print magazine.
The Bracqs live in a quiet, green area, in a block of flats framed by large trees and a well-kept garden.When I arrive, Sigrun Alice Bracq waves a welcome from the balcony that runs almost completely around the building. Paul Bracq is wearing a white shirt under a dark-blue waistcoat and a jacket of the same colour, plus a silk scarf. The scarf – he owns several dozen of them – is his trademark. “I like to dress in style. Classic and elegant,” he says. He is in an excellent mood, friendly, open and attentive. As is his wife, Sigrun Alice: “Tea or coffee, biscuits or fruit?”
Paul Bracq has already spread out an assortment of items from a long working life on his desk. Sketches, drawings, drafts, design models. One thing is immediately noticeable: the forms the body designer has worked on to this day are always flowing and dynamic. Hanging on the wall behind his desk is an oil painting he produced in 2005.
“It depicts an SL as I imagined it at the time,” explains the native Frenchman, who as a two-year-old would run around with a self-made car of wood or plasticine in his hand. At the age of 14, he built 1:12 scale wooden models and thus playfully developed his first ideas for form and design.
When he joined Daimler-Benz in 1957, after his time in the army and professional training, he first painted cars for advertising material. Before becoming a mainstream body designer, he then redesigned a number of the tail lights of the “Fintail” models and the rear window of the 190 SL.
“I made it larger and more user-friendly,” he says. “One aspect has always been important to me: things must be beautiful – and practical.” He was in charge of the design advance development. His job was to “put the future on paper,” he explains and downs his espresso with a single gulp. He always worked from 6:55 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For him the morning hours are “a gift from heaven”. As is music: classical symphonies, blues, jazz – he still listens to almost anything as an accompaniment to his creative work. He inherited his love of music from his mother, who played the piano. “Music is what fuels me,” says Paul Bracq.
The six final evolutionary stages of the Pagoda.
And the engine – what drove him at the time? “Building beautiful cars that people can caress with their eyes. They must also retain their value as used cars – and win prizes in Concours d’Elegance 40 years later. That was always my working approach.”
Paul Bracq’s design philosophy? “I like flowing contours. Elegance, lightness and comfort are what counts. For me, simplicity is elegance. So I always looked for simplicity. And cars must have a distinctive face.”
When the development work for a new sports car to follow the era of the 300 SL and 190 SL was gradually approaching the home straight in the early 1960s, the first design draft by Paul Bracq was still heavily reminiscent of the direct predecessor. Two stipulations from the engineers for the new two-seater were that it must be easier for the occupants to get in and out, and the driver’s all-round vision must be improved. After five further design drafts, the final body shape of the Pagoda (bottom right) was born.
In his studio, the brightest room in the condominium where he is currently working on a number of oil paintings, he explains that the Pagoda has no contrived contours and no pseudo-modern Baroque styling. “And very importantly, the driver has good all-round vision. This was also required by the engineers working with the great Béla Barényi at the time. It must be easy to get in and out, and I think I can claim that we managed that. After all, reversing a Pagoda into a parking space is pure pleasure. Naturally, the fact that the car has survived the passage of time gives me great satisfaction. Yes, that was a success.”
His son Boris, 48, who, like his father, learned design, and ran his own industrial design agency for 15 years, went looking for a Pagoda as his father’s 80th birthday present, he tells me over a meal in a nearby restaurant. He came across such a car in a barn and was able to restore it for his father, who neither has a collection of classics nor has ever owned a Pagoda himself. However, his father did not want to accept this gift.
In his search for barn finds – and during their restoration – Boris became infected with the Pagoda virus. “What can I say,” he says, smiling at his parents. “It’s simply in my blood.” For a number of years he has been operating a custom workshop in Bordeaux, “Les Ateliers Paul Bracq” – mainly for Pagodas. He and his four employees not only give barn finds a new lease of life, but also repair the 230 SL, 250 SL and 280 SL. The team is currently working on 12 Pagodas. “Our customers come from many European countries,” says Boris Bracq – and his famous father proudly pats him on the back. The two are now working on a “secret project”: a limited special edition. They won’t say more. One final question. “Would you be interested in painting something for the readers of our Classic magazine – the cover picture?”
Paul Bracq withdraws into his studio and starts off with a few sketches. Then he begins to paint. Eight days later the master’s oil painting is finished. It shows the Pagoda – what else.