The legendary 86-year-old automotive designer arrives for our appointment punctually, stylishly dressed and ready to go. He wants to drive his new E-Class Coupé today, the colour of which perfectly matches his hat and suit. The second car parked in his garage – he officially took it off the road over winter – is a classic car from the period he spent defining the Mercedes-Benz design with precise elegance. It is a Sacco Coupé: a 560 SEC (C 126) built in 1989, painted in dark blue just like the E-Class. “In many cases, I find that the Coupé is the paradigm for the series,” explains Bruno Sacco, adding: “The art of omission. For me, that’s the essence of successful design.”
His first notable success in this respect was in 1979, with the second generation of the S-Class (W 126), which has a balanced, streamlined and uncomplicated design that established this German-Italian designer’s style at Mercedes-Benz. Sacco replaced chrome-plated opulence with lightness and aerodynamic efficiency, creating a new ideal of automotive beauty as he did so, and setting out the future path for the brand with the three-pointed star. We talked to the designer personally about how he managed to shape not only Mercedes-Benz, but also an entire era of automotive history.
Bruno Sacco worked for Mercedes-Benz from 1958 to 1999. He shaped the enduring image of the brand from 1975.
Born in Italy, he is considered one of the most important designers in automotive history.
What you’re wearing, both of your cars – all blue. So it’s obvious what your favourite colour is...
I like the colour blue because I spent my childhood and many holidays since then in Italy, and blue stands for the sky, openness, beautiful weather.
You started at Mercedes-Benz in 1958 and stayed for 41 years. As Head of Styling from 1975 and later Chief Designer, you were responsible for the brand’s image and you ultimately shaped an entire generation of car-building. How do you summarise a career like that from your perspective today?
We built some very effective cars. Yes, I believe I can say that.
I’m not one for elaborate language. When I say an effective car, I’m talking about entirely successful, coherent vehicles. So by the same token, of course, there are also cars that aren’t effective: The line doesn’t work; the tail is too high; the front exudes no character – a car must have a beautiful face. I believe that my C 126 has one of the most beautiful faces there’s ever been.
Let’s go back to the mid-1970s. How did you envisage the future then?
The C 111-III comes to mind immediately. It was the first vehicle that I was responsible for from a design perspective, and we only ever built two. It meant a great deal of freedom for my team and me, but it was also a major challenge. I think what we achieved was very successful, given that we saw the C 111-III as an opportunity to showcase new stylistics. For me personally, that car represents an important milestone as a 1A design object – it enabled us to show what we were capable of. I still think that the C 111-III looks like a piece of the future.
Is it correct that many design elements in the C 111-III were adopted in Mercedes-Benz series-production vehicles, or even taken up by the competition?
Yes, that’s true. We received very positive feedback when we introduced the C 111-III at the end of the 1970s. With its uncompromisingly aerodynamic lines, the car included design elements that were subsequently seen in Mercedes-Benz models right into the 1980s.
At the beginning of 1975, you became the successor to Friedrich Geiger, whose masterpiece was the legendary 300 SL (W 198). How did it feel to follow in Geiger’s footsteps?
To be completely honest, it felt normal to me. I expected it and was pleased; it was somehow my turn. When I took up that senior position, one thing we were developing was the new S-Class, the 126 series. I knew we needed it to meet the highest expectations, both of our customers and my employer – that was always what I was motivated by. And the result was good for about a decade, before the time slowly rolled around for a successor S-Class. The W 126 was already in line with my vision of the future at that time. We had to take new environmental and safety aspects into account, and earn the distinction of timelessness: an effective car should be loved both in its own era and as a classic car. The bodywork of the W 126 was lighter, kept its shape better, and was more streamlined. We designed a new front and rear apron, for example, and for the first time had windscreen wipers that were stowed under the bonnet when not in use, and there were the “Sacco panels” – side coverings made from plastic, which had not been done before. And I recognised that being responsible for the design rather than designing it myself was different altogether. It put me in the role of the conductor.
C 126: The first true “Sacco Car”: the second generation of the S-Class came to market in 1979. It was available as a Saloon and a Coupé (one of which Bruno Sacco drives to this day). The 126 series was the first Mercedes-Benz that was consistently conceived for lightweight construction, aerodynamics, and sustainability. Its balanced, streamlined design offered excellent structural engineering and dynamism. The renowned Sacco panels debuted in the S-Class, with the amount of chrome in retreat.
The 126 series was such a huge success for you and your team that you drive a C 126 to this day...
That’s true. Although my S-Class Coupé now has a good 30 years under its belt, I still consider it the ideal touring car. My mechanic assures me that I could just get in it now and drive straight down to Palermo on Sicily.
Did you have to make a few compromises as Chief Designer?
That was part of business – and that’s certainly still true. It was mostly not a problem for me. Ultimately, we were all working together. But there was one I got annoyed about: the W 140, which debuted in 1991 as the successor to the W 126. There was a lot of criticism of the new S-Class at that time, not unfairly. We had to meet certain spatial requirements with the W 140, as it was developed at a time when nothing was big enough or comfortable enough for our sales department. My opinion is that the S-Class released then was too tall. It was fortunately very puristic in terms of its surfaces and details, and the car sold very well outside Germany.
Today, the W 140 is increasingly popular even among classic car fans in Germany...
I’ve noticed that as well. It goes that way with preferences and tastes.
Your innovative form concepts set trends worldwide. Did you have a design philosophy?
I didn’t want the new models to make their predecessors look old. But the most important thing was always that customers had to like the cars. My maxim was that a Mercedes-Benz must look like a Mercedes-Benz. New developments should never break with the tradition or lose that identity. I have always said that model development has to be approached harmoniously.
Let’s talk about the R 129. The successor to the R/C 107 does not look like the big brother of the previous SL; however, it is considered one of the most beautiful Mercedes-Benz models and your masterpiece.
Perhaps the preceding model that had a lot of chrome was simply on the market a few years too long? It was sold from 1971 to 1989 after all – almost two decades. We skipped an era with the R 129. Form and dynamics are almost perfect in their connection here.
R 129: Timeless: The look and feel of the roadster, which was delivered for the first time in 1989 and was the successor to the R/C 107, seemed to skip several possible model series and is considered one of the most beautiful Mercedes-Benz models. Sacco’s masterpiece was the first roadster with an automatic roll bar. The car’s thrusting wedge shape and raised tail are striking elements of the design. It is designed for optimum aerodynamics and enables a very low Cd value.
SLK: A car that lifts your spirits: “When I look at the SLK, which was launched on the market in 1996, it puts a smile on my face,” says Bruno Sacco. During the development phase, he secured a comparison car in Italy, the dimensions of which approximately corresponded to those of the small roadster, and used it for test drives. So for a short time, the SLK (R 170) was perhaps Sacco’s “darling”: “It’s also the right car for young people who want to have fun.”
Looking back, what were your greatest challenges?
That would probably be the two model series that opened up entirely new segments for us: the 190 E, known as the “Baby-Benz”, that debuted in 1982. Its design took up many style elements of the C 111-III, for example the precise edges and lines that run parallel to the flow lines. The tail of the W 201 is one of the most beautiful there is in my view. And then, of course, there was also the development of the A-Class, the first Mercedes-Benz in my time to have a front-wheel drive. That, with the fact it was the first time we were designing a car without a tail and nose – it wasn’t easy. When we designed the A-Class, we were already thinking about alternative drive types. Among other considerations, the double floor was introduced, which also meant better side-impact protection. It’s not my favourite car, but I stand by the form and concept, and the A-Class has developed magnificently over the years.
What does driving a car mean to you?
For me, it is absolute freedom.
What’s the next dream you want to fulfil?
Earlier in life, I would often travel by train with my parents, and I’d always go into the driver’s cab at the front. I would love to see the classic US steam locomotive Big Boy in action on the railway. This colossus spent decades pulling trains up to 40 metres in length over the mountains of the US states of Wyoming and Utah. A few decades ago, the model was gradually taken out of commission, but now it looks like one of these fantastic engines is about to make a comeback pulling chartered trains. I would really like to see this steam locomotive at work.