“Mercedes-Benz is my life.”
A life-changing encounter.
A chance encounter in the early 1950s had a lasting impact on Bruno Sacco’s future – and the future development of the Mercedes-Benz brand: when the Italian saw the French designer Raymound Loewy’s Studebaker Starlight Coupé at a motor show in his home town of Turin in April 1951, his passion for automotive design was ignited. “That car was like something from another world,” recalls Bruno Sacco more than 60 years later. Soon afterwards, he saw the futuristic looking car on the road again and his resolve to design cars intensified. Having gained some initial experience in the field of design, in 1958 he began what would be a career of more than 40 years with Mercedes-Benz. The long-serving chief designer has now turned 80.
Still devoted to design.
In a quiet residential area in Böblingen near Stuttgart, Bruno Sacco sits in his simply furnished office. Here, amid drawings, sketches and poster boards, he has been continuing his career since retiring from Mercedes-Benz in 1999 – no longer as a car designer, but as a product designer for the sanitary industry. At the end of the year, however, he hopes to fully retire, he says. The modest and always stylish Italian didn’t make any fuss about his big birthday, nor his unparalleled career with the brand that invented the motor car. A career during which Sacco influenced the appearance of the brand more than anyone else, earning him a place in the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2006 – among other recognitions.
Actually, he says, he had never planned to stay in Germany that long: 'I wanted to amass lots of other experiences, including working in the United States.' But it turned out differently. And the rest is (automotive design) history.
The start of an extraordinary career.
This story begins in the Italian city of Udine, where Bruno Sacco was born on 12 November 1933. Having trained as a surveyor (the youngest in Italy), he began a course at the Polytechnic University in Turin. It was here that the previously mentioned chance encounter took place – one that would change Sacco’s life. While still a student, he took on his first design jobs with the companies Ghia and Pininfarina. At Ghia he worked with such greats as Giovanni Savonuzzi and Sergio Sartorelli. Sacco’s interest in Germany and his German language skills eventually led to a meeting with Karl Wilfert, which was arranged through the German consul in Turin. At that time, Wilfert was head of testing for car bodywork and styling at Mercedes-Benz. In 1957 he invited Sacco to the Sindelfingen factory – and hired the enthusiastic young designer a short time later.
Sacco had admired Mercedes-Benz from afar for many years, partly owing to the legendary motor racing success of Juan Manuel Fangios.
On 13 January 1958, aged 25, Bruno Sacco took up his post as number two stylist, with Paul Bracq having been made number one stylist the year before. Sacco's starting salary: 650 DM. Sacco worked as a stylist and design engineer under Karl Wilfert (“an undiplomatic visionary”) and Friedrich Geiger. He later transferred to Béla Barenyi's department for five years.
He worked on various different projects, including the Mercedes-Benz 600 (W 100) and the 230 SL convertible and he project-managed the design of experimental vehicles C 111-I (1969) and C 111-II (1970). With its design that was completely atypical for Mercedes-Benz, “we wanted to venture into new territories, rather than be guided by what was already there.”
The first “real Sacco”: the S-Class (model series 126).
With his new job title of “chief engineer”, Bruno Sacco succeeded Friedrich Geiger as head of the main styling department in 1975 and from that moment on he made his mark on the appearance of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars. As well as working on current projects, he developed future perspectives that transcend the decades. These included the first “real Sacco”, the S-Class model series 126. In 1979 Sacco presented the first production vehicle developed under his leadership: a fresh, more down-to-earth design that did not deny the Mercedes-Benz luxury class heritage and a slightly wedge-shaped body that gave a nod to the aerodynamic thinking of the time.
Thinking long-term was as much part of Sacco’s approach as the rejection of “bells and whistles” and the refusal to follow style trends. He firmly believes that, taking into account development time, production period and service life, the styling of a Mercedes should stay current for around 30 years or, better yet, it should be timeless. “Vertical affinity” is a principle from the Mercedes-Benz design philosophy presented in 1980. It states that new models must never make their predecessors appear outdated. The second main pillar of the philosophy is “horizontal homogeneity”, whereby particular design features such as radiator grilles, headlights and taillights should look similar across all model series. In other words, a Mercedes-Benz must always be recognisable as aMercedes-Benz. And although, as Sacco will concede, philosophies are susceptible to change over time, the principles of this one still apply to this day.
The “Baby-Benz” ushers in a new era.
In 1982, Bruno Sacco opened up a “new era” for the three-pointed star brand in the shape of the Mercedes-Benz 190 (W 201) – a new vehicle category under the established Mercedes-Benz saloons. This compact four-door came to symbolise the transformation of Mercedes-Benz. For Sacco, it was “the perfect example of how to marry innovation and tradition.” It met with controversy at first and was criticised by some for being too “sober” or even “cheap”. But with its low-key wedge shape and an geometrically uncompromising transition from the C-pillars into the high, folded trunk, the 190 was affectionately christened the “Baby Benz” by the public and was later much imitated by competitors. It enabled Mercedes-Benzto reach new, younger target audiences without alienating its traditional customers. The second masterpiece on the modern Mercedes-Benz timeline is the 500 SL (R 129) launched in 1989.
“The most perfect car of my career.”
The aim was to create a convertible that sparks emotions, while also radiating elegance and style. “We wanted to take away the aggression, which perhaps doesn't sound very logical for a sports car,” says Sacco. With its classic proportions and sporty touches, it was an automotive sculpture: “The most perfect car of my career,” he says.
But he shares the credit with his whole team. “I was fortunate enough to inherit a young team focused on high performance.” Sacco had complete faith in them: “The day I was put in charge of design, I put my sketching pencil down for good,” he says.
Praise for the new A-Class and the CLS Shooting Brake.
On the subject of perfection … Aside from the cars designed under his direction, including the first SLK (“a cute little car”) and the S-Class Coupé (C 215), which vehicles have caught his discerning eye? Sacco mentions Wilhelm Maybach’s Mercedes 35 PS from 1901 (“a mesmerising masterstroke of technical beauty without any ostentation”) and the 540 K from 1936 with its then immediately recognisable ‘Sindelfingen bodywork’, a model of which sits on the sideboard in his office. And of today’s cars? The maestro praises the new A-Class (“a lovely little Mercedes-Benz, completely unmistakeable”) and the CLS Shooting Brake (“the most glamorous Mercedes-Benz until the new S-Class arrived”).
In fact, Sacco himself is the proud owner of a Shooting Brake, after years of driving an M-Class. And for a while in the mid-60s he was behind the wheel of the very first 300 SL – chassis number 0001.
Entering the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2006.
Bruno Sacco was given a place in the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2006 in acknowledgement of his lifetime achievements – unsurpassed achievements that continue to shape Mercedes-Benz. The long-serving chief designer has given the brand a style identity that still lives on today. Sacco dared to be different, without losing sight of Mercedez-Benz’s extraordinary heritage as inventors of the motor car. In his distinctive, matter-of-fact way, he confesses: “Mercedes-Benz is my life.” His relationship with the three-pointed star to one side, it was first and foremost his love for his wife that kept the Italian, who describes himself as “the archetypal European”, in Germany so long, abandoning his original plans. In 1959 he met his Annemarie; just a year later, their daughter was born. It was meant to be. Bruno Sacco named the girl Marina-Mercedes.