Vertical Affinity

Most mornings, on my way to the crèche with the kids I see a Swiss registered CLS 350 Shooting Brake. It’s fully specced with gorgeous wheels and I hate the days when our paths don’t cross. It has to be one of the most beautiful cars on the road and although it’s very early days yet the car seems to be aging well. I will admit that it is burdened with 2 doors too many to be a true Shooting Brake (can you imagine how sexy a 3 door would look?) but even so it still has to be the most jaw-dropping estate that money can buy.

 

Mercedes Benz CLS Shooting Brake
Who knew an estate car could be so beautiful?

 

The fact that it is so heart stoppingly beautiful though makes many other cars including other Mercedes look dumpy and dowdy. Imagine finding a parking space for your brand new w212 estate beside this CLS? You would just move a little further along so as that your new car didn’t look 40 years old. Mercedes have been making cars for well over 100 years and for most of this period they have been made to last and age well. This ethos was perfectly described as Horizontal and Vertical Affinity by Bruno Sacco, their chief designer for 24 years from 1975. Horizontal affinity described how all current models should share similarities so as that they were immediately distinguishable as Mercedes. This is now common practice among all manufacturers – The Hyundai i10 has the same styling cues as the i40. Vertical affinity described how new models needed to have a classical timeless style so as not to make older models look out of date or old fashioned. Sacco felt that Mercedes cars should last about 30 years so that there would be a real mix of newer and older models on the road.

 

w212 Mercedes Benz E Class estate
A perfectly acceptable W212 estate made to look old by the CLS

This poses a really tricky question: Your in house design team come up with an exquisite piece of automotive sculpture (such as the CLS Shooting Brake which makes a complete mockery of vertical affinity). Then you have to decide whether or not to tone it down so as not to age every single one of your other models or whether to allow production of a truly great piece of design. Simple economics would suggest that you didn’t make the car far more desirable than its stablemates as any increased sales of your new design might not make up for lost sales on less desirable models. The other side of the argument is that a halo car will draw more people to your brand which has to be a good thing. Maybe styles should evolve slowly over two or three life cycles to eventually arrive at the beautiful game changer? Will it still have the same impact if this car has been gradually designed as opposed to just arriving as a bolt from the blue? Maybe there is no “right answer.”

My own personal feeling as car lover is that in the short term the arrival of a game changer generally makes all other cars a little less appealing to look at (the arrival of the Citroen DS in 1955 must have rendered the rakish Traction Avant completely obsolete overnight). However over the long term I feel that we need these special cars on our roads. I think they would be less special if we little by little gradually get to that beautiful design. They need to surprise us and take our breath away. It has to be totally new and different to what has gone before. Each time we see one it needs brightens our day. The type of car that would make you follow it for a while just to look at it even if it’s not going your way. I often take a detour on my way home just to look at a beautiful Citroen DS that is parked close to where I live. I would not do this if the car had been designed by committee and had gradually evolved to that shape. Which car would make you drive 5 kilometres the wrong way just to look at it? Is it a car that evolved over many years and life cycles or was it a striking piece of new design when it was launched? These are important questions. We often see stunning new designs at motor shows when the car companies wheel out their latest concept car. By the time it is road ready and street legal 3 years later it is often unrecognizably dull. Sometimes though , just sometimes vertical affinity gets thrown out the window and a truly great piece of design slips through the net and we get a Citroen DS, an E Type Jaguar or the breathtaking CLS Shooting Brake.

10 thoughts on “Vertical Affinity”

  1. Bruno Sacco was lucky enough to stay in his role to see vertical affinity through to execution. These days they might get eight or ten years out of a chief designer. BMW managed quite well at this. Renault have never done vertical affinity: have you noticed how violently differernt each generation is from the last and sometimes even from one end of the range to the other. I like some of what they do, on a car by car basis.

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    1. Definitely each new gen of Renault bears absolutely no resemblance to what went before. They don’t seem to feed off or sell their heritage though and maybe they feel that their customers don’t think it’s a big deal that the new model is so different to the one they are currently driving. Even with changes in the design team the Swedes always managed it well I thought, both SAAB and Volvo(after Wilsgaard) always being unmistakable. However on so many levels Merc’s W210 was the nail in the coffin after Sacco left. There is no way that car would have been designed under his watch

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      1. The W210 is truly a remarkably horrible car, inside and out. Evidently the designers had no idea how to manage the important integration of the forms. It´s as if they didn´t see the car as whole but saw it in bits. It´s possibly one of the worst cars by a major manufacturer of the last two decades. There are wierder and stranger cars yet many of them have in internal consistency which rescues the concept somewhat. On a scale of perfect to Pontiac Aztek, the W210 is seventy percent there.

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  2. Strong words Richard! Couldn’t agree more though. It’s funny how that Aztec springs to mind as the absolute nadir of car design. I wasn’t really aware of it till I saw breaking bad and it truly is horrendous (although perfectly cast, another missed opportunity for “Lights Carmera”). I noticed that when you talked about perfection you didn’t actually mention a car……?

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    1. Indeed. That doesn’t mean beautiful but fault free.
      1998 Audi A6 leaps to mind. 1957 Lancia Flaminia. 1975 Citroen CX. 1962 Lincoln Continental saloon. 1965 RR Silver Shadow. 1989 Lexus LS400. Honda Beat and Suzuki Capuccino. How about those plus most of Sacco’s Mercedes.

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      1. That is a wide and varied list Richard. Have to confess to preferring the current runout A6. Love the Silver Shadow but the earlier Silver Ghost (early mark 1 with one single headlight each side) shades it for me. Totally with you on Sacco, the Citroen and Flaminia though. The Beat never really registerd high though, I thought the lights running into the wheel arch looked a little jarring.

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