Book club for car designers: book 1

It has been at least 30 years since I first became interested in car design. My childhood obsessions swerved towards cars early, but then learning about how they came to exist was harder. Occasional design articles in Car Magazine helped educate me, and around the same time I wrote a letter to Rover Design – and a wonderful reply came back to teenage me from Roy Axe. There have been countless books published on cars, and there have been biographies written about important figures in the industry, but design and styling was previously very niche. I am lucky to have attracted attention of a publisher who has sent me a car design book to review. I also decided to look into what other books are available on this subject, because there seem to be a growing number especially autobiographies. Roy Axe wrote one, and that’s one book I intend to read for obvious reasons. In 2020 I read a couple of books in this genre, and here I review one of them.

The Crowood Press reached out to me- and asked if I would interested in reviewing their recently published book on Bruno Sacco, former head of the Mercedes Benz Styling Department. The book is called “Bruno Sacco: Leading Mercedes-Benz Design 1975-1999 and is written by a chap called Nik Greene. The book seems well-titled, but I will get back to that. Expectation was for a biography of Bruno Sacco, who is a towering name in vehicle design. Revered for his expert custodial control of one of the most important automotive brands, Sacco oversaw a seminal era of Mercedes design. It is from his era that my preferred Mercedes Benz designs originate. The W124 (class E) and the first generation SLK (R170) are my personal favourites from the definitive automobile brand.

I am apprehensive about writing my first book review, as I am not sure of the correct etiquette, and in the case of this particular book I must be blunt and admit I did not enjoy it. I wanted to get that off my chest right away- and I will add that I didn’t manage to read every word in this book, as it is dry and rather tedious to read. It serves as a hefty and no doubt fact-filled reference book, ideal for a University library shelf (good reference for my day-job) but as an enjoyable read it fails. Perhaps the subject matter does not hold enough personal interest for me, but the real issue I have with a car design book such as this, is when it is written by someone with a lack of knowledge for the car design process. Finding a combination of design know-how and writing skill is rare indeed, so I can cut the publishers slack in this regard. This is, I am afraid, not a book about Mercedes-Benz design, and nor is it a book about Bruno Sacco. Sacco barely features, and a vast majority of the text appears to be reference material on the history of Mercedes Benz engineering achievements. Think Wikipedia in book form, with superb and exclusive photography. Factually correct, but uninspired in prose or storytelling.

The nature of this book is stated in the preface by the author- and in this we can respect his professionalism (clearly an accomplished researcher). Unfortunately he reveals the reason for my feelings on this book, by mentioning personal meetings with the great man Bruno Sacco. It is very pleasant to hear that Sacco was a humble man who credits all his success to team work. This is pleasantly accurate, because no car is ever designed or created alone, and Sacco did not himself “pen” more than perhaps one Mercedes car. The author clearly reveres Sacco, and defers to his request regarding the content of the biography about him. The failings of the book can be explained by quoting the author himself.

The only way I could honour one of the
greatest designers in automotive history was to write his
story through the history of design, honouring the people
he honoured, and showing his talent through his work and
not through his ego.

Nik Greene – author

So this appears to be exactly what Nik did, and the result is as mentioned previously, rather dry. Of 208 pages in this publication, we only start to learn about Sacco on page 130. At last we hear of his life before Mercedes Benz, and things start to feel a lot more like an actual biography. Sadly it is all over by page 138, and we return to detailed history of Sacco’s most personal car design, the C111 Experimental Safety Vehicle Project. This avoidance of anything not-Mercedes related, and anything personal, creates a book which feels corporately sponsored (NOTE: the publishers asked me to make it clear it is NOT sponsored in any way). The vast majority of this book is a fascinating guide to the entire history of vehicle design and engineering, but with the point of view that no other company exists than Mercedes Benz. This final third of the book is where things get messy. Twice we are led though the timeline of Mercedes design- firstly seemingly unrelated to Sacco, then concentrating on Sacco’s time and his guidance. This is a genuinely interesting section of the book, and perhaps the entire publication could’ve been 2/3rds shorter. The stand out aspect of this book are the images and photographs, which often appear to be exclusive archive material, unavailable in any other publication. One photograph showing a young Gorden Wagener talking with Sacco over a small clay model of the CLK coupe design stands out as prophetic. Master training the apprentice. Sacco is shown in casual attire, a cardigan, and with spectacles on (vanity appears to stop him wearing these in any other formal photographs). The last 3 chapters of the book are better, with the final being “Sacco’s Legacy”. Here we also see the mistakes regarding design, with clay model review images being wrongly explained as “exploring different sizes of vehicle” which they were not (all clearly have the same package and dimensions). My favourite fact learned from this book, is something that changes my previously held dislike for the W140 S-Class design. A car I have always felt is too large, and just too arrogant in its design. How can someone as renowned as Sacco have made this mistake? He didn’t. He wanted the entire car to have 100mm lower roofline, but was overruled by engineering. A rare regret that he admitted to.

Overall then- a very comprehensive history of the engineering and design of Mercedes Benz, but rather light on insight into the man named in the title. For a fan of the brand this becomes a must-buy, but for the rest of us, perhaps it’s not as compelling.

How do we conceive our company’s designs today

in the context of our history and current technical

demands and possibilities? We must continue to follow

the three basic principles.

1 A Mercedes must always look like a Mercedes.

2 It should symbolize all the values that are the hallmark

of an authentic Mercedes and that our customers

expect of it.

3 The design should include as much innovation as

possible while at the same time remaining true to the

values of the brand.

It is highly important that both the driver and the

passengers have the clear sensation of being in a

Mercedes once they are seated in any of our cars.

This feeling is induced not only by the design but also

by the finishing, the choice of materials, and even

the tactile impact with interior surfaces. This way, it

is not difficult for customers to establish a relationship

of trust with the marque, especially in terms of

reliability and continuity.

Bruno Sacco

Links to buy:


my job = teaching these guys

2015 is the year that our first Vehicle Design students will graduate. To showcase their skills they collaborated on a project led by a professional car designer. The project gained recognition in the automotive design world, being featured on Auto&Design Facebook page and kickstarting a lot of local press attention too.

bonsai cactus

A few weeks ago I finally had the chance to check out the new Citroen C4 Cactus at a dealer. I sat in it and had a good look around. What an impressive car, truly excellent design from Citroen! I was shocked at just how small the car is from the outside. It really is tiny, smaller than even a standard C4 or DS4, but space inside is superb. The boot capacity is rather small thanks to a cute stubby rear overhang, and for my family it’s inadequate. The loading lip is very high and unsuitable for my dog. There are no rear quarter lights either. So maybe it’s not for me (shame because I really want to buy one) but it’s clearly one of the best new car designs for many years. The interior is truly special. The dealer I visited also sell Mercedes and I sat in the new GLA class crossover. Guess which car has more space and then guess which has the best quality interior materials and design? Yes the Citroen. Bravo! For less than half the price the little Citroen beats the Mercedes hands down. The door cards and door pulls on the Cactus are wonderful. The touchscreen centre console is much higher quality than the Mercedes. The front bench seat style cushion that stretches across the range topping Cactus I sat in feels so luxurious. I can’t praise this little car enough. Car of the year 2014 for me, without a doubt.




Geneva 2012 gets “bangled”

The legend speaks! Chris Bangle- former head of BMW design (the last guy to really change car design paradigms, introducing elaborate surface entertainment) let’s us know what he thinks about the recent Geneva Motor Show. I’m predictably with Chris here, some nice designs, nothing radical (except that insane and ugly Toyota FT-Bh concept he mentions) and some very safe me-too production designs from major brands.

Bangle on Geneva 2012 from Scuderia Zagreb on Vimeo.

credit crunch

Thanks to a new baby, and also redecorating a new house- I’ve had very little time to write this blog and even less time to read my long term favourite magazine Car. Tonight I tried to go catch up on reading, and I’m as far behind as the August issue. This brings me to write a post about something in that issue, regarding the leading car designers at this time in 2010. Car Magazine has always been a cut above others, with their inside industry knowledge and contacts but sometimes the design related reporting lets them down. This is not entirely their fault, as the industry still insists on massive variation in publicity in terms of vehicle designers and the internal vehicle design studios. The image of a car company is more important than almost anything else they do and they go to enormous lengths to protect it. Another fact is that a studio’s designers are working on vital products that may not be seen on the road until 6 or 7 years time. This means that headhunting and stealing the staff with that knowledge is very valuable to other studios and very damaging to the studios that lose staff. So, the result is that some studios flatly refuse to acknowledge that anyone besides the chief designer even exists- and therefore every design is attributed to a design chief that may not have put pen to paper for many years. Other studios seem more confident of retaining talent, by simple measures such as paying them enough or keeping them happy! So we rarely see interior, exterior, even colour and trim individuals being named and paraded in PR at car launches. The publicity can also be very selective, with the more design orientated publications being given more information- magazines such as Auto&Design for example. Knowing many designers in the industry, and feeling pride even in seeing their work out there on my local street, I feel quite strongly when I see yet another magazine article reporting that X chief designer actually designed that car. For example, the wonderful new Mercedes SLS exterior was designed by Mark Featherstone. A British born designer, and fellow graduate of Coventry University, Mark went straight from school to work for Mercedes where he has designed the B-Class exterior which earned his stripes as it were- to be let lose on the ultimate Mercedes, the SLS. Mark appeared at the public unveiling of both cars, in 2004 and 2009 respectively, named publicly as the designer, and continues to work for Mercedes to this day. He even featured in a great little PR video driving and giving his wide-eyed Clarkson style verdict on the final production SLS! This makes me feel good, and it makes me like the Merc design department. There are other design studios that are not so transparent in naming any designers other than the top person- or simply make a bit of a mess explaining exactly how a car is even designed. The result is that CAR magazine’s list of the top 30 designers, with notes on the actual cars designed by them- not just the studios they run, is plain wrong in places. For example the Mercedes chief, Gorden Wagener is credited with the SLS, but the text is more generous to our Mark by saying Gorden “championed” the SLS, rather than created it. The issue gets much more complicated when the journalists really don’t understand the difference between leading a design strategy across various studios, leading a certain brand, leading a single project or actually getting the markers and clay out and styling a vehicle. A great example from the list is a fantastic award winning concept car from 2006- the Citroen C-Metisse. I also personally know both designers involved, the painfully talented Vincent Grit on exterior duties, and the very good friend and superb artist Steven Platt creating the interior design. Both of these designers were publicly named as the creators of this vehicle on it’s release, there was a photo of them both stood next to that car (which was captioned with their names in the relevant article in 2006). I have included a signed sketch by Steven here.


Now in the 2010 CAR article, recently promoted chief designer at Peugeot, Giles Vidal is credited with designing the C-Metisse. The article actually points out Vidal was head of concepts at PSA, so maybe we should be lenient, but it once again might seem to the average reader that the C-Metisse was such great work by him that it earned promotion. This is true in a sense- that he made the decision to produce this concept and that decision proved to be popular once revealed to the public. Perhaps something of a design industry joke, is just how many people claim to have designed the original Audi TT, this latest magazine article credits Peter Schreyer, Freeman Thomas, but not as has previously been reported, J Mays. The list of Audi TT designers could be longer, and will we ever know who actually sketched out that shape?

The reality would be great to know from all these studios, just how much input do people such as Giles have into that design? I hear to varying degrees the amount that a designer is “in charge” of their own design once it has the green light for either a concept or production. This is also the standard practise within studios, to let all designers compete, then once a single design has “won” the designer responsible effectively becomes chief on that one vehicle, seeing it through right to the final stage in every detail. So a studio chief simply picks a winner- like early auditions for X-factor? When I was an intern at Peugeot, the Peugeot family vetted new designs, and if Mr Peugeot’s wife didn’t like your design, then it probably wasn’t going into production I’m afraid. Also, if a designer simply stuck the cat-eye headlamp graphic on almost any shape- that also was favoured by the chief designer over any other more aesthetically pleasing designs. Does this kind of selection require design ability, aesthetic judgement, or just a grasp of office politics? We could say generously that it requires all 3 skills, and is a damned difficult role to play in the process. We could also say the opposite….