Bruno Sacco: Icon of Impeccable Taste and Beacon of Modesty
The prospect of meeting the grand seigneur of Mercedes-Benz design was very exciting, even if we had been warned that car design was the one subject he wanted to avoid… However, meeting the living legend who gave Mercedes-Benz cars a fresh but timeless appearance was more than enticing enough for us. Always the perfect gentleman, he arranged our first encounter to take place over an extensive Italian meal, and without being pushed too hard, did eventually talk about some epoch-making developments – always emphasising with his typical modesty that he had simply been the head of a marvellous team.
Mercedes-Benz – the very name instantly conjuring up quality and desirability to Daimler employees and the car buying public alike, is undoubtedly one of the world’s most prestigious brands. Whoever ends up working for “the Daimler”, as the Swabians like to call their company, is considered a very lucky person and at the top of their industry. Bruno Sacco had landed himself in this enviable position, when in January 1958 the 24 year old Italian arrived in Stuttgart and took up work as a ‘stylist’. In fact, stylists in those days were considered no more than a useful addition to the all important team of mechanical engineers under Friedrich Geiger, who shared one big hall in Sindelfingen.
When Sacco started, only he and the Frenchman Paul Bracq, were working as proper designers for Geiger. Soon after Geiger resigned in 1974, Sacco took over as Chief Designer in the Style Center the whole aspect of design in the company started to assume a greater importance.
“I always wanted to join Mercedes-Benz and looking back, I realise that Mercedes-Ben really determined my life – Sindelfingen and the Design Center that is.” The gentleman from Udine started and finished his professional career with the premium car manufacturer. His strong-willed and disciplined but always team-oriented nature fitted perfectly with the Mercedes-Benz ethos and he stayed there 41 years.
Despite his talent and stature, he remained what he has always been, a modest and practical team player who never thrust himself to the fore. It is in this spirit that he describes himself dismissively to us as “un troglodita”, in other words a simple character. He recalls that his father was away from home in his youth so it was up to his mother to care for her son’s education as best she could. At an early age the seeds of his interest in vehicles had been sown by a passion for trains.
The ultimate inspiration, however, that sparked off the young man’s moving to Turin was yet to come. With the school certificate from the Technical Institute, “Antonio Zano” in Udine in his hands, Bruno Sacco travelled to the Turin Motor Show that same year. This is when his eyes fell on the beautiful Studebaker Starlight Coupé . “A little later, I saw it again, and that ultimately confirmed my passion for cars”. In those days, apart from being the hotspot of the Italian car making industry, Turin ranked among the biggest international centres of car design. The city was home to Pininfarina, Carrozzeria Ghia, Nuccio Bertone, Gigi Michelotti, Giorgio Giugiaro, Fiat and Lancia Design. Consequently, young Bruno, not yet of age according to the law at that time, wanted to be close to the action and this resulted in the family moving to Turin in 1952 and Bruno enrolling at the Technical University of Engineering. He didn’t, in fact, enjoy his course studies but rather it was growing fascination with cars and design that consumed him. Ultimately this dedication got him his first job as an apprentice with Carrozzeria Ghia. In these years he also met Sergio Pininfarina who also spurred on his talent as a ‘car stylist’.
300 SL – The car that lured Sacco from Turin to Sindelfingen
In spite of being an Italian in the heart of Italian car design, Bruno Sacco felt irresistibly drawn to Mercedes-Benz and followed their sports car success in motor racing. “I felt the 300 SL was a fantastic sports car. It stood out a mile next to the drab array of production saloons.” Though excited by the brand he could not, however, escape the feeling that, overall, the styling of Merceded-Benz cars badly needed some fresh thinking.
Theoretical reflections were soon to be put to the test, because he managed to get a job interview with Karl Wilfert, chief of car body development, resulting in his prompt employment in Sindelfingen – which of course turned out to become the job of a lifetime.
“Pure styling” is what was on young Bruno’s mind but it was not, as it turned out, to be the mindset of the German premium car manufacturer. Nevertheless, being the strong-willed and hardworking man that he was, he persistently pushed his ideas of what a Mercedes-Benz could and should look like. That required him to combine common sense with an elegance devoid of frills or fashionable innuendos.
It took about a decade before he was in a position to shape the design of Europe’s then most profitable automobile company according to his vision. This was partly because he had left Geiger for five years to work with Béla Barenyi on passive safety. It gave him a deep understanding of engineering which was evident in all future Sacco design. Being both stylist and technical designer made him responsible for the essential elements of a Mercedes-Benz, namely, exclusiveness, quality, long life-span, perfection and not least of all, refinement. These were later to be reflected, memorably, in his S-Class coupé, the C 126 (SEC) of 1981. To Sacco, style and technology were equally important and it was up to the designer to reconcile innovative content and technological highlights.
Together with his team he pushed through some stylistic innovations that to the company at the time appeared hair-raising. One that most notably springs to mind is of course the notorious side planks which served as bumpers, replacing chrome bumpers, and continuing along the sides of the vehicle. These came to be called ‘Sacco boards’. Sneered at when they were first introduced in the S-Class (W 126) in 1979, as is so often the case with unusual design, buyers accepted the daring side mouldings and they of course went on to become a constant feature of the Mercedes-Benz in the 1980s and 1990s.
Banal as it may sound, the essential mantra guiding his hand on the drawing board was: “A Mercedes must always look like unmistakably like a Mercedes.” More explicitly, to him that meant incorporating innovation in tradition. – This was perfectly manifested in the S-Class of 1979 and even more so in the 190 (W 201), the car that from 1982 on made Mercedes-Benz cars accessible to a wider clientele – a decidedly revolutionary step in the history of the marque. “The 190 was the car that convinced people that Mercedes was capable of change. Before this car came out, public opinion would be that all Mercedes models are the same and that used to drive me mad. But from then on it was no longer an issue.”
The 300 SL Gullwing
Deep down, Sacco had always wanted to design a successor to his favourite model, the 300 SL. So it was with delight and determination that he had jumped at the offer to do exactly this from Karl Wilfert – the so-called project ‘X’. At this time Sacco was still working under Barenyi who, along with Geiger, reported directly to Wilfert. So the trio Paul Bracq, Giorgio Battistella and Bruno Sacco set to work. Sacco was mainly in charge of the engineering, with Bracq and his colleague Battistella developing the styling of the new creation
Yet, as is well known, there was no follow up to the 300 SL Gullwing until, in 2010 the SLS AMG with its gullwing-doors could lay claim to being the spiritual successor.
Yet, it has to be emphasised that project ‘X’ had nothing to do with the C 111 project. The latter dealt with prototypes as part of the development of the Wankel engine, whereas project ‘X’ was to be the successor to the famous SL 300 Gullwing, the car that had transfixed Bruno Sacco forever. However, the confidence in the model was such that for years it was exhibited in the entrance hall to the factory in Untertürkheim before then being moved to Sindelfingen, where customers picking up their new Mercedes Benz cars could cast admiring eyes upon it. From there it has recently been moved again to make it visible to a larger public as part of the C 111 exhibition in Mercedes-Benz Museum Stuttgart till November.
As the ever self-effacing Sacco remarks about the ‘X’ model with a laugh: “I had friends telling me they saw one of my cars in Sindelfingen. This caught me by surprise, because it was not so much my car as the car of all of us. In fact, I would still say that the main thrust of ideas featuring in the model were Battistella’s.” Most would see this as just another example of his modesty. Being the one at the head of the project and supervising it throughout, his name certainly does deserve to be on the plate.
So what exactly happened to the Sacco project back in the 1960s? “It did reach the status of a beautiful 1:1 model”, he remarks dryly. This model (which he never fails to call a joint effort) by Paul Bracq, Giorgio Battistella was intended as a blueprint for the next Gullwing. However, when the mock-up with its wing doors was revealed to the mighty Board of Directors and a group of Untertürkheim engineers, it was severely criticised – not least, one suspects, because all along there was another project in the pipeline.
This was of course the Wankel project C 111 the development of which had already been well under way, and ultimately led to project ‘X’ being discontinued. More or less simultaneously with project X, a team of engineers in Untertürkheim had been working with a local ‘stylist’ in Untertürkheim and had presented Wilfert with a 1:5 model. Wilfert considered it a good start but decided that the styling department in Sindelfingen should take over. The development of the C 111 had in the meantime gathered so much momentum that the styling of the super sportscar posed a new and interesting challenge for Friedrich Geiger’s team.
The Wankel project C 111
Chief Stylist Geiger was delighted to take on the styling of what was an experimental sports car programme for the development of the Wankel engine. For it the engineers in Untertürkheim had developed a three-rotor Wankel engine with 280bhp.
So what was Sacco’s role in it? No sooner had he returned to the styling team in 1968 when the Chief Stylist handed the technical leadership of the project over to him to supervise its further development, which resulted in the driving prototypes C 111/I and II. Once the C 111/I had been presented, the shaping of the next prototype had to be tackled for which the engineers this time had developed a four-rotor engine producing a maximum of 350bhp and a top speed of 300km/h. Both engines achieved impressive records of speed in the USA. Sadly though, none of the Wankel prototypes were put in series, their relatively high fuel consumption falling foul of the 1973 oil crisis.
Sacco insists: “The C 111/I and II were very much the work of the design team which I headed, and I contributed some ideas, but most of all my job as project manager was to see the project through and make sure it would be a success. Geiger as head stylist simply was the C 111 man.” It has to be said, however, that project ‘X’ had nothing to do with the C 111 project. The latter dealt with prototypes as part of the development of the Wankel engine, whereas project ‘X’ was to be the successor to Bruno’s first love, the famous SL 300 Gullwing.
Making his Design Team shine – the C 111/III
There was, however, a further sequence to the C 111 project – one that bore Sacco’s signature throughout and for which he does claim full responsibility. A few years had elapsed and the development of the Wankel engine was no longer pursued. However, for the purpose of a new aerodynamic demonstration by the engineers in Untertürkheim project C 111/III was perfectly suited. Adaptations were made with the latest Diesel engines that resulted in a new record series of speed in Nardo.
Sacco had just been established as Chief Designer and as Geiger’s successor when he launched the project. “Nobody, nobody at all wanted a C 111/III,” he states vehemently. But launching this new project to him appeared to be the best way to showcase his design team in the best possible light. “I pursued a certain idea with this project. Above all having just become responsible for the team, I wanted to make the freshness of my design team tangible. And for this I wanted to give them as much scope as possible to develop their ideas. This, to me, was the natural thing to do because I have never felt the need, let alone urge, to design a car entirely on my own. To me, design has always been a question of teamwork.”
Though the diesel record car never made it into production, several of its aerodynamic features some five years later figured in the next S-Class (W 126 – the first one for which he was fully responsible), and most notably in the rear design of new ‘Baby Benz’, the 190 (W 201).
A modest yet firm helmsman
Sacco himself calls the R 129 “the most perfect car” of his career. A car that to him portrays the ideal mixture of emotions, elegance and style. He calls it “a stroke of luck” and again thanks his young team for being focused on high performance.
Being the considerate and thoughtful gentleman he was it comes hardly as a surprise to find he was held in high esteem by his team. Harald Leschke, once a member of Sacco’s team and also his assistant for several years, calls his former boss “the best boss one could possibly dream of”. He goes on to sum up Sacco’s leadership “He showed great tolerance, was sympathetic, modest and always prepared to listen. Plus he had that all important ability to delegate, and once he had delegated a task he consulted with those working on it without standing over them. In short he was an authority, but he was not authoritarian.”
Bruno Sacco has received awards galore from all over the world. Two of these he cherishes in particular, most notably having become inductee of the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2006. Keith Crain himself held the speech before handing over the Cup which reads “The Highest Place of Honor in the International Motor Vehicle Industry – Bruno Sacco, 2006, Inductee”. The “Lifetime Design Achievement Award” means a lot to him because it was bestowed upon him by fellow designers. With or without all these trophies which are hidden away in a cupboard, one cannot fail to notice that the world’s roads today are still full of his creations. Their enduring appeal confirms the timelessness of Sacco’s design.
Text: Susanne Roeder
Photos: Daimler AG