How Mercedes Honors Its Visual Heritage in the Present—and the Future

Gorden Wagener has served as Mercedes-Benz’s head of design for the last decade, but his stint at the company dates back to 1997. This experience means Wagener is certainly steeped in Benz’s modern history, but he and his team must also attend to the broadest backstory in contemporary automotive production, one that dates to Karl Benz’s foundational role in developing the automobile in the late 19th century and includes the many innovations Mercedes pioneered over the intervening 130 years.

“Well, definitely the 300SL is one of the most beautiful cars in the history of cars,” Wagener says on the stage at the L.A. auto show where the spiritual successor of that Gullwinged bombshell, the new AMG GT R Pro, is about to be revealed. “And even back in the 1930s there was some really nice stuff from us, the 540K Autobahnkurier [for example]. I don’t like anything from the ’70s. I hate it. But you must always ask the designer about his own work,” he laughs. “Because he’s always not so much into the work of other people.”

Wagener does admit that there are some clear identifying characteristics and heritage cues that Mercedes-Benz vehicles must always include under his watch. “We are still inspired by the cars of the 1930s, with the streamlined, aero teardrop shape,” Wagener says. “We came from a wedge-shape generation, which was very forced, very ’90s, actually. I didn’t like that. I’m more into that anti-wedge, flowing design, which was, again, inspired by the ’30s. Also, the cleanness and the voluptuousness. When you look at classic cars, you see that voluptuousness.”

One of the hardest challenges is taking a long heritage and applying it to upcoming vehicles, which now of course increasingly means techno-heavy EVs and autonomous vehicles. “Some things are timeless and will never change. So the emotional part always stays the same, the sense of attraction. But, the intellectual part changes. It’s a thinking process. You say, ‘This is modern because . . .’ Or, ‘This is classic because . . .’ So, for me, it’s not so much about the vehicles. It’s about understanding the brand. And when we did the analysis of what this brand stands for, the simple answer was that it’s a luxury company. We always have been a luxury company,” Wagener says. “But it was a traditional luxury company. A company of the fathers. And we moved the design into a modern luxury company. Into the next generation. And so therefore you have to look at each and every decade to see what was this brand about. Not so much that you take features. You have to be inspired. You have to take the DNA. If you just take features from the past and just do it, then you’ll do retro design. Which is no new level. I hate retro design.”

Another challenge when dealing with the sheer volume of history and influences is placing them in the proper perspective and understanding the contexts of their time and today. “When the Gullwing came out, it was a complete halo car, an UFO in its time,” Wagener says. “And when you look back, it’s a classic car, so it’s traditional luxury. But at that time, it was progressive luxury. So that means that the interpretation and the meaning of luxury actually changes over time. And what we do with the electric cars right now, with the EQ sub-brand, is the progressive luxury of the future, of 25 to 30 years from now. And when we get there, it will be normal again. And then when we are in the year 2050, and we sit together with a nice mixed drink, and look back on those cars, we will say, ‘Oh, yes. It was nice. It was traditional.’ ”

Given the technological upheaval in the industry, it seems now may be the moment for Mercedes to create fresh expressions of what it means to be a luxury brand. Fortunately for Wagener, Mercedes has divided itself into a quartet of different sub-brands, each with their own distinct identity that can be explored and experimented with. “The good thing is, we don’t have to do it with all of our cars. Our four-brand concept gives us an opportunity to target every customer, and target every competitor,” Wagener says. “With Mercedes-AMG, performance-luxury, we target all of the sports-car brands, Ferrari, Porsche—you name it. Mercedes-Benz, modern luxury, we talked about that. Mercedes-Maybach, we are already the most successful ultimate luxury company, and just with one car. We will expand that. And then with EQ, we have that progressive luxury, to try new things, come up with completely different cars you have never seen before. We need to wait a little bit, but that will be a big, big change. Very progressive. This gives us the opportunity to do everything.”

All of this—the layers, the sub-divisions—seems like it could lead to a somewhat haphazard approach. But Wagener doesn’t think so. “No, no. It’s a very logical strategy. It’s actually very simple. It’s like with design [as a whole],” he says. “The key is to make things simple. It’s easy to put a lot of information into it. The key is to reduce it.”

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