Mercedes designers have a freer hand than people think, said Bruno Sacco, senior vice president of design for DaimlerChrysler AG.
'Technology does not hold dominance over design, and vice versa,' Sacco told the Automotive News World Congress.
Recent products such as the all-new S class show Mercedes will bend its traditional design rules. And in new segments, such as the M-class sport-utility and the A-class 'city car,' Mercedes started with nearly a clean sheet of paper.
The current run of more distinctively styled models began with the E class, which is recognizable by its dual headlights. The E class still has a family resemblance to other Mercedes cars and to the model it replaced - but nothing like the strong resemblance there was across the lineup five years ago.
The CLK, introduced as a coupe in 1997 and a convertible in spring 1998, also resembles other Mercedes models. But it is quite distinct from the rest of the lineup and also from the C class, on which it is based.
Sacco retires this spring at age 65. He said the CLK was his favorite design, in a career that began in 1958. His successor, Peter Pfeiffer, was named last May.
Until recently, Sacco said, Mercedes had 'rather strict guidelines,' for what he called horizontal and vertical continuity.
'Horizontal' means a family resemblance. To illustrate, he showed how much alike the C class, the old 300 class and the S class looked for the 1994 model year. 'Vertical' means new cars had to resemble the cars they replaced. For instance, he showed how the S class evolved from the 1965 model, to 1972, to 1979.
'The old model does not look outdated. The owner does not feel he is driving an outdated model,' Sacco said.
Like that of the E class, the styling of the all-new S class is quite a jump from the model it replaces. The new model made its North American debut at the Detroit auto show this month. It goes on sale in the United States this spring.
'Sure, our opportunities would have been bigger and better without these strict requirements,' Sacco said. But he defended what he called a tradition of risk-taking design, such as the old 'Baby Benz' 190 model, introduced in 1982. 'This model made a high trunk and a moderate 'V' shape acceptable' to the rest of the industry, he said.
Back in 1959, Mercedes even had tail fins, Sacco said. 'My colleagues back then must have been very impressed with this feature ... but then they realized they had fallen in with a fashion' and dropped them, he said.
After all, Sacco said: 'A Mercedes must look like a Mercedes.'