Sacco created Mercedes' design "language"

April 23, 2007|by JASON STEIN / Wheelbase Communications

The only significant architecture the little boy had really known was the tower near the hilltop castle in the town's historic "piazza" square.

He used to admire its shape; the straight edges and the way it would curve just exactly to the heavens near the bells that rang multiple times every day.

It was beautiful, he thought. Such a symbol of his little village that sat directly between the mountains and the sea in northern Italy. And what an interesting thing to draw, the straight lines that used to form the shape of the tower on paper in his home.

Then it all changed.

On a spring afternoon in the neighboring mountain town of Tarvisio, less than two hours from Udine, something magical turned the corner and the 18-year-old boy on a bike never forgot it.


It was 1951 and an electric blue 1950 Studebaker, called a Commander Regal, was directly in front of him.

He couldn't get the image out of his head.

"It was then," Sacco remembered year later in an interview with the Italian press, "I knew my life had been decided."

Fate, on four wheels.

Sacco, the 18-year-old dreamer, would be a car designer. It was decided right then.

Not just any car designer, mind you, but a man of such extraordinary talent he would last four decades in the hallways where famous men once put pencil the paper and paper to clay models and models to concepts and concepts to showroom beauty.

There aren't many men who can be known globally by the two syllables of their last name. Sacco is one.

He joined Daimler-Benz in 1958. He was named head of Design in 1975. He retired in 1999. It was that simple, and so very complex.

For 41 years, Sacco worked and eventually presided over the designs at the world's oldest automaker. He went from stylist to style setter. He went from the tiny town of Udine to the top. He had a vision and he knew about values.

"A Mercedes-Benz must always look like a Mercedes-Benz," he once said.

From the Technical University in Turin where he studied mechanical engineering, to his first job as a designer on the Mercedes 600 and 230 SL roadster, Sacco made design synonymous with the small German town of Sindelfingen where his first boss Karl Wilfert had created Mercedes' first dedicated styling department.

In less than 10 years, Sacco was promoted into management and placed in charge of the bodywork and ergonomics department. His first task was to change the German culture at Mercedes.

"First, I had to understand it, which took several years. It was difficult for the Germans themselves. There weren't any written (design) laws and it was a very corporate culture," he once said. "They had a philosophy . . . 'Nothing but the best.' Once I understood it, I began to evolve the form."

In truth what Sacco did was create a dynasty of design.

In 1975, after becoming head of the passenger-car department of the styling center, Sacco set out to make his mark. He created the 1979 S Class, the 190 Series, the 1984 E Class, an S Class in 1991, the C Class of 1993 and the flood of new models including the M Class sport-utility vehicles, the SLK hardtop roadster, CLK and the SL 600.

Mostly, Sacco was at the forefront of forward thinking.

While most designers think 10 years out, Sacco challenged his designers to think 30 years out.

He was also an enormous advocate of safety through design, working closely with Mercedes' safety pioneer, Bela Barenyi, to create vehicles that not only looked good but provided the industry's best when it came to safety. Working together, the two specialized in research projects applicable to innovative body design.

Sacco's image of the Mercedes grille and three-pointed star helped continue the brand heritage for the automaker.

Until the 180 in 1953, Mercedes lacked a design "language" or a theme. Sacco helped create one throughout a range of vehicles.

"Evolution has existed at Mercedes," he once said. "It was just a little slow at times. The main point was to make the brand a pure symbol. A feeling. A thought that you had achieved something in life."

Sacco achieved plenty. By the time he retired he had not only molded an unmistakable face for Mercedes, but also filled his trophy case with a world of hardware. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, won the Lifetime Design Achievement Award and even earned an honorary doctorate from the University of Udine.

Oh, the bells rang a little harder that day back in his hometown.

The boy had arrived.

And things couldn't have looked better.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a line on the Web at:

Copyright 2007 Wheelbase Communications

The Herald-Mail Articles