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Four Teutonic Facelifts That Worked & One That Didn’t

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The R129 generation (1989-2001) Mercedes SL – post-op

By Gunnar Heinrich

SUCH is the prolific lifespan of most of Stuttgart or Munich’s creations (typically 7-10 years) that mid-cycle “facelifts” are often called for to keep the Benzes and Bimmers appearing fresh against upstart competition.

Sound like the anxious existence of an aging Hollywood actress? Well, it is more or less.

Here are four cases in point where a trip to the plastic surgeon yielded a cleaner look that managed to eclipse the original plus one example that could’ve used a follow up…

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BMW E34 5-Series (1988-1994)

Arguably the handsomest midsize sedan BMW has yet to build, the 5er was angular, lean, and cleanly drew the automaker into the 90s. But those facets that worked under the Bush Administration seemed dated mid-way through the Clinton years – particularly when most rivals were bulking up into heftier shapes.

Below, the easy fix.

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The 90s refit added a lower apron to the front bumper – better channeling air to the front brakes – and  minimized the horizontal plastic slats – a styling cue from the 70s – in favor of adding painted sheetmetal surrounding the chromed kidney grille. The effect, however subtle, was a modernizing step that segued nicely into the succeeding e39 generation (1995-2003).

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Mercedes-Benz R129 SL-Class (1989-2001)

The automotive press was merciless in their spite of the sport light by the time it had reached its finale in 2001. They labeled the Benz a “dinosaur” with all the big, lumbering connotations for performance that the attribution meant.

Still, when the SL made its debut in the 80s alongside the W126 S-Class, it was a pioneer in German excellence in design that had replaced the truly ancient R107 (1971-1989).  Still, the SL would receive not one but two facelift in its lifespan. The last (and best) occuring in 1998.

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It’s amazing what tweaking the headlamps of a car can do to the overall appearance. With translucent lenses, we see a more dynamic face thanks the Xenon projectors. Visually, the “eyes” of the car appear wider, too.  That along with bolder body-colored bumpers, slightly twisted side skirts (on Sport packaged models), and larger, fewer spoked rims – gave more credibility to the “sport” in “sport light”.

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Mercedes-Benz W140 S-Class (1991-1999)

Hot on the heels of the W126 generation (1979-1991), many of the automotive press labeled this big Benz “too much of a good thing”. Indeed, its designer Bruno Sacco lamented that he thought the W140 “two inches too tall.” Whatever the case, Benz let pleats out of this suit and were quick to take it back in.

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The 1996 refit turned the initial car’s frown upside down – yielding a smiling front air dam. The headlights were slightly tampered with too as were the side indicators which became translucent – replacing the bright signature Mercedes orange. There still wasn’t much Benz could do with the heavy appearance – but the second variation made subtle amends with added lines to regain a sense of surface tension that the original never had.

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BMW E65/66 7-Series (2001-2008)

Portly and flamed to a crisp, the first of Chris Bangle’s new generation of flame surfaced BMWs left BMW’s former chief designer fearing for his life for the ire of incensed Bimmer traditionalists. Admittedly, the flagship Bimmer had a hard act to follow…but this was a bit much. Hence the hasty and comprehensive corrective surgery in 2005…

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Once again, surface tension was introduced to a design that had none. Stronger lines cleaved into the hood and trunk cut through the original car’s bloat. That and taller wheels, more rectangular(ish) headlights, a smiling front air dam (the original glowered with two foglamps for clumsy fangs – think Sweetums from The Muppets ) and a cleaner boot line (less Bangle but) made for a sharper finish to this most controversial 7.

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Mercedes-Benz W210 E-Class (1995-2003)

Now for the exception. The first generation of the handsome, oval-headlamped midsize Benzes enchanted the automotive press when it was first unveiled. But quality control problems marred the sedan’s production life and Mercedes’ otherwise sterling facade – including an unforgivable lack of structural rigidity in the crash tests. Sadly, the best looking midsize Benz Stuttgart has yet built is also takes the top prize in poorest build quality.

w120-eclass-automobiles-de-luxeUnfortunately, the mid-cycle fix took away a large portion of the original W210′s charm. Strangely scalloped from air intakes replaced the first iteration’s form & function horizontal slats. The front bumper was reshaped giving the sedan less ground clearance and a more forward leaning stance.

Those signature oval headlamps lost the bright orange “eye lid” contrast to a milky, opaque disguise.  The afterthought side mirror signal lights didn’t work either for their inclusion seemed clumsily executed. Slimmer tail lamps, a more slanted grille, the list of missteps goes on…

And there you have it:  four facelifts that improved upon the original art work – and one that really didn’t.


April 16, 2009
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About the Author: Gunnar Heinrich is publisher of Automobiles De Luxe online and is executive producer of the Automobiles De Luxe Television series on PBS member station CPTV.

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Filed Under: BMWMERCEDES-BENZ

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RSSComments: 3  |  Opine Freely, But Smartly.  |  Trackback URL

  1. Excellent observations, as usual!

    I haven’t really thought much about the W210 E-Class as yet. I only remember I liked it once, and then I found it dead ugly. In a similar way I once found the 211 to be ugly first, and then all of a sudden I found it to be quite nicely shaped with an espcecially beautiful face.
    What I didn’t notice in both cases was the mid-series facelift of both models. The more V-shaped 211 front with the majestic grille has really been an improvement over the first series.
    And now that I have a comparison here, I totally agree with you that the first-generation W210 was indeed a beautiful car with some strong reminiscences to the typical Sacco design. Thanks, Gunnar!
    The facelift then became one of the “Schrempp zombies” – a car without a soul – to which I would also count the W220 s-class (the weakest Sonderklasse design of all times).
    I know you will disagree to the latter assertion.

  2. And once again Johannes your insight provides a generous compliment to my own observations. The last S-Class likely was the weakest in terms of function and design. But the facelifted version of that generarion is aging well aesthetically.

  3. I wish to point out that the amazingly nice e34 was produced until 1995, not 1994. Some rare examples were produced for the 1996 model year. I love the car, but never really took on to the wider grille on the 1994 facelift.

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