More than any one man, Bruno Sacco shaped Mercedes-Benz, and over his 40 years of drawing cars with three-pointed stars on the bonnet the Italian created an enduring euphemism for class and refinement.
Sacco was inspired to design as a teenager in Turin, where in 1951 he first saw Raymound Loewy’s Studebaker Starlight coupé and in it his calling. He retired in 1999 and left behind timeless cars, like the W126 generation S-Class, and Mercedes’ hugely-expensive (they spent a billion Deutschmarks on it) and daring compact saloon, the 190 ‘Baby-Benz’. It was the R129 SL roadster though, that Sacco looks back on as “The most perfect car of my career.”
Unlike his intimidating, totalitarian W140 S-Class design of the era, for the roadster Sacco “wanted to take away the aggression,” and ended up with a beautifully-proportioned, alluring car, the polar opposite of the formidable W140 it was related to.
His 1989 SL ushered in the Nineties but it was the end of tiered profiles and slatted tailights. The new decade called for curves, and as early as 1991 Sacco already started working on a more downmarket R129, by simply shrinking it down to size and softening the edges.
The result was the same, well proportioned and timeless, and in 1996 Mercedes-Benz was ready to show off the new SLK-Class roadster at the Turin motor show where it all began for Sacco 45 years earlier.
That first-generation SLK, the R170 model, was as much of a design triumph as the SL as Sacco adeptly contained the brand’s connotations of luxury and all that, but did so in a cheaper, downmarket market. It’s mighty hard not to make cheap look cheap, and the first-gen SLK is anything but, with the added romance of being a bit of a resurrected Fifties’ 190SL.
On its tiny 2,400mm wheelbase (shorter than a Boxster) the R170 has virtually no overhang and looks good in any of the three initial trim levels offered from 1996, particularly if there are AMG parts to be had. From 2000 the model received a facelift that further softened all the edges, although it did also significantly improve equipment levels and added V6 and AMG model options to the range.
This little Sacco gem is best left pure in our opinion though, so early 1996-1999 models look cleanest, and enjoy the benefit of being dirt cheap on the second-hand market — the very best cars aren’t more than $10,000 (Dh36,730) to $15K.
The SLK’s 25-year anniversary is around the corner though (even though they call it the SLC nowadays…) and it won’t get any cheaper now that there are no hairdressers’ connotations to get around, and we can all start appreciating its designer again.