WHEN the Germans were mad on V8 in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they decided that the cars they make would look like they were well dressed for the office on a Wednesday, not even for casual Friday.
That’s not really strange because the Germans, Mercedes-Benz especially, have always been stuffing huge engines on sedate cars.
The early 1990s was the last period of time when Mercedes-Benz were still building cars that were engineered to military specifications and the 500E was their homage to speed and understatement.
The W124 platform felt like it was hewn from solid steel and could really take a lot of power without getting out of shape so the slide-rule operators worked out how to find space in their sedan for a V8 when the usual lump was a long and slender in-line six.
It wasn’t too hard because AMG and Brabus were already doing that on customer cars, the only difference is that a factory-issue mad repmobile should be just as reliable and durable as one of those beige German taxis.
Well, even that wasn’t too hard, they just made sure that the 500E’s chassis was widened and firmed up a bit to take care of the additional forces.
Before the 500E, the only fakery people would do to their Mercedes were changing the tail badge to show either bigger or smaller engines, depending on the state of their ego.
One night in 1995, a friend dropped by the house with a black W124 with flared front and rear renders, had all the right bumper and door trims and even wore the correct wheels and brakes.
All the chaps at the bachelor pad dropped their jaw. We didn’t know what to think because the guy was a flamboyant character and it wouldn’t be outside of the realms of possibility for him to blow a huge wad on the car.
The cover was blown when he refused to open the bonnet but the car had a unique exhaust system that gave it a slight burble like a V8 even though it had an even firing inline-six.
The 500E gave legitimacy to whatever engineering surgery that AMG and Brabus were doing and from then on, the idea of a high-speed executive car jumped from the back alleys of customisers to the high street of dealers.
On the other end of the spectrum was a supercar that looked like it was stretched and squashed from a three-door hatchback. The Porsche 928 was the ultimate understated supercar.
There has been none as understated since, and thank God for that.
While I understand the idea behind the 500E without question, the very concept of an understated supercar requires a journey through tortuous logic.
The 928 is a car that only Porsche could have produced, not because they were deliberately trying to make a visually dowdy supercar but because they were a company that was and probably still is, run by engineers.
Everyone suspected that the 928 wasn’t so much designed as given an efficient skin after all the hard bits have been given their position.
Given a V8 engine, rear transaxle, the need for 2+2 seating arrangement, GT-sized luggage space and a certain coefficient of drag, there was no doubt that the car needed a sloping nose, fastback styling flat disc for alloy wheels and very little surface detailing.
The pop-up lamp was the only concession to visual treat as even the rear bumper was made to disappear as moulded plastic that housed the rear combination tail lamp.
In fact, some say, the profile of the car started as an engineering suggestion and stayed the course until production.
Nearly 40 years later, the car has survived the ravages of time and continues to look timeless because it’s form followed function. The 928 is proof positive that everything, no matter how odd or ugly it may look in the beginning will become elegant, logical, in fact, obviously perfect if they are designed to fulfil a function.
The design is so good that it even gave birth to the current Panamera. If you take a look at the Porsche 928 H50 study concept, you can see the lines of the Panamera. The H50 was just as ugly then as the Panamera is ugly now but in 30 or 40 years’ time, we will start to understand Zuffenhausen’s car design principles.
Our brain is designed to recognise good and functional design at the genetic level, to accommodate the needs for evolution of the species. This is why they still like the Beetle and the Mini and rave about the Fiat Cinquecento and the Vespa and the Honda Cub.
More than three decades on, the 500E and 926 remain as an icon, as the bookend for an era when cars were still mostly mechanical beasts and enticed brave men with the threat of mortal injury and bruised ego.
When they say that they don’t make cars like they used to, they mean to point to this wonderful era when cars still smelled of hot engine oil and real men had traces of copper grease on their hair, not pomade.