The Mercedes-Benz W154 was a 1938 Grand Prix car – one of the “Silver Arrows” that dominated racing before the second world war. It’s a fantastic car design because it is such a brilliant and beautiful example of form following function. No one was asked to make it look beautiful. Rudolf Uhlenhaut [Mercedes’ racing chief and technical director] wanted the most simple and pure solution to the design challenge of making a fast racing car. He didn’t think of aesthetics per se – yet it was aesthetically beautiful.
It needed to meet a set of performance criteria and this made it look the way it does. It was designed before we really understood aerodynamics and the way cars behave at high speed. And yet it was capable of over 185mph, was extremely successful on the racing circuit, very reliable – and looked amazing with such sleek bodywork that shrouded the chassis.
Uhlenhaut really understood proportion, and part of the car’s beauty is the relationship between the wheelbase, where the wheels are placed, and where the driver sits relative to the chassis. It’s all about balance. The car was a strong performer partly because it was so well balanced, and this sense is reflected in the way it looks.
It has no fussiness. It’s so clean, so simple. There were few external bodywork brackets and he used as few panels as possible. Most of the rear section is one beautifully constructed piece. This means there are minimal “cut lines”, improving the aerodynamics and also the aesthetics.
Modern Grand Prix designers make the gaps between the panels as slim as possible, and even the tiny gap between the rear panel and side pods is sealed over to help aerodynamics. Did Uhlenhaut understand this back in 1938? I don’t know, but he seemed to know it made the car go faster.
The W154 also influenced subsequent racing cars, road cars and even aeroplanes. Look at the Spirit of St Louis – it was a boxy and very square design. Only later did we see more universally sculpted forms and shapes on aeroplanes.
Good car design starts with form, proportion and sculpture. Aston Martin designs have always been simple and functionally led. This simplicity of form has been enhanced on the new Aston Martin DB11 by two patented aerodynamic solutions that improve air flow and downforce while keeping the shape pure and elegant. It also means we don’t need a separate rear spoiler, improving design simplicity.
Great functionality to me is such an important part of car design, and I think some car designers today lose sight of this. Many carmakers today are going through a period of very busy and fussy style.
I think they try to shout because they don’t have the confidence in who they are, or what their brand stands for. They don’t have the self-assurance to keep their designs simple, as Uhlenhaut did. That takes guts. It also takes real design skill.