By Design

By Design: 1929 Mercedes-Benz S Barker Tourer

Elegance is in the eye of the beholder

Elegance—as I understand the term—has absolutely nothing to do with selection as Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance Best of Show, if recent winners are considered. Key to earning the coveted award seems to be the letter B. An entrant must just push all the right B buttons—as in his biography (he’d best be a billionaire), his car black, and its trim extra bright. That elegance of line matters not a whit has been proven several times, most emphatically in 2007 when the monstrously ugly Mormon Meteor record-setting Duesenberg won. Impressive, yes. Great performance history, certainly. But as with this year’s winner, sorely lacking true elegance and totally bereft of any trace of beauty.

In this 70th year of Ferrari’s existence as an automobile manufacturer, one of the many truly elegant models present surely could have won, but one can never predict what will happen at Pebble Beach. I was at the 1953 Concours when an Austin-Healey won Best of Show over a superb Ferrari 212 Inter coupe, to the Ferrari owner’s obvious displeasure. (He left gouges in the grass on departure.) Some early Ferraris were rather inelegant, as was the 2014 Best of Show, the only Ferrari ever to win. A historically important but stylistically derivative one-off Scaglietti coupe, it was inspired more by the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL than any of the glorious Allemano to Zagato designs. At least it wasn’t black.

Nor was this year’s top car, but it did out-bling all former Best of Show laureates, having bright polished metal from the base of the windshield forward. Its lines were awkwardly broken at the leading edge of the silly little door, and the headlamps are mounted too high—the point at the back of their nacelles should have been an inch or so lower to align visually with the break between top and sides of the hood. The toolbox-cum-entry-step sculptures hanging outboard of the flat body sides are intriguing in and of themselves, but they have no discernible relationship to anything else on the car. And there’s no getting around the fact that the trunk behind the cockpit is a horrid excrescence that in no way enhances the car’s visuals.

Bruce McCaw, owner of the Best of Show winner, stands with his car and the trophy it earned.

Since 1955, when Phil Hill’s Pierce-Arrow was Best of Show, only three vehicles outside its classic category have been selected: one antique (a 1913 Rolls-Royce) and two post-WWII cars. That’s absurd. And it’s more than a little curious the same people keep winning year after year, half as many individual car owners as contests since 2001. So perhaps it was inevitable this ungainly British-bodied Mercedes is owned by a billionaire enthusiast. But, really, who cares what wins apart from a few 1 percenters who enter cars? For those who simply attend, the concours is an open-air museum, a magnificent collection of fabulous machinery that is, as Michelin says about the best restaurants, “worth the voyage.”

1. In pure profile, the tail emulates the look of race cars as exemplified by the 1921 Fiats and taken up, to great effect, by Ettore Bugatti for his Type 35 racers in 1924.

2. Face it, this trunk is woefully inelegant, breaking the overall lines of the body, themselves not so gracefully flowing as might be desired.

3. This little dip is quite nice, but not particularly necessary. The cut-down door tops of typical small roadsters were there to give arm-swinging room to drivers but are totally unnecessary here.

4. A sharp break in the central body profile is neither elegant nor necessary. Awkwardness of this kind is fairly common on British bodies, never on Italian ones. And Barker was one of the best in Britain.

5. Brightness reigns. This must have been hell to drive into a setting sun. It’s spectacular, but there’s a reason military airplanes had anti-glare panels on their noses.

6. The motorcycle-style fenders are definitely sporty and quite artfully shaped.

7. The separate side pods are anachronistically advanced for the period, being more aerodynamically advanced than most 1929 airplanes and very practical as tool boxes.

8. This abrupt vertical separation of polished metal and paint is brutal, and the abrupt right angle at the top where the polished cowl meets the body side is truly inelegant and downright homely.

9. The Roman helmet fenders are handsome and cleverly shaped for function inboard. They also allow the shiny exhaust pipes full exposure.

1. The inevitable hood strap was part of sporting cars for three-quarters of a century at least. Mostly unnecessary, they’re still really cool. It’s likely they were required by outmoded regulations and rules—they disappeared on American race cars decades before Europeans quit using them.

2. Terribly British, the “starting handle” aperture is capped with a nice piece of brightwork, a refined touch amid the multiple bits of ironmongery on the front end.

3. The headlamps themselves are magnificent, but they’re held in place—too high, in fact—by a three-dimensional maze of tubing struts and yokes.

4. Twin horns hang from the same scaffolding that supports the headlamps. Sturdy, strong, and basically clumsy.

5. Louvers, louvers, louvers, too many to count, on top and on the sides of the engine compartment. They make a magnificent texture and a wonderful testament to the skill of the metalworkers who achieved their perfection.

6. The subtle shaping of the side pods amazes. The prow with its descending “keel” is hydrodynamically correct as well as aerodynamically tapered aft. And it has a textured top to serve as a step.

7. The reason for two vent doors on each side of the cowl is unclear, but they make a nicely unobtrusive accent on the flat sides of the body.

1. There shouldn’t be too much difficulty in locating road signs with this massive searchlight available to the driver. It would block vision a bit, but there was very little traffic to worry about when this car was new.

2. One feeble little taillight is all that was needed in 1929. That there is an even bigger red lamp on the front end is curious—really a vestige of long, long ago.

3. The rear chassis sticks out of the tapered tail with lots of apparent rivets and bolts to clutter the shapes.

4. There’s a nice little turn of the fender contour at the very rear edge—subtle and, yes, for once at least on this car, elegant.

5. Why in the world would anyone make such a ridiculously tiny door? The work and the complexity are the same as for a bigger portal, and although the framing might weigh a bit more for a bigger door, on a massive vehicle like this the increase would be negligible.

6. There’s a clever bit of trickery on the “cycle” fenders. An inner skirt keeps water and mud away from the exhaust pipes and allows the back of the inside wheel to move inward while turning.

1. Believe it or not, this protrusion is the entire cockpit light source, barely adequate for map reading.

2. Only the driver’s side windshield gets a wiper, with all its electromechanical works in plain view in the cockpit.

3. Mercedes-Benz cars today have all sorts of levers associated with the steering column, but as we can see with these hub-based levers, that’s nothing new for the venerable marque. These appear to be controls for ignition timing and acceleration.

4. In this ergonomic disaster area, having the clock far away on the passenger’s side of the panel is relatively unimportant …

5. … as is a remotely located speedometer, but you’d think the tachometer should be more directly in the driver’s sight line. The whole dash evokes steam locomotives somehow.

6. The handbrake lever sprouting out of the floor and the black-shafted gear lever do as well. Everything is slightly oversized and obviously very strong.

7. The helm is huge, and it probably has to be if the front wheels are to be directed at low speeds. We tend to forget today, when even rear-engine Porsches have power assist for steering, how much plain physical effort went into steering heavy old cars.

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