Under the hood over the decades

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Technology behind the grille has created a new look for iconic automotive brands

The Iconic Mercedes façade has concealed evolving technology over the decades without losing its brand defining visual impact

1900 was a breakthrough year in the early days of automotive history as It marked the first time Wilhelm Maybach fitted his invention, the honeycomb radiator, to the Mercedes 35 PS. The patented design solved the problem of cooling the internal combustion engine once and for all, and enabled the production of vehicles that were not only more powerful but also more reliable.

Because the radiator stood front and centre on the vehicle, it had an immediate impact on brand image and so the logo-bearing upright radiator became standard practice around the world until well into the 1930s.

Now, over 120 years later, electric vehicle technology has done away with the need for so much plumbing at the front end of the car and so designers are able to remove this as a constraint and engineers can use the liberated space as a technology hub.

According to Robert Lesnick, Head of Exterior Design for Mercedes-Benz, the far-reaching technological transition to electric mobility and autonomous driving presents designers with entirely new opportunities in exterior design. The classic radiator grille loses its original function and transforms into an avant-garde design artefact and technology hub.

“The Black Panel grille on our EQ models sets a milestone in this respect and shows how Mercedes-Benz is carrying the design of its radiator grille into the all-electric future,” he says.

Cool Radiators

Compared to early radiator designs, Maybach’s honeycomb radiator in the Mercedes 35 PS had a larger frontal area and higher airflow offered by the square pipes and which delivered significantly more cooling power. A fan behind the radiator improved temperature regulation at slower road speeds.

This design had a lasting impact with virtually all production cars having a similar radiator design well into the 1930s. In 1931, Mercedes-Benz introduced the 170 (Type W 15) on which, for the first time, the radiator was mounted for protection behind a grille. The new component was part of the bonnet and designed with enormous care.

The elegant, rounded, rectangular form was based on that of the radiator itself. However, it was also augmented by a wide chrome frame, which conveyed a message of quality and elegance. The Mercedes star appeared on the innovative radiator cover, both as a badge and also as an ornament. The fine honeycomb pattern had a functional as well as aesthetic role as it protected the radiator itself from dirt and from being hit by stones. Dirty radiator fins were less effective at cooling than clean fins, while impact from stones could cause damage, leading the engine to overheat.

The chrome grille subsequently became one of the brand’s most recognisable features. Mercedes-Benz designers tread carefully with only very gradual adaptations to its overall shape until into the 1960s. Then the Mercedes-Benz grille grew in width and shrunk in height. The focus on width was a function of the trend towards lowering the bonnet to improve aerodynamics and thereby efficiency. This careful development of such a visually distinctive signature as the radiator grille reinforced the car’s recognition on the road and thus the all-important brand image. The design of the chrome grille has continued to stretch and evolve to this day.

Design Modernisation

The more modern face of the Mercedes brand, familiar to road users particularly of the last two decades, evolved from the Gullwing 300SL model from the 1950s. This design features an elongated, shallower grille with a large, centrally positioned star.

Initially used on the company’s sports cars and roadsters, it created a means for the brand to carry its sporting image into a wider range of vehicles, including smaller family cars and larger 4×4 vehicles.

Technology Fusion

In the years between the introduction of the protective chrome radiator cover in the 1930s and the current era of electric, connected and autonomous vehicles, the focus of the front end of Mercedes vehicle was corporate image and design aesthetics. Now, what’s going on under the bonnet has become the driver once more and the technology behind the grille is playing more of a role in defining the external aesthetics.

While battery-electric drive trains mean there is no longer a requirement for a radiator at the front of the vehicle, there remains a need for air intakes. However, designers have the freedom to position them elsewhere, opening up the opportunity to create a completely new and distinctive front-end design that underscores the progressive elements of the Mercedes-EQ models. In place of the grille is a Black Panel with a central star which fuses seamlessly with the innovative headlamps. The visual breadth across the entire front end reflects the dynamic performance of the all-electric vehicles. The design incorporates finely detailed star patterns that create a subtle, three-dimensional effect.

Variations in design detailing give the EQ models their individual character. The Black Panel and the headlamps are also connected by a horizontal band of light. And while the daytime running lights of the EQS saloon are identified by three light dots, the EQS SUV signature features three triangles.

As well as being visually distinctive, the Black Panel also offers the perfect surface for seamless integration of a variety of sensors that are essential for the conditionally automated driving of the future. These include ultrasound, cameras, radar and Lidar (laser). One camera for the Active Distance Assist DISTRONIC is integrated into the Mercedes star. And behind the Black Panel on the EQE and EQS is the advanced technology for the innovative DRIVE PILOT.

After the initial electric car designs of many manufacturers seemed to seek to emulate their internal combustion engine predecessors, now these same manufacturers, including Mercedes, have embraced the design opportunities given by dispensing with frontal radiators. As a result, a quick glance is usually enough to identify an electric model and flush fronted cars are now able to convey a powerful brand identity whilst still performing important technological functions.

Jonathan Newell
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