(Image credit: Mercedes-Benz)

Somewhat unfairly, Mercedes-Benz has never garnered the designer laurels of their immediate competitors. Although the company – the oldest automotive brand in the world - has done more than any other to shape the form of the automobile, Mercedes has always seemed content to let other firms present their work as 'design-led'.

It's only in the past decade, in a car market defined by the dark art of branding and an unprecedented proliferation of products, that the German firm has been more vocal about the processes and practices that shapes their range.

Mercedes-Benz design

(Image credit: Mercedes-Benz)

See more of Mercedes-Benz over the years

So what defines Mercedes-Benz design? Like all car makers, Mercedes-Benz likes to talk genetics, implying that car design is akin to raw evolution, a survival of the fittest ethos where only the best expressions of the brand make it to market.

DESIGN, a monograph intended for internal consumption only, is rich with intriguing prototypes and concepts, some of which demonstrate their place is this most ordered of families, others representing a more distant future or even blind alleys that were never pursued.

While there are welcome glimpses of the earliest cars produced by the company, as well as the impressive set of autobahn stormers conceived during the 1930s, our eyes are drawn to the svelte concepts and research cars. These demonstrate a company always looking to push the technological boundaries, if not the aesthetic ones (although some, like the gullwinged C111 supercar, do both with aplomb).

Mercedes' key reputation rests on its saloon cars, traditionally deemed to hide over-engineered excellence beneath sober surfaces and straitlaced proportions. Sometimes this resulted in a brutal, bombastic simplicity, like the mighty 600 Pullman limousine of the 60s. Yet the company has also led the way in sports car design, with the fabulous race cars of the post-war era spawning the 300SL, a fabulous creation that is a direct ancestor of today's SL range.

After being overseen by Peter Pfeiffer for the bulk of the 21st century (Pfeiffer worked for Mercedes-Benz for over forty years in all), the company's design studio is now led by Gorden Wagener. The modern Mercedes-Benz is a rather more muscular creation, aimed at consumers who have largely abandoned discretion in favour of stylish statements about their own personal tastes and desires.

With the emergence of new propulsions systems and shifting consumer attitudes to cars in general, automotive design language is entering a new era. As the company that effectively kick-started the industry, we imagine Mercedes-Benz will want to play a key part in keeping it alive in the future.

Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.