By on October 9, 2017

E-Class, 5 Series, A6, Panamera - Images: BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche“I think the British do a pretty good job — they seem to produce cars that look British,” Ford Motor Company’s retired design chief J Mays says.

Given that Minis essentially look the same as they’ve always looked, Mays makes a good case.

But Mays tells Automotive News he’s “a big stickler for cultural relevance.” And while the man whose influence can still be seen across much of the Ford lineup — he retired three years ago — credits the Brits for bringing culture to car design, he gives no such credit to the Germans.

“If you’re going to go to work in Italy, France, or Germany, you really want to make sure the brand represents the mindset of the culture it comes from,” Mays says. In Germany, Mays makes clear, Porsche is the lone exception, the one German automaker that builds German cars that look German.

Audi and BMW? Needs improvement.


“I could not tell you what Mercedes is doing,” Mays says, “but it’s not German.”

It’s not a compliment. J Mays, who says he left Audi in 1994 because he felt as though the next few generations of Audi products already had their design largely cemented, now says Mercedes-Benz needs “a quieter design language” and more continuity between generations and throughout its lineup.Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 - Image: Mercedes-BenzValid or not, Mays’ criticism of Mercedes-Benz design is not matched by degradation in Mercedes-Benz’s global appeal. Mercedes-Benz reported record sales of nearly 2.1 million units in 2016, besting BMW by some 81,000 units over the course of the calendar year. Mercedes-Benz outsold BMW last year for the first time since 2005 and topped premium brand leaderboards in key markets such as Germany and the United States.

Consumers and designers, of course, are often at odds. What Mays sees as distinctly un-German may, in the eyes of American luxury car buyers, be perceived as very much in keeping with their expectations for a Mercedes-Benz. The staid conservatism is long gone, naturally, and even the hood-topping ornament is fast losing its influence. But it’s difficult to see any lack of cohesion between the C-Class, E-Class, and S-Class, Mercedes-Benz’s three core sedans that essentially appear to be Benz sedan design copies in S, M, and L. (And XL.)

Mays isn’t exclusively critical. Due to Peter Schreyer’s influence, Mays says Hyundai and Kia are “designing some of the best cars in the world.” Nor is Mays the only outside critic of Mercedes-Benz. Last month, BMW executive Henrik von Kuenheim ripped the Mercedes-Benz X-Class to shreds.

[Images: BMW, Audi, Daimler AG, Porsche]

Timothy Cain is a contributing analyst at The Truth About Cars and and the founder and former editor of Follow on Twitter @timcaincars and Instagram.

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45 Comments on “Ford Retiree J Mays Says German Cars Don’t Look German, Reserves Particular Criticism For One Automaker...”

  • avatar

    What does he consider a “German” design?

    If anything I think Audi looks the most “German.”

    • 0 avatar

      I definitely agree that Audi strikes me as the most Teutonic design, both exterior and interior.

      • 0 avatar

        Audi’s trouble is a top-end VW is pretty much the same since you can get them with as much power, the same AWD system and – for some sticklers – a manual transmission.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s the most Bauhaus-like.

        BMW was like that once, but under Bangle, started to “flame-surface” their designs and even after Bangle left, BMW designers have continued to make the front ends of BMW’s overly busy (esp. the headlight shapes).

        But as disappointing as BMW designs have been lately, MB design language is far worse.

        Little cohesion with many designs looking like a “blob.”

        • 0 avatar

          Also, can’t but help to notice that MB has been taking a page out of the Hyundai play-book and has been ever increasingly stretching/elongating its headlights.

          And that’s in addition to the “flame sculpting” which is similar to Hyundai’s previous “fluidic sculpture” design language (which was 1st done by BMW under Bangle).

        • 0 avatar

          I agree with both Mays and bd2. The current CLA and its CUV sister are just expensive Accords and Crossteks, which make sense for MB because they’re trying to reach the folks in the cheap seats to con them into thinking they can afford an MB, when really they can’t, if those two are their only choices. I liked the last generation C-Class(RWD) sedan and almost all 3 and 4-Series BMW’s, but no, they weren’t priced like Accords. On the otherhand, nothing wrong with saving money by buying a CPO older model of each. I did that the last time, and was happy throughout the whole time I owned the car.

  • avatar

    I just want to complement the TTAC editor for doing a really food job today.

    I wouldn’t say that Porsches look especially ‘German”, whatever that means, but I do concede they all look like Porsches.

  • avatar

    “says Mercedes-Benz needs “a quieter design language” and more continuity between generations and throughout its lineup.”

    I agree on that in iteslf – they’re overwrought and change too much – but see no way to say it’s “not German”.

    (What? Should it look like a DKW that looks just like a Saab?!

    “Change less often” is all German means to him… maybe?)

  • avatar

    Agreed on the MB design theme. I don’t see any German design in that brand. It looks very Hyundai.

  • avatar

    That’s kind of a weird thing to say. How does any car look like it’s from a certain country anymore? Maybe in size, nobody will think an Escalade comes from Italy, that’s uniquely American. But in terms of a car’s look, the German or Japanese “look” went away 20 years ago.

    What I care about most is that it DRIVES German. And on that front the latest E-class does just that and then some. At first I thought the last generation E350 was better looking than the E300. But the new look has grown on me.

    • 0 avatar

      For the Japanese look, look at Honda/Toyota for examples (they look like origami). Korean designs look like they are trying, but they dare not push too far. German designs are supposed to have road presence; solid, imposing, blocky perhaps. One commenter above says that M-Bs now look Korean; that assessment is correct.

      • 0 avatar

        Or Koreans now look like MBs?

        Every manufacturer copies (err gets inspiration from) every other manufacturer. Germans, Koreans, Japanese, Italian, American, whatever. It’s just silly to think that there’s some unique shape/angle that is exclusive to one country’s designers.

        Add in the fact that you have Toyotas and MBs are designed in California, and the notion of a Japanese design or German design kind of flies out the window.

  • avatar

    Go on MBUSA’s website, build an AMG GLA45 with Aerodynamics Package, Kryptonite Green Paint, and 20-inch multi-spoke matte black wheels, and tell me that isn’t one of, if not the, most hideous vehicles Mercedes-Benz has ever made. It goes like stink, but I sure as heck wouldn’t want to be seen behind the wheel.

  • avatar

    Today cars are made by new-world-order manufacturers, all designed to sell in China. Character is a thing of the past.

    • 0 avatar

      I suspect most Europeans thought similarly of the US 6 decades ago.

      • 0 avatar

        The difference is that BMW’s styling was massively improved by having the Corvair to copy, while chasing the Chinese market has made for unspeakably ugly cars. Americans were also the original owners of mass market cars, while Chinese car buyers are the newest least experienced.

  • avatar

    Whatever German design may be (and I’m German), I love the line “I could not tell you what Mercedes is doing,” because that’s precisely my sentiment with regard to their design in the past few decades. I’m not in the group that constantly call the last Mercedes sedan to turn 20 years old “the last true Mercedes”, but the trend to Hyundaize them leaves me out in the cold.

    Volkswagen and Audi do so much better. BMW has recovered from Banglification admirably, although the small ones still are quite ugly to me, and everything looks a little overly aggressive in my book. Jaguar and Volvo have each found their new design language which, though I liked the old ones better, seems to be working well. The rest of the pack is mostly yawn-inducing with a little headshake to go with it from time to time.

    But Mercedes? They seem quite planless. Their design keeps surprising me, but in a bad way.

    • 0 avatar

      The W211 E-class was the last Benz that made me honestly say I really loved the styling. The ones that are in good condition could still pass for a showroom fresh design as well. In comparison the W212 already looks dated.

      • 0 avatar
        George B

        derekson, early W211s are both attractive and relatively inexpensive due to their reputation for requiring expensive repairs. It’s easy to find cosmetically excellent W211s. However, I see more well-worn high-mileage W210s during my commute.

        • 0 avatar

          I own two W210 E-Classes (E420 and E300 Turbodiesel Wagon) and they are both high mileage (especially my diesel) and overall quite bulletproof.

          They’re not that expensive to run and repair (Thank you, Mercedes Source and Kent Bergsma on Youtube). I’ve only pretty much replaced wear and tear parts. I view the W210 as a more stylish W124, albeit more rust-prone.

        • 0 avatar

          A common perception among possessors of old MB cars is that the W210 is a “failed series”, compared to the W124, W140 and (less) W123 series (the latter rather simple IRS makes for a tricky drive on wet roads).

          Compared to its W124 predecessors, the W210 not only has more reliability problems but is also perceived as being lacking in handling.

      • 0 avatar

        Agreed. I have long felt that the E Class design peaked at the W211. After that they had the new design on the CLS, and it won design awards so they rolled that style down into the rest of their sedans, making them uglier and uglier. The W212 and the W204 C Class were bearable, but I can’t even begin to understand WTF they are thinking with the W213 and W205.

  • avatar

    I would argue that BMWs and Porches are the most distinctive. Perhaps BMWs look more Bavarian than they look German?

    I’d also argue that some Mercedes (specifically, the longer-nosed sedans) still look quite German. If I had to pick a German car based on looks, I definitely think it would be a Mercedes. There’s definitely something a bit Honda-ish about their designs but I like that. They’re a bit like a fusion of the best styling of German and Japanese cars.

    All four manufacturers make at least one good looking car. But Mercedes is the only one among the four where I’d say a majority are not ugly.

  • avatar

    “they seem to produce cars that look British”

    Is he talking about Morgan or Bristol?

    The XJ looks French, the XE and XF look like they are from Planet Anonymous, the E-Pace (plus Jag interiors) look Korean, and every Land Rover is as roly-polly as a 2002 minivan.

    I guess the F-Pace and F-Type could be worse.

  • avatar
    White Shadow

    If anything, I’d be more inclined to question if American cars look American these days. I see a lot of Japanese and Korean influence in American design. This guy is a clown to bash on Germans. Audi has for years produced very Germanic looking vehicles. And Volkswagen of course has a very understated German design language.

    • 0 avatar

      “if American cars look American these days.”

      All we have left is BOF stuff and late 60s tributes. American style sedans and coupes died in the late 90s and the last c*ck out American car was the 2010 Viper.

  • avatar

    Mercedes now looks like Korean car and Hyundai like German car. Of course I do not mean build quality.

    British cars are the most prestigious are among the best styled. They look like legitimate British cars not some parody on Asian car Mercedes and BMW became. When I see someone driving British car I think about prestige and wealth. When I see someone in Mercedes or BMW I think about hairdressers or in best case Chinese engineers on H1B visa.

  • avatar

    J Mays, meh. Noted for bloated budgets, a dud Thunderbird version, Five Hundred, and the Freestyle.

  • avatar

    That’s funny coming from Ford guy whose ex company has a lineup of Chinese looking crap. Not that I disagree or agree with the original premise.

  • avatar

    Mercedes-Benz still looks “German” to me, and I don’t see any design similarities between a modern Mercedes-Benz and a modern Hyundai, If anything, I find current Mercedes to be elegant but still conservative, whereas modern Hyundais have become rather stylish and edgy in appearance.

    What this guy forgot to mention is that the current head of design at Mercedes is an American. Shouldn’t modern Mercedes cars look “American” if we use his logic? Some of the most iconic and and visually stunning Mercedes cars were designed by a Frenchman (Paul Bracq) and an Italian (Bruno Sacco), and they looked very Teutonic.

    The BMW E39 5-Series, which was so praised for its Teutonic elegance and understated design, was styled by a Japanese car designer.

    • 0 avatar

      The current head of Mercedes Benz design is Gorden Wagener. Has been since 2008.

      And he ain’t American. He’s German. Google his name.

      The gentleman responsible for the E39 BMW, Joji Nagashima, although born in Japan and where he obtained his initial degree, graduated from Wayne State University with a Master’s in Industrial Design in 1980, and immediately joined Opel. Then he went to Renault in 1986, and BMW in 1988. One would have thought him to be an internationalist by choice, unhobbled by any partcular background. Plus, he was Bangle-Approved.

      Just thought I’d provide some background and correct your promulgation that the Chief of Mercedes Design was American, born or otherwise.

      • 0 avatar

        You are correct. My bad. I wrongly assumed he was American because, well, his name does sound quite American!


        I get what you are saying, but I don’t see any design similarities between the current Benzes and Hyundais. They both may use fluidic design language, but they both employ characteristical design traits associated with the respective brands (this is especially true for Mercedes).

    • 0 avatar


      So the “flame sculpting” that MB has increasingly been using isn’t reminiscent of Hyundai’s previous “fluidic sculpture” design language?

      Add to that the ever increasing stretched/elongated headlights placed at the side – which Hyundai pioneered.

      MB’s current design language is based on the F800 Style concept which looks very Hyundai-ish.

  • avatar

    Hate to break it to him, but MINI is a division of BMW, and is designed entirely by BMW, and built on a BMW chassis, with a BMW engine. The only connection to England is that a portion of MINI models are built in the UK, but as many are built in the Netherlands. My 2018 MINI Countryman is a BMW X1, and it drives very “German.”

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    This retired Ford guy obviously didn’t have much influence with Ford products.

    How is it then the Germans far outsell Lincoln???

    I don’t believe that design is becoming more global, with an Asian twist.

    So, if you own a company you will build to appeal to the widest audience, this is where the Germans might be doing it better than Ford, along with Lincoln.

    I’ll add Caddy to that as well.

  • avatar

    “Given that Minis essentially look the same as they’ve always looked, Mays makes a good case.”

    The 2001 New Mini was designed for BMW’s Mini division by American Frank Stephenson, who has also worked at FIAT, Alfa Romeo, Ford, Ferrari and McLaren.

    The new Mini is like a current Porsche 911 in that if you park one next to a decades-old original, it’s clear that everything about them has changed. Yet somehow the impression you’re left with is that they’re very similar. It takes a particular genius to make that work, and Stephenson is certainly a genius in his field.

  • avatar

    I agree with those who say Audi (VW) has a very Teutonic look: simplicity of line, understated and elegant. The thing is, how far can you take that?

    • 0 avatar

      Not very far. Most VW and Audi cars are getting slated by reviewers as having a conservative, even boring design.

      People want cars that either look fast or look luxurious. Audi exterior is none of these. It’s a navy blue business suit. No matter how well tailored it is, it won’t turn heads like a leather jacket with sequins on its sleeves.

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