Published on January 19th, 2022 | by Subhash Nair


Mercedes-Benz Showed The First-Ever CLK 25 Years Ago

25 years ago, Mercedes-Benz embarked on a journey that took many years to undo. We’re talking about the first-ever Mercedes-Benz CLK. It debuted in January 1997, replacing the E-Class Coupé, marrying E-Class looks with a C-Class chassis. This new convention continued until 2009, when the E-Class Coupé name was reintroduced. However. this car was still based on the C-Class chassis of that generation. In 2017, the E-Class Coupé finally returned to its glory days – the right name and the same E-Class sedan underpinnings as it was in the good old days.

Mercedes-Benz CLK 55 AMG from the 208 model series. The series made its world premiere in January 1997 at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. Driving shot, view from the rear left. Photograph from 1999. (Photo index number in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: A99F4300)

But the first CLK is worth talking about. It has historical significance for Mercedes-Benz when the company’s began to address a younger audience. It was announced around the time of the first-ever A-Class.

Mercedes-Benz coupé study, presented at the Geneva Motor Show in 1993. The company’s first show car presented the public with design elements, including the CLK from the 208 series, presented in 1997, and the four-eyed face. Studio shot from diagonally above. Photo from 1993. (Photo index number in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: A93F1108)

Here’s the press release recounting the first CLK’s story.


The story of the CLK in the public eye began in March 1993. A study by Mercedes-Benz caused a sensation at the Geneva Motor Show: it was an elegant four-seater coupé – and a new vehicle face for the brand, characterised by four eyes: a slender radiator grille, four single, elliptical headlights – two large ones on the outside, two smaller ones on the inside – flanked by strongly modelled mudguards provided food for discussion. This also applied to the “fastback” rear end with its large, glass tailgate: is this what a future vehicle of the brand looks like? “That was exactly the point: to familiarise the public with new design elements,” says Peter Pfeiffer, who at the time played a key role in designing the coupé study alongside head of design Bruno Sacco.

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“It was the company’s first ever show car,” says Pfeiffer, classifying the significance of the coupé study. Since then, the brand has systematically used the opportunity of this format to introduce new designs. The four-eyed face first went into series production in 1995 in the E-Class 210 series. The reaction in Geneva to the question of how well a new four-seater coupé with the Mercedes star would be received in the market was unambiguous: there would be a good number of buyers thanks to the way it was presented.

With a four-eyed face to success

The big performance followed almost four years later in Detroit: the CLK – also with a four-eyed face – looked amazingly similar to the study from Geneva and was proof of how close to series production Mercedes-Benz design was long before the start of production. “We are not trying to create a crazy demonstration car packed with nonsensical showmanship that causes short-term astonishment but then disappears into oblivion after only a few motor shows,” Bruno Sacco said.

Technically, the CLK was based on the C-Class Saloon in many respects. In particular, its floor assembly and aggregates were used. However, numerous deviating detail solutions and not least the fundamentally new body design documented the independence of the model series. There was a choice of different design and equipment lines, starting with “Sport” and “Elegance”. The common denominator was a wealth of standard equipment including traction control (TCS), exterior temperature display, leather steering wheel, remote boot lid opening, heat-insulating glass and asymmetrically split folding rear seat backrest to increase boot space. The range of models was broad: it extended from the CLK 200 with a four-cylinder engine (100 kW/136 hp) and six-cylinder models to the top-of-the-range CLK 430 (205 kW/279 hp) and CLK 55 AMG (255 kW/347 hp) models with eight-cylinder engines.

Mercedes-Benz CLK from the 208 model series. The series made its world premiere in January 1997 at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. View of the interior. Photograph from 1999. (Photo index number in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: A99F3118)

It all paid off: the coupé of the 208 series was very well received. A total of 233,367 units are produced at the Bremen plant within five years until May 2002. That was 65 per cent more vehicles than from the production line of the 124 series coupés over a period of nine years. The most frequently built model was the CLK 320 with 68,778 units. Its successor was the CLK of the 209 series.

The product campaign had its roots at the end of the 1980s

The first CLK made a significant contribution to the success of the first product campaign. The top management, with decision-makers such as Werner Niefer, Helmut Werner and Jürgen Hubbert, had already started to think about this and the dynamisation of the brand by the late 1980s. An impressive harbinger of the product campaign came as early as 1990: the Mercedes-Benz 500 E (W 124). It set an important starting point for the changing image of the brand.

The – calculated – risk of the entire product campaign paid off for Mercedes-Benz. The basis for this was and is the passion for the automobile. For more than 135 years as the oldest and strongest luxury car brand in the world.

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