Design Mileposts: 1974 Chevelle – First Mass-Production Car With Blatant Mercedes Grille Ripoff

When I tore into the 1976 Chevelle’s front end yesterday, I joked about how it might have been designed by someone’s kid. But let’s face it; it really does look like  someone just slapped on a cheap facsimile of a Mercedes grille on a 1973 Chevelle (while enduring a fifth-grade Math class?). Well, that’s exactly what happened, and history was made. The 1974 Chevelle has the dubious distinction of starting the whole Mercedes Grille Epoch, which infected America like a virus.

Admittedly, the 1973 Chevelle front end wasn’t exactly the most exciting and daring face that ever came out of Bill Mitchell’s studios. But it was honest and unpretentious. The story has been told often: the 1973 A-Bodies were intended to arrive in 1972, which was before the dreaded five-mile battering rams were dictated by law. They were delayed a year, in part because of the massive strike against GM in 1971. What the 1972 Chevelle would have looked like is anyone’s guess, unless someone has some studio clay photos (if so, please share).

Undoubtedly, it would have been better than the final result, which was clearly a bit heavy and dull, compared to the expressive and deeply textured front ends pre-bumper regs.

Quite likely the 1973 Chevelle Laguna with its expensive “Endura” resilient front end was created to give some design pizazz to the rather plain Chevelle front end. Maybe the Laguna suggests what the 1972 Chevelle would/should have looked like? It was a rather odd attempt to take the Chevelle upmarket, but in a sporty, not “Broughamy” way. Which is fitting, given the lines of the Chevelle coupe. The Monte Carlo had the Brougham segment covered quite well, thank you.

The 1972 Mercedes W116 (450 SE/SEL), with its wider version of the traditional radiator shell, arrived at a time when America embraced the three-pointed star as the aspirational vehicle of choice. And as the Great Brougham Era unfolded, its influence became ever-more wide-spread.

The Ford Granada, which arrived in 1974 too in 1975, blatantly tried to pretend that it was somehow indistinguishable from a W116. It’s a sad commentary that anyone might have fallen for that, but the Granada was a big hit. At least the Granada was designed all-over to emulate a Mercedes. But even its grille wasn’t really a blatant Mercedes grille, at least not anywhere near as much so as the 1974 Chevelle’s.

It was no less than Bill Mitchell’s vaunted GM Design Studios that fell so low to really do that properly, right down to all the details: the shape and design of the surround, the horizontal bars emanating from the central vertical bar, the texture of the grille itself, and even the round stand-up ornament. So much for honest and unpretentious. Sad, really; considering the design leadership and creativity that originated from there. And rather surprising, as it just doesn’t fit on the sporty, curvaceous lines of the Chevelle. But the monster had been unleashed, and soon a raft of other blatant Mercedes grilles soon polluted America’s roadways, ending an era of American design originality. But few were as faithfully executed as the Chevelle’s.