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An unhappy marriage

2 years ago

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Peter Robinson | Journalist


11 November 2022

It took Mercedes-Benz more than four years from concept to production to launch the SLR, its first supercar since the 1954 gullwing 300 SL. Yet that time lapse is entirely deceptive. Yes, the Vision SLR concept unveiled in January 1999 at the Detroit show bore an obvious visual resemblance to the car that finally went on sale in April 2004. Only the familiar styling disguised what amounted to a complete re-engineering. And that takes years.

Mercedes, wanting to exploit its relationship with McLaren, whose Benz-powered MP4/13 had won the 1998 World Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ Championships (the team would go on to win the Drivers’ title the following year too), asked a Gordon Murray-led team at Woking to take care of the car’s engineering and development. But Murray had not been involved in the creation, and therefore the technical layout of the Vision SLR Mercedes originally intended to launch in March 2001, aiming to replace Ferrari as the maker of the most desirable sports cars in the world.

What Murray discovered was a front-engined car – not a front-mid-engined one – that demanded a fundamental transformation if it were to achieve Mercedes’ lofty ambitions. Murray explained the problems in a high-level meeting involving Mercedes’ top people: due to the engine’s position the weight distribution was all wrong, the fuel tank, located above the rear axle, was too high and the huge pneumatic suspension struts each weighed 9.5kg. Additionally all SLRs drove through a conventional five-speed, torque-converter automatic – not a robotised manual – and, despite being assembled in the UK, was only to be offered in left-hand drive.

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