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True Brit: the Merc SLS AMG
Earlier this week, one of the motoring world’s iconic names was given a fresh take; the new SL has landed. But, despite the similar badging, it’s not really the successor to the all-conquering 300SL supercar of the 50s.
This got us thinking. The Mercedes most closely allied to the 300SL’s roots is actually the SLS AMG; that insanely loud, insanely fast and insanely gull-winged 571bhp supercar. Turns out, the man behind its striking looks and style is Coventry University design graduate Mark Fetherston, our man on the inside.
He’s the team leader in Exterior Design at Mercedes in Sindelfingen, Germany, and was one of the key proponents in the supercar’s stylistic values. And to understand how this new ‘Gullwing’ was born, we must first travel back to 1896…
The burgeoning corporate landscape of the late 1800s provoked a debate that has never really gone away. Faced with the phenomenon of tall office buildings, leading architect Louis Sullivan pondered on the issue of introducing grace to what he feared would simply become “sterile piles”.
The solution? “Form must follow function”. And his dictum, first spoken in 1896, had critical implications for the car industry. Notably Mercedes Benz, and the 1951 arrival of the superlative Mercedes Benz 300SL racer.
It was immediately lauded for its lightweight and robust tubular spaceframe construction. This extended high up the sides of the car, forcing Merc to install upwards-opening doors to allow drivers to climb into the cockpit. Enter the classic ‘Gullwing’ door.
55 years later, it returned to Mercedes in the SLS.
“The project was proposed to us in design in 2005 as quarter scale models,” says Mark, “a kind of teaser as to how a potential new Gullwing could look.” Mark chatters away with an infectious enthusiasm - it’s clear the SLS project is very dear to his heart.
“The decision to build it was on and off for a while, and really emotional for me as I knew how special the car was. Sometimes I would go home thinking that nobody would ever see it - I was convinced it would be the perfect addition for Mercedes and deserved to ‘live’…”
But live it did, and the project became serious in 2006 after AMG decided it wanted to build a supercar on its own. “This was exactly the type of car that I became a car designer for,” says Mark, “so my reaction when I heard AMG were interested was ‘I’ll believe it when I see it on the road’.”
Obviously, something of this magnitude requires many brains and many pens, and once word was out, all of Mercedes’ design studios were briefed and asked to propose ideas for the new supercar: a follow-up to the 300SL.
“From all these ideas we made six quarter scale models”, says Mark. “So, in the beginning we’d receive a brief, then we’d get two weeks to sketch it out, present our ideas and then build six scale models over eight weeks. We then chose one of these models, digitised it and milled out a full size version, and after six months on the project, we pretty much had our final design.”
But that final design wasn’t just some anesthetised studio corroboration; it was Mark’s actual sketch that made the cut. Here, his eyes light up like a kid on Christmas morning. “This is what - for me - is so special and unique about the SLS. I have worked on many cars, but never has a final design looked so similar to the chosen sketch.”
Essentially, then, what you’re looking at is a German supercar penned by a British designer. “Of course, I looked at the original 300SL to understand where we were coming from, but I also needed new influences. I didn’t want to make ‘just’ a retro car, or ‘just’ a modern supercar. No, it had to appeal to existing Mercedes customers, and also new customers.”
So what else did he look at? “The priority for me was that it should be simple and timeless, that the design should age well and not be fashionable. So I looked at the simplicity of aircraft, their volumes, the fuselage, and how the cockpit of jets can sit on the main body - something the SLS does.
“The cockpit almost has a visor effect from a helmet,” he says. In fact, Mercedes actually tried a wraparound windscreen in the SLS’s early designs.
The net result is, you’ll agree, something quite extraordinary. So extraordinary, in fact, Jeremy quickly became smitten by the SLS, declaring: “I love it more than I love my own limbs. It’s a mentalist. It’s bonkers. I love it more than I love my dog”.
But what does its ‘dad’ think of the final car? “I don’t have a family,” says Mark, “but it was like the birth of my child when it was presented in Frankfurt. Of course, everyone thinks their child is good looking, but I do believe we did a good job, and the car has retained a simplicity that will hopefully give it a longevity it deserves.”