By Christopher A. Sawyer
If there is one thing that can be said about Mercedes, it’s that it has a deep well of history that it is not afraid to tap. This not only places the company and its products in context, it provides a look into the thought processes behind some of the company’s most famous offerings. For a company like Mercedes-Benz, with its image of certitude and conservatism, this can be a humanizing experience as it becomes apparent that there were many directions explored before the ultimate decision was made.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in terms of vehicle design. It’s easy to look at the long progression of Mercedes’ design language and see a logic so strict it leaves room for no other possibilities. However, the fact that there were other choices, and that the company is willing to share them, suggests not only a satisfaction with the direction taken, but also with the idea of a greater scope of inquiry than might be expected from the Germans. (Click to enlarge photos.)
Take, for example, these variants of the first SL. First is this 1952 “phantom view” of the 300 SL showing how steeply inclined and tightly packaged its six-cylinder engine was under its hood. It also shows the layout of its front suspension, the wedge-top pistons, heavily finned oil pan, and offset single overhead camshaft.
This 1953 racing prototype (chassis # W 194 011) was never raced. It also took a different design direction than the production car. The liberal venting front and rear, the lack of “eyebrows” over the fenders, and the peaked grille are big departures from that car, giving it a face more in line with what you might expect from a postwar British design.
These next two photographs show a two-sided 300 SL clay model from the mid 1950s. The left side is as the car reached production. The right side shows a much different rear treatment that echoes the look of Mercedes coupe and convertibles of the period.
Though the rear view is a bit more upright, it’s only when the model is viewed from the front that you see how dramatically this fender line altered the car’s shape.
Next we have conceptual sketches for the R107 that was in production from 1971 to 1989 in various guises. Though none of them made their way to production, they provided ideas that were adopted, many times in (thankfully) more conservative form.
Perhaps most interesting are these proposals for the front end of that car. If you look at the overall shape of the nose, it looks like these concepts could have been pulled from what British Leyland had planned for the Triumph Stag. Not surprisingly, those cars were direct competitors, though the Mercedes was much better built, and sold at higher levels.
This is what the production R107 looked like. Quite a difference.
The R129 SL was in production from 1989 to 2001, and was the first car in the series to break away from the slab sides that first appeared with the “Pagoda” roof W113 of the early 1960s. That car was a marked departure from the original 300 SL roadster, as was the R129 from it. However, as this photograph from September 23, 1974 shows, the design still had a long way to go before it broke that mold and reached production in 1989.
These various concepts show a surprising fluidity to Mercedes design thoughout the decades. It would be interesting to take a walk through the company archives to see what other treasures await therein.