Creating a Classic: The Mercedes Benz SLS AMG Gullwing 2011-2015
It’s interesting how the story behind an industrial product, like a computer or a phone or in this case, a car, can morph into an almost legendary tale that will be told over and over at car shows and in garages, forever. “See son, in the early fifties Max Hoffmann figured he could sell road going versions of the 300 SLR race cars to well heeled folks in New York, so he talked to the people at Mercedes and they came up with the 300 SL.” This is exactly the kind of story my father told me when I was a child any time we came across an iconic car while we walked the aisles of a car show. Whether a D type Jaguar, Tucker, even a DeLorean, they all had interesting stories and were all innovative in their own way. The SLS AMG too, has an interesting story and I believe its story is one of the reasons the SLS will be remembered well into the future.
The SLS is the first car AMG has ever created from the ground up, and if that’s not impressive enough when looking at (or driving) the finished product, consider that they developed it in just 37 months. Before the formal start of those 37 months, about a year earlier, towards the end of 2005, AMG CEO Volker Mornhinweg was doing some AMG soul searching with his management team. “Who are we? Where do we want to be in 2010?” These are the questions they asked themselves. They realized they were ready to design and build their own car.
From AMG, it couldn’t just be a sports car, but a super car. It must reflect the Mercedes-Benz tradition, and it must rival its competitors from Italy, the UK and the other manufacturers in Germany. Mornhinweg turned to Christoph Jung, the strategic project director who would manage every aspect of the car’s development over the coming years. Jung began assembling the internal team to begin work on a concept they could take to the Daimler Board.
They spent the better part of the year putting together their plan. They wanted a front engined car. The engine would be set low and well back, requiring a long hood. The cockpit would be set far back with the seating position just forward of the rear axle leaving little overhang in the back for a trunk. Among other things, it had to be light weight and capable of a 0-60mph time under 4 seconds.
The AMG team got together with a group from Mercedes’ Sindelfingen based design team led by Professor Peter Pfeiffer to discuss the project. One of the designers in that first meeting, Mark Featherstone, sketched a ‘preliminary visual idea with a few strokes.’ The group around the table saw the inference of the 1950s Mercedes-Benz 300SL in the simple sketch and figured they were on the right track.
It was at the December 2006 Daimler executive board meeting where Mornhinweg revealed their plan. He went through the usual sales and production charts for AMG’s side of the business, outlined their strategy for the year to come and at the end of his presentation added “And beyond that, we recommend building our own AMG super sports car.” He promptly unrolled the Featherstone sketch and a hush fell over the room, it was silent for several seconds. Board chariman, Deiter Zetsche eventually broke that silence “It looks good!” That’s all Mornhinweg needed to move forward, putting together a business case for the project and to work out the technical specifications.
Heart of the Beast: Naturally aspirated 6.2 liter V8.
American Muscle’s Role
2007 would prove to be as intense a year as anyone at AMG had experienced. The team had the opportunity they wanted; now they had to figure out what, exactly, to build.
Early in the year AMG ordered a Dodge Viper GTS from the Chrysler Corporation to help with SLS development. AMG engineers figured the Viper would be a good place to start because its tube frame could be modified fairly quickly and easily to accommodate the axles, brakes and power train of the future SLS. They were right and over the course of the next year they purchased thirteen more Vipers, becoming the key European account for the Viper brand. It was a brilliant idea. By using the basic structure of the Vipers, AMG technical designers quickly had test mules they called ‘T cars’ that could be driven around the Nurburgring’s Nordschleife, measuring data, testing various engineering options and drawing conclusions about the target product.
Design and Testing
The team decided a lightweight aluminum space frame would form the central structure. They would modify an M156 AMG V8 engine to suit the new project. Ultimately, more than 120 parts of AMG’s ‘standard’ M156 engine, as found in a C or E 63 for example, would be changed to create the new M159 engine found in the SLS AMG. Attention to weight savings was just as important as improved performance, down to the tiniest parts. Where steel screws were found in the M156 engine, the M159 engine employed aluminum screws.
A lot of time was spent on the door design, both traditional and gullwing doors were considered. The team was always conscious of what had come before them and wanted to make sure gullwing doors wouldn’t be interpreted as a gimmick. They wanted whatever design they chose to fit their modern super car goal. Ultimately, the gullwing door concept was adopted. The team believed the doors would be about the only thing their new car would have in common with the 1950s era 300SL.
With the data collected thanks to the ‘T cars’ AMG used their highly advanced computer simulation programs to further develop the project. It is these programs that they attribute the ‘high level of maturity of the first SLS AMG prototypes.’ These programs produce such high quality virtual prototypes, engineers are able to simulate true to life test drives and crash tests without spending huge amounts of time and money. The first self-propelled prototypes were testing by August 2008. The first three underwent temperature stress tests in Death Valley, CA. Fairly quickly, they had a fleet of 40 aluminum framed, self propelled test cars being tested in various environments and on various race tracks around the world. Always paying attention to their competition, the AMG engineers ran simultaneous tests on various Italian, British and other German super cars perceived as the SLS’ competition. By mid-summer 2009 the test fleet was undergoing final testing. The SLS AMG was poised to go into production at the end of 2009.
What Is the Aluminum Space Frame Made of?
Introduction and Reception
The fruit of AMG’s labor, the new SLS AMG Coupe, was introduced to the public in September 2009 at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Customer deliveries began during the first half of 2010.
Between its introduction and the time it started appearing at dealerships, the SLS graced the cover of virtually every car magazine in the world. It was well received by the motoring press, a group happy to see Mercedes-Benz-AMG produce a real sports car, save for the inevitable handful who still believed a manual transmission was what made a sports car.
The inevitable comparisons between the two gullwings, old and new, will always be made. The 300 SL is an iconic car, an iconic piece of mid-century design. The SLS has received more than 30 international design awards and I dare say its design, like so many Mercedes designs, will stand the test of time. While they depreciated initially after purchase, when they were still in production, prices are already pretty bullish with increased interest in modern super cars from the collector car buying elite. The SLS will, inevitably, become a classic.
In the end, AMG achieved their goal of successfully creating their own super car with all the modern safety and technology elements with a gentle nod to that which came before them, and they did it all in about 3 years. What a story.
Over the next couple of years AMG added a roadster version of the SLS with layered soft top and traditional doors (more on SLS variants in another Hub soon). My inquiries to AMG representatives at MBUSA regarding production and sales figures were met with an answer of ‘sorry, that’s proprietary information’. At this point I don’t believe I have a credible, verifiable source for that information. One day, I hope to report accurate and verifiable production and / or sales figures for the various SLS models.