Featured | Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren

At the Detroit Motor Show in 1999, Mercedes-Benz presented its Vision SLR concept car, inspired by the iconic Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR racer of 1955.

As the pinnacle of international motorsport, Formula 1 has certainly inspired plenty of extreme road cars: manufacturers chasing circuit thrills for the high street with outrageously powerful road legal editions of more mainstream fare.

But it’s rarer that a legendary supercar should come into being thanks to a boardroom tie-up between two manufacturers.

That’s not to say the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren doesn’t boast any motorsport pedigree – it does in spades. Yet, if it wasn’t for the fact Mercedes-Benz owned a chunk of the McLaren Group in the early Noughties, we might not have ever been able to feast our eyes on this shark-nosed GT at all.

At the Detroit Motor Show in 1999, Mercedes-Benz presented its Vision SLR concept car, inspired by the iconic Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR racer of 1955. Collaborating with its Formula 1 partner, McLaren, Mercedes-Benz brought a street legal version of the concept car to fruition four years later. They even let the British brand share in the naming rights.

Each SLR utilised a 5.4-litre supercharged V8 up front, offering up 617hp (460kW) peak power and maximum torque of 780Nm. A five-speed auto transmission was selected over an already-available seven cog set-up, purely to eliminate complexity. While Mercedes’ engineers ensured plenty of horses under the bonnet, it was McLaren’s boffins who decided to move the engine back in the frame, increasing the length of the bonnet in the process. In order to improve downforce, the SLR also featured a flat underbody. Not wanting to compromise on this feature, the designers were forced to exit the exhaust pipes out the sides of the car, rather than through the rear valance.

Perhaps the most famous version of the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren is the 722 Edition, which arrived in 2006 and recalls Stirling Moss and co-driver Denis Jenkinson’s victory in the 1955 Mille Miglia thousand-mile endurance race around Italy in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. Literally named after the time in the morning the pair set off (7.22am), they covered the distance at a breakneck average speed of 99mph (160km/h) in 10 hours, 7 minutes, and 48 seconds – crossing the finish line 32 minutes in front of Juan Manuel Fangio, also in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR.

Paying more than just badge-orientated reverence to the original racer, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren 722 Edition increased power output to 641hp (478kW) and featured revised suspension with a stiffer damper set-up, larger diameter front brakes, modified front air dam and rear diffuser, and a 10mm lower ride height.

This exclusive celebratory model improved on the standard SLR’s performance times too, with a 337km/h top speed and 0-100km/h and 0-200km/h sprints of 3.6 and 10.2 seconds respectively on its way to v-max.

Back to the original inspirations for the modern car, it wasn’t all bouquets and champagne for Mercedes-Benz’s racing programme during 1955, however. During that year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, a collision between Austin-Healey driver Lance Macklin and Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR resulted in a spectacular crash, sending Levegh’s car over a protective berm at 200km/h into a packed spectator area – 83 people, including Levegh, were killed, a further 120 injured and Mercedes-Benz brought its motorsport activities to a premature close. So shocking was the incident, the Stuttgart manufacturer wouldn’t re-join competition as a factory team for another 32 years.

The crash also brought to a halt Mercedes-Benz’s plans for a 300 SLR / 300 SL road car, based heavily on the racing version. Featuring coupe styling and the carmaker’s iconic gullwing doors, only nine 300 SLR rolling chassis were converted as such before the ill-fated 24 Hours of Le Mans. Capable of a top speed of 290km/h, these were – briefly – the fastest road cars in the world at that time. That performance figure, recorded 66 years ago, remains astonishing to this day.

All that history and mystique certainly made the wait for the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren worth it. With just 2,157 examples produced between 2003 and 2009, its uniqueness in the pantheon of performance remains assured.

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