Designing a new SL


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Renderings the first creative step toward the R230 SL series.

Renderings the first creative step toward the R230 SL series.

Designing a New SL
Computers and Clay Create New SLs

When Mercedes presented the 2003 SL500 to the world – a design I feel is the most beautiful SL since the original 300SL roadster – there was no turning back; no fiddling with an overly fussy crease on the doors or revising the shape of the headlights. The design was frozen and had to stand on its own in the increasingly competitive premium luxury convertible class. Consumers would speak by either embracing the design and purchasing the car or seeking an alternative.

The market has spoken, and the R230 series SL will likely become one of the top-selling SL ranges to date. But what MIGHT that SL have looked like? What were the possibilities agonized over by the designers before settling on the final production design? Over $250B in potential sales was at stake with this new car.

Clay and the “Cave”

For the 230 series SL, the process began January 27, 1996, about half way through the production life of the previous generation SL, the R129 chassis. This date saw the submission of draft designs from ten designers, located in Germany, California and Japan. The hundreds of sketches submitted would form the basis for twelve 1/4 scale models which were digitized for manipulation on the computer. From this point, the evolution of the new SL design would progress through a two-track system into two different worlds. The real world process centered on the traditional 1:4 scale models, many initially laid up in clay; while the virtual world design development took place in a room packed with state-of-the-art computer processing technology referred to as the “CAVE.”

The supercomputer in the “CAVE” (Computer Aided Virtual Environment) was able to create full-size images of selected designs, using its five projectors and allowing designers to inspect every inch of every surface rendered. Parallel to the virtual process, the twelve scale models were scrutinized as well, with four standouts chosen to be created in full-size mockups. This evolution of the scale models occurred alongside the development of the interior design.

Renderings the first creative step toward the R230 SL series.

Renderings the first creative step toward the R230 SL series.

In the "CAVE" with digital rendering.

In the "CAVE" with digital rendering.

Full size car in the studio for digital mapping.

Full size car in the studio for digital mapping.

Freezing a design

The evolution of the design stopped when the design team saw the shape of an SL that not only embodied the range’s long heritage, but would gracefully carry it forward for up to a decade. This massive creative process culminated with the new SL being presented to the Board of Management for final approval on June 16 1997. The creative process stopped for the time being, while attention turned to the production side to ensure the new car would carry forward the world class build quality at the core of the Mercedes-Benz brand.

Renderings

Sleek initial proposal long on wheel height and short on headroom.

Sleek initial proposal long on wheel height and short on headroom.

Another early rendering.

Another early rendering.

Early interior rendering.

Early interior rendering.

Final interior design emerging.

Final interior design emerging.

This rendering has a Jaguar XK8 flavor.

This rendering has a Jaguar XK8 flavor.

Back in the "CAVE" with interior proposal.

Back in the "CAVE" with interior proposal.

And then colors need to be evaluated on the new shape.

And then colors need to be evaluated on the new shape.

Interior design continues alongside body styling development.

Interior design continues alongside body styling development.

Scale models feature many different styling cues.

Scale models feature many different styling cues.

Roy Spencer, editor MercedesHeritage.com
Photography from Mercedes-Benz

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