We at Swipelife were lucky enough to be the guests of Mercedes Benz at the Frankfurt Auto Show this year. We have attended many shows over the years, and this year’s IAA was undoubtedly the most exceptional any of us have ever been a part of. We were one of the few publications fortunate enough to sit down with Gorden Wagener, the head of design for Mercedes-Benz and the creator of the SLS AMG supercar. Special thanks to the Lifestyle Presse at Daimler AG and everyone who made the event unforgettable.
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In the interview, you will see the term ‘SL’ frequently. This refers specifically to the SLR McLaren; I have found that Mercedes employees use SL in reference to almost any vehicle in that class, which is extremely broad and encompasses many generations and configurations of these vehicles.
Gordon Welsh: First off, please let me congratulate you on the success of the SLS AMG. It was easily the most talked about vehicle at the show, and it is a tremendous accomplishment for your company. Doctor Zetsche stated earlier that the 300SL was the greatest sports car of the last century. Obviously you agreed! What else made the 300SL your choice, instead of the other great iconic cars that Mercedes has produced over the years?
Gorden Wagener: Actually, it wasn’t the 300SL specifically, actually it was the Panamerica, which was similar but not identical to the 300SL. The Panamerica was the racing version and was developed with the SL. We used the SL as a reference point because the public is familiar with it, but it was a production car, not a race car. The SLS is closer to a race car, and the overall design of the Panamerica was our true inspiration.
The SLS, at least chronologically, was preceded by the SLR McLaren. How did you want to depart from that vehicle as you were designing the SLS?
They are different cars in many ways. The SLR costs what, $500,000? The SLS is half that. It is different from both an engineering and design point also and it has a different target audience. The SLS is a pure sports car and will be marketed that way. It it has a totally different character than an SL so that allows us to reposition it in a more sporty way so that it appeals to a different group of people.
What is the first car that moved and inspired you?
Well, it was definitely Mercedes (laughs). It was a 230CE coupe. I was a little boy, I have that in mind, and plus my father was always driving a Mercedes sedan and so somehow I have a special relationship with it.
What cars that the American public would be familiar with did you design personally? I saw the S700 downstairs but that was more of a concept car.
Yes, the S700 was done awhile back. I didn’t design that all on my own, that was done in the US Studio, while I was in charge of global events design. I designed a lot of other cars, though, like the first SLR, current S-Class, C-Class, SLK, the SL, many production cars.
You took over for Peter Pfeiffer, who was with the company for some time. What did you learn from him? Are there any of his design traditions that you would like to carry on?
We worked very closely together obviously for the last 10 years. It was a great collaboration. I learned a lot from him from a design perspective and I think he learned some things from me as well, I hope (laughs). But many other things too! We got along really well and when I took over complete responsibility of course I wanted to do things my own way, as everyone would, and I am a completely different person from Peter; there are 25 years between us, and I became the youngest chief designer ever at 39 years of age. This was quite a signal to the industry..you know? Mercedes is the most traditional car maker and they have a 39-year old head of design! And of course I have a completely different background and of course I have very strong opinions and ideas about how I see the brand, what i want to do with the brand, strengthen the brand, how I want to bring it into the future.
From a design perspective, where do you see the future of Mercedes-Benz?
Um, one key is definitely about our brand identity. We have to strengthen that even more, even though we have the strongest one already and our brand is the most famous worldwide. I think this is actually quite a benefit, and I think we carry this responsibility and it is our job to continue it with the trends of tomorrow. There are many trends that will shape the future-a green trend, a luxury trend, and many others. Of course at the end of the day a car has to be about emotion, it has to be about perfection because thats a perfectly engineered German car, and it provokes excitement.
When Dieter introduced the SLS, he stated that in a few years it will be sustainable-as Mercedes seeks to work with more sustainable fuels, how do you see the design corresponding to the method of fuel? I know a lot of other manufacturers have been changing the look of their non-gas powered vehicles compared to the original.
We will have to make subtle changes, of course, to the car as a result of the electric drive. For instance, it does not need that much air in the front so you don’t need to have big openings to allow the car to breathe. I wouldn’t do that on the SLS, to be honest, and the electric drive has quite an acceleration and it really fits to the character of the SLS and how it was intended-it was designed perfectly. There is no reason to change it. That’s the big question of the moment-always people ask-When you start to invent environmentally friendly vehicles: electric, hybrid, fuel-cell, whatever-you have to think about what these cars will look like. Will the be entirely different? Will they look like new cars? How will they be? I think in the moment we see some forced attempts to be different but I think at the end of the day the customer does not want a totally different car. He wants a beautiful car, a nice car, and a good brand. But why does it have to be totally different? Maybe some people want to make a difference but the more and more that technologies get through, everyone will have them, so why stand out to make a difference? Whether you drive electric, gas, or whatever, simply you want to have a great car.
In the SLS you no longer use McLaren to make the engine, you looked to your own people-AMG. What was the decision behind that?
It’s no longer the engine, but the entire car was engineering by AMG. Not designed in terms of styling of course, but engineering. So, that was actually a project that AMG was really pushing for and I have to say, they really pushed through the organization because of course it is not easy to get something like that through but these guys made a very efficient effort for a small team and they gave us the opportunity to come up with this great design. They wanted to create the best sports car possible for Mercedes and of course we worked very closely, hand in hand, and that gave us the opportunity to come up with the design. There was a change in proportions, you know, with the long bonnet and they put the glass windshield upright, all that which makes this the legendary successor of the Gullwing. It was a very small team, together with AMG, and of course they did also deliver that engine, the 6.3 liter AMG engine. But also the rest of the car!
So what else did AMG have a hand in designing?
First of all the whole layout of the car. I was referring to the long bonnet before; the engineers had to change the whole track. We had a lot of freedom on that platform: we made it wider, more narrow, longer or shorter. They basically created the platform of that weight balance with the engine back and the transaxle. It’s pretty close to perfect. I think you have to look at that as one big piece of course of design and engineering, many things coming together: the brakes, the engine, the whole weight balance, the aluminum concept or the car to reduce weight, and all that leads to a really perfect driving machine. Really, this car is totally different from the SL, it’s a race car that will beat every competitor.
I’ve read some stories of the SLS keeping up with cars that are much more powerful at the track that boast higher horsepower. How well rounded would you say the SLS is?
Yes, there was a lot of test driving, I guess. Bascially here you are talking to the wrong person, you have to ask the AMG guys. They were intensely testing the car mainly on the Nurburing Nordschlieffe, where they set the track record. Have you ever driven it?
No, unfortunately not…it’s been a dream of mine to do it, and I understand that the course is open to the public. Next time I am back in Germany I will do it, but with the right car.
Like the SLS! It’s a difficult track really, you can actually train it on Gran Tourismo, it’s in there. You need to know where things are! Sometimes you can’t see, you know, because the track is always going up and down, left and right. It is a winding track. AMG is testing there all the time and I think it’s really the ultimate.
As far as the completion of the SLS…I’m sure you knew it was going to be a great reaction. Obviously everyone loves it! What will be your next step?
This is definitely a very big statement and very big event for us, launching the car here. From a design as well as from a performance point of view. Plus our brand has a lot of icons and that is a special thing, to work for and to design a Mercedes. Bascially every car we make and work on is an iconic car. And we are working on a few more, and we are very hopeful and comfrotable that we will set the pace higher and higher. But of course we have a very special car here, now.
You definitely do. Herr Wagener, thanks for taking the time to meet with me during this event, and for having me here. It has been a terrific experience!
Interview by: Gordon Welsh
Images: Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz