SLK history: how it all began - Mercedes Benz SLK Forum

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#1 Old 09-23-2014
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SLK history: how it all began

Hi everyone,

I had promised to keep you posted about the SLK book. Here is a slightly abbreviated article from the book about the developments in the automotive world that lead to the SLK's being. This article will have for simplicity reasons no photos attached. Later this week I will also post it on my blog, but you are the first to read it:

"Mercedes SLK: How it all began

Whoever wants to know more about the small SL, the SLK, will at one point also like to know more about the vehicle concept`s history. After all a name similar to the SLK name was synonymous way back in the 1920s and 1930s with racing successes across Europe. They were instrumental to establish the Mercedes brand firmly as a major entry in the sports car market. Of course the huge and powerful SS (Super, Sport), SSK (Super, Sport, Kompact) and SSKL (Super, Sport, Kompact, Light) of those days have nothing in common with their “tiny” modern cousin.

Still, even a distant relationship through a loose similarity in the name does never hurt. In order to find other traces within the long and esteemed Daimler-Benz history, one has to go to the 1950s. A certain Max Hoffman had pushed the executive board to create a special automobile that would help him sell Mercedes cars in the New World. It would also be responsible to make the brand for the first time known to a larger circle in the US, people, who had previously heard very little about a company called Daimler-Benz. And if they did, it was not necessarily positive. The car in question is of course the 300SL Gullwing, shown first to the public at the New York automobile show in 1954.

But already prior to the launch of the iconic SL did the Daimler-Benz management discuss with Hoffman that a smaller, more affordable roadster would be a beneficial addition to such an important market as North America. After one had finally agreed on the design, it took Daimler-Benz stylists just eight weeks from blueprints to a first 1:1 scale model. The car was of course the 190SL. And stood side by side with the 300SL at said show in 1954.

For both, Daimler-Benz and Hoffman, the decision to offer a smaller SL was purely market driven. Everybody knew that the ultra-expensive 300SL would not sell in large numbers. But everybody also knew that a more affordable, similarly styled roadster would attract a much bigger crowd that was intrigued by the aura of the Über-SL, but not necessarily by the price tag that came with it.

Had it been only for the 300SL, the SL sports car would not have seen a successor. After all, both coupe and roadster sold a mere 3,258 units combined (coupe: 1,400, roadster: 1,858) from 1954 to 1963. That means on average less than 30 cars a month. The “lesser” SL managed to sell between 1955 and 1963 a respectable 25,881 units and convinced the executive board to go ahead with the development of a new version of the SL. As we all know, it was the 230SL pagoda, launched in 1963.

Fast forward to 1989:
After the long and successful career of the pagoda successor R107, the R129 was launched in 1989. Initial production was planned for 20,000 units annually. Although prices for the new roadster had reached almost stratospheric levels, demand far outweighed supply. At the top end of the convertible car market, the SL had in its price range no rivals. Capacity at the newly opened Bremen plant was soon increased to 25,000 units annually, but to no avail. The waiting list hovered around two years and could even reach up to five years for rare models in unique color and equipment options. The situation was similar to the 1970s, where there was a famous saying among German farmers, who had ordered a Mercedes Diesel sedan: “I can cope with draughts and floods, but not with the long waiting list for my new diesel”.

And then suddenly in 1990 everything changed: the Mazda MX5 Miata hit earth. Although it was not really a threat to the upper end of the convertible car market, Daimler-Benz management knew instantly: this was a game changer. Of course there were other convertibles available at that time. But cars like the Cadillac Allante, Ford Mustang 5.0 l or the BMW Z1 did not really pose a threat though.

The Miata was different. It would make people suddenly realize that open top driving was within their financial reach. The small car was not only attractively priced and soundly engineered; it was on top of that gorgeous to look at and managed to hit the emotional soft spot in most drivers, males and females. As a consequence of all that is was THE car to be seen in. This included “the rich and famous”. Their today`s Prius was the Miata in the early 1990s. What the British had achieved so successfully in the years after WWII with cars such as the brilliant MG TC and later the MGA, the Japanese had now simply copied. And it is somewhat ironic that a team from Mazda had spent quite some time on the stand of the British “Stevens Cipher” roadster at the 1980 Birmingham Motor Show in the UK. Their later mission statement for the Miata is supposed to be a straight copy of the press release for the Cipher (according to Prof. Tony Stevens, Chairman of Stevens Research Ltd).

Daimler-Benz (together with other car companies) was keenly aware that this “small convertible niche” would not just grow the way the overall automotive market would expand; no, they realized that it would grow by leaps and bounds. And this would not happen only in the US and in Europe, it would happen all over the world. They urgently needed some presence there. Not at the price level of the Mazda. That was not their domain (yet), but size-wise their new Mercedes convertible had to be much smaller (and more affordable) than the R129. It was rather fitting that the company had launched, after a long absence of some fifty years, a mid-prized sedan in form of the 190 W201 in 1982 again. A small and affordable roadster would make a more than welcome addition to this new line of cars and it was only natural that parts from the new W202 C-class were shared with the R170 sports car. After all it was just the same what Daimler-Benz had already practiced in the 1950s with the 180/190 sedan and the 190SL.

The new baby-SL could not just be a slightly larger Miata on steroids, which Daimler-Benz could sell at a premium. They knew the new car had to come with a twist, a USP that nobody would have expected from this traditional minded company. Luckily the days were long gone, when Daimler-Benz was regarded by journalists as an automotive manufacturer that would only produce high quality cars for executives, farmers and well-healed retirees.

When the first SLK concept car was launched in April 1994 at the Turin auto show, Daimler-Benz had shown the automotive world that it had just re-invented itself."
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#2 Old 09-23-2014
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Very nice article! Interesting to read how it was the Miata that was shaping the thinking around building a smaller, more affordable convertible.
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