“The show car is the embodiment of a designer’s dream. Then, so the dream comes true, you try and transfer as much as possible of the concept into the volume product.” For Michael Mauer – 33 years of age, with ten of them spent at Mercedes-Benz design after graduating from the Pforzheim school – the dream became reality on April 22 this year when, two years on from the presentation of the eponymous concept car, the SLK was unveiled to the public to become the true star of the Turin show.

Michael Mauer is chief of one of the three studios in which Mercedes cars are designed (the other two are led by Karl-Heinz Bauer and Dieter Futschik, the latter responsible for development of the SLK concept), overseen by Peter Pfeiffer who also heads industrial-vehicle projects. Mauer replaced Murat Gunak when he left Mercedes to take over the direction of the Peugeot style centre.

The first drafts of project R170, for a compact roadster targeting a younger than average Mercedes-Benz customer, date from late-1991/early-1992. From these, a dozen 1:5 models were produced, with five being reproposed in full scale by mid-1992. The definitive style was frozen early in 1993, a year before the presentation, at the 1994 Turin show, of the concept-version SLK.

“We wanted to show the public that Mercedes was making a car of this type and that it would be worth while waiting for the arrival of the production model, given the numerous proposals coming from the competition,” explains Mauer. “The role of the concept car was to build up expectations, not to test out the reactions of the public so as to determine the outcome of the production model.”

As in any project, the departure point was the package of the new car, developed over a shortened C-class floorpan (wheelbase 2,400 mm rather than the 2,690 mm of the saloon) suitably modified to respond to the roadgoing demands of the roadster.

The retractable roof, true highlight of the car, was an integral part of the brief right from the start of the project. For the designers, marketing amply illustrated the target age-group that the car was destined for: a young public, with subsequent requirements of containing the costs.

The objective was to make a small, technologically advanced roadster of personal style, conceived for satisfying driving without, however, creating a ‘baby sister’ for the SL. It is easy to imagine the enthusiasm of the young designers for the project: it’s a lot easier for them to identify with a subject like this than a top-of-the-range saloon.

“Of course we looked to the rich Mercedes tradition, with an eye on what the competition was doing,” says Mauer. “Our objective, though, was to develop a new car and not an updated version of an already-existing model.” The concept generated by his team (consisting of ten or so designers and seven modellers) was the one selected for development after careful discussions with design director Bruno Sacco and Peter Pfeiffer, although some of the details came from other proposals.

The article continues in Auto & Design no. 98