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At a pinch you could mistake the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren for a particularly muscle-bound species of Benz SL.
Out in the real world few are fooled, least of all the breathless youth who accosted me at the petrol station near Salisbury Plain.
Having popped open the butterfly door and tried to look suave as I slid over the deep sill, mindful that Paris Hilton famously flashed all when alighting from one of these cars, I carefully inserted a disclaimer about ownership into the conversation (just in case the young man mistook me for a very over-the-hill ex-footballer) before fielding the usual questions about speed (207mph) and value (£235k for insurance in this case).
Perhaps the most surprising number about the SLR is not ‘how much’ or ‘how fast’ but ‘how many’: 200? 300?
I was shocked to learn later that more than 2000 of these two-seater, front-mid-engined monsters were built.
That just goes to show that buyers of models such as these don’t read car magazines, because few recent supercars have received such a lacklustre welcome from critics.
They didn’t like the steering, they didn’t like the brakes, but most of all they didn’t like the fact that the SLR was not the calibre of car the McLaren F1 had been.
But was it supercar, hypercar or super-GT? A Mercedes SL for exhibitionists or something more subtle, if not exactly stealthy?
For sure, nobody could be covert in this giant two-seater with its flip-up doors and side-exit exhausts, which are not just for show but a necessity to keep the underside flat.
It carries 70% of its length forward of its windscreen, yet its engine is placed way behind the front-axle line.
Marvel superheroes have been spotted in cars with proportions less epic than the SLR, even if its boot does take a set of golf clubs.
Born into the era of the Ferrari Enzo and inspired by the magnificent 300SLR Uhlenhaut Coupé, the 2003 SLR, many will tell you, is a misunderstood machine that deserves to be remembered as something other than a slightly disappointing replacement for the F1.
It represented the technical limit of what Mercedes could achieve 20 years ago, with no fewer than 37 patents pending.
Massively fade-resistant ceramic brakes and extensive use of carbonfibre to keep weight in check (at 3800lb the SLR was 600lb lighter than the contemporary SL) were certainly cutting-edge at the time.
Yet a commendable resistance to adding complication for the sake of it pointed to the fact that the new super McMerc was meant to be usable, rather than the pure statement of uncorrupted driver appeal that defined Gordon Murray’s F1.
Its AMG-designed gearbox, for instance, had five rather than seven speeds in the name of durability. It was also an old-style automatic with a torque converter (a feature that at least allowed Mercedes-Benz to claim that the SLR was the fastest true automatic car in the world), rather than one of the trendy new breed of robotised manuals.
It featured adjustable ‘comfort’ and ‘sport’ settings, plus manual and wet modes.
Placed a metre aft of the SLR’s imposing snout, its handbuilt 5.4-litre supercharged and intercooled V8 had three valves per cylinder, worked by single overhead camshafts.
Weighing in at 232kg, the powerplant made 617bhp at a relatively sane 6500rpm, with the blower spooling up to 23,000rpm for 13psi boost.
Developed from the ’99 Vision SLR concept, it was jointly created with McLaren, in which Daimler-Benz had a 40% stake.
The fact that the cars were built in Woking rather than Stuttgart added to the kudos of a flagship that was actually half the price of the already legendary F1 and was intended to be a less intimidating drive.
Having chosen between black or silver paintwork, customers could view their SLR being put together in the laboratory conditions of the Ron Dennis lair.
They could have their carbonfibre seats custom tailored, with five sizes available, while also pondering over options such as 19in alloys for £7000 or a £15,000 SLR-branded wristwatch.
Sales figures of 500 a year had been hoped for but annual production peaked in 2007 at 275 examples, interest in the SLR having been boosted that year by the introduction of a roadster version.
The more potent last-of-the-line Stirling 722 editions were only available to existing SLR customers; 75 were made to commemorate the Moss/Jenkinson Mille Miglia victory in 1955.
But by then the fickle world of supercar fashion had moved on, although to what exactly I would not be able to tell you.
In those days, probably the only modern supercar even vaguely on my radar was the Bristol Fighter, simply because it looked like a way one of my favourite marques might conceivably reinvent itself.
In terms of numbers produced it was never a credible rival to the SLR McLaren, with no more than 14 and possibly as few as nine constructed between 2002 and 2011.
Yet as a way of transporting two people at more than 200mph it had the same ends in mind, even if they were achieved by very different means.
Although not everyone agreed at the time, production of a supercar such as the Fighter really looked as though it was the way forward for Bristol at the turn of the century.
Why take on the mainstream luxury car makers with a charming but hopelessly outdated saloon such as the Blenheim, when buyers in the super-sports-car market were likely to be much more forgiving?
The architects of the Fighter, led by new Bristol chairman Toby Silverton, could also see there was more potential profit margin in a car that was easier to produce and without the unnecessary gimmicks that afflicted most other high-cost, ultra-high-performance cars.
Here was a design entirely in sympathy with the Bristol ethos of luxurious practicality in a handbuilt, aluminium-bodied car powered by a Chrysler engine, except now it was an 8-litre V10 from the Viper rather than a V8.
In a 2010 presentation to the Bristol Owners’ Club on the development of the car, Silverton was keen to point out that the Viper V10 lump was not shared with a truck but had its origins in Chrysler’s ownership of Lamborghini.
Good for 525bhp in standard non-‘S’ form it had pushrods rather than overhead cams, but this probably helped keep the weight down to 239kg.
Like in the SLR it was mounted well back in the Fighter’s laser-cut chassis, designed by former Brabham Formula One engineer Max Boxstrom.
It featured double wishbones all round and exhausts running through its massive side members to keep the underside flat.
This was all to the good: in the Imperial College wind tunnel, a wooden model of the Fighter (displayed in Bristol’s Kensington showroom months before anybody saw a real car) registered an amazing 0.27Cd drag coefficient yet with real-world ground clearance that made a nonsense of its low-slung rivals.
The Fighter was 4in narrower than the Viper, shorter than a Porsche 911 and lighter than all its rivals at 1600kg.
It had a superb turning circle, despite being shod with tyres among the widest ever fitted to a road car, and was created around sensibly packaged seat/steering wheel/pedal relationships, with room for a 6ft 7in driver. For some reason a lot of Bristol owners are tall.
There was a strong emphasis on practicality in the hatchback Fighter, with its full-sized fuel tank and spare wheel.
One auto was built but all the rest had the six-speed manual, giving a huge top-gear stride: 100mph equalled 2500rpm and Bristol was justifiably proud of the Fighter’s potential for 25mpg with a 500-mile range.
Its slippery shape looks better today, to my eyes, than it did almost 20 years ago. It is a cerebral tribute to the Bristol 450 team cars of 1955, yet in no sense a lazy retro design.
There’s a touch of the Costin Amigo about it, but somehow it conforms roughly to my vision of what a Bristol ‘supercar’ should look like while at the same time recapturing some of the appeal of the compact two-place 404 of the 1950s.
With the SLR you have to limbo down through its doors to avoid the aggressively angled windscreen pillars, and it is equally hard to retain your dignity when exiting.
Not so in the Fighter: you just step over the sill and down into the seats, which look like armchairs next to the SLR McLaren’s one-piece buckets with their restricted range of adjustment.
The Fighter smells of leather and has the feel of something that has actually been used as an everyday road machine.
The SLR smells of nothing and, like most such rich person’s toys, has been almost nowhere. Its massively strong but intrusive ’screen posts and the figure-hugging seats give a sense of being trapped in the cockpit of a military jet.
The steering wheel looks like something out of a Berlin taxi but the theatre is maintained by the ‘start’ button located in the top of the central gear selector.
Other than poor vision around those massive pillars it is an easy drive and feels immensely rigid, although there are quite a lot of groans and squeaks from the carbonfibre tub to suggest otherwise.
The muscle-car rumble from the side pipes grabs your attention at once.
With Drive engaged you don’t really think about the gearbox again, but the squishy brake-pedal feel – or lack thereof – seems immediately out of place, even if its epic ability to bring the SLR McLaren to a halt is never in question.
You get used to them, as you do the steering, which has a similarly once-removed Mogadon feel about it.
The SLR, with its 50:50 weight distribution, is very stable but also goes where it is bidden unfalteringly. Yet there is something simulated about what the steering wheel is telling you through your palms and fingertips.
If the SLR McLaren has limits way beyond most drivers’ requirements (or nerve), it lacks clear signposts when you start to look for them.
Much is forgiven when you explore the straight-line performance. You suddenly have the sort of overtaking opportunities normally reserved for riders of big modern superbikes and you think twice before dipping into the last few millimetres of throttle travel.
Here, madness lives. With the blower spooled up and whining the thrust is as breathtaking as the noise, like a bandsaw cutting through logs.
And just as you think the rate of acceleration cannot get any more aggressive, the pull gets harder. It is exhausting, but you could get to like it.
The Fighter, to borrow estate agent patois, is more ‘approachable’ in every respect. The all-round vision, the ‘normal’ driving position and the airy sense of space inside its cockpit immediately put you at ease.
The interior is restrained with no contrivances – even the aircraft-style instruments above the windscreen and the cut-out drop glasses in the doors feel true to what the Fighter is all about.
The car is an exercise in soundly conceived suspension geometry, honest aerodynamics and balanced weight distribution carefully aligned with all the benefits of a giant engine and tall gearing in a strong, light, compact entity.
You can motor quietly through the Bristol’s six gears, which are largely optional in any case such is the massive torque, and enjoy the views through that wraparound windscreen.
Dial up some chilled air and note that the dropped, serrated spokes of the pleasingly chunky steering wheel recall the aircraft-inspired helm fitted to the 1950s cars.
It is connected to a powered rack that never expects you to second-guess cornering set-ups. The nimble Fighter turns in beautifully, flatters your judgements and rewards your attention without requiring total concentration all the time.
At cruising speeds the aerodynamics cause the car to double down on the feeling of stability that pervades it at all times, without recourse to silly gadgets such as the SLR’s ‘airbrake’ that pops up out of nowhere in your rear-view mirror.
The Fighter’s nose doesn’t dive under braking, the tail doesn’t squat under acceleration. All your physical inputs are of equal weight, a heft appropriate to the job in hand.
The gearchange moves neatly and precisely through its gate as you explore the performance, fully comparable with the SLR but a much less frantic experience.
With a smooth rumble, then a muted howl, the V10 merely summons a flow of acceleration that is primal, a velvet shove into the middle distance riding a sublime bow-wave of torque.
You can’t imagine wanting much more urge but apparently some customers did: there was an ‘S’ version of the Fighter with 628bhp and a‘T’ (turbo) with an alleged 1000bhp, although none of the latter were ever completed.
Many more extreme statements of early 21st-century motoring excess have emerged since the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren died in 2009, but everything about it, from its £330,000 price-tag to the fact that a change of plugs will reportedly cost you £15,000, still seems marvellously over the top.
To drive one is an event; to own one, I suspect, a burden. It is exciting but not satisfying; dramatic to behold but not beautiful. It is not even all that rare.
It was a committee design rather than the vision of one man and his team, created in an atmosphere of competing tensions between the commercial instincts of Stuttgart and the purist sensibilities in Woking that was never going to result in an entirely happy car.
The Fighter, meanwhile, is much easier to warm to.
As the first Bristol to dispense with the BMW chassis concept the Fighter was, in a sense, only the second truly all-new car Filton had ever produced. Everything else was an extrapolation of the 1947 400.
As well as being a radical departure from the firm’s traditional Chrysler V8-engined saloons, the Fighter was also much more than just another hopeful British specialist ‘comeback car’ of over-reaching ambitions and doubtful merit.
Here was a vehicle true to a firm’s traditions that, had it been conceived 10 years earlier, might have achieved the critical mass required to keep Bristol Cars alive.
There was science and substance behind the Fighter, but not enough money or marketing. It was too radical to appeal to existing Bristol customers, its message too subtle to get attention amid the lurid excesses of the 21st-century supercar landscape.
Images: Luc Lacey
Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren
- Sold/number built 2003-’09/2282
- Construction carbonfibre composite monocoque with carbon composite crash structures and aluminium subframes
- Engine all-alloy, sohc-per-bank 5439cc V8, with screw-type supercharger and air/water intercooler
- Max power 626bhp @ 6500rpm
- Max torque 575lb ft @ 3250-5000rpm
- Transmission five-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers; front anti-roll bar
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes electro-hydraulic carbon-ceramic discs with anti-lock and brake assist; computer-controlled airbrake
- Length 15ft 3¼in (4656mm)
- Width 6ft 3in (1905mm)
- Height 4ft 1¾in (1261mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 10¼in (2700mm)
- Weight 3890lb (1768kg)
- 0-60mph 3.8 secs
- Top speed 207mph
- Mpg 19.5
- Price new £330,000
- Price now £2-250,000*
- Sold/number built 2004-’11/c11
- Construction steel box-section chassis with integral front bulkhead and rollover protection, carbonfibre/aluminium body
- Engine all-alloy, ohv 7990cc V10, with multi-point fuel injection
- Max power 525bhp @ 5500rpm (550bhp at speed due to ram-air effect)
- Max torque 525lb ft @ 4200rpm
- Transmission six-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes ventilated discs, with servo and anti-lock
- Length 14ft 6in (4420mm)
- Width 5ft 9¾in (1795mm)
- Height 4ft 5in (1346mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft ¼in (2750mm)
- Weight 3527lb (1600kg)
- 0-60mph 4 secs
- Top speed 210mph
- Mpg 21.5
- Price new £229,125 (2006)
- Price now £2-300,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication