At times, the past returns. It is a common saying that history repeats itself and that is impossible to break that never-ending circle that has been going on since eternity. Yet, every now and then, if the past has to return, it does so disguised as future. In the car world, the retro-style has existed for more than 2 decades. Called also as newstalgia by some, it is considered to be a peculiar approach to car design where there's an effort to re-interpret the shapes and the proportions of past models, often re-using the same names and their most distinctive traits.
Between the second half of the 1990ies to the first of the 2000's, the automotive world greatly developed this peculiar approach in designing a car: in this decade or so there has been an effort to re-interpret the past to improve the present and to offer the public something truly memorable.
It is the case of these two automobiles, the BMW Z8 and the Mercedes SLR McLaren: they're proper Teutonic muscle-cars that were able to retain their own market niche thanks to their extreme solutions and to their rarity.
These two are classic examples of a retro-design approach: the Z8 re-interprets the wonderful styling solutions of the BMW 507 of the 1950ies, while the Mercedes SLR, although had a new design in every possible way and less inclined to the retro solutions, it is inspired by the same concept of the 300 SLR, of which it follows the same concept and guiding lines.
Among all cars of the early 2000's, these two are among the most interesting. They have been in their time two ways of re-interpreting the past that surely made history in the present. With the Z8, time seems to have stopped definitively. Looking at it, it doesn't feel like coming back to 1957 and neither to 1999, where retro-design means nostalgia above everything. Here, there is nothing nostalgic at all and after exactly 20 years since its introduction, it is as fresh as a car which was just unveiled at the past auto show.
The design of Henri Finsker and Chris Bangle is magnificent and incredibly contemporary: it is a phenomenal re-interpretation of one of the most beautiful cars ever created, the BMW 507 of 1955. The whole project started with the Z07 prototype, presented as a roadster at the Auto Shows in Tokyo in 1997 and as a Cupè at Detroit in 1998. This prototype generated a lot of enthusiasm and a production version was asked by the specialized press. The BMW for the new Millennium was simple and charming yet brutal and sporty at the same time. Like its predecessor, the Z8 has the same technical layout: a rumbling V8 up front and a gorgeous all-aluminium bodywork.
Where the 507 had a beautiful 150hp engine, the Z8 equalled it with its powerful 400hp S62 engine, which was the same as the E39 M5. A big engine in front, a manual gearbox and an elegant and fresh design, the BMW for the new Millennium was able to crystallize in time, remaining always contemporary despite its classic styling.
Simplicity is key to understand the style of the Z8. There is not that presumption typical of a design with too many lines and volumes: here there's a new motorcar that draws inspiration from the past to shape the future. When you observe one, it almost seems to be looking at a car that doesn't exist: the Z8 is not a 507 re-made by nostalgic BMW workers, but a car completely on its own. The proportions are perfect and the car appeareance changes continuously: from the long front bonnet to the tail section, one always seems to be looking at a mutant object, but always coherent with itself. The Z8 might not be the prettiest car in history, but it is surely the most successful example of "newstalgia".
The driving experience is more that of a comfortable Gran Turismo than the one of a true sportscar. It is heavy despite the large use of light alloys and it is not agile as one would expect. However, the experience is satisfying and meorable: when was the last time you could buy a new sportscar with a manual gearbox?
On the other hand, the SLR was located in a higher segment of the market: when it was new, it was part of the first supercar trio of the new Millennium. It had to compete against the Carrera GT and the Ferrari Enzo, as in that very moment it was representing Mercedes' highest level of technological advancement.
Same as the Z8, the SLR draws inspiration from a glorious past: SLR means Sport Leicht Rennen, i.e. lightweight sports racing, recalling the glorious 300 SLR's of Rudolf Uhlenhaut. This name is able to send shivers down the spine of many enthusiasts, as it refers to the victorious cars of the legendary Mercedes works racing team of the 1950ies with Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio and the late Pierre Levegh. With the new SLR, Mercedes in partnership with McLaren built a car that immediately became a cult. Here, retro-style is more present in the general idea o the car rather than in the styling alone.
Despite having never took competition as a factory Mercedes car, as with Uhlenhaut's 300SLR the new SLR was a technology showcase. Built entirely out of carbon fibre in the Woking factory just outside London, the SLR was the road going synthesis of the winning collaboration between the two manufacturers in F1. Powered by a 5.5 litre V8 with a twin-screw Lysholm supercharcher churning out 617 hp. Derived from the type M113 of the SL500 R230, the new M115 was devastatingly powerful, so to push the SLR over the 200mph mark. Fitted only with AMG's 5 gear speedshift transmission, the SLR wasn't understood immediately: what was it? A supercar? A GT or just a hyped-up SL with a factory body-kit?
Heavy at 1786 kg but agile and equipped with an automatic air-brake, it was the ultimate definition of a grand tourer according to Mercedes. Surely not able to compete against the Enzo and the Carrera GT, it represented what supercars lovers want and not what manufacturers think they want. Usable on a daily basis and with excellent road clearance, it has always been one of the best cars for longer journeys, savouring every mile.
The guttural and resonating sound coming from the side-mounted exhaust is something only supercars of the past generation could produce. It is a roar followed by the distinctive supercharger whine which dominates any other thing, something truly rare to experience every day, especially when every engine is turbocharged.
When Mercedes engineers are let loose they never joke around: the SLR was the spearhead of Mercedes technology of those years.
In contrast to the Z8's pure beauty, the SLR seems to be brought out of Uhlenhaut's racing department. Its style follows function: the massive side-vents are there to help dissipate the enormous quantity of heat and the side-exhaust are there to keep the car's underbody flat and aerodynamically efficient. Here there are not golden proportions, but a re-interpretation of the original 300SLR idea. The SLR's beauty is tied up to its technical significance: true to an idea dear to Mercedes, it has pure engineering beauty, rather than just aesthetic. Terribly fascinating and very contemporary even to this day, it is one of the definitive cars of any supercar collection.
The combined rumble of these two great cars together is a spectacle which seems to be out of time. Aspirated and with a supercharger, these two are among the cars that will excite enthusiasts. On the other hand, if you want to pursue a retro-design idea, both for styling that for the ideological layout, the two cars present here are a spectacular example to follow.
Words: Jacopo Villa, contributor
Photos: Sajin Park
Cars: private collection