Let's cut to the chase: This is a 563-hp Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, those are its amazing doors, and I took this picture in Mexico while hanging out of the car at 50 mph. Safety is for pansies. Viva velocidad!
Full disclosure: Mercedes-Benz flew us to Mexico City and put us up in a nice hotel so that we could bring you this story. While we were there, we met legendary racing driver John Fitch and spent two hours talking to him about everything from Orville Wright and George Patton to the color of Alfred Neubauer's hat. He is 92 years old, he remembers everything, and he is amazing. Also, no matter what anyone says, the margarita is not your friend.
You will inevitably read this and wonder about the details. You will wonder who paid for the whole shebang (Mercedes), who gave me the authorization to go off the grid for almost three days for a single story (Wert), and most of all, what business an SLS has in the bowels of Mexico (mirrored history).
The details are irrelevant.
No, wait — that's not true. A few details matter: In 1952, Karl Kling and Hans Klenk entered a prototype Mercedes-Benz 300SL in Mexico's Carrera Panamericana open-road race. They covered over 1900 miles of atrocious pavement at an average speed of just over 100 mph. They hit a buzzard at one point, destroying the SL's windshield and knocking Klenk unconscious. When he came to, he urged Kling to keep going. Forty-three miles later, they finally had a chance to stop and cleanse the car — and Klenk's face — of blood, bird bits, and shattered glass. The duo won the race, entering history as the most steely-eyed pair of Germans to ever set foot in los Estados Unidos Mexicanos.
The other important details regard the SLS. It is fast as hell and it kind of looks like a W194 (Kling and Klenk's car) or W198 (the production "Gullwing" SL). Because Mercedes-Benz is the second most history-conscious car manufacturer on the planet (Ferrari and Porsche are tied for first), it decided to fly a host of SLSs to Mexico for a journalist road trip. The sentiment was not lost on us. Jalopnik received an invitation, I begged Wert to let me go, and he said yes.
We begin our trip in the town of Puebla, roughly one hour north of Mexico City. Mercedes-Benz has hired a flock of Mexican police officers — federales — to escort us on our journey. They pound through the city like like men on a mission, darting and diving through traffic, viciously cutting a path toward the hills. When we hit the outskirts of town, they bomb onto the motorway — one of them even parks in front of moving traffic on the highway to clear the way — and immediately attempt to break the speed of sound. Because we are not soulless chumps, we are obliged to keep up.
"If you should meet a vulture on the way, do not drive to victory! Give the bird a chance!" — Günther Molter, former press secretary to Mercedes-Benz motorsport chief Alfred Neubauer, in a taped greeting.
We are not obliged to disclose our speed, but suffice it to say that a federale-spec Charger with a blinking light bar on its roof is just about the most badass thing to chase across a landscape since, well, ever. And while you never quite get over the weirdness of following a speeding police car, you do not pause when the occupants of said car urge you to pass them at triple-digit speeds. You are not stupid.
In spite of it all, the SLS is irritable. The SLS does not want to go this slow. The SLS is loping, cruising, ambling. The road is lumpy and undulating. There is surprisingly little cockpit space for such a big car. Road noise booms through the cabin. When we reach our exit, we stop for coffee at a combination tollbooth and convenience store. I step out of the car, take a few pictures, and immediately begin playing with the doors: Up, down. Up, down. Hiss, hiss. You fall into the seat and you lift your left arm up and you feel like Marty McFly. "Let us see," you think to yourself, "if ustedes bastardos can do 90."
And then you giggle, because that is what you are supposed to do after sitting in a $183,000 supercar and pretending to be a hispanic Michael J. Fox. ("Si, senor. Esta 'Power of Love' con Alex P. Keaton.")
Oh, the doors. Oh. They are quite possibly the coolest thing on the car, the one feature that makes up for any of the SLS's faults. Yes, the SLS is nice to drive — it is both far quicker and far more nimble than you expect, lunging into corners like a machine half its size — but it is ultimately a large and powerful grand-touring car, the kind of thing that middle-eastern royalty will undoubtedly use to traverse huge expanses of desert in great comfort. Behind the wheel, you tend to be less interested in driving involvement and more interested in chewing through miles. Satisfaction comes from fast prowl, not full-on attack.
I have heard that this is what it is like to drive a 300 SL. Convenient, that.
Pace chosen, you begin to notice the details. At first glance, the SLS seems like little more than a self-conscious assemblage of styling cues. The nose, the doors, the sloping pillars — they all appear to have been carefully inventoried and assembled with little regard for the appearance of the finished whole. The car oozes cold calculation. The SLS is not unattractive — far from it, in fact — but unlike the original Gullwing, it is not pretty.
What it is is a machine best appreciated piecemeal. The dash vents are elegant updates of the ancient Benz cross-hair vent; they don't jibe with the rest of the modern, carbon-fiber-clad interior, but they work well on their own. The chunky, T-shaped shift lever is fun to play with and looks cool, but it seems too understated for the flashy center console. Every detail on the car follows this pattern, from the gaping front grill to the brutish vents in the front fenders. Viewed as a whole, the SLS doesn't quite mesh.
And so you find yourself enamored of the Mercedes's individual parts, none of which are more enchanting than the vertically opening doors. They arc into the air on hydraulic struts as thick as tree trunks. They are gimmicky and magical all at once, and you find yourself looking forward to every gas stop just because you get to nonchalantly fling them open or shut. They can also be opened at speed, which lets you get away with things like this:
...and lets you better hear the cracklesnortpopboom of the SLS's 6.2-liter, 563-hp V-8. It is a growly, thunderous, pissed-off version of an already irritable engine, as if someone took the V-8 from a C63 AMG and poked it repeatedly with a sharp stick. Your pant legs blow in the breeze and hot, carbon-filled air hits you in the face and the only thing that keeps you from doing it all day is the fact that the Warning! Door Is Open! buzzer won't shut up.
Note: Above 5000 rpm, wind and engine noise ensure that you cannot hear the buzzer. Just sayin'.
We spend most of our 200-something-mile journey thinking about Klink and Klenk. And buzzards. And John Fitch, the American Mercedes driver who convinced Stuttgart that La Carrera was worth running and that a properly sorted European sports car could easily win it. The Germans were not interested at first, but Fitch pressed them, ultimately competing in the race alongside Kling and Klenk. Were it not for a technicality — he illegally allowed a mechanic to touch his car during the race — he would have podiumed in the '52 event.
Men, racing drivers, and cars are all different now. Mexico? Not so much. Then as now, the roads were barely paved in places, smooth and flat in others. When we meet Fitch later that day, he talks about what the original Gullwings were like at high speed (stable, if a bit light in the nose) and what it was like to run the Mille Miglia (he won it in a near-stock 300 SL in 1955). Mexico, he says, reminds him of 1950s Italy.
Interesting Random Fact Department: The Carrera W194s ran with travel-limiting straps on their swing-axle rear suspensions, the better to deal with Mexico's bumpy roads. Less travel equals less dynamic camber change — something early swing axles were known for — equals Car Wants to Kill You a Bit Less. Makes sense.
"We almost died several times anyway," says Fitch.
He then proceeds to tell me about what it was like running the Corvette factory racing program in the 1950s. (He was the team's first general manager, elected because "Zora [Arkus-Duntov] said the cars would make horrible racing cars and wouldn't touch the damn things.") And what it was like driving alongside Pierre Levegh in the 1955 Le Mans tragedy. And what it was like being personally liberated from a POW camp by George Patton. And how Briggs Cunningham was a kind and gentle man. And and and. Or maybe I just asked him a lot of questions and he answered them. I'm not sure. When you meet your heroes, you tend to lose track of time. (Take five minutes out of your day and read the wiki entry, folks. The man has done everything.)
What happens when you pound a borrowed SLS over several hundred miles of battered Mexican highway and are then forced to give it back? Easy: You come away with a renewed appreciation for the value of corporate personality. Above all, the SLS is an old-school Mercedes: It is light but not wispy, nimble but not nervous, serious but not staid. In spite of its looks, it references history without kowtowing to it. This is nothing less than a minor miracle.
What was Mexico like? As I mentioned above, the details do not matter. It is everything you expect it to be, a land of staggering poverty and intense beauty, of remarkable roads and seemingly impossible size. In its golden years, the Carrera Panamericana was a race like no other — it combined factory teams and world-class driving talent with some of the most brutal roads on Earth. For better or worse, rural Mexico has not changed much since; the glimpse into the past that it provides helps put the SLS in perspective, even if the juxtaposition is a bit artificial.
Is the 21st-century Gullwing a worthy successor to the mighty 300 SL? Probably not, but who cares? The car is a novel reminder that history matters to Mercedes-Benz, and that there are some qualities that cannot be invented by a marketing department. It's fun in spite of its flaws. We probably didn't have to go to Mexico to find that out, but we sure as hell aren't complaining.
As always, don't forget to hit the galleries for the rest of the story!
Photo Credits: Profile rockpile shot courtesy of Mercedes-Benz; all other images, Sam Smith