What a time the early 2000s was for supercars. In addition to icons from recognised brands like Porsche (Carrera GT), Ferrari (Enzo) and Lamborghini (Murcielago), we also saw the emergence of some smaller players like Pagani and Koenigsegg. Which did alright for themselves. And let’s not forget perhaps the most intriguing of them all - the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren.
We say intriguing because even now, 20 years on - with the SLR Club meeting at Woking to celebrate - the SLR remains so many different cars in one four-wheeled package. On the one hand, it’s the carbon tubbed McLaren exotic, while also being the flawlessly appointed Mercedes mega GT. There was a 722 GT race car (that nobody really remembers very much) as well as roadgoing Roadster that probably suited the SLR character better. Both Mercedes (with the Stirling Moss) and McLaren Special Operations (with the High Downforce Kits and McLaren Editions) evolved the SLR in a direction they saw fit, without both ever collaborating again on making the very best car. Curious.
It's a fascinating car and an equally interesting story, the 1999 SLR Vision concept receiving the green light under the name ‘Project 7’ just before the 21st century ticked over. It felt like a match made in heaven at the time, given the Mercedes-McLaren F1 team was doing so welll. A car with mighty Mercedes V8 and a carbon tub from the experts at McLaren should have been the dream supercar for the early 2000s. It was undoubtedly fast, the supercharged 5.4-litre engine producing 626hp and 575lb ft - enough for 3.8 seconds to 62mph and 208mph. The SLR was the first volume production car to be built at the McLaren Technical Centre, too.
The Mercedes-McLaren alliance didn’t quite succeed as well on the road as on the track, however. It wasn’t raw enough to be a genuinely thrilling supercar, but neither was it a truly long-legged cruiser. It’s interesting to see the terminology now used for the SLR, McLaren describing it as a ‘front-mid engined super GT that more than matched up to the supercars of the era’.
So perhaps it didn’t hit the bullseye when new, but the SLR is enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years as it becomes appreciated for all that it is - rather than everything it isn’t. This remains a car with a McLaren carbon tub, an almighty V8 engine (and sound), plus the sort of high-class hot rod styling that’ll still make folk stop and stare. For hundreds of thousands less than its similarly powerful contemporaries. That McLaren is still finessing the concept (the ‘by MSO’ programme was launched in 2019, the first HDK handover was this year) shows the potential that was there in the SLR and the fondness that still exists for it. We’ll certainly not see its like again.
With more than 2,000 SLRs made between 2003 and 2009, they aren’t as hard to find as might be expected for a 20-year-old exotic. Perhaps another reason why they weren’t always regarded as quite as ‘special’ as some other similar cars. One dealer has two on PH, a 2005 coupe with just 4,000 miles (and more than 700hp), plus a Roadster that’s believed to be one of only nine UK cars. And if that’s a little meek, someone willing to travel (and with €900,000) could be the owner of a 722 Roadster with just 400 miles recorded.
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