Over the past decade or so, really pretty supercars have grown hard to find. Every new Lamborghini looks like a caricature, every new Pagani grows increasingly ornate, every new McLaren looks like every other McLaren, and even the C8 Corvette just looks off from certain angles. Will the Germans come and save us? From the looks of things, that’s not likely. This is the Mercedes-Benz Vision One-Eleven, an all-electric tribute to the C111 prototypes of the 1970s that really stretches the definition of a tribute. While its styling is confounding, it holds some serious promise beneath the oddly retro-influenced skin.
The problem with retro cues is that we’re so accustomed to them that we’re starved for truly new visuals. Most people don’t want retro-look mobile phones, retro-look television sets, or retro-look laptops. Offering straight-up nostalgia bait is just giving into cultural compression. We’ve been running on borrowed ‘80s nostalgia for absolute ages, to the point where two new generations of human beings have grown up, gone to school, started careers, wed, bred, and in some cases, even divorced, all before mainstream nostalgia has truly moved on from an era that, as our resident designer explained, was shit if your dad didn’t attend Eton. If the 20-year cycle was a constant, we’d all be watching That 2000s Show and Taking Back Sunday would fall under the Classic Rock umbrella.
While BMW seems content to reminisce on the ‘80s with i Vsion Dee whilst wandering about Paul Wall’s grille emporium searching for hardware to go on its latest models, Mercedes is going even further back to a decade that nobody really wants to re-live. We’re talking about the 1970s, the decade of questionable leadership, questionable substances, and questionable films. The Vision One-Eleven is meant as a reprise of the C111 prototypes of the late-’60s and the 1970s, and like many revivals of the ‘70s, doesn’t modernize all that well.
The biggest culprit is the massively different set of proportions compared to the original. While the C111 is sleek and crisp, the Mercedes-Benz Vision One-Eleven is blobby, with huge wheels and massive arches clashing with a wedge-like silhouette. It’s also so cab-forward that it looks more like a bootleg Stratos Zero than a C111 tribute. There are angles where it works and angles where it really doesn’t, appearing surprisingly tall for something just 46 inches high. Granted, Mercedes has tried to cheat the silhouette by making the skirts and diffuser black, which as anyone with a black-clad car knows, doesn’t really work. The result is a ‘70s concept performance car with the silhouette of a 2010s ArtCenter student project, all on stilts. All three of these concepts hold each other back to some degree in an unfortunate coalition of ideas.
However, that doesn’t mean the Mercedes-Benz Vision One-Eleven is without nifty details. The gullwing doors are still cool as ever, and the front grille is a digital panel, a bit like a matrix display. In addition to providing forward lighting, this panel can be used to send messages to other drivers. Actually, knowing how rude people can be, that’s probably not a great idea, but it’s certainly an entertaining one.
Power theoretically (this is a concept car, remember) comes from cylindrical cells with what Mercedes calls a novel chemistry feeding a YASA axial-flux motor for substantially-improved power density over the radial-flux motors in many EVs today. Mercedes claims that this axial-flux motor is three times more powerful by weight than radial-flux motors that are common today, and weight is a huge enemy of performance. It’s promising tech that we can expect to see in road cars of the future.
Things get substantially more interesting inside the Mercedes-Benz Vision One-Eleven, where the recycled polyester dashboard trim means this thing’s actually made of old leisure suits. A rectangular steering wheel pays homage to Mercedes’ F1 efforts, while metallic seat upholstery makes quite the statement. Unsurprisingly, the face of the dashboard is one big dot display, which I find pleasing, but not for the reasons you might expect. Red-orange light doesn’t impede night vision as significantly as other colors, so consider this more of a practical benefit than anything.
While I appreciate that Mercedes recognizes the C111 as part of its history, this Mercedes-Benz Vision One-Eleven seems to come from the same barrel of rose-tinted disappointment as the reborn Lamborghini Countach. We’ll never have Bruno Sacco at the helm of Mercedes’ design team again, we’ll never have the relatively lax restrictions of prior decades again, and stretching old language over very different proportions more often than not creates a caricature rather than a tribute. [Editor’s Note: I, for one, dig Mercedes’ new concept car, especially from that front view -DT].
So, how can retro be done right? Well, we don’t have to go far back to find out. The Mercedes-Benz SLS carefully borrowed styling elements from the 300 SL gullwing coupe, but it didn’t try to heavy-handedly slap familiar cues over very different proportions. It’s still a very cab-rearward coupe with an enormous hood and a short deck, but it doesn’t go overboard in a tribute to the past. There’s no chrome slathered on the bumper covers to remind us of a bygone time, no attempt at all to mimic the forward lighting signature of its ancestor, no fender blisters to throw off the modern styling language. The SLS is perfectly cohesive by the standards of 2010 without coming across as a pastiche.
The Mercedes-Benz Vision One-Eleven’s coolness comes in spite of its styling. It’s an electric supercar with a wild interior and the promise of axial-flux motor tech. While it’s not a particularly convincing tribute to the C111 series of prototypes, it’s still an enticing look at what the future holds. I say drop the retro for the next one and go nuts. Let the Mercedes-AMG ONE hypercar know that it has internal competition.
(Photo credits: Mercedes-Benz)
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