The Mercedes-Benz CW311 concept, and the Isdera Imperator that emerged from it, harkens to a time when all of our cars looked like they could not only achieve 200mph, but it was their sole purpose.
All of our cars should have looked like this by now. This, in This Year Of Our Lord 2016, a year that still sounds futuristic, should have garnered all of the wedges of the Optimistic Seventies, when designers on both sides of the Atlantic went mad and misty-eyed with optimism. Those whom are still around are asking: where are the wedges that we were promised? Small-minded legislators, fretting over the mental capacity of our pedestrians, killed them for us. (Who would have thought we'd still have grilles in the 21st century—?) We were drawing wedges in elementary school, the simplest shape, as low a coefficient of drag as we thought we could muster. The CW311 was born from the fertile mind of one Eberhart Schulz, who did engineering work for both Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, and the resulting concept featured components from both companies: , and the famed Mercedes-Benz M100 engine. It was named after its coefficient of drag, 0.31. The concept took six years to build and was finally completed in 1978, and when it was finished a period magazine called it, "Die Bombe."
"I feel like if a car could be a typeface," said , in a supreme bout of font nerdiness, "the CW311 would be Trade-Gothic Bold Extended."
A piece of the future could have been yours. Schulz had founded the company Isdera—whose unlikely, Italian-sounding name stands for Ingenieurbüro für Styling, DEsign und RAcing—and struck up a deal with his former employer, Mercedes-Benz: since the latter was never going to put the CW311 into production, why not have his company build it?
Imagine convincing a manufacturer today to put their concept car into production. Mitsuoka would be building Nissan Pivos, Hennessey would churn out Dodge Tomahawks, and the lunatic Swiss at Rinspeed would be the largest carmaker in the world.
Yes, Mercedes-Benz relented. The Isdera Imperator 108i featured every cutting-edge bauble you'd expect a funky wedge car to feature: tubular space-frame chassis! Gull-wing doors! Fiberglass! A periscope on the roof! A series of Mercedes-Benz V-8s were placed longitudinally in the middle, starting with a 5.0-liter and later going up to 5.6 and even AMG-tuned versions churning out 420 horsepower. All were paired to five-speed manuals from ZF. According to a German road test, later published in this very publication, one Imperator with 390 horsepower hit the 60mph mark in five seconds dead, on its way to 176mph. "Although it turned out to be the slowest in the field," says , "its performance was nearly as good as the mighty Lamborghini Countach QV, which was quite an achievement for a little-known German supercar maker."
Just 30 Imperators were built before Isdera moved on to its next project: the , a V-12-engined behemoth with four sets of gullwing doors, two for the engine, that made its only mark on society in Need For Speed II, a game your humble author destroyed his still-developing youthful brain on for hours on end. (Favorite car? Probably the . Someone should build that, come to think of it—but that's another story for another time.)
Isdera went out of business in 1993, but the company was beaten, but unbowed: in 1999, the Commendatore came back as the "Silver Arrow." Its prototype found its way to eBay in 2005 for the heady price of $3 million. It did not sell. Last we heard from Isdera, it tried to peddle the Autobahnkurier AK116i, a grotesque neoclassic powered by two Mercedes-Benz engines with a faux Talbot-Lago fin that featured a marble dashboard and four-wheel drive—each engine driving each axle. "Classic cars are nice to look at, , "but cruel to use."
Is the Isdera Imperator 108i a classic? The certainly indicates so: thirty forward-thinking souls had the audacity to buy one, and we should have joined them a long time ago.