When a video game franchise decides to build its next in-game hero car in the real world, you’d assume this process would take many months, many meetings, and many buzzwords that in no way relate to car culture or gaming.
But this isn’t Need for Speed’s first rodeo. And when you gather a team of die-hard automotive enthusiasts together – including people from EA Games and Speedhunters – the end result isn’t always dictated by brand perception or OEM objectives. No, its main purpose is incredibly simple: to inspire gamers and car fans all around the world.
Throw it all into a melting pot and this is the result – the Need for Speed: Unbound Mercedes-Benz 190 E. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but trust us, it’s absolutely worth it. Lurking under that wild exterior isn’t some clapped-out auto with stratospheric mileage; it’s a genuine 2.3-litre ‘Cosworth’ with a 5-speed manual.
Before the purist rage starts boiling over, this was a car previously destined for a life of gathering dust right up until Speedhunters’ own Ben Chandler set eyes on it back in 2018, long before the latest Need for Speed game was even a concept.
Ben, who often has the willpower of a hungry child in the Reese’s factory, struck a deal for the car in his head well before its previous owner had even contemplated selling it.
Before we get into the how and why, first we need to give you a rundown on the who and what. This isn’t your bottom-of-the-barrel 190 E after all; it’s legit in every sense of the word.
The aero? That’s inspiration taken straight from the 190 E 2.5-16 Evo II. Those wheels? Three-piece billet Dromo items from Livery Wheels with bespoke Dlng Designs turbofans. The interior hasn’t been spared of modification either, now featuring a pair of Recaro seats, Hedgehog Tuning lightweight door cards and a 6-point roll cage. And yes, Hedgehog Tuning is a real name.
As for the ride height, naturally you can thank Air Lift Performance for that. Air Lift have revolutionised the way we’re able to build (and use) extreme projects; this is a car built to exist beyond the virtual world after all.
The elephant in the room? It’s painted two different colours. Think of it as two different personalities: yin and yang, each side projecting a completely different vibe and aesthetic. There’s a good reason for this too, because one of the creators involved in this build is Rakim Mayers. You might know him as A$AP Rocky.
Hip hop and car culture have long been intertwined with the style, attitude and wealth of artists elevated by the vehicles they drive. Rocky is no exception to this, and in the world of hip hop there’s one car brand which remains more referenced than any other in history: Mercedes-Benz.
As the main protagonist in Need for Speed: Unbound, it only seemed right to get Rocky’s input while designing (and building) the 190 E Benz he drives in the game. Especially when you learn that Rocky collaborated with Mercedes on his AWGE capsule collection earlier this year.
So while the physical building and parts selection would be taken care of by Speedhunters’ technical editor Ryan Stewart, it was Rocky – along with EA and Criterion Games Vehicle Art Director (and the car’s designer) Bryn Alban – who created the outrageous style you see here. All from a car originally found tucked away in a Chicago garage…The Chicago Toybox Collection
Richard ‘Fish’ Fisher is a brilliant human being. He has one of the greatest and most obscure car collections of anyone we know and – being a car dealer by trade – when he says everything is for sale, he genuinely means it.
Fish is also no stranger to Need for Speed. Not only has he appeared within the game, his Porsche 964 was used as the hero car back in 2015. If you’re still wondering why his name sounds familiar, that’s because his teenage years were spent skidding Japanese cars around Chicago as part of the Risky Devil crew.
You don’t visit Chicago without popping in to see Uncle Fish, and during a visit for Speedhunters back in 2018, Ben clocked the 190 E tucked right at the back of Fish’s ‘Toybox’ – an apt name for his incredible car collection. At that time it was wearing the factory 16V bodykit, larger OEM wheels and had a load of track goodies fitted.
The problem was, Fish didn’t fit too comfortably in it. Ben, on the other hand, did. And in the moments that immediately followed – namely Ben sitting in it, wrestling the wheel and shouting “how sick is this” – the car was bought before Fish had even been asked.
There was now just 3256-miles of Atlantic Ocean between the US and UK to contend with.
That process is a story in itself, and one Ben has already shared on Speedhunters. But for anyone not up to speed, this simple car purchase escalated to an all-night dash across multiple states to get it loaded into a container before the ship set sail. We’ve been reassured many trees were planted to offset this particular car-buying experience.A Welshman In Berkshire With A Keen Eye For Design
That chapter title is not the start to a very obscure joke, but before we delve into Bryn’s brain it’s worth noting that, upon its arrival in the UK, the 190 E had no aspirations of being an in-game hero car. In fact, it quickly underwent a whole load of work with Ben’s aim to track it at the Nürburgring.
Semi-slick tyres, two-way race dampers, Recaro seats and more – Speedhunters bread and butter. Yet ironically, most of these parts would later be reversed ahead of its A$AP Rocky renovation.
The 190 E had already been chosen as a car in Need for Speed: Unbound by this point, but the introduction of a global pandemic had delayed various aspects of the game’s development. So, to help claw back some time, Ben’s Mercedes was used for both the visual and audio capture, which involved taking thousands of images in the studio and plastering it with microphones.
That process understandably takes time, but it’s one that’s required for every single car that appears in a Need for Speed title. There’s no quick or easy solution around it.
There’s also many other variables to consider, too. You can have a dream list of cars, but some manufacturers simply won’t allow specific models to appear. Others are only interested in showcasing newer models, and certain brands will have contracts with other games that prevent some cars from being used elsewhere.
Then, there’s the fact that a racing game needs to appeal to the widest audience possible – including die-hard petrolheads and casual players – which also dictates the type of cars you need to include. Throwing in the latest supercars is a surefire way to ensure a game’s car selection is different from the past.
Meet all of those criteria and then you’ve got to try and find a stock, running model to begin all audio and visual captures. No pressure.
Need for Speed: Unbound has a varied car list, but in terms of Speedhunters classics think BMW M1, Buick GNX, C10 Skyline and even a Volvo 242. Sounds cool, right? Although selling a new game with a Volvo 242 on the cover might be tricky, even for Need for Speed.
Thankfully, EA’s Bryn Alban is a proper car guy. As one of Need for Speed’s art directors, he’s also integral to the overall feel and direction of the car choice too. If something can be made more interesting – or it doesn’t feel right – Bryn’s not about to waste hundreds of hours modelling it without double checking first.
With the car selection phase having so many hurdles, you’d assume it’d be even more taxing while trying to decide on a lead hero car. Do you go for the latest, most expensive supercar available? Or do you go for a ‘traditional’ tuner car like the Skyline or NSX? The reality turned out to be far less work.
“The 190 E choice was surprisingly simple,” Bryn explains. “By this point of development we had Rocky on board as the main character, so we wanted a car that reflected his style and personality above all else. He’s got a good taste for some of the older German machines, so that helped weed out a lot of the other choices.”
“I know what you’re thinking – E30 M3. That was also a strong option, but we all felt this was a little bit obvious. The 190 E on the other hand? Well, that complements the E30 anyway when you look at its motorsport past. It’s a very cool car right now, and knowing Rocky’s past projects with Mercedes it quickly turned into a no-brainer.”
Transforming the stock car into a rendered masterpiece sounds like another long, drawn-out process, but you can thank Bryn for the bulk of what you see here. The design went through numerous iterations before arriving at the final look, one that we agree is best of the bunch.
“We wanted to delete parts off the car in-game for a raw, street-fighter look similar to some of those Pandem/Rocket Bunny cars of the past. The problem is, a 190 E chassis looks really bland without a rear bumper!” Bryn adds.
“I’m not entirely sure what triggered it, but I decided to replace the rear with a custom chassis as this not only looked neater, but it showcased both exhaust silencers without looking too busy. We did play around with custom LED headlights – and even WRC-style light pods – but they just overcomplicated the car with the Evo II kit fitted.”
But what about that split paintwork – what triggered the decision to draw a line quite literally between the two halves?
“That was down to myself, Darren White and Mike Cornwell of EA,” says Bryn. “We couldn’t decide whether we wanted it white or black; it had such a different feel in either colour. You make a case for what you prefer most, but in the end, we thought stuff it – let’s do both! What’s a NFS hero car if you impose limitations on it?”
“The detail on the paint and the turbofans took a little longer, as Rocky’s involvement here led to specific tweaks and changes in order to make it feel like his car. After a bit of deliberating, we quickly reached a point where everyone was happy, and the car looked outrageous. But that was only on our screens. How do we go about making it real?”The Ol’ Render To Reality… But With A Twist
Taking a render and building it in real life isn’t a new concept on Speedhunters. If you take SEMA 2022 for example, it seems like render-to-real-life is the default way to build cars now.
But SEMA also highlighted a common issue with this trend – the end results looking similar, but not identical, to their rendered originals. That’s because the rendered world doesn’t account for real-world problems. But real-world problems never accounted for a Ryan Stewart-shaped persistence.
You can’t call something a Need for Speed hero car if it’s only similar to the renders. Every element had to be as it appears in-game, and if you read up a few paragraphs you’ll remember Bryn casually threw in a custom rear to help jazz up the 190 E. So that’s exactly what had to happen.
“Bryn didn’t make it easy for us,” laughs Ryan. “He added some interesting easter eggs for us including that custom rear, but actually one of the bigger tasks was getting the car to sit low enough with the Evo II kit fitted.”
“The DTM cars are tubbed and dropped some six-inches over the factory cars; they also don’t need to be used anywhere other than a perfectly flat circuit, with huge wheels. Because this car had to work in the real world, we had a mountain of metalwork to complete to give clearance at any ride height before the real fun could begin.”
Structural surgery was taken care of by John Brewster at JB’s Elite Fabrications, someone who usually spends his time working on the sheet metal of early 911s, Beetles and drag cars. So despite this being an ’80s Mercedes, the tubbing required on this build is very similar to those destined for the quarter mile.
By this point in the story, the timeline has shifted to mid-2022. The deadline? Two months from start to finish, and that included keeping the 190 E in a proper driving state. Because this particular hero car isn’t destined for a static future.
Ryan, who’d been tasked with the building and project management, had the unenviable task of trying to prioritise certain aspects while juggling the availability of parts and timescale of those jobs that required specialist attention, like the metalwork.
“One thing you don’t always factor in is the world experiencing unprecedented shortages in materials, especially metal forgings,” Ryan adds. “The custom Livery wheels had to be ordered long before the kit was even fitted, and the billet centres made for a challenging turnaround time.”
“Plus, we had to maximise the rear wheel dish to mimic the render without going too wide and fouling the bodykit. That meant redesigning the wheels with as little back pad as possible to give us an extra bit of dish while clearing the brakes and suspension, too.”
“Again, it doesn’t sound like a massive issue in isolation, but when you run a schedule this tight there is no room to send back parts or try different dishes. And ultimately, if it strayed away from the look and feel of the render, it wouldn’t get signed off with EA.”
Take the air suspension as another example. In order to fit the wheels and bodykit, the Air Lift Performance system needed installing first. But before that could happen, the custom floor and rear components needed cutting and installing to allow the air suspension to be properly fitted. Any delay there and the rest would suffer, too. It was a case of tackling everything all at once with a very talented and experienced group of people, and having faith in how it would all shake out.
“You’re putting a lot of trust in other people at this point to deliver on their word,” Ryan adds. “It’s a very risky way to build a car, but it was the only way to make the deadline.”Layin’ Paint, Not Vinyl
With the metalwork complete and the Evo II bodykit in place, the fastest and easiest option when pushed against a deadline would be to vinyl wrap it. Especially as the 190 E render dictated the bodywork being split into two different colours, with a range of logos and branding supplied by AWGE and Rocky.
What you wouldn’t do is try and paint it, especially considering the 30-plus-year-old car in question didn’t have the greatest paintwork to begin with. It’s not like you could save time by painting only one side of the car white.
Clearly, that’s exactly what happened otherwise this chapter would be redundant. But as we’ve laid out several times in this feature already, this isn’t a quick build to be used in some marketing. It’s the hero car; and the only one being built. If that car doesn’t stand up to scrutiny – regardless of what it physically looks like – what does it say about the rest of the product?
Andy and the team at Spike’s Vintage Restorations are some of the best in the business, and we don’t say that very often. Their back catalogue covers everything from show-winning Volkswagens right through to Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance entries.
Spike’s Vintage Restorations have seen it all over the years; they’ve rectified countless others’ work and their attention to detail goes far beyond what you’d typically expect from a bodyshop. You won’t get a car back with an interior covered in filler dust; every detail matters.
Andy, Jay and Chris at Spike’s lived and breathed this car (quite literally) during the transformation. Custom metalwork, fibreglass moulding and paintwork all had to be carried out in-house under complete secrecy to avoid any pre-game leaks of the visuals.
“Achieving a flawless finish on any paint is tough, so when you then have two opposing colours on the same panel it’s far from straightforward,” Andy explains.
“The black is always going to have more depth and punch to it, but one of the most obvious challenges is ensuring both colours get an even application between masking. It’s not just the bonnet either; this split goes through the bumper, roof, boot and spoiler, all without any pinstripe or graphics being used to hide the split.”
“Black and white might seem like simple colours, but I can’t think of two colours more prone to showing up any overspray, leaks or defects than these two together. I dread to think how much time we spent on the masking alone.”
Speaking of pinstriping, see that text plastered either side of the car? That’s no decal; it was all hand-applied after paint to make the entire process that bit more terrifying. The team enlisted the expert help and steady hand of Simon Clark to turn the Mercedes’ panels into art.
While the 190 E may have started life as a render, Ryan, Andy and the rest of the team were keen to keep a ‘hand built’ feel to the car, and that includes the brushstrokes from the pinstriping having a texture and tactile, physical touch.
Its main existence may be in the virtual world, but this is a real car designed and built by real people.The Grand Reveal With A$AP Rocky
Two months, hundreds of hours and minimal sleep later, Ryan and the team had the 190 E complete and looking damn near identical to the original render. But looking right wasn’t enough; the Merc still had to drive properly. Because its end goal wasn’t to go and sit in a museum for the rest of its life; it was being handed to Rocky. Test driving a car in complete secrecy comes with its own complications, so the cover of darkness was used to keep the build from being seen.
With the car driving under its own power and looking the part, the final touches were applied. To put the effort into context, there was two days work in getting the exhaust system and diffuser mounted and aligned correct to the render. Measurements were taken and scaled up to ensure the accuracy.
Last time we checked, Rocky’s residence isn’t in the Southeast of England. So just a few days after the 190 E’s completion, it was boxed up and loaded on a cargo plane, before being shipped back across the Atlantic to New York. There’s a level of irony here considering Ben did this journey two years earlier, but we promise you he planted even more trees this time.
The goal? To unveil the car in front of Rocky, whose last visual on the 190 E was the original render created with Bryn all that time ago. No pressure, then.
And, to add a little more pressure on Ryan, it’d also be the first time Need for Speed’s brand team of Rob Bullough, Chase Straight and Myriam Meknaci would set eyes on the 190 E, too. The team have been instrumental in the entire process from day one, not only overseeing the build and direction, but also establishing the characters, brands and partnerships in the new game.
To say the 190 E went down well is a hell of an understatement, and as luck would have it, there just so happened to be a video team (and photographer) on standby to capture Rocky’s reaction. Check it out below.
“It’s quite a surreal feeling seeing the car finished and hearing not just Rocky’s feedback, but the whole of the EA Games team’s,” adds Ryan.
“When you’ve spent so long immersed in a project, it’s very easy to forget just how insane it looks. I think you quash that thought mainly for your own sanity, because at various points it feels like the task is never-ending. But the feedback and reactions worldwide has made it feel so special. We wanted it to stand up as a ‘car’ not just a showpiece, and to see it move is incredible.”
As a car, it’s completely outrageous – make no mistake about that. But as a tool for launching Need for Speed: Unbound? It is massively rewarding to not only create something real, but a car that resonates with all kinds of petrolheads around the world and holds its own in terms of parts, style and finish.
Cars are at their best when they have a good story behind them. This could’ve easily been a new car supplied by a manufacturer and built solely as a showpiece, but that simply doesn’t fit with the Need for Speed: Unbound ethos.
This 190 E lived a hell of a life before its journey into a Need for Speed hero car, and with the keys now belonging to Rocky you can guarantee its journey is far from over.
Need for Speed: Unbound is now available for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. For more information click here.