Private Schulz Known mostly for its appearance in a computer game, the one-off Isdera Commendatore vanished for years. Now the reclusive Eberhard Schulz’s supercar has been restored. Words Diederik Plug. Photography Maurice Volmeyer.
Isdera Commendatore 112i Comeback time for the forgotten supercar
‘In 2014 I got the chance to drive the elusive 1993 Isdera Commendatore 112i. Before that, I was convinced it didn’t exist. To take it for a spin was a stunning experience. Now, years later, I got to experience the car in its original glory, after it was restored by its original manufacturer. That felt like full circle to me.’
Despite its obscurity, many people from my generation drove the 1990s Isdera Commendatore 112i on a regular basis. In a computer game, that is. It was one of the supercars you could select in the 1997 racing game Need for Speed II.
I never drove the car in that game, although I did spend many hours tearing up the virtual roads in anything from a Lotus Esprit to a Ferrari F50. Back then, I wasn’t interested in this unknown German supercar, mainly because I didn’t believe it really existed. I found out many years later that it did, and I finally got to drive it. In real life, on a sunny day in 2014. The memories are vivid.
‘Every time I accelerate, my scalp bangs viciously against a little metal bar in the roof, a few inches behind my head. The noise of the engine is overwhelmingly loud, the heat in the cabin almost unbearable – the air-conditioning doesn’t work and my sweat-soaked back sticks to the backrest of the cramped racing seat, while the Mercedes-Benz V12 behind me pumps ever more hot air into the cabin.
‘When the Isdera reappeared, all the logos had been changed to little Mercedes roundels’
Somewhere under the dash a nagging buzzing sound distracts me while I try to keep this beast in check. There’s no time to find out what the sound signifies, no time for anything other than trying to keep the vehicle in front in view. And that’s a Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4.
‘In this area of Switzerland, near Lake Constance, there are not many main roads. Our route takes us along twisting lanes with tight corners, potholes, big differences in height between the road surface and the soft shoulder, villages, hamlets or oncoming traffic that suddenly appear after a bend and require lightning-fast braking. As I try to stay with the Aventador, it becomes painfully clear what a difference two decades of technological advancement makes.’
It had taken most of a year to arrange a meeting with the owner, a rather secretive Swiss businessman. He sent his 20-something son to meet us – the Lambo was his – and a friend brought the Isdera. The son, although helpful, wasn’t impressed with the Isdera. ‘It’s old, it’s noisy, everything feels way too heavy and it’s not really comfortable. It’s just not my kind of car,’ he explained, handing me the keys.
The Commendatore story goes back to 1968, when German engineer Eberhard Schulz (born in 1940) built his first car in the laundry room of his parents’ home. The Erator GT looked like a Ford GT40 but was designed and built from scratch by Schulz, who joined Porsche’s design and development department in 1971. He worked there until 1982, then founded his own automotive design and consultancy business, Isdera (Ingenieurbüro fur Styling, DEsign und RAcing), in Leonberg, near Stuttgart. It built wind-tunnel models, concept cars, mock-ups and prototypes, and did aerodynamic research and design jobs for customers. Cars it created for other brands included the BMW E30-based Baur TC3 Coupé and the Irmscher GT.
In 1983 Schulz launched his first sports car under the Isdera label, the Spyder 033i/036i, a mid-engined roadster with a Mercedes engine of either four or six cylinders. One year later, Isdera introduced the Imperator 108i, a mid-engined supercar with gullwing doors and a AMG-tuned Mercedes V8. The Imperator echoed the famous Mercedes C111 prototype, of which Schulz designed his own interpretation supposedly with the tacit blessing of Das Haus. Both Isdera models stayed in production for several years; the Imperator was facelifted in 1991 and had numerous engine updates, but no more than a few dozen of either were built. In 1993, at the Frankfurt auto show, Isdera showed the Commendatore 112i, a car originally intended for the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Its heart was – again – a Mercedes engine, this time the 6.0-litre V12 from the W140 Mercedes-Benz 600 SEL. Reinforced glassfibre and carbonfibre bodywork clad a lightweight tubular chassis. The V12 was mounted longitudinally just in front of the rear axle, the six-speed Getrag gearbox behind it.
Intended as a ‘practical supercar’, more GT than street-legal Le Mans prototype, the Commendatore 112i had a large 120-litre fuel tank, a 200-litre luggage compartment at the front, and a cramped but comfortable cabin with leather racing seats, air-conditioning and a high-end audio system. It featured ABS, ASR and a system that automatically adjusted the ride height, lowering the body by up to 3in at autobahn speeds. Pièces de résistance were the automatic airbrake on the tail (the Commendatore was the first car to have this feature) and Schulz’s trademark roof mirror.
Its top speed was quoted at 340km/h (211mph), helped by a very low drag coefficient of 0.306 and that 414bhp V12. But the 1575kg Commendatore 112i never made it to Le Mans, or into production for that matter. Isdera had secured financial backing from a Japanese investor but funding dried up when Japan’s economy went into crisis in the early 1990s.
Isdera had to cancel not only the Commendatore project but all its car development programmes. Eberhard Schulz, always a man to shun the limelight, returned to his core business in relative anonymity.
The one and only Commendatore vanished from view. For years its whereabouts was unknown and, while there were rumours about a second Commendatore, reliable information was hard to come by. When the Frankfurt show car reappeared, it was no longer in its original state. The distinctive roof mirror had been replaced by two wing mirrors to make the car road-legal in Switzerland, the bespoke BBS rims had been swapped for something more mundane, and all the Isdera logos had been changed to little Mercedes roundels. And it was painted in silver-grey, not the Porsche ice-blue metallic it had worn at its launch. The air-conditioning didn’t work, the passenger door could not be opened from the outside and the automatic ride height system was broken.
How our host’s father had obtained the car in the first place, he couldn’t tell us. ‘I think he got it as a payment for a business deal,’ he told us. Some business deal. At the time, the car was for sale for €1.2m. Back now to the drive.
‘At the end of every straight, just when I’ve managed to reel it in, the Lamborghini rounds the next corner as if it’s a Scalextric car. The Isdera can’t take as much speed into the corner and needs a firm hand, especially when the full power of the mighty AMG motor kicks in. Both cars have an atmospheric V12 in the back, but the Aventador’s packs 700bhp while the Commendatore’s musters just under 300bhp less. Also, the Commendatore is rear-wheel driven, has a manual six-speed transmission and is almost two seconds slower from rest to 100km/h. It simply can’t keep up with the Italian supercar with its all-wheel drive and seven-speed semi-automatic gearbox.’
After a long and distinguished career, Eberhard Schulz sold his company a few years ago and retired. Today he is still very much involved in guarding Isdera’s heritage, helped by many hardcore fans of the brand. In his pre-retirem ent years, Schulz never lost his love for making cars and in 2006 he presented the Autobahnkurier 116i. It resembles a Mercedes coupe from 1936 but is propelled by two V8 engines from the Mercedes-Benz W126 S Class, each driving one axle. The car was a sort of hobby project for Schulz, who apparently still uses it as his daily transport. A few years ago, Schulz also built the three-wheel TwinCycle, on which driver and passenger sit side-by-side.
During all this time he would neither confirm nor deny the many rumours that a second Commendatore 112i had been built. Isdera’s current managing director, Stefan Peters, puts the mystery to rest: ‘A German customer of Schulz already had two Isderas and wanted his own Commendatore. He owns a chassis but, as time went by, he planned to change the car in some significant ways. As we own the rights to the Isdera brand, we have told him he can build his car in any shape or form he likes, he can call it a replica, but we won’t allow him to call it an Isdera. Our Commendatore 112i will remain the only one built.’
‘In every gear the V12 pushes the Isdera forward as if a giant is using it as a football. The stiff suspension and the low, wide tyres make the steering very susceptible to the smallest change of road camber; every pothole becomes a ravine, every speed bump a mountain. Sometimes the steering wheel tries to wrestle itself from my grip like a hyperactive puppy. Everything feels heavy: the gearshift, the steering, even the accelerator. The Brembo brakes require a lot of pedal pressure but the stopping power is phenomenal. Confidence builds as I get into a flow; I’m not allowed to explore the car’s full potential, even if the road permitted it, but I’m still enjoying myself.’
After that drive, the Commendatore vanished from view until 2016. That’s when Isdera bought it back and had it restored. Technically it’s totally original apart from a new exhaust system – installed to solve some overheating problems and which makes the engine sound even more hilariously aggressive – and a new Momo steering wheel. The automatic suspension has been repaired, the roof mirror is back, and the BBS rims have been re-cast as the originals were lost. It even has the original Sony stereo. The odometer shows 9852km, only around 300km more than it showed in 2014.
Isdera, now backed by Chinese investors, still specialises in consultancy, research and design. In 2018 it introduced the all-electric Commendatore GT at the Beijing auto show. Like the original Commendatore, the fully functional and road-legal GT is primarily a showpiece, a way of showing potential customers what Isdera has to offer. Designed in-house, with technical support from various German partner companies, the GT features several design features from its predecessor: the side window profiles, the roofline, the short nose, the gullwing doors. Inside, it’s a 2+2 with a modern interior and a full digital dash.
The all-wheel-drive GT is powered by a 105kWh battery pack which feeds a pair of electric motors. Total output is rated at 815bhp and 781lb ft of torque. Isdera claims 0-62mph acceleration in 3.7sec, 0-124mph in 9.8sec and a governed top speed of 187mph. Two have been built with no plans to produce more, although Stefan Peters doesn’t rule out the possibility. Isdera’s production facilities can build small runs of up to 700 units.
And the original Commendatore 112i? It’s now used as a showpiece, a reminder of Isdera’s heritage and the impressive cars the company once built. I cherish the fact that I once had the chance to drive it, but that of course was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’ll have to make do with my memories.
‘This old-school supercar still gets from a standstill to 200km/h in 11.0 seconds, and even if that’s not within my reach the car feels incredibly quick – the sensation of speed is overwhelming. I love the mechanical feel of this car, its power when accelerating from a corner, the brute force it takes to make it do what I want it to do, and above all the primeval force of that magnificent engine. It’s completely different from its contemporaries, a one-off in every sense.’
Thanks To Weltkulturerbe Völklinger Hütte for the photo location.
Left and above: Headlights are from a Porsche 968 while industrial heritage backdrop chimes with Germany’s now-defunct car specialists, Isdera included; new Chinese-backed Commendatore GT has two electric motors. This page and opposite Instrument panel is from a W140 Mercedes-Benz 600 SEL; rear lights, by Hella, were more commonly used on tractors; V12 engine shares dial pack’s S-class origins. Left and main image Eberhard Schulz with the Autobahnkurier 116i, a twin-V8, retro-look coupé he created in 2006; Isdera Commendatore 112i of 1993 remains the only one of its type to be built.
1993 Commendatore 112i
Engine Mid-mounted 5987cc Mercedes-Benz V12, DOHC per bank, four valves per cylinder
Power 414bhp @ 5200rpm
Torque 428lb ft @ 3600rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension Front and rear: double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes Vented discs
Top speed 211mph