A century of extraordinary science and uncompromising men. By Larry Crane
Both Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz were involved in racing before the turn of the automotive century — Benz reluctantly, pre 1900:“Rather than taking part in races which teach us nothing useful and indeed actually cause harm, we will continue to focus on producing robust and reliable touring cars”; Daimler more overtly — and successfully. But when chief engineer Wilhelm Maybach became director of Benz after the death of the founder that year, Emil Jellinek, the company sales agent in Nice, commissioned 36 smaller, lighter, faster competition machines to be named after his daughter, Mercedes. The resulting automobile was immediately winning — and selling — inspiring the new director to become an ardent competitor.
WWI aircraft forced the development of lighter, more complex, more powerful and impressively reliable engines on both sides of the Atlantic. On November 11, 1918, there was aircraft science, on November 12 there was racing. Benz & Co. Reinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik and Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, led the way. Racing is a sport, a hobby; winning, on the other hand, is a multi-faceted and expensive undertaking — and a corporate requirement. After two decades of competition, the pioneer manufacturers joined forces in 1926 to become Daimler-Benz Ag, the products would be known as Mercedes-Benz, one of the most respected racing names the world has known.
Between the wars the winning sciences expanded exponentially to include new metallurgy, the secret art of explosive fuel blends and the search for creative talent. Mercedes-Benz had engaged the fiercely independent Dr. Ferdinand Porsche for the new 750 kg grand prix formula. In order to inspire the famous engineer to innovate he was given a competitor to be called Auto-Union. Since both teams were funded — and overseen — by the Nationalists, Porsche was soon required to design the competition for his awesome Mercedes-Benz. As the new racing formula developed and horsepower figures passed 600, sporting competition was mid-field entertainment, but the mighty “silver arrows” raced only at the front in complete domination — then the technology went to war — again.
Between May 8, 1945 and late 1951 The German industry used America’s Marshall Plan funds to carry out vast industrial reconstruction projects to put its population back to work and rejoin the Twentieth Century. Mercedes-Benz production was a series of prewar sedans and trucks from salvaged body stamping equipment. Chief engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut led the development of an all new luxury sedan, to be powered by a 3-liter sohc engine and supported by the latest in suspension developments.
A management committee decision of June 1951 was clear that a grand prix entry would have to wait until 1954 when the new formula would come into effect. But it suggested that a sports car capable of competition could be possible.
“Possible” was challenge enough. The factory coachbuilders had an aerodynamic body designed by February 1952. The factory production floor was too busy to undertake a limited production chassis, but a tubular “space frame” could be designed and constructed in the racing department. The new 300S six-cylinder engine was mounted low and tilted left at 50° and the 300 sedan suspension components were designed into either end. In May there were three of the new coupes ready to start Italy’s famous 1000-mile race from Brescia to Rome and back. Ferrari entered 27 cars. A 3-liter Ferrari prototype coupe bested the first 300 SL Mercedes to the finish by 5 minutes.
The following month three 300 SLs were entered in the 24-Hours of Le Mans. One failed and the two remaining cars finished first and second, with no enthusiasm from the French. But what must be recognized is the devotion to preparation brought to the team by manager Alfred Neubauer. Unconvinced that his underpowered cars could compete for the top spot against several quality 3-and-4.5-liter cars, he simple inspired his team to prepare away failure. He didn’t bring his cars and technicians to compete; he brought them to win. And so he did and did repeatedly, creating a legend that would support a fabulous sports car as yet not even considered a possibility, but New York importer Max Hoffman was watching.
An excerpt from a Mercedes-Benz press release regarding the 1954 and 1955 seasons outlines a plan: “In early 1953 the then Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler-Benz AG, Fritz Könecke, formulated the grand goal for the resumption of international racing activities: Mercedes-Benz should capture the double world championship in 1954, in the Formula One and for sports cars, with factory drivers.”
With the engineering direction of Uhlenhaut a production 300 SL coupe with dramatic gull wing doors was in Hoffman’s New York showroom by 1954 and under the uncompromising team leadership of Alfred Neubauer they could also be prepared to win. Nothing was overlooked or too much to ask. By August of 1954, Juan Manuel Fangio had won the Formula One World Championship with the fabulously complex, 2.5-liter straight eight W 196 R using both open-wheel and fully aerodynamic bodywork. For 1955, the F1 team would repeat its previous championship, but a new W 196 S (SLR) sports roadster using virtually all the F1-car technical detail and a 3-liter version of its engine, would also make good on the “Constructor’s Prize” of the sports car championship.
As a hedge on the double world championships, Neubauer brought in Stirling Moss, a young, proven winner as a competitive challenge for Fangio. As the season progressed, more SLRs and light-weight 300 SL coupes joined the team and a galaxy of veteran racers were included in the 1955 championship points chase.
They won … everywhere. By August, there was little to prove. Fangio was winning in Formula One, Moss was winning the constructors championship in the SLR, Paul O’Shea was winning in the American SCCA, Werner Engle was making a dominant run at the World Rally Championship, and half the season was yet to be recorded. A Swedish Grand Prix had appeared on the F1 calendar to fill in for a cancelled race; a non-championship event was scheduled on the 4.04-mile Rabelov public road circuit on the outskirts of the coastal village of Kristianstad. There was little to be gained by taking a small team group up to Sweden to entertain the enthusiasts in the north country, but winning was reason enough for the Mercedes-Benz team. They did. And they brought a fantastic marketing show to the event.
During the 1960s Mercedes cars were prepared and entered by private owners. Often they used sedans in the open road rally series, but occasionally the smaller 190 SL would make an appearance. There were specialists who helped develop the plans and components to support the enthusiast racers.
In 1967 Hans Werner Aufrecht (A), Erhard Melcher (M) created AMG Motorenbau und Entwicklunggesellschaft GmbH as the best of those specialists. Aufrecht’s birthplace of Grossaspach (G) completed the name. The sign over the door read “Engineering Office for the Design and Testing of Racing Engines.”
In 1971 everything changed. The first major motorsports victory for AMG was the 24 Hours of Spa. A comparatively enormous AMG Mercedes 300 SEL 6.8 4-door sedan took first in class and a shocking second-place overall. The die was cast.
There have been countless victories since that memorable event. In 1988 AMG partnered with Mercedes-Benz in its return to racing in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft (German Touring Car Championship, or DTM). The following year it was the most successful team in the series.
Another milestone was established in 1993: The first Mercedes-AMG street car was built, the C 36 AMG. Only 200 examples of the 276-horsepower sedan were brought to America before production was halted in 1998. AMG was registered as a trademark.
In 1998 AMG-Mercedes won all ten races in the FIA GT series. A Street version of the CLK-GTR was released in a limited edition of 25. In 1999 Mercedes-AMG GmbH was established and worldwide sales numbered over 5,000 units. The following year sales topped 11,000 and nearly double in 2001.
Fifteen years later it is a top selling series in Mercedes-Benz show rooms. The DTM team remains in contention and the AMG Petronas Formula One team seems to be untouchable with three Manufacturer’s Championships and as many Driver’s World Champions.
In 2008 AMG’s own 6.2-liter unsupercharged V-8 won its fourth DTM championship and a decade later AMG’s latest 4-liter twin-turbo V-8 is a more compact engine that delivers 503-hp and even more impressive fuel efficiency.
DTM champion driver Karl Wendlinger is a new AMG brand ambassador, alongside DTM championship record holder Bernd Schneider and F1 veteran David Coulthard. Wendlinger will also be bolstering the team at the AMG Driving Academy as an instructor and supporting the SLS AMG GT3 Customer Sport teams.
And then — the future — and the impossible. There is a fantastic new coupe with Formula 1 hybrid power technology delivering 1000 HP recently released as a proposal for a “hyper car” for the road — or…