Mercedes-AMG's toy box is the best kind of toy box [PTG]

By topgear, 12 August 2017

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Half a century ago, two engineers did a slightly odd thing by leaving their jobs in the best car engineering company in the world, Mercedes-Benz. History justifies them. The little race-engine tuning shop they founded grew, expanded its ambitions and eventually ended up as the name on what’s about to be the next big thing in hypercars: the AMG Project One – a Formula One powertrain in a road car.

In the language of weeping reality-TV contestants, “it’s been a journey”.

No-one seems to be able to remember why Hans-Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher added Grosspach – the village where Aufrecht was born – to their own two initials, but AMG was the name they settled on. At the start in 1967, it was all about engines. Whatever else the company has done since, the engines have upstaged all the rest.

From engines they started building complete race cars, and added tuning parts for road cars. Later there were road cars sold as a package from new. It was so well-done that Mercedes was ready to jointly develop complete models. The first of those, the Mercedes-Benz C 36 AMG, arrived in 1993. Mercedes also took out a stake in AMG and by 2005 owned it wholly.

The wheel turns full circle: Aufrecht left to start his own firm to run many of AMG’s race activities, and Melcher now has his own small tuning shop.

Meanwhile AMG’s base (which moved to Affalterbach in 1976) still makes engines, still by assigning a named individual to build each engine from start to finish. Affalterbach also develops engines, and, with the SLS and GT, ground-up cars too.

Read on for our birthday celebration, as we drive the Silverstone GP circuit in some of AMG’s greatest hits.

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1971 Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3 (the 'Red Pig')

The Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3 was the world’s fastest four-door in the late-1960s. But it was in no way a sports car, let alone a track machine. Melcher and Aufrecht had other ideas. They expanded the V8 to 6.8 litres and tuned it for 428bhp.

Weight-saving: oh they did a bit of that. They gave it aluminium doors. Big deal. Not. You get in and there’s still a plush leather sofa of a back seat, full luxo door trims, thick carpet, a plank of a dash. Lovely.

Anyway, they took this unlikely warrior to the Spa 24 hour race in 1971. Everyone laughed. They called it the Red Pig (Rote Sau in German – following the nautical convention that vessels should be female).

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But they got second overall in a field of proper sports cars, and made the German evening news. Word is the Red Pig would have won but for the profligate frequency of its pit stops for fuel and tyres. The ones on there now are’t exactly period, but they are about the right size: 335/40 R15.

The original was sold off and hacked about to be used as an aircraft tyre test rig and eventually scrapped. But then a few years ago AMG took out the yellowing plans and built an exact replica. Which is what I’m in.

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The V8 rumbles reassuringly. Grab the aluminium gearknob, noting it runs the old German dogleg five-speed pattern: first is back towards you in LHD, and the rest are in an H.

The lever has a solid heavy short-throw action, but no springing to guide it to the 2-3 plane, so you need to concentrate hard on the 4-3 downshift while you’re also concentrating on managing the vast weight as you approach a corner.

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Still, gearshift timing isn’t critical because there’s so much torque. That must have helped the drivers as they stroked it along for a whole 24 hours. It’ll rev to 5,500rpm but there’s no need.

Driving it today, the robust voice of the V8 is another pleasure. Especially as there’s little of the harsh cement-mixer transmission rattle you usually get with race cars. Maybe that’s the carpets.

But you knew it would go well. Cornering was going to be the touchy issue. Not at all actually. It turns out to be a lovely old bus. It might be old and big, but it doesn’t roll much and the steering isn’t low-geared. You can feel just what those tyres are up to. So you just turn smoothly into the corners and let the weight carry you through, trimming things gently on the throttle if you need to.

It’s huge fun, but somehow soothing too. Carry on for 24 hours? I think I’d like to.

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1987 Mercedes-Benz 190E 3.2 (W201)

You probably won’t have heard of this one. All the hot-190 interest centres on the 190E 2.3-16 and 190E 2.5-16, but they had a four-cylinder by Cosworth not AMG (though AMG did race them).

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But after the Cosworth car, and indeed after the BMW E30 M3, AMG decided to make a fast, luxury 190 with a six-cylinder. It was the 190E 3.2. They sold 200, none of them in the UK, but it was the first AMG model to be sold complete with a Mercedes warranty.

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It’s got split-rim alloys and a body kit outside, and an AMG wheel inside, but otherwise it’s just a highly-optioned posh German ’80s sedan.

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And sad to say this W201 drives like it too. It isn’t a track car. The zebrano wood and the slippery leather seats tell the story. The two-valve engine will rev beyond 6,000rpm but it doesn’t want to. Its lungs don’t feel very deep. The soggy 4spd autobox transmission sucks the vivacity from it. The spec-sheet says 234bhp and 7.7sec 0-100. I guess so, if I’m being kind.

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In bends it rolls like a boat. The steering is soft-acting and slow. You feel like you’re rubbing the writing off the tyres’ sidewalls. Trying to trim the line with the accelerator is a bit of a waste of time.

I’m hoping there’s some mullet-haired Kraut-rock in the cassette rack, then we can just go off in search of an autobahn.

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2004 Mercedes-Benz CLK DTM (C209)

The racing CLK dominated DTM, so they built 100 examples of this tribute car. The engine is AMG’s wonderful supercharged 5.5-litre V8, and in this trim it’s an awesome 574bhp. Compared to the AMG’s regular supercharged 5.5, it has a smaller ’charger pulley, high-comp pistons and more, taking it most of the way to a McLaren SLR’s engine.

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It’s wrapped in a bonkers body kit, with a cabin that’s properly stripped out: no rear seats, just a carbonfibre box, and carbon front seats and door cards too.

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It is brilliant. First corner you realise the tyres are both old and cold. Even as they find some, there’s not huge grip. Nor are the brakes strong, not by today’s standard. Never mind, it’s all super-precise and full of talk. The suspension is firm, the damping authoritive, the steering exact.

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Your hands mate with the small wheel, your body is clamped by the tight seat and five-point harness. You’re part of the machine.

The engine is magnificent. This is what made AMG great in the eyes of the world. It sounds epic, its responses are instant, and it’s got giant shove wherever you are in the rev range.

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You will remember that later on AMG launched a CLK Black Series with the 6.3-litre naturally aspirated V8. It too was a hero car. But this one is rarer, madder, and a magical match of engine and chassis. A very special car indeed.

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2008 Mercedes-Benz SL 65 Black Series (R230)

Gulp. Six hundred and seventy horsepower is something we don’t blink too hard at these days. But when it was a decade ago, and when it was paired with 1000Nm, you took notice. That torque figure is limited to protect the 5spd autobox. So it’s available all the way from 2,200 to 4,200rpm.

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An AMG-fettled twin-turbo V12 is for sure something to be strapped behind. Just as the CLK DTM used most of a SLR engine, this is most of a Pagani Huayra engine. Double gulp.

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As if sheer guts wasn’t enough, AMG also hacked 250kg out of the regular SL 65 AMG’s weight. The folding roof has gone, replaced by a carbonfibre fixed top. The widened body has a lot of carbon too: open the fuel flap and you can see it in the cartoon-wide rear wings. And under that reside fully revised suspension and enormo-tyres.

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Let’s step back a moment. This is basically an SL, which means the engine is pretty far over the front. And it’s a heavy V12. And from the lightly-loaded rear, they’ve removed more weight.

Not surprising then, this thing is always understeering. Until you touch the throttle. Then it’s oversteering.

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It is almost literally breathtakingly fast. A rocket even by today’s standards. The turbos spool up early and dispatch you into hyperdrive. It’s eerily quiet though, so you aren’t always immediately aware. Then you get to the end of the straight and suddenly you’ve got to find a way of reaching a settlement with that heavy front end to do the necessary direction change.

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They were a quarter-million quid when new. Tidy ones still are, oddly. Rarity, madness and the AMG name are clearly enough to trump absolute dynamic finesse.

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2017 Mercedes-AMG E 63 S (W213)

AMG has, since it became part of Mercedes, gotten a bit avaricious. It slots its wonderful engines in places they should never rightly be slotted. I know it has a cult following but the G-Class AMG is an awful, uncontrollable, amphetamined mastadon.

The other AMG SUVs are a bit squiffy too. But these people can actually do blindingly fast useful cars, and the E 63 S 4Matic+ is one. Better still, the estate version of same.

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It’s got 612hp and a 9spd auto, and four-wheel-drive means it’ll do 0-100 in three and a half seconds any day of the week. The + bit of the 4Matic system means you can turn the front axle off and get yourself a tyre-shredding theatrical drift machine.

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It’s a terrific system, built into a terrific chassis. It feels very much rear-driven until you need more, and more is then forthwith given via the front wheels. It’s sensitive to all inputs of the steering and throttle. Of course it’s heavy – as heavy as the Red Pig. In both cases you feel it too, but you can work around it.

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It’s also got a huge boot and luxury that’d spoil the Imperial family. It’s hard to think of another car that does so much so well.

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2017 Mercedes-AMG GT R (C190)

If the SL 65 Black Series was all about one dimension – straight-ahead – the GT R adds a second: cornering. You sit a long way down and back, behind the low engine, with the transaxle behind you. The weight is in the right place.

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The 585hp 4.0-litre V8 feels almost like a big naturally aspirated engine, building its power progressively towards 7,000rpm. Shifting ratio on the paddles happens right when you ask, click and go off down to the horizon. Braking is equally magnificent, not just for the power but the sureness of the pedal and the utter stability of the car as the discs are furiously eroding your speed.

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It turns in with a progression the original GT S never quite had, and it’s more agile in slow corners and more benign in fast ones. How so? Thank the smarts of the new four-wheel-steering.

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It completely meets the usable supercar job description. Drive it and you’d trust these people to make a hypercar. Now that’ll be some birthday present.

STORY Paul Horrell

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