The history of Mercedes-Benz AMG – picture special

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Sometimes good news comes in curious forms. For Hans-Werner Aufrecht, the decision by Mercedes-Benz to withdraw from all forms of racing for 1965 must have seemed a disaster.

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As a teenager, he’d dreamt of building Mercedes race engines and now, soon after finding employment doing exactly that, the dream was about to be shattered.

A lesser person would have just accepted the inevitable and gone back to building road car engines. But not Aufrecht. With a like-minded colleague called Erhard Melcher, he managed to acquire a 300SE, strip it, raise the power of its engine from 170bhp to 238bhp and, with Manfred Schiek driving, win ten rounds of the 1965 German Touring Car Championship.

News travelled fast and, by the end of the following year, Aufrecht and Melcher were deluged with orders for faster Mercedes, for use on road or track. So in 1967, they decided to give up their jobs at Mercedes and set up shop on their own in nearby Burgstall. And in the moment when Aufrecht, Melcher and Aufrecht’s hometown of Großaspach came together, AMG was born.

Business came thick and fast. Even Mercedes appeared to realise that it had missed a trick and started releasing more highly tuned versions of its road cars, the 1968 6.3-litre 300SEL to name the most obvious example. But what AMG could have interpreted as an attempt to pull the rug out from under its feet was instead regarded as a unique opportunity: however fast and powerful a Mercedes super-saloon might be, AMG backed itself to make it even faster and more powerful. 

It took three years, but by the time of the 1971 Spa 24 Hours, a 6.3-litre 300SEL road car with 247bhp had become a 6.8-litre race car with 428bhp. Despite the gasps of crowd and competitors alike at the appearance of a large red cathedral on the grid, the SEL rumbled around to second place and a class win, outright victory being denied only by a rather frantic pitstop schedule needed to satisfy its appetite for fuel and tyres.

Business boomed, boosted by a demand for custom-made interiors as well as engines, and by 1976 it had outgrown the Großaspach premises, prompting a move to Affalterbach, where the company remains to this day.

By the mid-1980s, AMG was well into its stride and able not only to tune pre-existing product but to do so to such an extent that the resulting cars deserved to be thought of as models in their own right. The AMG 500SEC of 1984 had four-valve cylinder heads long before any purely Mercedes product, but it would be 1986 before AMG smashed its way into the global automotive psyche with a car that, appropriately enough, would become known as ‘The Hammer’.

This was a mid-sized W124 saloon into which AMG had squeezed Mercedes’ largest engine (5.6 litres), but only after fitting its own four-valve heads. One-time Autocar road test editor David Vivian described it thus: “Rapid enough to face down a Ferrari 288 GTO, it could be driven by your granny.” Back then, a rear-drive saloon with a four-speed auto ’box that could nevertheless hit 60mph in 5.0sec flat on its way to 183mph was an unprecedented, preposterous achievement.

By 1990, the relationship between Mercedes and AMG – which had existed on a far more harmonious basis than many tuning companies and the makers of their donor vehicles – became formalised. This led not only to providing Mercedes with AMG’s credibility but also to enabling AMG to sell its cars through Mercedes dealers with Mercedes-backed warranties. Most significantly, however, Mercedes and AMG started to work together on product design.

The very first fruit of these labours was the W202-based C36 AMG of 1993. Today, when you can buy an AMG C-class with 507bhp, the 276bhp of the C36 might not seem like much, but back then it was enough to put it on near enough equal terms with the E36-generation BMW M3, even if, with softer springs, a higher kerb weight and the retention of a four-speed automatic transmission, its character was distinctly different. This was a crucial car, because it set the tone for an entire generation of AMG models to come.

The rest of the 1990s were spent fleshing out the ranges from a central hub of core product, with spokes flailing out to some of the maddest cars ever to wear a three-pointed star on their nose.

I give you, just by way of example, the 5.9-litre, manual-transmission G60 AMG off-roader, the 6.2m-long, six-door S63 AMG Pullman, the 25-off road-going version of the CLK GTR Le Mans car and, my personal fave, the SL73 AMG roadster, whose 7291cc motor is, I believe, still the largest ever fitted to a standard production post-war Mercedes road car.

But it was by no means the most powerful. By 2001, Mercedes and AMG had embraced a technology that it had used to dominate grand prix racing before the war. By supercharging its 5.4-litre V8, a new level of power and performance was achieved, with no loss of driveability. Even in its least powerful guise, a 2002 E55 AMG saloon had exactly the same power as a Ferrari F40 and a top speed that would have nudged 200mph were it not electronically limited to 155mph.

The next year, 2003, was a massive one for AMG. At one end of the spectrum, its engine powered the McLaren-built SLR. At the other, AMG produced its first diesel (who remembers the C30 CDI AMG?), but with only 227bhp, the five-cylinder motor was more diesel than AMG. In the same year, AMG introduced its twin-turbo 6.0-litre V12 to the S-class, an engine that continues in the S65 AMG to this day.

Another landmark came three years later, with the release of a new 6.2-litre, normally aspirated V8 to replace the old blown V8. Astonishingly, it was the very first engine to be a pure AMG design from the ground up and not based in any way on a pre-existing Mercedes product. This was also the year in which Mercedes and AMG launched its first ‘Black Series’ car, the SLK AMG Black Series.

More Black Series models followed, including the wondrous CLK Black and the less impressive SL65 Black, but these were merely preparatory to AMG’s greatest achievement to date. When McLaren got the gig to develop the SLR, some at AMG were a little piqued and thought that they could have managed such a project themselves. Their time soon came and, in the SLS, produced the first bespoke AMG car, a machine that was cheaper and better to drive than the SLR and which also reintroduced gullwing doors and, in the SLS AMG E-Cell, the first all-electric supercar.

Today and with the introduction of the A45 AMG – AMG’s first take on a compact hatch – there are AMG versions of every Mercedes passenger car on sale save the B-class, every one with a motor assembled according to AMG’s ‘one man, one engine’ philosophy.

As for the future, there is the new C63 AMG to look forward to and, of course, the replacement for the SLS, the GT AMG. That’s planning become a rival for the Porsche 911 when it launches next year. Taking on the most iconic sports car of all will be no easy task, but if anyone is up to the task, it is the men and women of Affalterbach. 

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