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Mercedes-Benz tuner (and now subsidiary) AMG marks its golden anniversary

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AMG’s headquarters in Affalterbach, Germany. Photos courtesy of Daimler AG.

In 1967, former Mercedes-Benz engineers Hans-Werner Aufrect and Erhard Melcher set up shop in an old mill in Burgstall an der Murr, Germany, on the outskirts of Stuttgart. The purpose of the new business was to design and build racing engines, and the name chosen was AMG: A for the first letter of Aufrecht’s last name, M for the first letter of Melcher’s last name, and G for Grossaspach, Aufrecht’s place of birth. While racing component manufacturers and automobile tuners come and go, AMG, a subsidiary of Daimler AG since 2005, marks its 50th year of building faster Mercedes-Benzes in 2017.

AMG’s initial fame came in 1971 with the most unlikely of racing cars, one built upon Mercedes-Benz’s sedate 300 SEL sedan. While most examples came powered by a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine rated at 170 horsepower, one special variant, initially constructed as a one-off by Mercedes engineer Erich Waxenberger, stuffed the 6.3-liter, 247-horsepower V-8 from the company’s W600 limousine between its front fenders. The Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3 was born.

Erhard Melcher

Erhard Melcher works on an engine in AMG’s early days.

As legend has it, the hot rod sedan so impressed legendary Mercedes engineer and test driver Rudolf Uhlenhaut that plans were made to put the car into production, albeit on a limited basis. From a business perspective, doing so kept the assembly line for the W600’s engine busy, and while just 6,526 examples of the 300 SEL 6.3 were constructed between 1968 and 1972, that number was considerably higher than the 2,700 W600 limousines produced.

In stock trim, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3 delivered performance on par with many sports cars of the day, impressive given its near 3,900-pound curb weight. The run from 0-100 km/h (62 MPH) took just 6.3 seconds, and flat out, on the autobahn, the 300 SEL 6.3 was capable of reaching 229 km/h (142 MPH). The list of standard equipment included pneumatic suspension, vented four-wheel disc brakes, power windows, central locking, and power steering, but those wanting additional luxury could add options such as air conditioning, a powered sunroof, rear folding tables and passenger reading lamps.

AMG Rote Sau

The original Rote Sau racing in 1971. Officially, the car was a 300 SEL 6.8.

Correctly assuming the 300 SEL 6.3 would be a good platform to begin with, AMG upped the V-8’s displacement to 6.8-liters and re-tuned the engine to extract maximum power. In race trim, its modified V-8 was said to produce 428 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque, enough to propel the big sedan from 0-100 km/h in a mere 4.2 seconds, on the way to a top speed of 265 km/h (164 MPH) despite its sub-optimal aerodynamic design.

AMG debuted its race-prepped 300 SEL 6.8 at the 1971 running of the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps. Its size and bright red finish and quickly earned it the less-than-desirable nickname “Rote Sau,” or Red Pig, but 24 hours later, no one was laughing. In its first race, the Rote Sau finished first in class and second overall, thanks in part to the driving skills of Hans Heyer and Clemens Schickentanz.

Rote Sau recreation

The Rote Sau recreation, built for the 2006 Geneva Motor Show.

For its first outing in 1972, testing for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the AMG-prepped sedan was repainted in yellow. The car didn’t appear at Le Mans, instead running at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring later that same month. For its final race, the 1972 Nuremberg 200 Miles, the car was again finished in red, and once again took a class win despite its prodigious appetite for both gasoline and tires.

With little ceremony, AMG sold the car to French manufacturing conglomerate Matra, which proceeded to modify the sedan for testing of aircraft landing gear and tires. At some point, the Rote Sau was lost to history, which later became a matter of concern for Mercedes-Benz. Once Mercedes-AMG became a subsidiary of Daimler AG in 2005, recreating the Rote Sau, as accurately as possible, became a priority for Mercedes-Benz.

Rote Sau recreation

As points out, even finding a suitable donor car proved challenging. Most 300 SEL 6.3 models were ordered with every conceivable option from the factory, since money was of little concern to the original buyers. The Rote Sau, on the other hand, was a stripper, delivered to AMG without air conditioning or even the factory sunroof. With the usual German attention to detail, Mercedes-Benz combed Europe for a comparably-built car, ultimately finding an example in Berlin.  The search for period-correct components took even longer, but eventually, the reborn Rote Sau made its public debut at the 2006 Geneva Motor Show.

Rote Sau

Though the car was built three-plus years after AMG’s founding, it is, arguably, the most identifiable reminder of the firm’s early days. In the decades since, AMG has gone on to capture numerous racing championships (including 10 driver championships, 13 team championships, and six constructor’s championships in German Touring Car and three Formula 1 World Championships), and its production cars are often the stuff of legend. Had the Rote Sau been less audacious, or less successful, however, the history of AMG may well have played out differently.

For more on AMG’s history and the evolution of its road-going cars, see Terry Shea’s recap of the brand’s 45th birthday celebration.