Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mercedes on the Brain

I'm not a Mercedes guy. In fact, for the longest time I swore they were one of the worst car manufacturers around. This mindset came primarily from first-hand family experience as we had a particularly delicate W220 S500 that was literally in the shop more than it was on the road - and it had less than 20,000 miles on the odometer when it was sold - for less than half its original MSRP - after only 3 years since new. Having a BMW E38 740iL sitting alongside it in the driveway really didn't help the Benz much either.

However, as a car enthusiast I've recently become quite fascinated with a handful of Benz performance-oriented products. Currently, beyond DTM and ownership of the now defunct Brawn GP F1 team, Mercedes-Benz doesn't race much - though they can and have produced very fast, well-rounded cars some of which have roots in motorsports, some of which are just bad ass.

However, when they do - good things happen. A Mercedes-Benz engine is currently winning in Formula One World Constructors Championship points. They've got a strong pedigree for racing with sportscars as well with the Sauber Mercedes C9 which was driven to victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans by the talented Jochen Mass in 1989. Herr Michael Schumacher went on to drive one at Le Mans a few years prior to his otherworldly career at Ferrari.

Over a century or so Mercedes has had intermitent involvement in motorsports - choosing odd times to re-engage. This is primarily due to the deadly 1955 accident at the 24 Hours of Le Mans involving Levegh's 300 SLR which resulted in one of the highest death tolls in the 78 year history of the race when was flung into the crowd. Mercedes pulled all of its cars from the race and has had a tenuous relationship with motorsports ever since. One, bright shining example of their resurgence is the 1971 24 Hours of Spa.

A tuned out 300SEL 6.3 was bored to 6.8L and decked out in racing attire - namely bright red - and run as a privateer by some young engineers from AMG. This was well before AMG was the AMG of today, still being a small, but smart, start-up developed by two former Benz engineers. The Red Pig made no sense whatsoever in racing application and was prone to eating up tires with little regard. However, its a gorgeous car and provided to be surprisingly capable when it landed second place overall in the '71 24 Hours of Spa.

The 300SEL was, by many accounts, the first Q-ship car almost two decades before the M5. It was heavy on horsepower, heavy on price and heavy on luxury. Based off of the top-of-the-line 300SEL sedan, the 6.3 was equipped with the Mercedes-Benz 600's 6.3L M100 V8 engine - a first for a car of this size in Merc's line-up. It was also quite handsome which is a given as the exterior was designed by Paul Bracq. Looking at the guts - the 6.3 was equipped with an air suspension, power steering and disc brakes; all allowing it to claim the title of one of the most advanced cars of its time while delivering Italian exotica level performance.

When the W108 chassis and 6.3L went out of production in 1972 it was succeeded by 1974 with the mighty W116 450SEL 6.9. Like the 6.3, the newest, fastest S Class quickly became a thing of legend and was referred to simply as "Six Point Nine" and people knew exactly what lie behind the imposing name. Forget horsepower figures or 0 to 60 sprints. It was known for performance and uber-luxury, obviously, but it was the tasks carried out in the 6.9 that made it famous.

On an early morning in 1976 French director Claude Lelouch strapped a movie camera to the front of a 6.9 and blasted across Paris at the break of dawn, not stopping for anything or one - including red lights. The film was so controversial that Lelouch was arrested and, due to sound dubbing, many believed the Ferrari soundtrack was authentic and that only a car of that caliber could perform this task. Nope - it was a 4,200lbs 6.9 and a crazed Frenchman behind the wheel.

C'├ętait un Rendez-vous de Claude Lelouch from Grandes cortos on Vimeo.

Did I mention Brock Yates' encounter with the 6.9? No? Well, check that out too.

A few years later, MB found themselves working on a petite yet luxurious sedan to compete in rallying while serving up a competitive executive sedan. They found their form in the 190E and tapped Cosworth to help further develop the engine. With the time needed to develop the car - Mercedes missed the boat and regulations changed thus making the 190E 2.3 "Cossie" as the UK affectionately termed it - useless. Benz then took it to the craziest touring car series on the European continent, DTM, and had quite the success. After a few years, BMW came along with their 190E 2.3-inspired E30 M3 and changed the game. That being said, the highly competitive 190E was given credit for the justification BMW needed to develop the revolutionary M3. Keep in mind the 190E 2.3 is no slouch itself and had an equally revvy 4 cylinder engine and is currently a leading undervalued classic compared to the now overpriced E30 M3's floating around.

Only a few short years after the 190E Cosworth went out of production, Benz quelled power-hungry enthusiasts appetites with the 500E. Like the 190E Cossie, Benz sought outside consulting to fine tune the car for public consumption and called upon Porsche to help with the finer parts of the 500E. With a massive 5.0L V8 under the hood to guarantee forward velocity - Porsche was handed the car to sort out part of production and help the Big Benz keep its velocity through the corner via a revised steering system and suspension. 18 days in production and you had the most powerful Benz on the market that was fettled by a company that managed to produce a sports car so good it's still going 47 years later.

After that, it's difficult to determine which Benzes were able to live up to the prior successes of the 6.3, 6.9, 190E 2.3, and 500E. Check out the comparison of three of them, sans 190E, here from Motor Trend's newest feature, Motor Trend Classic, in a comparo that came out a few years back. But what cars has Benz made since the 500E that live up to their previous powerhouses? The SL55 AMG was a big performance success and the CLK 63 AMG Black Series is a strong contender for something that can deliver the performance, looks, luxury and understatement required to be a true Big Benz. The current lack of tangible road cars competing in motorsports seems to make it harder to pin down a car that I can single out as a strong contender.

After reading the review above, what newer cars live up to cars like the 6.3 and 6.9?


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