In my overview of something we could call “Germany’s leading automobile improvers”, regular readers know that over the last weeks I’ve written about Ruf and Alpina, the boutique manufacturers specialized in Porsche and BMW respectively (you’ll note that I’m avoiding the word “tuner” lhere, since it doesn’t even come close to describing what these formidable companies do!). The overview would however not be complete if it didn’t include the three legendary letters A, M and G, i.e. the Mercedes-focused racing- and sports car specialist AMG. The story is a bit different than Ruf and Alpina’s given AMG has been part of Mercedes for many years, but it is nonetheless an interesting one, so let’s look into it this week and then at the end also spend a few lines thinking about the dilution the value of a brand, something I will cover from another, but no less interesting angle next week.
Back in the 60’s, Hans-Werner Aufrecht (the A) and Erhard Melcher (the M) were good friends and engine builders at Mercedes-Benz, with a special love for racing. Aufrecht lived in the small town of Grossaspach (the G), which according to Google has one restaurant and one hotel and is located around half an hour north of Mercedes’s home in Stuttgart. Going about their daily jobs, they noticed that the Bavarian competitor BMW not only built more performance-oriented cars themselves, but also worked with external companies (yep, Alpina), offering even more refined and powerful cars. BMW’s client demand on one hand and racing success on the other wasn’t lost on the two MB engineers who therefore started to develop a racing engine in their spare time. The work became increasingly intense but also increasingly interesting so that in 1967 they handed in their resignation at Mercedes and set up their new company AMG. They converted Aufrecht’s basement to the firm’s headquarters, and the future garage came soon after in the form of an old wind mill in Grossaspach.
Aufrecht and Melcher had started working on a racing engine for the 300 SE in their last years at Mercedes, a car they were especially fond of. Once AMG was up and running the pair quickly found a damaged 300 SE that they bought for a few thousand D-Marks and then used as basis for the Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.8-litre AMG they would start racing with in 1970. In spite of their mechanical knowledge and extensive modifications it didn’t go very well in the beginning (not very surprising you’ll tell me given the size and weight of the SE) but given failure wasn’t an option, they kept at it and finally saw the turning point at Spa-Francorchamps in 1971. AMG finished second in the championship and all the hard work finally paid off. Word of the success spread quickly and AMG’s operations grew throughout the 70’s, as did the racing success. The multiple wins through the 70’s and 80’s are too extensive to mention, but to give an example of AMG’s dominance, the DTM 1988 series saw them win all ten races, with their two cars finishing in first and second position in six out of the ten!
Outside of racing AMG initially mostly tuned Mercedes engines in both power output and torque, but soon clients also contacted them for more individually customized vehicles, and the company was happy to comply. Experience from the race track was systematically applied to the “standard” cars, and word of AMG as THE Mercedes tuner started to spread. The wind mill in Grossaspach was by now far too small and the company moved to Affalterbach, a few kilometres away, where they are still located to this day. In 1990 the company signed a first collaboration agreement with Mercedes which also included selling AMG cars through the MB dealership network. Shortly thereafter plans were also drawn up for what was to be the entry on the US market in 1995.
Listing all the AMG’s that have been built through the years would make a very long post, since quite often, the same model was equipped with different engines. The 300 SEL 6.8-litre is probably the most well known, with the so called “Hammer”, a W124 E-class with a 5.8 litre V8 not far behind. But there’s also less well-known cars in the line-up, a few examples of which you’ll find below:
- The C-class has been an AMG favourite, and notably the US market entry started with the six-cylinder C36 AMG. Far more exciting and only distinguishable through the front grille was the C55 with a V8 engine producing 347 hp. These are still a good deal by the way, being somewhat forgotten by the market.
- In 1992 you could buy the six-cylinder, 234 hp 190 3.2 AMG. That was almost exactly the same power output as the 190 EVO II, however with far less drama and wings. It won’t be easy to track one down, but if you manage to do so it will no doubt be far less expensive than an Evo!
- The CLK GTR of which only 25 were built is perhaps not that unknown, but all the more remarkable since AMG developed it in less than 6 months and Bernd Schneider won the inaugural FIA GT Champ title with it in 1997. Other CLK versions were also produced by AMG for the German DTM series during many years.
- A more modern exotic is the family van R63 AMG, the top version of the not very successful R-range, where more than 500 hp from the 6.2 litre V8 took seven passengers and their luggage to 100 km/h in less than 5 seconds. Again, not many were built so finding one won’t be easy but if you do, that’s probably the most practical dark horse you can find for the school run to this day!
I could go on, but the major difference to somewhat comparable companies such as Ruf and Alpina is obvious – AMG has always been about quantity to a certain extent. The company has wanted to do everything for everyone, from cosmetics to diesels to petrol engines, and obviously also a lot for other manufacturers, going all the way from Pagani to Mitsubishi. The proliferation has therefore always been large, which is also reflected in prices. The small series and rare cars are pricey, those produced in large numbers far less so. They are however also far less exclusive.
The dilution only intensified when Mercedes took over the majority of AMG in 1999 and to a large extent coincides with Tobias Moers time as CEO, before he last year moved on to Aston Martin. Looking quickly at the current Mercedes line-up in Switzerland, there are a total of 22 models carrying the AMG brand from the factory, and in addition AMG styling packages that can be ordered to even more models. Engines called AMG go from four to eight cylinders but if you look closer into the range, you quickly realize that the “true” AMG cars in the line-up are far fewer. This smaller range is where the philosophy of “one man one engine” is still being followed, with engines being hand built and signed by their builder. This is also the range that can be said to be somewhat comparable to the Rufs and Alpinas of this world. The remaining offer is basically re-branded Mercedes products, and I can’t help thinking that even if it may make business sense, it diminishes the brand value to a point where true enthusiasts may start to look elsewhere.
Aufrecht and Melcher are both alive and well to this day. Melcher is 78 and still involved with AMG, but Aufrecht, who is the same age and who sold out all of his shares in AMG by 2005, had then already founded the racing specialist HWA (he’s obviously a fan of naming companies by initials) in 1998, where he is active to this day. The company called AMG which started in a wind mill in the 60’s is thus not really around anymore, but Aufrecht and Melcher no doubt took it a long way with impressive achievements through the years, both in serial cars but even more on the race track!