Despite the withdrawal from motor sport at the end of the 1955 season, Mercedes-Benz did not remain idle in the wide field of motor sport. The motor sport vehicles derived from the production cars almost seamlessly continued the story of the long-standing supercharged sports cars and the fascinating Silver Arrows. Karl Kling, Rudolf Caracciola, and Hermann Lang had competed in the Rally Monte Carlo in three Mercedes-Benz 220 (W 187) cars as early as January 1952. The Stuttgart trio came away with the trophy for best team performance.
Karl Kling later described how differently the public perceived rallies and races on a circuit: “A car race is tied to a circuit. Like a play, it unfolds before the eyes of the crowd, filled with dramatic and sensational events. The thunder of the engines is the acoustic backdrop. The beauty and spirit of a racing car are inspiring. The contest between the drivers is a thrilling spectacle. The battle of man versus machine is played out on centre stage. A rally, however, spreads out over vast distances. Its drivers are locked in a dogged struggle against the caprices of the weather and the route. Their struggle is with themselves, with fatigue, monotony, and hundreds of kilometres of back-country roads, over mountains and plains, and along coasts. They struggle unseen for many hours, even days.”
Mercedes-Benz vehicles had already enjoyed success in rally events during the Silver Arrows era from 1952 to 1955 in the hands of dedicated private drivers such as the Stuttgart tropical fruit importer Walter Schock. He entered the first Solitude Rally on 24 and 25 April 1954 driving his business car, a Mercedes-Benz 220 (W 180). The event counted towards the German touring car championship. A total of 174 participants started from eleven locations to Solitude Palace, near Stuttgart, where the special stages were to begin. Schock won the race. Together with his co-driver Rudolf Moll, he would go on to achieve many more rally victories over the next few years in Mercedes-Benz vehicles.
In 1955, the duo entered the Rally Monte Carlo, arguably Europe’s leading rally event. The Schock/Moll team received only limited support from Mercedes-Benz for this adventure. Racing director Alfred Neubauer had bigger goals in mind for that season – winning the double of the Formula 1 world championship and the sports car world championship. In addition, he had not been particularly happy about the racing department’s participation in the 1952 Monte Carlo Rally. The test workshop did, however, optimise Schock’s privately owned Mercedes-Benz for the rally by lowering the body. The race started on 17 January. The Stuttgart duo proceeded to take fifth place in the overall standings after the four days of the event. This was followed by a victory in the Sestrière Rally in Italy (25 February to 1 March 1955), second place in the Adriatica Rally in Yugoslavia (20 to 24 July 1955), and fourth place in the Viking Rally in Norway (9 to 12 September 1955). Walter Schock was also back on the starting line for the 1955 Solitude Rally, this time coming in third. By 1955, the rally had already become a true long-distance race going over 2,000 kilometres.
1956: rally races take centre stage
While still racing in Formula 1 and the sports car world championship, Mercedes-Benz was already successfully involved in international rally races. From 1956 on, the focus of motor sport activities was on these long-distance competitions. Mercedes vehicles, mainly driven by private teams, were competing on rally courses all around the world. Whereas the racing cars and racing sports cars from the years before had shone as sensitive high-performing athletes, it was now the turn of near-production passenger cars to prove their mettle. The man responsible for rally operations was Karl Kling in the role of Mercedes-Benz director of motor sports. Following the retirement of Alfred Neubauer, Kling had taken over some of the legendary racing director’s responsibilities.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was primarily the six-cylinder 220 SE and 300 SE saloons as well as the 300 SL sports car that made headlines on the roads and gravel tracks of the world. These years were dominated by the aforementioned team Walter Schock/Rolf Moll, among others. The duo, which drove for the Motorsportclub Stuttgart, could avail itself of extensive support from Mercedes-Benz in the form of vehicles and repair and maintenance services.
Walter Schock competed in the Rally Monte Carlo on 15 January 1956 in a Mercedes-Benz 220 and finished just 1.1 seconds behind the winner in a Jaguar on 23 January. One month later, the team from Stuttgart lined up for the start of the Sestrière Rally in Italy in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing Coupé. In the mountains, the 300 SL simply left the rest of the field in the dust. Schock recalled the outstanding performance of the coupé in wintry rally conditions: “Very delicate snow chains on all four wheels enable us to reach uphill speeds of up to 180 km/h.” On 28 February, the team crossed the finish line as the winners. Further triumphs followed, with victories at the Wiesbaden Rally (21 to 24 June 1956), the Acropolis Rally (25 April to 2 May 1956) and first place in the Adriatica Rally. Schock and Moll finished the Iberico Rally in third place and the Geneva Rally in tenth. In addition, Schock won in his class at the Eifel race and took second place in the support race of the Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. These results helped him to secure the 1956 European Touring Car crown and the German GT Championship for cars with a displacement of more than 2,000 cc.
1959: Director of Motorsport Kling as a temporary works driver
Even director of motorsport Kling himself occasionally took a turn at the wheel, however, and thereby became a kind of temporary Mercedes-Benz works driver: with Rainer Günzler as his co-driver, he secured an extraordinary victory at the 14,000 kilometre Mediterranée – Le Cap Rally from the Mediterranean to South Africa in 1959: in this rally, the Stuttgart team drove a diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz 190 D whose reliability secured the victory. In 1961, Kling was back at the wheel of a saloon in Africa. This time he chose a Mercedes-Benz 220 SE and drove it to victory in the Algiers – Lagos – Algiers Rally. His co-driver again was Rainer Günzler. Kling was also present as the racing director when the Mercedes-Benz works teams competed in selected major races.
Schock and Moll also took the European rally championship title in their 220 SE (“Fintail”) in 1960. Already at the legendary Monte Carlo Rally, they crossed the finish line in first place. This first overall German victory in this competition was at the same time a triple success for Mercedes-Benz. The driver teams of Eugen Böhringer/Hermann Socher and Eberhard Mahle/Roland Ott took second and third place. Following this triumph in 1960, the sports media called for Mercedes-Benz to come back to the racing circuits of the world with its works cars on a continuous basis. But Sports Director Kling stated in no uncertain terms: “This success will encourage us to continue to make substantial efforts in rally racing. However, Mercedes has no intention of returning to motor racing.”
In the 1960s, Mercedes-Benz teams took part in the “Gran Premio Argentina” road race on several occasions. On 26 October 1961, Walter Schock set out in this very special rally against 207 other drivers. Awaiting the field was a relentless race covering 4,600 kilometres and a difference in altitude of about 3,000 metres. This torturous test of endurance ended on 5 November with a one-two victory for Mercedes-Benz. Walter Schock and Rolf Moll finished in first place, followed by Hans Herrmann and Rainer Günzler. “That was perhaps the most difficult race I have ever competed in”, said rally champion Schock upon his return from South America. Together with Racing Director Karl Kling, Juan Manuel Fangio personally accompanied the teams supported by the Stuttgart-based marque. As this competition was very important for the American market, Mercedes-Benz continued to be active in the years that followed. Female drivers Ewy Rosqvist and Ursula Wirth scored a sensational victory in 1962. In 1963 and 1964, Eugen Böhringer was the winner, ahead of two more Mercedes-Benz cars in each case.
Böhringer, who had been driving Mercedes-Benz cars in rallies since 1957, took the European rally champion title in the 1962 season in a Mercedes-Benz 220 SE. With co-drivers Peter Lang and Hermann Eger, Böhringer scored points during this season at events which included: Rally Monte Carlo (2nd place), Tulip Rally (7th place), Acropolis Rally (winner), Midnight Sun Rally (5th place), Poland Rally (winner), Liège–Sofia–Liège Rally (winner) and Germany Rally (2nd place). One of the highlights that year was the victory in the legendary Liège–Sofia–Liège road race in a Mercedes-Benz 220 SE. In 1963, the Stuttgart driver was again victorious at this marathon race, which took drivers across Europe, but now to Bulgaria instead of Rome, this time driving a Mercedes-Benz 230 SL (W 113, “Pagoda”). He was the first driver ever to win this rally two years in a row.
Mercedes-Benz also enjoyed success in North America: in 1957, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLS, based on the 300 SL production sports car, was created specifically for the American sports car championship. Its lower weight of just 900 kilograms and higher power output, boosted from 158 kW (215 hp) to 173 kW (235 hp), made it a highly competitive car. The SLS gave American Paul O’Shea his third consecutive American sports car championship title, following his victories with a 300 SL coupé in the 1955 and 1956 seasons.
The powerful 300 SEL 6.3 eight-cylinder saloon raced as a works vehicle only once – when it won the six-hour touring car race in Macao in 1969 with Erich Waxenberger at the wheel. The oil crisis in the early 1970s put an end to any further race starts of the saloon. Automotive historian Karl Eric Ludvigsen underlined the importance of this break in the motorsport history of the Stuttgart-based marque: “The oil crisis was the first externally prompted break in a long-running Daimler-Benz tradition. Strictly speaking, it had started around the turn of the century and, apart from the war years, only had a short hiatus in 1955. Every year there had always been one or more Benz, Mercedes or Mercedes-Benz vehicles that competed with direct or indirect works support in at least one major race.”
However, the Mercedes-Benz racing tradition was continued by private drivers. Their vehicles were increasingly being prepared for competition by AMG, a workshop established in 1967 by former Daimler-Benz employees Hans-Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher in Burgstall near Stuttgart. The acronym stands for the surnames of the two founders and for Grossaspach, the birthplace of Aufrecht. One of their outstanding early products was the refined version of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL with a 6.9-litre engine, which finished second overall in the 24-hour race at Spa in 1971. The independent tuning company proved its competence in preparing racing cars for many years before the then DaimlerChrysler AG acquired it outright in 2005. Today, the sports car and performance brand Mercedes-AMG is responsible for all Mercedes-Benz racing activities: Formula 1, DTM (until 2018) as well as customer sport since 2011.
1976: record runs with the C 111
The rotary-engined Mercedes-Benz C 111, presented in 1969, was also affected by the oil crisis. The futuristic study featured a rotary engine with three rotors and was much admired throughout the automotive community: Mercedes-Benz presented it in September 1969 as a visionary successor to the 300 SL “Gullwing”. A car with a redesigned rotary engine featuring four rotors was presented one year later. It was this model that later became the nucleus of the second Silver Arrow era. The C 111, however, remained an extraordinary experimental car. One of the arguments against series production was the rotary engine’s appetite for fuel, and the relatively high levels of pollutants in the exhaust gas. Mercedes-Benz therefore decided to stop work on this compact engine in 1971 in spite of its impressive power and refinement.
The C 111 had its greatest moments on record-breaking runs in the years from 1976 to 1979: in 1976, Mercedes-Benz decided to disprove the long-standing prejudice that diesel engines were rough and slow. And what better evidence to the contrary could there have been than a diesel-powered C 111? For the first test drives, the engineers installed a turbocharged 3-litre, five-cylinder diesel engine in an externally unmodified C 111-II. In this car, known as the C 111-II D, an OM 617 LA production diesel engine – normally used in the Mercedes-Benz 240 D 3.0 (W 115, “Stroke Eight”) and subsequently in other vehicles – developed a highly impressive 140 kW (190 hp) of power thanks to turbocharging and charge-air cooling. The standard output for the production version was approximately 60 kW (82 hp). The C 111-II D posted some spectacular speeds on the test track of Nardò in southern Italy in June 1976. Over the course of 60 hours, a team of four drivers set a total of three world records and 16 class records, with average speeds in excess of 250 km/h. In so doing, Mercedes-Benz had provided impressive proof that the diesel engine could also be a peak performer.
The success of the externally virtually unmodified C 111-II in Nardò encouraged the product engineers to renew their efforts. This time the experimental design they created was never intended as a sports car for use on public roads – the C 111-III was a record car pure and simple, aimed solely at breaking speed records. The new vehicle built during 1977 was narrower than the first C 111 and had a longer wheelbase. A full fairing as well as tailfins ensured perfect aerodynamics. In 1978, the C 111-III was back at the starting line in Nardò. Again, a diesel engine rumbled beneath the plastic body, now painted silver. Even though the engine was still based on the series-production design, it now had a power output of 169 kW (230 hp) and propelled the streamlined car to speeds well over 300 km/h. Mercedes-Benz posted nine absolute world records and eleven international class records with this Silver Arrow car of the late 1970s.
The last version of the car, the C 111-IV presented in 1979, reached a speed of 403.978 km/h on the Nardò track, breaking the absolute track world record. This time, however, the diesel engine under the plastic outfit had been replaced with a V8 petrol engine with a displacement of 4.8 litres and two turbochargers, developing a power output of 368 kW (500 hp). The shape of the body was now also far removed from the initial design. The bold, confident contours of the 1969 model had morphed ten years later into a lean, elongated silver racing body with two tailfins and solid spoilers.
1978: the days of the V8 coupés and the début of the “ Baby-Benz”
Mercedes-Benz did not reappear on the lists of winners in motor sport until 1977: the teams of Andrew Cowan/Colin Malkin/Mike Broad and Anthony Fowkes/Peter O’Gorman posted the fastest overall times in the London–Sydney marathon rally, driving factory-supported Mercedes-Benz 280 E saloons. The same model was also entered as a works car in the East African Safari in 1978. However, the year was in fact already dominated by the fast V8 coupés: four Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC (C 107) cars with a power output of 169 kW (230 hp) and an automatic transmission took part in the tough Rally “Vuelta a la América del Sur” in South America. The 28,600-kilometre race in August and September ended with a five-fold victory for Mercedes-Benz vehicles: the teams Andrew Cowan/Colin Malkin and Sobieslaw Zasada/Andrzej Zembruski won in Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC models, followed by Fowkes/Klaus Kaiser (280 E), Timo Mäkinen/Jean Todt (450 SLC), and Herbert Kleint/Günther Klapproth (280 E).
In 1979, the near-production rally car was renamed the 450 SLC 5.0 and its bored out eight-cylinder engine now produced 213 kW (290 hp) of power, enough for a quadruple victory in the 5,000-kilometre Bandama Rally in Côte d’Ivoire in Africa. The rally was won by Hannu Mikkola and Arne Hertz, ahead of Björn Waldegaard/Hans Thorszelius, Andrew Cowan/Klaus Kaiser, and Vic Preston/Mike Doughty.
In 1980, Daimler-Benz entered the rally world championship in earnest. The vehicle was a 500 SLC with up to 250 kW (400 hp) of power. Against competition from Peugeot, Toyota and Fiat, Björn Waldegaard/Hans Thorszelius and Jorge Recalde/Nestor Straimel posted another dual victory in the Bandama Rally at season’s end. This was also the last factory involvement of Daimler-Benz AG in rallying, since in December 1980 the Board of Management decided that the Stuttgart-based company would withdraw from the world championship for capacity reasons. As Werner Breitschwerdt, then Member of the Daimler-Benz AG Board of Management responsible for Development and Research, explained: “We have decided to put all our research resources and capacity into meeting our responsibilities for environmental protection.”
The numerous rally victories achieved over a period of almost 30 years had proven the performance capabilities of near-production Mercedes-Benz vehicles. This had made these competitions brand ambassadors with a particularly direct impact.
The three Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.3-16 record cars that again set world records in Nardò in August of 1983 were also based on production vehicles. These record cars of the compact class introduced in 1982 had a 2.3-litre engine with four-valve technology that developed 136 kW (185 hp) of power at 6,200 rpm. Compared with the eventual production version, these 190 models had a modified rear axle ratio (i = 2.65) and no reverse gear. The cars also had a lowered suspension, with automatic self-levelling all-round. Special tyres and spoilers enabled the compact saloon to reach a top speed of 261 km/h.
In three record cars, employees from the test department clocked precisely 50,000 kilometres in 201:39:43 hours (over 8 days). In the process, they set three world records (25,000 kilometres at 247.094 km/h, 25,000 miles at 247.749 km/h, and 50,000 kilometres at 247.939 km/h), and nine class records (including 1,000 kilometres at 247.094 km/h and 1,000 miles at 246.916 km/h). The record car based on the 190 2.3-16 was also a precursor to Mercedes-Benz’s return to circuit motor sport in 1984.
Diesel records in Laredo
Mercedes-Benz also continued the tradition of record-breaking runs with near-production vehicles in the more recent past. In May 2005, the E 320 CDI (model series 211) powered by a V6 diesel engine completed an unusual endurance test: during a 30-day long-term test in Laredo (Texas), three production vehicles not only proved their reliability, but also set three diesel world records – over 100,000 kilometres (average speed 225.903 km/h), 50,000 miles (225.456 km/h), and 100,000 miles (224.823 km/h).