First published August 12, 2017. As we all work hard at celebrating the end of a big year and the start of a new one, we're looking back on some favourites of 2017!
The sharp right-hander, just before the town of Hirten in Germany’s Eifel mountains, approaches faster than you think. It’s a tricky corner, almost 160-degrees in radius, switching back on itself before opening out into a long, straight stretch of road flanked by the forests and fields Germany does so well.
It’s postcard-perfect scenery, with wood-framed houses and castle ruins liberally sprinkling the scenery. And on this sunny Saturday afternoon, the road ahead is empty. Quiet. Serene. Until…
I open up the pipes and the 6.0-litre AMG engine under the bonnet barks and snarls into life, propelling me forward faster than I probably ought to be. But this is Germany and the road ahead is clear and I’m behind the wheel of a Mercedes-AMG museum piece, the Mercedes 300 CE 6.0 AMG, lovingly – and iconically – nicknamed ‘The Hammer’.
To understand how special this car is, how rare, think about this: Just a dozen cars were ever built. Think about that. Twelve cars… 12!
And my hosts at Mercedes-Benz have literally just tossed me the key, a smartphone with a pre-programmed road loop plugged into its sat-nav function and said ‘see you in a couple of hours’. No minders, no chaperone, nothing. Just me and a museum piece and a stretch of scenic German countryside that invites, begs even, to be driven.
And a tacit agreement to not turn the global car count for this model into 11.
The Eifel mountains are, of course, famous for one particular 24km stretch of road that has tested and challenged (and sometimes killed) motoring enthusiasts and racers alike for 90 years now.
The Nurburgring Nordschleife needs little introduction. In its full glory, incorporating the modern era Grand Prix circuit, the Green Hell, as it is now known after three-time F1 world champion Jackie Stewart dubbed it thus in 1968, takes in over 24km (and around 170 corners) of German countryside in the Eifel mountains.
Located in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of western Germany, close to the border of Belgium and Luxembourg, the Eifel mountains are considered a ‘low’ mountain range - but that does not detract from the spectacular surroundings and countryside.
The Nordschleife itself climbs from a low point at Breidscheid at 320 metres above sea level to a zenith of 618m at Hohe Acht. It is, in short, an undulating track that provides a hint at the terrain of the area around the ’Ring itself.
And it’s those roads that are now beckoning to me with their twists and turns, verdant dips and climbs. With 200,000 people packed into the region for the Nurburgring 24-hour race, the roads are surprisingly quiet. But the roadsides around the track are lined with people, hordes of race fans with petrol in their veins and an eye for classic metal.
So when The Hammer thunders past like a Norse god on crack, there’s plenty of head-turning and finger-pointing. Smartphones are wielded like weapons in an effort to capture the moment a true automotive rarity rolls by, pistons pumping, exhaust thundering.
The Mercedes 300 CE 6.0 AMG is no thing of beauty. There’s nothing elegant about its boxy, pumped up lines, and there’s little symphony under the bonnet.
It's a blunt instrument, bludgeoning supercar-like performance from its heavily tuned and fettled 6.0-litre V8 which had astonishing power outputs for its time – try 287kW and a staggering 566Nm. That helped propel the low-slung, wide-bodied coupe to a top speed in excess of 300km/h, no mean feat for the 1980s.
In fact, such was the Hammer’s performance credentials, it competed with the likes of Ferrari’s Testarossa, the outrageous Lamborghini Countach and Porsche’s classic 911 Turbo, all in a car that would barely turn heads if it rumbled by you on the street. It was, in every sense, a true sleeper.
One area it couldn’t compete with its more exotic rivals was on price. In the United States in 1988, a new Ferrari Testarossa would set you back US$134,000. You could drive out of a Lambo dealer with a brand-new Countach having handed over US$100,000 while a Porsche 911 Turbo was a relatively cheap $68,070.
A fully-specced Hammer on the other hand, rolled out of the Affalterbach workshop for a gobsmacking US$167,000, give or take a few greenbacks, some US$115,000 more than standard the Mercedes-Benz 300 CE it is based on, which could be yours for US$52,500.
But you got a lot of kit, and a lot of mumbo for your extra coin. For starters, AMG bored out and blueprinted the donor M117 V8 Mercedes 5.6-litre V8 to 6.0 litres, adding DOHC cylinder heads with four valves per cylinder. The new engine was then mated to a beefed up four-speed automatic transmission. The fettlers also beefed up the rear differential, adding a Gleason-Torsen LSD.
To cope with the monstrous amount of torque being sent to the rear wheels, the rear sub-frame received some strengthening while the rest of the chassis also underwent the surgeon’s knife. That distinct and wide body styling didn’t come cheap, nor did the more aggressive, lowered and upgraded AMG suspension. Sitting on 17-inch alloy wheels with 215/45/17 front and 235/45/17 rear Pirelli P700 tyres completed the picture.
The interior received a mild makeover too, but not so much you’d notice straight away. Sure, there are the Recaro sports seats, but they exhibit the hallmark Mercedes levels of comfort, trimmed in leather. Lashings of wood trim add to the luxury. The only obvious signs of AMG inside are the branded steering wheel and the speedometer dial which displays the AMG logo writ large and, tantalisingly, a maximum speed of 340km/h.
Interestingly, the Hammer was born in a time before any official Mercedes-Benz involvement. As such, no Mercedes branding appeared on the car anywhere. Devoid of all three-pointed star logos, the only clue to its skunkwork origins is an embossed AMG logo on the lip of the boot. It’s barely noticeable, but it’s a subtle nod to those in the know. Sleeper.
So what’s it like to drive? Well, despite its fear-inspiring moniker, the Hammer is a surprisingly subtle beast. It’s also showing its age.
Not as raucous at idle as I expected, that glorious 6.0-litre V8 does, eventually, come into its own higher in the rev band. The suspension too, is subtle, nowhere near as firm as those in its modern counterpart, the Mercedes-AMG E63. It’s surprisingly supple over the B-roads of the Eifel mountains I now find myself on, more Autobahn cruiser than corner-carver. The steering is best described as vague (it is an almost 30-year-old car, so we’ll forgive it a bit of dementia).
Acceleration isn’t manic, nor is it loud, but once you’re, cough, hammering through the German countryside, there is certain musicality to the thrum and hum of the 6.0-litre V8. Where the Hammer truly shines is in mid-range acceleration. From 80-120, it gobbles up km/h in the blink of an eye, sucking down oxygen and converting it to torque with ease. And noise.
This, this is where the Hammer is in its element, swallowing up tarmac while cosseting you in comfort. It’s a reminder of why this car made such an impact in its day, why this car made Mercedes-Benz sit up and take notice of the tuning house from Affalterbach.
It’s no coincidence that by 1990, AMG-tuned and accessorised cars were available, for the first time, from Mercedes dealerships and that by the middle of the decade, AMG was developing cars for Mercedes-Benz (think the original C36).
In 1999, of course, Mercedes-Benz acquired a controlling interest in AMG and formed what we know today as Mercedes-AMG, bestowing ubiquity to that three-lettered acronym across the entire three-pointed star range.
And this, this menacing, hulking, snarling brute of a car started it all.
I drove a handful of other classic AMG metal over the course of the day and over the same roads; from the spritely AMG 190E 3.2 (frightening, and not in a good way), CLK63 Black Series (fearsome, but in a good way), SLS Black (refined), and SL65 Black Series (brutal).
But none, none proved as thrilling, as sonorous, as grin-inducing, as bludgeoning, and as historic as the Hammer. And yes, after my time behind the wheel, there are still 12 examples left.
MORE: Everything Mercedes-AMG