There’s a lot to be said for the power of a passionate individual with plenty of drive and plenty of influence, or at least there is when the individual in question is a certified petrolhead with Shell V-Power coursing through their veins. In fact, some of the most evocative cars of the 20th century can trace their origins to nothing more than a committed chap (or occasionally a group of like-minded chaps) with a desire to go very, very fast in a car of their choosing, and to hell with both cost and practicality.
This brings us neatly to the 300 SEL you see here, a car known by one of the least Merc-like monikers imaginable, the AMG ‘Red Pig.’ It was a race car from the early 70s, built on the sly by a motorsport obsessed Mercedes engineer and, in time a pair of tuners with an all-consuming passion for Stuttgart’s finest, Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher. Their names might now only be known by a handful of Merc-perverts, but you’ll almost certainly have heard of the company they formed – AMG.
Aufrecht and Melcher had already carved out a solid reputation for making Mercedes offerings go very fast indeed, with a particular emphasis on engine work, namely classic power tuning. This perhaps shouldn’t be that surprising when you consider the kinds of cars AMG has since become infamous for producing…
Either way, the AMG of the late ’60s was a world apart from the officially sanctioned, OEM-owned entity it has grown to become; it was far, far smaller in scale and output, modest in means, and most significantly of all, associated with Mercedes in only the loosest of senses.
This might have remained the case (in which case the likelihood is that none of us would’ve heard of AMG), had not the pair of Merc-tweakers been contacted by one Erich Waxenberger. Waxenberger’s is a name writ large in Mercedes folklore for a good reason: it was he who first bridged the gap between his employer, Mercedes, and the duo of of gifted engineers, in turn making him responsible (at least in part) for the creation of the ‘Red Pig.’
It’s worth pausing to explain just how and why Aufrecht and Melcher were able to even get their collective foot in the Mercedes motorsport door, and for that we need to go back even further, all the way back to the infamous Le Mans disaster of 1955. The horrific smash saw Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes 300 SLR launched into the grandstand whereupon it exploded, killing 86 people and forcing the car maker from top flight motorsport for over three decades, only remerging at the end of the 1980s.
Not that a lack of factory support put well-heeled would-be racers off the idea of taking their Mercedes onto the track, far from it. In fact, the lack of official help meant that the door was effectively open to small bands of engineers like Aufrecht and Melcher, turning them from little known specialists into the de-facto choice for anyone serious about racing (and winning) in a car with the three-pointed star adorning its bonnet.
It was in this, somewhat covert climate that Waxenberger first made contact with the AMG duo. He’d already done much of the hard work already, namely ‘liberating’ an M100 V8 from a ‘Grosser’ limousine and shoe-horning it into the confines of a 300 SEL saloon. Doing so had been met with a mixture of emotions from Mercedes’ top brass, with some being amused by the lairy, hair-chested machine car that emerged, some being straight-up appalled.
By 1969, a handful of 300 SEL race cars had been hand built (some say 3, others 5), and while one had amply demonstrated both the performance and the potential of the package by winning the 6 Hours of Macau outright, the increased exposure generated by the result also brought increased scrutiny. It wasn’t long before the powers that be at Stuttgart were beginning to question whether it was a good thing that their once plush, refined saloon could now be seen fishtailing out of corners and generally looking decidedly uncouth, and the project was canned by the end of the year.
It was this which caused Waxenberger to make common cause with Aufrecht and Melcher, with the AMG duo eventually enlisting his services, expertise…and eventually purchasing a pair of his covertly built SELs for their own use. It meant that the pieces of the puzzle were now in place, and also that Waxenberger could begin putting both his skills and contacts to good use, all with one eye on a self-imposed deadline – the 1971 running of the Spa Francorchamps 24 Hours.
It should be noted that the machine which emerged to fight for supremacy against a grid full of lithe, lightweight race cars at Spa that day was brutal in the extreme, which, again, is only fitting when you consider AMG’s subsequent offerings. That V8 was bored out to a full 6834cc, then fitted with a revised Bosch fuel injection system and a number of other, similar ancillary revisions.
So far, so conventional, at least as far as an early ’70s race car is concerned. Where the ‘Red Pig’ differed from its rivals was with its transmission and suspension, with a specially modified 4-speed automatic selected for cog-swapping duties in the lead up to the Spa 24 Hours, plus bespoke air suspension to better cope with Spa’s bumpier, more vertiginous sections.
Waxenberger, once again demonstrating his engineering chops, had modified the autobox to function as a basic sequential, though it still presented Hans Stuck and Clemens Schickentanz, the duo charged with driving the SEL for the race, with something of a challenge. They mastered it, naturally, but the very idea of an automatic SEL facing off against more traditionally geared opposition certainly set paddock eyebrows northward.
The race itself was rather subdued, at least from the perspective of Waxenberger, AMG and Co. The 415bhp, 160mph+ Merc was as reliable as it was thirsty, pounding around Spa at near unabated speed and thrilling the massed banks of spectators with lurid slides as and when prompted. This it did for hour after hour, seemingly without breaking a sweat. Indeed, the big Merc was only halted when it was forced to stop for fuel, something it was required to do rather more often than its rivals!
Stuck and Schickentanz would complete the race second overall, winning their class comfortably and even giving the victorious Capri RS2600 a run for its money. It might even have won had the Pig not been quite as thirsty…
Very little dates as swiftly as yesterday’s race car though, especially when the car in question was barely supposed to exist, and the upshot was that the ‘Pig’ was eventually sold to Matra, the French aircraft maker. Thereafter it was used to test jet landing gear, at high speed and in a brutal fashion, and it wasn’t long before the original car was destroyed.
It turns out you can’t keep a good car down though, and there was only one such racer Mercedes was going to recreate and pay homage to when it bought a controlling stake in AMG at the turn of the millennium. It might not be the real McCoy, but the inch-perfect replica since built and displayed by Mercedes is as closest we’ll get, while also demonstrating how far the relationship between car maker and tuner has come since the 1970s.
So there you have it, the tale of the ‘Red Pig,’ a highly significant, effortlessly charismatic car…and perhaps the best automotive example of ‘making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’ you’re likely to find.