Mercedes-Benz S 55 AMG. Click image to enlarge
By Tony Whitney
When Mercedes-Benz called me to say they were staging a couple of media test days focusing on AMG models, I didn’t need too much coaxing to get behind the wheel of legends like these. The letters ‘AMG” have an almost mystical significance to people who really know cars and anyone planning to get their hands on one knows they’re in for an unparalleled motoring experience.
But first, a little background on the business of tuning automobiles.
Over the years, entire industries have developed around tweaking engines and suspensions and in North America it’s a multibillion-dollar business. Enthusiasts have been spending hard-earned cash on upgraded powertrain and suspension components for decades with domestic models being the major beneficiaries of this kind of work.
Many automakers have specialized divisions set up to modify production vehicles and a good example here is Ford’s Special Vehicle Team or SVT. For several years, the group has been working wonders on all kinds of Ford products from family sedans to pickup trucks and is highly respected by performance connoisseurs.
One of the British pioneers, of course, was the great John Cooper, who single-handedly turned the humble Mini into a race car to be reckoned with. Cooper died in 2000, but his name lives on in the new “BMW” Mini Cooper. Sometimes, an automaker becomes so impressed with a tuning firm tackling its products, it “buys the company,” as the late shaver tycoon used to say in his TV commercials. So it was with Mercedes-Benz and the German tuner AMG.
Mercedes-Benz C 32 AMG
AMG has been in business for over 30 years and became so respected through race successes and a series of awesomely fast road cars, Mercedes eventually purchased a majority (51 per cent) interest. Today, AMG has a very enviable reputation among performance car buffs and no automaker comes close to Mercedes in the way in which it has cleverly exploited the tuner’s reputation.
The letters “AMG,” incidentally, derive from the two gentlemen who founded the company – Herr Aufrecht and Herr Melcher. The “G” comes from Grossaspach – birthplace of Aufrecht.
The first race success for AMG came in 1971, when a Mercedes 300 SEL 6.9 – a huge brute of a car – won its class in the 24-hour race at Spa in Belgium and finished second overall. Countless race victories followed and in 1988, AMG joined forces with Mercedes-Benz for the first time to take on the hotly-contested German Touring Car Championship, or DTM.
In 1997, AMG performed the remarkable feat of building the awesome Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR race car in just 128 days. The car went on to win the FIA-GT World Championship in 1997 and 1998. In 2000 an AMG Mercedes won the prestigious DTM with Bernd Schneider at the wheel. In Europe, touring car racing is second only to Formula One in spectator interest and the DTM is the top series. Schneider won the 2001 series in his AMG Mercedes.
From its small beginnings AMG produced 18,500 cars last year, up 60% from the 11,500 sold in 2000. In fact, more AMG vehicles were sold in 2001 than in the previous two years put together. About 70 per cent of all AMG vehicles are sold in North America. As the “sports nameplate” of Mercedes, AMG has its approximate equivalent in BMW’s “M” models and Audi’s “S” versions.
In Canada, Mercedes-Benz will sell you an AMG modified variant of just about every model it imports. Current production includes the AMG C32 sedan, AMG CLK55 cabriolet, AMG S55 sedan, AMG CL55 coupe, AMG SLK32 sports car and even an AMG ML55 sport utility.
I jumped at Mercedes’ invitation to drive all these AMG Mercedes models at Shannonville Motorsport Park in Ontario – and racer Bernd Schneider himself turned up to show us the fastest way round the track. Schneider’s not a guy to hold himself in check when he gets his hands on a fast car on a fun track and trying to keep up with him revealed the true status of AMG’s tuning prowess (not to mention my race car driving limitations). All versions are about as fast and agile as road cars can be and it was possible to throw them round Shannonville at quite respectable lap times.
We had three AMGs at a time on the track and the idea was to follow Schneider around at speed. The way he played it was that if he saw the three journalists’ cars were keeping up, he’d hike the lap times a little. Luckily, I was with two other drivers who knew the track well and could handle the powerful AMGs, so we got to drive pretty fast. It was great fun following Schneider over the curbs and imagining for just a moment that I was challenging for the lead in a DTM race. Great stuff! I guess that if he’d really cranked it up, we’d all have been left in the weeds, but we can dream, right?
The track program was run by a remarkable organization called RaceInc International, which, among other things, offers “learn to drive an F1 car” courses. Amazingly, the group has no less than nine F1 cars – four Benettons, three Arrows and two Lolas. They also have a huge stable of other racing machines, including F3000s and Le Mans cars.
RaceInc has a very snazzy complex at Shannonville’s Fabi circuit – even including a posh “lounge” and dressing rooms for the well-heeled F1 aspirants. They did a great job of organizing the AMG drives, which also included drag races and watered-down skid pad exercises.
Did I have any favourites among the AMG models at the event? Of course, all these products are wonderful automobiles at or near the top of their respective high-performance classes. Even so, I’d have to single out the new AMG SLK32 sports car as the top performer around the tight Fabi track – and I’ve driven dozens of cars on this circuit over the years. The CLK55 was a close second and it was amazing how good the big CL55 turned out to be.
AMG Mercedes products are expensive, there’s no denying that, but for people who want the best in safe, high-performance road-going automobiles, there are probably worth every penny.