Rallies also occupy an important place in the Mercedes-Benz tradition – as in January 1952, for example, when Karl Kling, Rudolf Caracciola, and Hermann Lang competed in the Monte Carlo rally in three Mercedes-Benz 220 (W 187) vehicles. The Stuttgart trio came away from the event with the trophy for the best team performance.
This rally was an exciting challenge for Kling in particular, who had acquired his initial motor sport experience in long off-road races. However, this form of competition was far less popular with the German public than circuit racing, as Kling himself acknowledged: ‘A car race is tied to a circuit, with dramatic and sensational events unfolding before the eyes of the public, like the audience at a play. Thundering engines form the acoustic backdrop to an absorbing struggle between the drivers of these beautiful cars, the thoroughbreds of the automotive world. The battle of man versus machine is played out on centre stage. A rally is different – the event takes place over wide spatial expanses, with the drivers locked in a grim 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 hilly and flat sections of the course, or along the coast. This is a hidden struggle, that can last hours or even days at a stretch.’
Mercedes-Benz vehicles had already enjoyed success in rally events during the Silver Arrows era from 1952 to 1955, in the hands of 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 vehicle, a Mercedes-Benz 220a (W 180 I). The event counted towards the German touring car championship. A total of 174 entrants started from eleven locations towards Solitude Palace, near Stuttgart, where the special stages were to begin.
Schock duly won the event, going on with co-driver Rudolf Moll to achieve many more rally victories over the next few years in Mercedes-Benz vehicles. In 1955, the duo entered the Rallye Monte Carlo, probably Europe’s leading converging rally event. They received only limited support from Mercedes-Benz for this adventure. Racing manager Alfred Neubauer had bigger ambitions in mind for that season – winning the double of the Formula One world championship and sports car championship. In addition, he had not been particularly happy about the racing department’s participation in the 1952 Monte Carlo Rally. The research and development workshop did, however, optimise Schock’s privately owned Mercedes-Benz for the rally by lowering the body. The race started on 17 January – and the Stuttgart duo proceeded to take fifth place in the overall rankings 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 (20-24 July 1955), and fourth place in the Viking Rally in Norway (9-12 September 1955). Walter Schock was back on the starting line for the 1955 Solitude Rally in 1955, this time coming third. This event had now become a true endurance test over a distance of 2000 kilometres.
1956: Rallying takes centre stage
Following the withdrawal of the Mercedes-Benz works team from Formula One and the sports car championship, from 1956 public attention was focused on the rally scene. 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 top-performing thoroughbreds, it was now the turn of near-production passenger cars to show their strength and stamina. The man responsible for rally operations was Karl Kling, now in the role of Mercedes-Benz director of motor sport. Following the retirement of Alfred Neubauer, Kling had now taken over some of the legendary racing manager’s responsibilities.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was mainly the 220 SE and 300 SE six-cylinder saloons and the 300 SL sports car that set the pace on the world’s roads and gravel tracks. One of the leading teams was the above-mentioned duo of Walter Schock and Rolf Moll, racing for the Stuttgart Motor Sport Club. Extensive support was now forthcoming from Mercedes-Benz in the form of vehicles and service assistance. Schock started in the Monte Carlo Rally in a Mercedes-Benz 220a on 15 January 1956, finishing on 23 January just 1.1 seconds behind the winner in a Jaguar.
One month later in Italy, the Stuttgart duo started the Sestrière Rally in Italy in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL ‘Gullwing’ coupé, and in the mountains the Silver Arrow left the rest of the field far behind. Schock's recollections of the outstanding performance of the coupé in winter rally conditions were as follows: ‘Excellent snow chains on all four wheels allowed us to reach uphill speeds of up to 180 km/h.’ And on 28 February, the team crossed the finish line as the event winners. Further triumphs followed, with victories at the Wiesbaden Rally (21-24 June 1956), the Acropolis Rally (25 April to 2 May 1956) and also first place in the Adriatica Rally. Schock and Moll also finished third at the Iberico Rally and tenth at the Geneva Rally. In addition, Schock won his class at the Eifel race, and was placed second in the support race at the Nürburgring Grand Prix. These results helped secure him the 1956 European Touring Car crown and German GT championship for the 2000 cc and above category.
1959: Motor sport director Kling stands in as works driver
The motor sport director himself occasionally took a turn at the wheel as a member of the works team – and Karl Kling, with Rainer Günzler as co-driver, actually won the 14,000-kilometre Mediterranée–Le Cap Rally from the Mediterranean to South Africa in 1959. The Stuttgart team were driving a diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz 190 D, whose outstanding reliability secured the event for them. Kling also traversed Africa in a saloon in 1961, when he drove a Mercedes-Benz 220 SE to victory in the Algiers–Lagos–Algiers rally, again with Rainer Günzler as co-driver. He also acted as race manager when Mercedes-Benz factory teams competed in selected major races.
Schock and Moll again captured the European rally championship in their 220 SE (‘Tailfin’) model in 1960, starting by winning the legendary Monte Carlo Rally. This first overall German victory in this event was actually a triple success for Mercedes-Benz, with the driver teams Eugen Böhringer/Hermann Socher and Eberhard Mahle/Roland Ott taking second and third place. After this triumph in 1960, the sports press demanded that Mercedes-Benz come back to the racing circuits of the world and compete on a regular basis with its factory cars. But Kling as motor sport director made himself very clear: ‘This success will encourage us to make further substantial efforts in rallies. But Mercedes does not intend to return to motor racing.’
In the 1960s, Mercedes-Benz teams entered the ‘Gran Premio Argentina’ road race on several occasions. On 26 October 1961, Walter Schock started in this very special rally, as one of a field of 207 drivers. Before them lay a relentless race covering 4600 kilometres and with over 3000 metres of height difference. The ordeal ended on 5 November in a double victory for Mercedes-Benz. Walter Schock and Rolf Moll came home first followed by Hans Herrmann and Rainer Günzler. ‘That was probably the toughest race I have ever driven,’ said rally champion Schock after returning from South America. Together with team manager Karl Kling, Juan Manuel Fangio personally accompanied the teams supported by the Stuttgart brand. Because of the importance of this race for the American market, Mercedes again entered in the following years. 1962 brought a sensational victory for the female team of Ewy Rosqvist and Ursula Wirth, and Eugen Böhringer won in 1963 and 1964, ahead of two more Mercedes on each occasion.
Böhringer, who had been driving Mercedes-Benz cars in rallies since 1957, took the European rally championship title in the 1962 season. With co-drivers Peter Lang and Hermann Eger, Böhringer gathered points during the season mainly at the following races: Monte Carlo Rally (2nd place), Tulip Rally (7th), Acropolis Rally (winner), Midnight Sun Rally (5th), Poland Rally (winner), Liège–Sofia–Liège Rally (winner) and German Rally (2nd).
A brilliant achievement in that year was his victory in the legendary Liège–Sofia–Liège road race in a Mercedes-Benz 220 SE. In the following year the Stuttgart driver again won this marathon race straight across Europe, now with Bulgaria rather than Rome as the destination, on this occasion driving a Mercedes-Benz 230 SL (‘Pagoda’). This made him the first driver ever to win the rally in two consecutive years.
Mercedes-Benz was also enjoying considerable success in North America at this time, and in 1957 it actually created a car specifically for the American sports car championship: the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLS. The vehicle was based on the 300 SL production sports car, but its lower weight, at just 900 kilograms, and higher output, boosted from 158 to 173 kW, resulted in a highly competitive car. The SLS gave American Paul O’Shea his third consecutive title, following his victories with a 300 SL Coupé in the 1955 and 1956 seasons.
The big eight-cylinder 300 SEL 6.3 saloon was raced as a works vehicle only once, when it won the six-hour touring car race in Macao in 1969 for Erich Waxenberger. The oil crisis in the early 1970s barred further race outings for the saloon. Automotive historian Karl Eric Ludvigsen emphasises the importance of this break in the motor sport tradition of the Stuttgart brand: ‘The oil crisis was the first externally prompted interruption to a long-established Daimler-Benz tradition, which had run continuously from the turn of the century, apart from the war years and a short hiatus in 1955: year in, year out there had always been one or more Benz, Mercedes or Mercedes-Benz vehicles, competing with direct or indirect works support, in at least one major race.’
Even now, however, the Mercedes-Benz racing tradition was continued by private drivers. Their vehicles were increasingly being prepared for competition by AMG, a workshop established by former Daimler-Benz employees Hans-Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher in 1967. One of their stand-out products from the first few years was the refined version of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL with a 6.9-litre engine, which finished second in the 24-hour Spa race in 1971. AMG remained in operation for many years as an independent tuning specialist for the preparation of racing cars and touring sports cars, before being fully acquired by the then DaimlerChrysler AG.
1976: Record drives with the C 111
The rotary-engine Mercedes-Benz C 111 coupé, launched in September 1969, was also affected by the impact of the oil crisis. The futuristic experimental design featuring a rotary piston engine with three rotors was much admired and envied throughout the automotive community, as a visionary successor to the 300 SL ‘Gullwing’ car. The car was followed by a reworked rotary piston engine with a four rotors, presented one year later. It was this model that later became the nucleus of the second Silver Arrow era. Any dreams of further success in sports-car racing were to remain unrealised, however, and the C 111 remained as 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. In 1971, Mercedes-Benz therefore decided to stop work on this compact engine, in spite of its impressive power and smooth running characteristics.
The C 111 had its greatest moments on the racetrack, breaking a raft of records in the years from 1976 to 1979. In 1976 Mercedes-Benz decided to tackle the long-standing prejudice against diesel engines as rough and slow. And what better argument could there be than a diesel-propelled C 111? For the first test drives, the engineers built a 3-litre diesel engine with five cylinders and exhaust turbocharging and fitted it to an externally unmodified C 111-II. In this car, known as the C 111-IID, an OM 617 LA production diesel engine – also used in the Mercedes-Benz 240 D 3.0 (W 115, ‘Stroke Eight’) and subsequently in other vehicles – developed a highly impressive 140 kW, thanks to turbocharging and charge-air cooling. The standard output for the production version was approximately 60 kW. In June 1976, the C 111-IID posted some spectacular speeds on the test track at Nardo in southern Italy. A team of four drivers set a total of 16 world records in just 60 hours, including 13 world records for diesel vehicles and 3 for any form of engine. Given the average speed of 252 km/h, Mercedes-Benz had proved beyond doubt that the diesel engine could also be a peak performer.
The success of the externally virtually unmodified C 111-II in Nardo spurred the designers on to renewed efforts. This time the experimental design produced was never intended 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, with a longer wheelbase. Aerodynamics were enhanced with full fairing and tailfins. The C 111-III returned to the Nardo track in 1978, again with a diesel engine rumbling beneath the plastic body, this time painted silver. This was still a production-based engine, but now with a power rating of 169 kW, propelling the streamlined car to speeds of well over 300 km/h. Mercedes-Benz went on to post nine absolute world records with this Silver Arrow car in the late 1970s.
Yet the story of the development of the C 111 was not yet complete. The last version of the car, the C 111-IV launched in 1979, reached a speed of 403.978 km/h on the Nardo track, breaking the absolute world record. This time, however, the diesel engine had been replaced with a V8 petrol engine with a displacement of 4.5 litres and two turbochargers, developing 368 kW. The body shape 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 racing body with two tailfins and massive spoilers, painted silver.
1978: The days of the V8 coupés and debut of the 190
1977 saw the reappearance of Mercedes-Benz on the motor sport winners’ list, when 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 a works-supported Mercedes-Benz 280 E. The same model was also entered as a works car in the East African Safari in 1978. However, that year was dominated mainly by the fast V8 coupés: four Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC (C 107) cars, with an output of 169 kW and automatic transmission, took part in the tough Vuelta a la América del Sur rally in South America. The 30,000-kilometre race in August and September ended with a five-fold victory for Mercedes-Benz: the Cowan/Malkin and Sobieslaw Zasada/Andrzej Zembruski teams won in Mercedes-Benz 450 SLCs, followed by Fowkes/Klaus Kaiser (280 E), Timo Mäkinen/Jean Todt (450 SLC) and Herbert Kleint/Günther Klapproth (280 E).
In 1979, the same near-production car, now called the 450 SLC 5.0, with the rebored eight-cylinder engine developing 213 kW, provided the performance needed for a quadruple victory in the 5,000-kilometre Bandama Rally in Côte d’Ivoire in Africa. The event was won by Hannu Mikkola and Arne Hertz, ahead of Björn Waldegaard/Hans Thorszelius, Cowan/Kaiser and Vic Preston/Mike Doughty. In 1980, Daimler-Benz entered the rally world championship in earnest, with a 500 SLC vehicle developing up to 250 kW. Against tough competition from Peugeot, Toyota and Fiat, Waldegaard/Thorszelius and Jorge Recalde/Nestor Straimel posted another dual victory in the Bandama Rally at the end of the season. This was also the last works involvement of Daimler-Benz AG in rallying, since in December 1980 the Board of Management decided that the firm was to withdraw from the world championship for capacity reasons. As Werner Breitschwerdt, then Daimler-Benz AG Board of Management spokesman for Development and Research explained: ‘We have decided to put all our research resources and capacity into meeting our responsibilities for environmental protection.’
However, the numerous rally victories achieved over a period of almost 30 years had successfully proven the performance capabilities of near-production Mercedes-Benz vehicles, making these competitions an effective brand ambassador in a particularly direct sense.
Three 1983 Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.3-16 Nardo record cars were also based on production vehicles. Mercedes-Benz put the modified car through its paces on the Nardo racetrack in Italy as publicity for the launch of the W 201 model series, to highlight the sports performance capabilities of the new compact class saloon. These record cars had a 2.3-litre engine with four-valve technology, developing 136 kW at 6200 rpm. Differences with the subsequent production version included the rear axle ratio (i = 2.65) and the absence of a reverse gear. The record cars were also set lower, with all-round ride height control. Special tyres and spoilers enabled the compact saloon to reach a top speed of 261 km/h.
Research and development department employees clocked up 201:39:43 hours (over 8 days) of test drives in the three record cars – precisely 50,000 kilometres. 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 1000 kilometres at 247.094 km/h and 1000 miles at 246.916 km/h). The record car based on the 190 2.3-16 also heralded the return of Mercedes-Benz to circuit motor racing in 1984.