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50 Years of Mercedes-AMG

From racetrack to Hammer to Project One, performance has no end in sight

This year marks AMG’s 50th anniversary. Former Mercedes-Benz engineers Hans-Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher founded the small company in Burgstall, Germany, with a focus on racing engines. (The AMG designation represents their last names, with the G standing for Grossaspach, Aufrecht’s birthplace.) Success at the track progressed into developing performance parts for Mercedes road cars. Those of a certain age might recall the vast array of AMG-tuned Mercedes adorned with monochromatic trim and tinted windows gracing episodes of “Miami Vice” in the 1980s. The legendary AMG Hammer, meanwhile, was the era’s pinnacle hot-rod Benz. Based on the much-loved W124 E-Class, the 180-mph sedan (and S124 wagon!) started at a staggering $125,000 in 1986 — some $275,000 in today’s dollars. Remember those numbers if you feel the 2018 Mercedes-AMG E63 S 4Matic+ is a touch pricey.

50 Years of Mercedes AMG 07
The fast and ultra-expensive 1980s AMG. A luxe interior cosseted linen suit-wearing occupants.

The 1990 demise of the pastel-infused Florida cop show was followed by the beginning of a proper relationship between Mercedes and AMG. That bond took a step toward marriage with the launch of the 1995 Mercedes-Benz C36 AMG, the first official vehicle to land in showrooms as a result of the partnership. Vows were finally exchanged in 2005, placing AMG fully within the large German automaker’s household. The niche arm recently gained an official brand designation: Mercedes-AMG. “We changed it again in the last three years, now being the performance and sports-car brand of Mercedes-Benz,” says Mercedes-AMG chief executive Tobias Moers. “We tripled our volume in the last three years, and 2016 was the third year in a row with more than 40 percent growth.”

But it’s not just about volume. “What we did in the past 10 or 15 years is the most important thing,” Moers points out. “Before that, I think AMG [road cars] were well known for high torque and high power. Good at straight-line performance, but if a corner was coming it would be a bit different! It’s now all about the package — the driving dynamics and innovative products.”

50 Years of Mercedes AMG 02
The first AMG under the Mercedes umbrella. A true tuner car but with a full factory warranty. Brilliant.

And yet rapid expansion inevitably causes controversy. A greater number of AMG SUVs and crossovers — including the upcoming GLC63 and GLC63 Coupe — are being joined by what some have coined AMG Light products. These “43” models lack hand-built engines, a long-standing source of AMG pride. Plus, they’re badged in the same theme as full-fat AMGs. “To be honest,” Moers says, “that’s the truth. [They’re 100 percent AMG.] Every 43 has an AMG-engineered front axle and different steering. Everything is done by AMG. On the C43, the suspension and kinematics are changed. There’s totally different [powertrain] mapping. You can feel the AMG spirit in every car.

“My biggest passion is making sure every AMG is a true AMG,” Moers continues. “It’s different segment by segment. The 43 is not the performance segment of the C-Class; it’s a sporty segment. Yes, we had a little bit of a misunderstanding in the beginning [with the names, before 2017]. Marketing wanted to be a little bit careful about AMG — putting the name on [the cars]. They came back, drove the car, and said it’s a real AMG, put AMG on it.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the upcoming Project One hypercar. Mercedes enjoys great success in Formula 1, securing both the constructors’ and drivers’ championship three years running. It will now trickle down actual F1 technology to the street. But as in racing, it won’t come cheap. “It will cost two-point-something million,” Moers says. “It’s our idea to have a car that is different. There is no sense in having another V-8 or V-12 supercar. That’s why we thought it would be a clever idea to have a Formula 1 powertrain in a street-legal hypercar.”

50 Years of Mercedes AMG 03
There’s something amazing about this supercharged V-8 that seats seven.

The Project One will make its debut at the 2017 Frankfurt auto show in September, with deliveries commencing in 2018. Total production is believed to be less than 300 units worldwide, with power coming from a turbocharged, 1.6-liter V-6 that revs past 10,000 rpm. An electric motor at the front axle gives the car all-wheel drive. “We’re working with HPP (Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains, the F1 engine facility in England) on things like electric turbocharging,” Moers notes. “The F1 engine uses a split turbo. An electric motor sits between the compressor and the turbine. That’s what we apply for the hypercar.”

50 Years of Mercedes AMG 04
This wild, DTM-like coupe showed that AMG could tune a road chassis. Sublime steering and a playful rear end.

Electrification will become an even larger part of AMG moving ahead. “One mission of the hypercar is the image, which is very good for the brand,” Moers says. “But we also want to open the door as far as our definition of future performance. Performance hybrid — what is our understanding of electrified powertrain in the performance-car segment? The future is going to be electrified powertrains. It’s up to us to ensure that AMG has a future. Electrified powertrains give us opportunities for extra power and extra efficiency. Beyond 2020, that’s going to be the path. The hypercar is going to be about true performance, but it’s going to be a hybrid, with 25 kilometers (16 miles) of electric range.”

50 Years of Mercedes AMG 05
You can have your own Mercedes-AMG track weapon later this year for less than $160,000.

Fear not, fossil-fuel fans. More traditional AMG products have a future, too. The much lauded Black Series badge will return for a fifth time in the U.S., last appearing on the track-focused version of the SLS AMG in 2014. “Black Series is still part of our brand, but we’ve raised the bar very high with the [AMG] C-Class and GT R,” Moers says. “The C63 coupe is better on the track than every Black Series we’ve had before in that segment. So we collect everything that we have as far as ideas for a Black Series, and we are now focused on the [Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series]. A Black Series must be different. It must be something you don’t expect. Putting additional wings onto the GT R is not the way.”

50 Years of Mercedes AMG 06
The mega-pricey next step for Mercedes-AMG: trickling Formula 1 technology to the street. It’s also the start of electrified credentials for the petrol-loving performance division.

And what about back-to-basics automobiles like Porsche’s 911 R: Is there a place for a similar model at AMG? “Yes,” Moers affirms. Will Mercedes-AMG actually build one? “Let’s wait and see. Keep an eye on us.”

We’ll do just that. A minimalist, enthusiast-focused Mercedes would be a welcome addition to the portfolio as the company continues its stewardship of AMG into its sixth decade.

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