‘Red Pig’ 1971 Mercedes–Benz 300 SEL 6.8 AMG W109 monster

Andrew English & Drive-My

‘Red Pig’ Mercedes-Benz …Flies! Taming AMG’s crazy 1960s racing saloon. AMG’s first racing car nearly won the 1971 Spa 24 Hours. Half a century on from the company’s birth, we taste what it was like Words Andrew English.

Celebrating 50 years of AMG on track

‘Red Pig’ 1971 Mercedes–Benz 300 SEL 6.8 AMG W109 monster
‘Red Pig’ 1971 Mercedes–Benz 300 SEL 6.8 AMG W109 monster

It’s 1971. You are 20 years old, hotter than a Hottentot behind the wheel, and you have managed to wangle yourself a drive in the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.

It’s just before three o’clock on 24 July; as T-Rex’s Get It On blasts from the PA, the grid is stalked by girls in their fashionably long black boots, hot pants or bellbottoms. Heavy clouds move lazily overhead. If it’s not raining at Spa, it will be soon.

Drivers squeeze their bouffant hair and, where applicable, box-hedge sideburns into helmets, and the 60 entrants move slowly and noisily off the old Eau Rouge grid and down that famous hill for the warm-up. Screaming Alfa Romeo GTs, growling BMW 2800CSs E9, Ford Capris, Escorts, a rumbling Mustang; there’s a couple of ear-splitting and tiny NSU 1200 TTs, woofly Camaros, Opel Commodores, even a Citroën-Maserati SM and a team of Moskviches. Past gently ruminating cows in fields they go, past blokes leaning out of their front-room windows over the Armco.

Then, just as you line up for the Eau Rouge bend, barrelling past comes this car, grumbling like a box of bears, a big red Mercedes-Benz S-class so covered in stickers it looks like Elmer the Patchwork Elephant. What do you do? Stick your thumb out? Known as the Red Pig or die Röte Sau (it does attract animal comparisons), AMG’s first attempt at racing under its own flag wasn’t for the shy and retiring. Now, in AMG’s 50th-anniversary year and with a new Formula 1-inspired hypercar promised on the stand at the Frankfurt motor show, it’s time to revisit the convoluted story of this first-ever AMG racer.

With its five-metre length, near 1.8-tonne weight and gargantuan 420bhp, 6.8-litre V8, this AMG monster was typical of the German tuner’s ethos even today. The firm’s founders, Hans-Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher, had been race engineers at Mercedes-Benz’s motor sport department, and their company was all about performance and power.

‘It was an amazing car, enormous, with huge speed,’ says Hans Heyer who, along with Clemens Schickentanz, drove the Red Pig to a class win and overall second place in that ’1971 Spa classic. ‘We had enormous speed comparing to the Capris, but no brakes at all.

‘Until first practice I’d only done a single test, but after the first few laps of practice, Clemens and I said to each other, “We don’t know this Aufrecht but if we could get the brakes to work, we could win!”’

‘Red Pig’ 1971 Mercedes–Benz 300 SEL 6.8 AMG W109 monster

‘Red Pig’ 1971 Mercedes–Benz 300 SEL 6.8 AMG W109 monster

He says that the Spa event was very well attended because of the speed of the old track, with a respectful crowd who were well aware of the dangers. ‘Everybody was fascinated with our big car,’ he says.

We’re in the pits at Silverstone for a special day celebrating AMG’s half-century. The company gets its acronymic name from the initials of its founders and the letter G for Großaspach, Aufrecht’s home town. When Mercedes-Benz pulled out of all racing after the Le Mans disaster in 1955, Aufrecht and Melcher had no more to do with racing at work beyond drinking tea and remembering the good old days. At home and in the evening, however, these two gifted engineers modified and assembled very special engines for keen amateur racers and the go-faster tuning crowd. Things got serious when they got together with Manfred Schiek, a talented driver from the engineering department, and built an unofficial entry to the 1965 German Touring Car Championship, a fin-tail 300SE.

With ten victories, Schiek walked that year’s title and thus a cottage industry was born. In 1967, business was so busy that Aufrecht and Melcher left their day jobs and set up AMG in Old Mill in Burgstall, north of Stuttgart, to which racers beat a path.

‘To drive for AMG you had to know Aufrecht and his history,’ says Bernd Schneider, former Formula 1 and German DTM driver with a 27-year history racing for Mercedes and AMG. ‘You could complain about everything else, but never his engines.’ At this time AMG was fully independent.

Not until 1999 did Mercedes-Benz take a controlling interest, buying the company outright in 2005. Even in the 1960s, though, Mercedes wasn’t ignorant of the appeal of tuning or racing to its customers, and it turned a blind eye to the unofficial activities of its own engineers desperate to fill that gap. Mercedes engineer Erich Waxenberger, for example, almost single-handedly launched Mercedes-Benz’s first Q-car: the 300SEL 6.3, on which the Red Pig is based. This extraordinary automobile was a version of the W108/109, the replacement for the old fin-tail W111 saloons. Penned by Paul Bracq, Mercedes’ design boss, even today the W108 is a damn good-looking car with its low waistline, its elegant glasshouse cabin with narrow windscreen pillars and its stacked headlamps. When it was launched at the 1965 Frankfurt show the engine range consisted solely of six-cylinder units, but Waxenberger had other plans.

He toiled through weekends and evenings to shoehorn the monster M100 V8 from the 600 Grosser limousine into the W108/109 bodyshell. This unofficial project attracted the attentions of his employers, however, and when Rudi Uhlenhaut, Mercedes’ legendary motor sport and development engineer, took a drive he reportedly stopped and lifted the bonnet at the first red traffic light to see just how the engine had been crammed in there.

The resulting 300SEL 6.3, first shown in 1967 and launched in 1968, made an outstanding road car. Its 250bhp/369lb ft V8, with a single overhead camshaft per bank, used Bosch mechanical fuel injection and was mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Air suspension supported its hefty 1764kg, and at $14,000 in 1968 (about £92,500 in today’s values) it was extremely expensive. But it was the world’s fastest four-door saloon (top speed was quoted at 142mph with 0-62mph in 6.3sec) and a landmark car, with 6526 examples built during its four-year production life.

Waxenberger looked at the possibility of making a race car out of the project, but the FIA rules on tyre widths meant that the 300SEL 6.3 was going to struggle to maintain its undoubted pace on long races.

Nevertheless, Waxenberger, a quick driver in his own right, raided the PR fund to build a reputed three race cars (although that could be five if you count the spare cars). Two of these he took to Macau in 1969, where he took the wheel of the only right-hand-drive racer built and won the six-hour race outright. That car is reputed to have remained in Asia; there’s also one in the Mobilia car museum near Kisaranta in Finland.

‘As I remember there were three cars,’ says Heyer; ‘one silver, one blue and the red one. I heard that the silver one is still alive in Bremen, the blue one was destroyed and the red one was sold to Matra for airplane tests with an even longer wheelbase. Afterwards it was destroyed and I don’t think anyone knows any more about it.’

With a Nelsonian blind eye, Uhlenhaut and his boardroom supporters allowed Waxenberger to field a team at the Spa 24 Hours in 1969, with engines bored to 6.8 litres – at which point the cylinder-liner thickness was becoming critical. They took off the crankshaft dampers and did a 24-hour test, where it quickly became clear that without extended wheelarches covering larger wheels, the tyres would chunk and potentially delaminate. Waxenberger’s board supporters, realising this secret fun programme was turning into a massive potential risk, told him to withdraw the entry and the racers were quietly sold. Two of them went to AMG, with whom Waxenberger was working on the quiet.

There it might have ended but for Waxenberger again, who provided key engineering know-how and lap-time data from tracks all round Europe, while AMG arched the shell and installed big wheels and tyres. It was also this tall Bavarian who just happened to be carrying his helmet in his car so near the pre-race AMG test of the Red Pig at the Salzburgring that he was able to test the car under the pseudonym of Enrico.

Since Mercedes officially didn’t do motor racing, this was hugely risky and a journalist who identified Waxenberger at the test was sworn to secrecy. Even today, Waxenberger’s contribution to this skunkworks race programme doesn’t appear in official Mercedes history. It’s not denied, but nor is it actively offered; officially, Mercedes returned to racing in 1987 with Sauber. Don’t ask, either, about the factory involvement with the 1970s and ’80s rally programme…

Figures for the Red Pig are hard to come by, but one estimate says its 420bhp V8 gave 165mph and 0-62mph in 4.2sec in race trim. Waxenberger also modified the suspension and automatic gearbox, and homologated a five-speed manual transmission.

‘At Spa it was on a special air suspension system made for the car by Waxenberger,’ recalls Heyer. ‘And the other thing that was a bit special was the automatic gearbox, the first I’d come across as a driver. Waxenberger modified it so you could change the gears like a sequential gearbox.’

By all accounts it worked pretty well, but it took a special knack to get started after a pit stop. ‘In general, it was a great car,’ says Heyer, ‘but after Spa, it was fitted with a normal ZF five-speed manual.’

By then the Red Pig’s racing days were largely over. Heyer says it might have made an appearance at the Paul Ricard 12-hour race and it did a number of laps at the Hockenheim race academy in yellow Hannen Alt beer livery. Sundry other appearances included the 1972 Coupes de Spa, the Nürburgring 24 Hours, an Interserie round at Norisring and pre-test days at Le Mans.

That second place at Spa, behind the winning works Ford Capri RS2600 driven by Dieter Glemser and Alex Soler-Roig, remains the big car’s zenith, however, a race in which driver skill, raw power and deft fuel and tyre stops were key to its success.

Matra then attacked the old charger’s shell with tinsnips and fitted a frame behind the front seats, so it could push prototype fighter aircraft tyres into the Tarmac with a force of up to 800kg at high speeds. The 6.8-litre Red Pig was the only car in existence able to carry this equipment at a fighter’s landing speed.

After that, all trace of the car was lost and largely forgotten. Then, in 2005, Mercedes- Benz wanted a historic complement to the announcement of its purchase of AMG and the launch of AMG’s first bespoke production engine, a handbuilt 6.3-litre V8. A former AMG official searched for the ex-Spa/Matra car in France, but the trail had gone cold.

So a replica was commissioned. This wasn’t simple because only 6526 300SEL 6.3s were built, and AMG needed one without a sunroof and air-conditioning, which is super-rare. In the end a dilapidated example was sourced through a Berlin dealer and work began. With the March 2006 Geneva show as the deadline (Mercedes boss Dieter Zetsche was going to walk on stage with the old car and the new engine), this was a tough ask. Parts were sourced through Mercedes and from dealers all round Europe. Welders worked overtime on the shell, on which only one door which could be saved. To save time and reduce complication, the standard 6.3-litre V8 and automatic transmission were merely overhauled. Even so, by late February they were working on it virtually 24 hours a day.

They completed it, of course, and while the replica Pig has occasionally been driven since (Schneider drove it on a road rally with his daughter crammed in between the rear roll cage), it has, for this anniversary year, been fitted with a five-speed manual transmission. AMG has also built a static display model, which is rumoured to be the one displayed during Monterey Week in California this summer.

Back to Silverstone and the here and now. We’re about to drive the Pig. You clamber in through the full welded rollcage and sit in a slightly unconvincing racing bucket, comfortable enough but offering barely any support to the upper body. Willans four-point belts hold you in front of a period sports wheel with drilled spokes, but the rest of the dash is pretty much what a lucky W108 owner would have looked at back in the 1960s. The yellow wood facia is pooled in varnish, the rectangular clock is as big as a packet of cigarettes and larger than the tiny rev-counter, itself flanked by a big speedometer and quadrant gauges for oil pressure, water temperature and fuel contents. The seat material, door cards, carpet and rooflining are standard.

Turn the key and the big 6.3 rumbles into life. Silenced for road use, it sounds basso profundo meaty rather than windowshattering. First is on a dogleg down and left, the clutch is light, and so is the steering as the big car growls down the pit lane.

Out on the wide plains of Silverstone it’s brisk rather than brain-fizzling. The torque makes it hugely flexible, which is just as well as the revcounter – redlined at 5500rpm – is almost too small to refer to. So you just press and go and the engine’s torque wafts manfully. You can downshift, of course, but the response doesn’t change terrifically, just the pitch of the growl.

The ride feels highly beefed-up from a standard floaty S-Class, but there’s a huge amount of top weight there and the bodylean through the faster corners is more like a yacht’s than a track car’s. The power-assisted steering is accurate enough, but you need to plan just where you intend to turn-in, apex and exit the bend. In dry, grippy conditions, you ease into the turn and are rewarded with strong front grip and reasonably balanced handling through the turn. With gentle hints at the controls, the old bus goes extraordinarily well, up to a point.

That point is on a wet track or where you start to take liberties. It’s then that the weird set-up – lots of negative camber and anti-roll – and mismatched tyres start to have their say. With humungous Pirelli P Zero tyres at the back (345/35/ZR15s) and samediameter Yokohama AV140 tyres at the front (285/40/ZR 15s), there’s an imbalance that makes the fronts cling demonically to the road surface before abruptly surrendering grip while those Pirellis slide into oversteer.

If you are quick, you can catch it and hold it in a terrific tyre-cremating display, but it doesn’t come off the slide too nicely and it’s hard to ignore the effort and money that Mercedes-AMG has put into this evocative race replica. So, in the damp, don’t.

Perhaps matched tyres would give a betterbalanced response, but you would always be aware of how hard the disc brakes are working. They give you a couple of big stops per lap, but you know you’d have to carry speed like crazy in a race to stop them fading. So, while conventional wisdom says 46 years ago Heyer and Schickentanz were gently wafting through Spa’s fast corners, listening to the radio and enjoying the ride, the reality was slightly more scary.

‘It was so fast and it handled pretty great,’ says Heyer. ‘All the fast corners except Eau Rouge were flat, which was simply not possible with other cars of the time, and uphill it was amazing. To get it round that fast, though, you needed a lot of courage, more than you normally needed at the time. But it was fun and just about manageable, and it would drift with all four wheels…’

Mercedes would never risk this car for more than a few laps in a journalist’s hands, but Heyer thinks it could be possible to build a proper fire-breathing facsimile.

‘The replica is a street car far away from the 1971 car, but each year they rebuild it a bit closer to the heart of the original. There is a guy in Dresden who has built a really nice replica, but the best one was made for the Hopfner Gruppe that runs the German V8 Superstar series. That was really something.’

A replica race-spec 6.8 Red Pig? Has the world got enough tyres and fuel? And are you really ready for that much fun?

Search for ‘1971 Spa 24 Hours’ on YouTube to see 8min 31sec of period colour footage.

‘All the fast corners except Eau Rouge were flat, which was just not possible with other cars of the time, and uphill it was amazing’

‘Waxenberger’s contribution to this skunkworks race programme doesn’t appear in official Mercedes history’

‘Red Pig’ 1971 Mercedes–Benz 300 SEL 6.8 AMG W109 monster

Red Pig’ 1971 Mercedes–Benz 300 SEL 6.8 AMG W109 monster Clockwise from left Spa 1971 and the Red Pig thunders past the packed stands; AMG’s Erhard Melcher fettles a cylinder head; Clemens Schickentanz (centre) and Hans Heyer (right) wait in the pits.

‘Red Pig’ 1971 Mercedes–Benz 300 SEL 6.8 AMG W109 monster
‘Red Pig’ 1971 Mercedes–Benz 300 SEL 6.8 AMG W109 monster. Above and opposite Mercedes’ Erich Waxenberger helped AMG develop the racer under the radar; interior is surprisingly standard, carpets included; wide tyres and arches were vital for the racer to last the distance.

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