Sometimes good news comes in curious forms. For Hans-Werner Aufrecht, the decision by Mercedes-Benz to withdraw from all forms of racing for 1965 must have seemed a disaster.
As a teenager, he’d dreamt of building Mercedes race engines and now, soon after finding employment doing exactly that, the dream was about to be shattered.
A lesser person would have just accepted the inevitable and gone back to building road car engines. But not Aufrecht. With a like-minded colleague called Erhard Melcher, he managed to acquire a 300SE, strip it, raise the power of its engine from 170bhp to 238bhp and, with Manfred Schiek driving, win ten rounds of the 1965 German Touring Car Championship.
News travelled fast and, by the end of the following year, Aufrecht and Melcher were deluged with orders for faster Mercedes, for use on road or track. So in 1967, they decided to give up their jobs at Mercedes and set up shop on their own in nearby Burgstall. And in the moment when Aufrecht, Melcher and Aufrecht's hometown of Großaspach came together, AMG was born.
Business came thick and fast. Even Mercedes appeared to realise that it had missed a trick and started releasing more highly tuned versions of its road cars, the 1968 6.3-litre 300SEL to name the most obvious example. But what AMG could have interpreted as an attempt to pull the rug out from under its feet was instead regarded as a unique opportunity: however fast and powerful a Mercedes super-saloon might be, AMG backed itself to make it even faster and more powerful.
It took three years, but by the time of the 1971 Spa 24 Hours, a 6.3-litre 300SEL road car with 247bhp had become a 6.8-litre race car with 428bhp. Despite the gasps of crowd and competitors alike at the appearance of a large red cathedral on the grid, the SEL rumbled around to second place and a class win, outright victory being denied only by a rather frantic pitstop schedule needed to satisfy its appetite for fuel and tyres.
Business boomed, boosted by a demand for custom-made interiors as well as engines, and by 1976 it had outgrown the Großaspach premises, prompting a move to Affalterbach, where the company remains to this day.
By the mid-1980s, AMG was well into its stride and able not only to tune pre-existing product but to do so to such an extent that the resulting cars deserved to be thought of as models in their own right. The AMG 500SEC of 1984 had four-valve cylinder heads long before any purely Mercedes product, but it would be 1986 before AMG smashed its way into the global automotive psyche with a car that, appropriately enough, would become known as ‘The Hammer’.
This was a mid-sized W124 saloon into which AMG had squeezed Mercedes’ largest engine (5.6 litres), but only after fitting its own four-valve heads. One-time Autocar road test editor David Vivian described it thus: “Rapid enough to face down a Ferrari 288 GTO, it could be driven by your granny.” Back then, a rear-drive saloon with a four-speed auto ’box that could nevertheless hit 60mph in 5.0sec flat on its way to 183mph was an unprecedented, preposterous achievement.