Miami Viced - 1988 AMG Mercedes-Benz 500 SEC Group A
In 1982, the Federation International de l’Automobile rolled out an entirely new set of regulations covering all major disciplines of motorsport. Abandoning its rather muddled numbers-based nomenclature, the FIA decided to switch to letters for the new era. The first of these four new categories was Group A, covering production based touring cars and rally cars.
In a direct juxtaposition to the more extreme Group 5 machines of old, Group A was made to abide by very strict homologation rules. During the late 1970’s ordinary touring cars had been transformed into nearly unrecognizable fire-breathing turbocharged silhouette monsters. This greatly diminished their marketing potential for manufacturers, and even lead them to fight top level prototypes for superiority. With Group A the FIA hoped to put a stop to this wanton lunacy, and restore the natural order in the world of motorsport.
With the new rules, each manufacturer had to make at least 25,000 examples of any given model. Furthermore, the performance version they would derive from this model would have to produced another 2500 times. In addition the technical regulations forbade the use of outlandish aerodynamic designs as seen in the wild Group 5 era.
From now on no aftermarket body modifications were allowed, as the racing car was required to use an identical body to the road going version. Likewise, the width of the tires was restricted by the width of the stock wheel wells, making sure the cars couldn’t just be cut up and fitted with massive grippy slabs of rubber. With these ground rules laid out, the stage was set for intensely competitive racing.
As the stricter homologation rules required large production numbers, the category needed the interest of large manufacturers to survive. One of those companies was German automotive giant Mercedes-Benz. Long before the advent of the new class system, Mercedes had been working on a new Group 4 rally car based on the small 190E sedan. But when the snarling turbocharged, four wheel drive Audi quattro burst onto the scene in 1981, it was clear the company’s rear wheel drive design had been outclassed.
Instead the firm’s focus shifted to touring car racing, and the 190E was given a second life on the world’s racetracks. This car, the 2.3-16, featured an modified engine prepared by engine wizards Cosworth, and was sent to tackle the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft in 1986. Under the care of Mercedes-tuner Aufrecht Melcher Großaspach the car managed to score two victories in its maiden season. In 1988 AMG took full control of Mercedes’ touring car effort. The combination proved to be even more fruitful, as the three pointed star recorded four victories that season.
Just as the 190E was finding its feet, the mad minds at AMG had already thought of something else. They wanted a bigger, better , more in you face style of car to defend Mercedes’ honor. The success of the 190E was great, but it was still only the “Baby Benz“. Clearly a vehicle with more poise and stature was needed to adequately represent the might of Germany’s finest luxury brand.
With this in mind AMG took a page from their own book, and selected the biggest possible car to be their next Group A contender. Their choice was the immense 500 SEC, the coupe version of Mercedes’ flagship S-class model. Loved by sheikhs, rock stars, top level businessmen and extravagantly dressed Floridian powder salesmen alike, the wafty big coupe was about as far removed from a race car as AMG could possibly get.
Still AMG was adamant the incredibly heavy, automatic-only mobile palace had the potential to beat those pesky little BMW M3’s and Ford Sierra’s. AMG knew a thing or two about racing large luxury vehicles, having produced the infamous 300 SEL 6.8 “Rote Sau“ and a racing version of the 450 SLC in the 1970’s. By using the stately SEC, AMG was hoping to repeat the same trick.
To this end the big Benz was fed some of the best German steriods, bringing the 5.0L M117 V8 up from 245 to a beefy 460 horsepower. To prevent the extra grunt going to waste, the car’s standard 4G-TRONIC 4 -speed automatic was thrown in the trash and replaced with a 5-speed manual from Getrag. Additionally, four piston Brembo brakes were slapped on to put a stop to the Teutonic titan.
Finally the automotive leviathan was sent on a crash diet to bring it down from a morbidly obese 1660 kg (3659 lbs) to the 1340 kg (2954 lbs) minimum weight requirement. Incredibly, AMG managed to achieve this feat without getting rid of the fabulous wood inlay dashboard and electrically operated windows. The decadent features made the 500 SEC the most luxurious Group A racer on the planet.
When all was said and done AMG seemed to have pulled it off once again. In very little time and with a small workforce of only ten dedicated engineers, they had turned an opulent boulevard cruiser into a track-stomping racing special. But immediately, there was a problem. Even though the 500 SEC had shed a dazzling 320 kg (705 lbs) in weight, its mass combined with the unprecedented power from the big V8 would render it completely useless. AMG engineer Günther Mangold quickly discovered the tires in use in the DTM were simply not up to the task.
"It became quite clear that the size of tire permitted in the DTM-regulations would in no way be up to the job at hand. The stipulated minimum vehicle weight of 1340 kilos and the car's output of almost 460 horsepower would have torn the tires to shreds in no time." - Günther Mangold.
This revelation proved detrimental to the 500 SEC’s future, as AMG boss Hans Werner Aufrecht pulled the plug on the ambitious project. Instead all of AMG’s resources were diverted to running and improving the competitive 190E’s. Just two 500’s were completed by the end of the year. With the program cancelled, the cars were immediately put into storage without ever turning a wheel in anger.
After a few months of collecting dust, the still race-ready pair was suddenly pulled out of their forced hibernation. This time they weren’t bound for the intense sprint races of the DTM however. Instead they would be entered into the 1989 24 Hours of Spa, an event exclusive to touring cars. As the endurance nature of the event meant the 500 SEC’s would be running harder compound tires at a reduced pace, AMG felt confident the big Benzes would keep their rubber alive.
Upon arrival at Spa Francorchamps, the two pompous coupe’s caused quite the sensation. The cars had been developed in complete secrecy, making their appearance a big surprise to the other racers. Compared to their tiny opposition, the gigantic landyachts really stood out. But curiously this didn’t make them the talk of the paddock. Neither did its remarkably competitive pace. The one thing everyone concentrated on was the Merc’s incongruously lavish interior.
"Our fast times in practice certainly raised a few eyebrows, but not us much as the deluxe fixtures and fittings of the 500 SEC interior. I can't think of another racing car anywhere in the world which has lined up on the grid with power windows and wood trim." - Klaus Ludwig.
AMG pulled out some of its top drivers to pilot the two cars. For #5 Mercedes hired Heiner Weis (GER), sportscar veteran Walter Mertes (GER) and Hans Heyer (GER), who had been part of the “Rote Sau“ project. The sister car received the services of incredibly experienced endurance specialist Alain Cudini (FRA), touring car ace Siegfried Müller Jr. (GER) and touring car legend Klaus Ludwig (GER).
Faced with competition from cars like the BMW M3 Evo, Toyota Supra Turbo A, Volvo 240 Turbo and the menacing Ford Sierra RS500, the Mercedes boys had their work cut out for them. In the end the #6 all-star car managed to clinch 10th on the grid, in front of the other 500 SEC in 11th. In the process the unproven machines had beaten a Supra, a Sierra, a 240 Turbo and as much as six M3’s.
Sadly the race would not be the resounding success AMG had hoped for. After only 70 laps the #6 500 SEC slowed to a halt with a broken rear axle. Its sister soldiered on however, and managed to make it into the darkness. Unfortunately the car ran out of steam after 350 laps, just past the halfway point.
Back in the pits an issue with the bespoke transmission adapter plate was discovered, which prevented the gearbox from working properly. The problem proved to be unsolvable, leading to a devastating double retirement for AMG. The event had not yielded the publicity AMG was counting on, which made the whole endeavor a total failure.
Leaving the disappointment of Spa behind, the team moved to enter a single car into the 1989 Nürburgring 24 Hours . This meant the 500 SEC had to brave a 25 kilometer version of the infamous “Green Hell“, the Nordschleife. For the occasion Hans Heyer and Heiner Weis were joined by touring car ace Kurt Thiim from Denmark. In an eerie repeat of the run at Spa the car qualified competitively, but was forced to retire early due to a broken driveshaft.
With their second attempt at making the 500 SEC a success thwarted, AMG had had enough. The burly Benzes had failed to deliver the desired results and publicity, leading to them once again being banished to the depths of AMG’s growing storage facility. Because they only appeared twice and disappeared very quickly, the cars didn’t take long to fade back into obscurity. Almost a decade went by before anyone took notice of them.
That all changed when model car enthusiast Horst Krämer knocked on AMG’s door. Krämer had seen one of the cars on display at an auto show in 1990, and had since felt the urgent desire to replicate the big bruiser in model form. AMG agreed to pull one of the cars from its catacombs to give Krämer a chance to study it. His photo report and eventual model car created a massive buzz around the largely forgotten 500 SEC racer. Finally it had given AMG the publicity stunt the company had been waiting for.
The AMG Mercedes-Benz 500 SEC was an extravagant attempt by AMG to outgun the opposition. After deciding the 190E Baby Benz they were using just wouldn’t do, the mad German tuners elected to convert a giant ostentatious coupe into a hardcore track weapon. The end result was visually imposing, hilariously well-equipped and reasonably competitive.
Unfortunately the car proved to be unfit for the category it was intended to race in. Additionally various teething problems and technical gremlins sealed the big Benz’s fate. After just two unsuccessful races both cars were back in the mothballs, and were promptly forgotten about. And if it wasn’t for an overzealous model car fetishist, they might have remained that way for many years to come. That makes Horst Krämer the undisputed hero of this story. And he didn’t even wear shoulder pads…