An Ex-AMG Test Car, This W112 Mercedes-Benz Is Now A Badass Rally Toy
Photography by Robb Pritchard
The Slowly Sideways club is a fantastic idea born from two guys who used to suffer acutely from rich man’s problems, seeing as they owned original Group B rally cars with the dilemma of having nowhere suitable to drive them. Normal rallies were either too rough for such valuable cars or they weren’t allowed to compete. Their genius solution was to start a club for fellow owners of ex-works cars from years gone by to do “demonstration” events on routes specifically designed to be minimize the likelihood of damage. The public, of course, absolutely loved it and soon Slowly Sideways was expanded to include homologation-correct replicas which allowed people on much smaller budgets to enter, and soon enough the now-huge Eifel Rallye Festival in the tranquil German village of Daun was born. Today it hosts more Group B cars together than any event since the beasts’ mid-‘80s reign.
With victories in the 1979 and 1980 Ivory Coast rallies, the 450 and 500SLCs are the only Mercedes-Benzes ever credited as having won a round of the world championship, but long before international rallies coalesced into what we know today as the WRC the event formats were massive long-distance tests of endurance, not too dissimilar to the current Dakar, and big Mercs did quite well in such competitions like the World Cup from London to Nigeria and back, the London-Sydney, and the rather unimaginatively titled Argentine International Touring Car Grand Prix—a two-week, 4779-kilometer-long event mostly on gravel and sand. The power of the big engines coupled with the inherent build quality helped the heckflosse sedans dominate there for years, even taking a 1-2-3 in 1964 with Eugen Böhringer’s 300SE leading a field of nearly 300 cars to the finish. In the year prior, he had won the tough Acropolis rally as well as the German rally with W112 body cars.
This particular car obviously isn’t an SLC though, and it wasn’t a world championship competitor either, but it still has an outstanding history. For starters, it was never a road car. With a roll cage fitted as new in 1964, it was used as a circuit racer for events at the Nürburgring. In 1965 it was changed into a rally car, which it has been ever since.
After its first incarnation and subsequent storage as such, it was brought out of retirement in the 1990s and used in big classic rallies such as the Panama-Alaska, a three and a half week-long event through Central America and up through the Rockies; the Scottish Malts rally in Scotland; as well as three participations in the famous Mexico-based La Carrera Panamericana, where it won its class in 2002. It also won the Copa Sardinia. It’s no slouch.
But despite it’s venerable history of being a competition car for half a century, it doesn’t have an easy life in its old age. You certainly don’t see too many 50-plus-year-old rally cars, never mind a 300SE, powering through standing water and sliding around muddy corners close to the straw bales. And that’s what current owner Thomas Kubler likes about it. “I wanted an interesting classic rally car, but didn’t really have an idea of exactly what I was looking for, just not an Escort or a Kadett because the coolest cars in Slowly Sideways are the ones that no one has seen before. There’s only one Ferrari 308, and only one gravel-spec BMW 635CSi for example. And I have the only Mercedes 300SE. I like that.”
When he came across this old lady with all of her history for sale and born the same year as him, Thomas knew it was the car to have, even though it wasn’t in the best condition at the time. The gearbox was beyond repair, the same could be said for most of the suspension components, and after what seemed like quite a few years of neglect a lot of welding needed to be done in the floor and on the mounting points. It also had to be brought up to modern safety standards so bucket seats with five-point harnesses were added to the cabin, which with the gorgeous fifty-year-old instrument panel make for a rather striking contrast. Also fitted was a new FIA-spec fuel cell, as an antique petrol tank is not something you really want behind you when you are sliding towards the trees.
“No mechanic we’ve ever taken it to is 100% sure what car the brakes are from,” co-driver Max Hunzinger adds. “They are disc brakes so the best guess is a 600 Pullman. The 600 was a contemporary car so it could have been an upgrade done by the people who would go on to form AMG when they were preparing the car for rallying.” Talking of upgrades by AMG…
A few days earlier to seeing this car, I’d blasted around the Nürburgring in an AMG GT-S, the then-latest creation from the famous tuning company post-merger with the factory, but under the bonnet of this 300SE is one of the very first engine upgrades the burgeoning tuning company performed. A much larger handmade air intake helps the engine breath easier and helps push the power up to 200bhp, although now it’s only around 170 so many decades later. “It could be 200 again if we did a rebuild and tightened everything up. But now everything is original so I would rather live without the extra power and keep all the original parts,” Thomas explained. “Nice,” says Miki Biasion, as he ambles over to his Lancia S4 parked near by.
Slowly Sideways is strict about the authenticity of the cars in the group, which means you get to see original ex-works cars, and any replicas in the mix are so accurate you can’t tell the difference. This meant that Thomas and Max had to cover up all the Panamericana stickers with vinyl wrapping, as these were events run well after the car’s creation. “We made sure that the graphics company could do it without damaging the stickers though, because we are quite proud of them. The car has competed all around the world and we like to show that.” But even with a layer of fresh plastic, concours condition the car is not.
There are plenty of battle scars with scuffs in the paintwork and some waves in the body panels under the tail fins if you catch the light at the right angle, but after a couple of indiscretions Thomas has learned the hard way that it’s best to try and not dent it any more. “One time we didn’t like where someone had left one of those big rolls of hay that they make chicanes with in the middle of the road. Little cars can nip through with no problem but we moved it with the rear panel.” To replace it they were quoted €3,000. Fortunately there was a much cheaper option to repair it which included two gentlemen; one with a couple of phone books and another with a sledgehammer.
In another event they slipped off the road into some bushes and hit a tree so hard that one of the branches snapped off and fell through the back window. They didn’t think too much of it until they started looking online for a new one… and found nothing. Nowhere. In the end it took three months to find a fresh piece and it cost €3,500 this time. After that it was decided to make a conscious effort not to drive into any more trees or other large heavy objects.
The day before the Eifel Rally starts, there is a shakedown stage which in that year got washed out and finished early, but in the fading light we got permission to drive anyway, as long as we didn’t break any speed limits—I didn’t think that there was much chance of that.
It looks big from the outside but once I am strapped into the Recaro seat it feels even bigger. Thomas tugs on the wheel like a sailor on a submarine hatch and puts his foot down. The first thought is that the windscreen defroster is about as good as the one in my dad’s old Land Rover. The second is that this is not really a rally car, it handles like something intended for shipping lanes rather than rally stages. The first corner approaches but no drifting or flick of the handbrake here. We turn in and the weight transfer presses the front corner down. The side wall of the loaded tire flexes and squeals in protest but with bow pointing down the hill for the next straight we pick up speed. And plenty of it. Maybe not too much compared to more modern machinery, but faster than I think a car like this should go on such a narrow path. It lurches and lunges in strange ways, the opposing wipers take their time cleaning the screen and we’ve built up enough pace that I am well nervous. Not because I didn’t trust Thomas, but because the car is so far out of its design parameters, and is a particular something I hadn’t experienced before.
Thomas knows where its limits are though, and how hard he can kiss little trees before the windows break and eventually we trundle back into the village. If the stage had been timed maybe we would have beaten the Trabant and possibly the Citroën SM, but the Eifel Rallye Festival is all about seeing special cars, so the 300SE is high up on that list if not the fastest on it.
Also, I should mention that Max’s day job is being a diplomat, so maybe rallying in a limousine isn’t so strange after all…