The Mercedes 450SLC was not an obvious choice of rally car. But in an intermittently successful quest for glory with the large coupé, the Stuttgart marque set new standards of preparation and expertise in world rallying, as John Davenport explains
Since Hans Tak kicked off Mercedes-Benz’s rally career by winning the 1954 Tulip Rally with the light, powerful, spaceframe 300SL gull-wing, the Three-Pointed Star has been in and out of this branch of motorsport. So to assert that they are the most significant team in the history of world rallying might seem curious. But there is plenty of evidence.
Much of the success of Walter Schock, Eugen Böhringer and the 220SE saloon in the early 1960s could be attributed to a Mercedes innovation: over a period of several weeks before each rally, the crews drove the tests and difficult road sections many times and made pace notes. By 1964 newer, more nimble cars were outperforming the 300SE and it was time for a Mercedes sabbatical, one that lasted 13 years.
In parallel with conventional events and the emergence of the World Rally Championship, long-distance events, starting with the 1968 London-Sydney, had grown popular. When the Mercedes importer in England was approached to run a sponsored 280E on the 1977 London-Sydney, they naturally contacted Stuttgart for advice. The reply was that Mercedes would prefer to do the car themselves and the project was passed over to Erich Waxenberger (see panel) who took charge.
Waxenberger flew over to consult with Jonathan Ashman, who was already involved in helping Tony Fowkes to rally a 280E in UK events. Waxenberger then insisted on getting Andrew Cowan involved. “He told me to fly down the next day and say that I would drive the 280E,” remembers Cowan. “From then on, it was all systems go.”
Although not an official entry, the Mercedes test department got fully involved in the build of Cowan’s car and five more 280Es. Waxenberger went to Asia, looked into the servicing and support along the complex route and decided what special parts had to be developed. The result was Cowan first overall, with other Mercs finishing in second, sixth and eighth positions.
The following year the test department entered four 280Es on the Safari Rally through their East African importer. Waxenberger was in charge and initially the cars impressed. However, both Cowan and Joginder Singh retired because their engines inhaled neat water at river crossings while Fowkes broke his sump. Sobieslaw Zasada finished sixth.
The 18,000-mile Vuelta a la America del Sud in September of 1978 was a welcome chance for Mercedes to develop their expertise. They entered no fewer than eight Mercs — four 280Es and four of the V8-powered 450SLCs — and got seven to the finish, sweeping the top five places on the event with Cowan leading Zasada in a 450SLC 1-2.
During the 39 days of this event Waxenberger and his team learned much about the cars and about servicing them. There had been a huge amount of testing in which Waxenberger himself was directly involved, often taking the wheel if he thought the drivers were not trying hard enough to break things. On the event the team had two aeroplanes to take managers and mechanics ahead of the rally, and they used radios to co-ordinate service arrangements. The crushing victory in South America with what were effectively 220bhp Group 1 cars encouraged Waxenberger to suggest to the Mercedes board a possible next step — to do the WRC events on which a car like the 450SLC could show well. He knew the 5025cc V8 in all-alloy form could be persuaded to give close to 300bhp, and also knew that further weight reduction was possible. The agreement was that the 450SLC should do the Safari and the Ivory Coast. But first, Waxenberger needed to tap the driver market.
He opened negotiations with Björn Waldegård and Hannu Mikkola. Both had Ford contracts, but the Blue Oval was on a smaller programme and prepared to release their drivers for WRC events in which they weren’t competing. The pair flew to Stuttgart, met Waxenberger and discussed terms. Now Mercedes made one of their contributions to rallying’s future. During the salary discussion, Mikkola was asked whether he would accept $100,000 (£45,000).
“I knew the events were long and, with all the recceing and testing, they would take up a lot of time. But this figure seemed reasonable in comparison with what Ford were paying. It was not until later that I discovered they meant that was the fee per rally, not the whole year.”
The co-driver’s remuneration was equally generous and thus, in one stroke, Mercedes lifted the rally world out of the land of peanuts into star payments.
For 1979 the 450SLC was homologated into Group 4 and an enormous amount of preparation went into its first event, the Safari. The Mercedes entry comprised three 280Es in addition to the three 450SLCs for Mikkola, Waldegård and Vic Preston Jr. This meant providing parts and service for two different models, never a recipe for success; yet despite this, Mercedes very nearly pulled it off. Mikkola eventually finished second, having only lost the lead on the last day when he suffered two simultaneous faults, a holed radiator and a broken radio. The latter meant he had to wait for Waldegård to arrive before summoning help.
There was no such problem in the Ivory Coast where Mikkola, Waldegård, Cowan and Preston finished 1-2-3-4.
This was the sort of result to make the suits in Stuttgart believe in their Bavarian tornado, and give approval to go for an extended programme of WRC events in 1980. Portugal was the first event for the 450SLC that year and, since Mikkola had to drive his Ford, Ingvar Carlsson joined Waldegård. They finished fifth and fourth respectively, but the Merc had proved four seconds slower per kilometre than the pace-setting Fiat 131 and Sunbeam Lotus.
Back to the Safari Rally, and here Waxenberger broke one of the golden rules. Testing in the Taita Hills had revealed a weakness on the rear suspension upright, and he devised a modification that involved welding two different metals but ran out of time to re-submit the result to rigorous testing. During the event, all four cars suffered delays due to the weld failing. Mikkola retired when Arne Hertz was injured by another car crashing into them while they were stopped, while Preston was eventually third, Cowan sixth and Waldegård 10th. Each of them had led at some point and Cowan described it as being “the most disappointing event of my life”.
On the Acropolis, Bror Danielsson substituted for Mikkola but both he and Waldegård retired with engine and steering problems towards the end of the event. The big problem here had been the tyre wear. The powerful two-wheel-drive car just ate tyres on the abrasive Greek roads. It was more of the same in Argentina, though after starting on Dunlop Mikkola changed to Pirellis and fared much better, finishing second overall, while Waldegård retired with a broken driveshaft. This was also the debut for the 500SLC, homologated in Group 2 and with a slightly smaller engine capacity to enable it to benefit from a minimum weight of 50kg less. New Zealand, with its slippery, secret stages was a bit of nightmare but Mikkola and Waldegård came through to finish third and fifth. For Cowan, it was a real experience.
“At one point,” he says “we got stones between the rear wheels and the discs, and they just wiped the brake calipers off. With no brakes and an automatic transmission, that car was not easy to drive. We radioed up and Waxenberger told us to keep going. We got off the stage and drove slowly — when to our amazement, we saw this helicopter ahead of us, and beneath it hung a complete rear suspension — differential, shafts, brakes, wishbones and sub-frame. They landed and in 20 minutes we were off again with the car like new.”
The final event of the year was to be the Ivory Coast, But before that December event, news started to come out concerning Mercedes plans for 1981. On November 9, Audi had announced its quattro programme and confirmed Mikkola and Michèle Mouton would be the drivers. Mikkola remembers: “At that time, I had one of the best compliments ever paid me. One of the Mercedes directors said: ‘We want you to drive for us next year, so perhaps we should buy back Audi.’ They sold the company to VW in 1964.”
A week later, the newly-crowned world champion, Walter Röhrl, confirmed he had a contract with Mercedes for the coming year, and it then transpired that Ari Vatanen was going to be team-mate to Waldegard and Röhrl on at least four WRC events — Safari, Ivory Coast, Argentina and Brazil. Röhrl would also do Acropolis and Monte Carlo and the German championship with Scuderia Kassel.
Then, on the Ivory Coast, Mercedes won once more, Waldegård ahead ofJorge Recalde in another 500SLC, and Preston was fifth. Just three days later, however, came a press announcement from Professor Breitschwert that the Mercedes rally programme was not going ahead.
The reasons for this decision were not given at the time, but there were two factors that gave the Mercedes board pause for thought. Firstly, Waxenberger said that the 500SLC was a stopgap and that he wanted to produce either a mid-engined, normally aspirated or a turbocharged, four-wheel drive version of their new W201 (what would become the 190-class). He had seen the future opposition as well as participating in the Group B discussions and knew what was needed to win. The sales people said they would never sell the 200 required to qualify for homologation.
Secondly, Röhr! was asked in a media interview where he thought he would finish on the forthcoming Monte Carlo Rally. Walter opined that he would be very pleased to finish as high as fifth with the 500SLC. Thus, to the Mercedes board, the short term looked unproductive and the long term looked expensive. If they had been making the decision a year later, after Audi started winning, they might have taken a rather different view.
Still, Mercedes had shown what they could do with pretty standard cars against specials and had introduced a new way of doing things — and paying for them — to the world rally scene.