Following the withdrawal of the Mercedes-Benz works team from Formula One and the sports car championship at the end of the 1955 season, all eyes were on the rally scene from 1956 onwards. Vehicles bearing the three-pointed star, mainly driven by private teams, competed on rally courses around the world.
While racing cars and sports cars had stood out as the top-performing thoroughbreds in previous years, it was now the turn of near-production passenger cars to put their strength and stamina to the test. In the late 1950s and early 1960s it was predominantly the 300 SL sports car and 220 SE and 300 SE six-cylinder saloons that were setting the pace on the world’s roads and gravel tracks.
One of the leading partnerships during this period was that of Walter Schock and Rolf Moll. Racing for the Stuttgart Motor Sports Club, the duo received extensive support from Mercedes-Benz in the form of vehicles and service. Walter Schock took part in the Monte Carlo Rally in a Mercedes-Benz 220 ‘Pontoon’ on 15 January 1956, finishing on 23 January just 1.1 seconds behind the winner. One month later, the Stuttgart duo won the Sestrière Rally in Italy in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing coupé. Up in the mountains, the Silver Arrow simply left the rest of the field standing. Schock reflected on the outstanding performance of the coupé in winter rally conditions, saying: “Very fine snow chains on all four wheels allowed us to reach uphill speeds of up to 180 km/h.” Further triumphs followed, with a victory at the Acropolis Rally (26-29 April 1956) and class victories at the Wiesbaden Rally (21–24 June 1956) and Adriatica Rally (26-30 September 1956). In addition, Schock won in his class at the Eifel race and took second place at the Nürburgring Grand Prix. These results helped him to secure the 1956 European Touring Car crown and the German GT championship for up to 1300cc.
Having replaced Alfred Neubauer as Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Director, Karl Kling also occasionally took a turn at the wheel as a member of the works team. With Rainer Günzler as his co-driver, he secured an extraordinary victory at the 14,000-kilometre Mediterranée – Le Cap Rally from the Mediterranean to South Africa in 1959. The Stuttgart team were driving a diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz 190 D whose reliability secured the event for them. In 1961, Kling was back behind the wheel of a saloon in Africa, driving a Mercedes-Benz 220 SE ‘Fintail’ to victory in the Algiers – Lagos – Algiers rally, once again with Rainer Günzler as co-driver. Kling was also the race manager when Mercedes-Benz factory teams competed in selected major races.
Schock and Moll took the European rally championship title in their 220 SE in 1960 too, crossing the finish line in first place at the legendary Monte Carlo Rally. This first overall German victory at Monte Carlo was actually a triple success for Mercedes-Benz, with the driver teams Eugen Böhringer/Hermann Socher and Eberhard Mahle/Roland Ott taking second and third place. Following this triumph in 1960, the sports press demanded that Mercedes-Benz come back to the racing circuits of the world and compete on a continuous basis with its factory cars. But sports manager Kling made the Mercedes position clear: “This success will encourage us to make further substantial efforts in rallies. But Mercedes has no intention of returning to motor racing.”
In the 1960s, Mercedes-Benz teams took part in the Argentine Road Grand Prix on several occasions. On 26 October 1961, for instance, Walter Schock competed in this very special rally against 207 other drivers. Awaiting the field was a relentless race covering 4600 kilometres and a difference in altitude of more than 3000 metres. This torturous test of endurance ended on 5 November with a double victory for
Mercedes-Benz. Walter Schock and Rolf Moll came home first, followed by Hans Herrmann and Rainer Günzler. “That was perhaps the most difficult race I have ever competed in,” said rally champion Schock upon his return from South America. Together with team manager Karl Kling, Juan Manuel Fangio personally accompanied the Mercedes-backed teams. As this competition was very important for the American market, Mercedes-Benz continued to participate in the years that followed: female drivers Ewy Rosqvist and Ursula Wirth notched up a sensational victory in 1962 and Eugen Böhringer won the rally twice in 1963 and 1964, followed home on both occasions by two other Mercedes-Benz vehicles.
Böhringer, who had been driving Mercedes-Benz cars in rallies since 1957, took the European rally champion title in the 1962 season in a Mercedes-Benz 220 SE. With co-drivers Peter Lang and Hermann Eger, Böhringer gained points during the season at races which included the Monte Carlo Rally (2nd place), Tulip Rally (7th), Acropolis Rally (winner), Midnight Sun Rally (5th), Poland Rally (winner), Liège – Sofia – Liège Rally (winner) and German Rally (2nd).
One of the highlights that year was the victory in the legendary Liège – Sofia – Liège road race in a Mercedes-Benz 220 SE. The following year the Stuttgart driver was once again victorious at this marathon race, which took drivers right across Europe but now to Bulgaria instead of Rome, this time in a Mercedes-Benz 230 SL ‘Pagoda’. He was the first driver ever to win this punishing rally in two successive years.
Mercedes-Benz was also enjoying success in North America at this time, and in 1957 it created the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLS specifically for the American sportscar championship. The vehicle was based on the 300 SL production roadster, but the fact that its weight had been reduced to just 900 kg and its output boosted from 215 bhp (158 kW) to 235 bhp (173 kW) made it a highly competitive car. The SLS gave American Paul O’Shea his third consecutive title, following two victories with a 300 SL Gullwing coupé in 1955 and 1956.
The powerful eight-cylinder 300 SEL 6.3 saloon raced as a works vehicle only once – when it won the six-hour touring car race in Macao in 1969 with Erich Waxenberger at the wheel. The oil crisis in the early 1970s put an end to any further race outings for the saloon. Automotive historian Karl Eric Ludvigsen underlined the importance of this break in the motorsport traditions of the Stuttgart-based brand: “The oil crisis was the first externally prompted break in a long-established Daimler-Benz tradition, which had run continuously from the turn of the century, apart from the war years and a short hiatus in 1955. Year after year, there had always been one or more Benz, Mercedes or Mercedes-Benz vehicles competing with direct or indirect works support in at least one major race.”
Even now, however, the Mercedes-Benz racing tradition was continued by private drivers. Their vehicles were increasingly being prepared for competition by AMG, a company established in 1967 by former Daimler-Benz employees Hans-Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher in Burgstall near Stuttgart. One of their standout products in the early years was the refined version of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL with a 6.8-litre engine, which secured a class victory and finished second overall at the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps in 1971. With works support from Mercedes-Benz, a number of private drivers achieved great success during that time in rallies and touring car racing.
The vehicles and drivers of this era, including big names like Eugen Böhringer, Dieter Glemser, Hans Herrmann, Eberhard Mahle and Ewy Rosqvist, still delight racing fans today. And this fascination has also been the driving force behind Mercedes-Benz Classic’s increasing involvement as a partner in the FHR race series for GT and touring cars.
Source: Daimler AG