A star on the special stages?
From Mercedes quiet rally efforts in the late fifties to the failed World Rally Championship entry and more.
After 1955 Mercedes withdrew from Formula 1 and sportscar racing, a decision influenced in no small part by the disastrous accident at the 24h of Le Mans that year. It would take more than 30 years until Mercedes got officially involved in circuit racing again, but rallying was a different story.
Former racing driver Karl Kling took over from Alfred Neubauer as motorsport director in 1956 and made the first tentative steps towards factory involvement in rallying. Mercedes started supporting privateers like Walter Schock with equipment and servicing on events. Schock and co driver Rolf Moll finished second on the Monte Carlo Rally with a 220 and won the Rally Acropolis and Rallye del Sestriere with a 300SL on their way to take the 1956 European Rally Championship.
The 300SL proved popular and succesful with rally drivers even before the factory got involved, here Hans Tak/W.C. Niemoller won the 1955 International Tulip Rally with the sportscar (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Winnaar_Tulpenrallye,_Hans_Tak_en_Niem%C3%B6ller_met_een_Mercedes-Benz_300_SL,_Bestanddeelnr_907-1280.jpg).
Schock/Moll won the ERC a second time in 1960 with a works supported 220SE. It was certainly an unlikely rally car, but Mercedes achieved considerable success with the big and heavy executive saloon. The factory involvement wasn't on the level of the famed BMC Competition Department, but the cars were prepped inhouse by the testing department and received minor engine and suspension modifications. In 1962 works driver Eugen Böhringer took the ERC title with a 220SE after he won the Rally Acropolis and Rally Poland with co driver Peter Lang and the Liege-Sofia-Liege Rally with co driver Hermann Eger. Towards the end of the year the more powerful but otherwise identical 300SE was introduced with which Böhringer/Rolf Knoll won the Rally Acropolis in 1963.
Walter Schock/Rolf Moll lead a Mercedes 1-2-3 at the 1960 Rally Monte Carlo with the 220SE (http://rallymemory.blogspot.com/2020/01/seasons-1960-1962.html).
In 1963 Mercedes introduced their new flagship sportscar at the Liege-Sofia-Liege Rally before it even went on sale to the public. The rally prepped 230SL was equipped with a hardtop and won the long distance rally across Europe with Böhringer/Klaus Kaiser. When Mercedes returned to the event in 1964 the roadsters were equipped with a more powerful prototype 2,6 litre straight six engine but on most other rallies Mercedes continued to field the 300SE until they stopped all rally activity at the end of the year.
Eugen Böhringer/Klaus Kaiser won the 1963 Liege-Sofia-Liege with the new Mercedes 230SL (https://www.unitauto.ru/avtozhurnal/vokrug-avtomobilya/u-prirody-net-plokhoj-pagody-ekzotika-kuzova-mercedes-benz-w113).
Mercedes made a return to the sport at the 1977 London-Sydney Marathon. Two barely modified 280E saloons were entered in the 30000km long event and the one driven by Andrew Cowan (co driven by Colin Malkin/Mike Broad) won outright. In 1978 a 280E Group 2 was sent to the Safari Rally but at the time motorsport director Erich Waxenberger already had plans to use the more capable but bigger SLC coupe. While not an ideal base, Mercedes lacked a compact and lightweight car, so using a model available with a V8 made sense. Mercedes first entered three almost stock 450SLC alongside the old 280E at the Vuelta a la America del Sud in 1978. The team dominated the event and occupied the first five positions with Cowan/Malkin winning in a 450SLC.
The winning Mercedes 280E of Andrew Cowan/Colin Malkin/Mike Broad from the 1977 London-Sydney Marathon (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mercedes-Benz_280E_1977_London-Sydney_Rally_Cowan_Mankin_Broad_RFront_MBMuse_9June2013_(14980530761).jpg).
The first World Rally Championship event Mercedes contested was the 1979 Safari Rally by which point the 450SLC 5.0 with the new alloy block was homologated in Group 4. Even in Group 4 trim the 4,7 meter long 450SLC 5.0 didn't look like a competitive proposition. With a weight of 1380kg it was too heavy and it retained the three speed automatic gearbox of the road car, although it was modified so drivers had to change gear manually. The aforementioned V8 that put out about 310 hp and the ruggedness of the car were its only redeeming qualities. While not suitable for special stages, the big coupe was undoubtedly at home at the incredibly though high speed Safari Rally. Hannu Mikkola/Arne Hertz finished second on the WRC debut of the car while Björn Waldegård/Hans Thorszelius brought their 450SLC 5.0 home in the points as well. At the season ending Bandama Rally the Mercedes team dominated and occupied the first four positions with Mikkola/Hertz leading Waldegård (co driven by Thorszelius) whose second place finish was enough to become the first World Rally Champion. The team was operating surprisingly well considering the lack of experience and with Waldegård and Mikkola employed as lead drivers the funding was there as well.
Andrew Cowan/Klaus Kaiser on the 1980 Safari Rally with a 450SLC 5.0 Group 4 (https://slc4dirt.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/1979-slc1.jpg).
In 1980 a more extensive WRC program with starts on sprint rallies was tackled, but Mercedes learned the hard way that throwing resources at it doesn't buy you success. The special stage events Mercedes entered with the 450SLC 5.0 were generally disappointing and showcased that a more compact and lighter car was needed. Neither the speed nor the reliability was there as the heavy behemoth overstressed brakes, suspension and the drive train. Even though Vic Preston jr./John Lyall finished third at the Safari Rally the event was disappointing as the five car team was hampered by constant technical failures. Waxenberger was amongst the first to employ a helicopter for flying service which at least prevented a total disaster. Interestingly the team also used the helicopter to experimented with live telemetry recording. At the Rally de Codasur Mercedes made the switch to the more stringent Group 2 regulations with the new 500SLC that was available with a four speed automatic gearbox. The new car didn't improve Mercedes fortunes on sprint events but Mercedes repeated the previous years victory on the Bandama Rally with Waldegård/Thorszelius.
By that point Mercedes was already testing the more compact 500SL Group 4 for the 1981 season. Although the hardtop equipped roadster was nimbler and had about 350hp, it was still too heavy and saddled with an automatic gearbox. Waxenberger planned to contest the full season with a two car team consisting of Ari Vatanen and reigning world champion Walter Röhrl but the board rejected his request and only offered budget for a single car. For Waxenberger the rally program was a passion project and he declined the offer as he was rather not doing it at all instead of doing it half-hearted. Even though he already had plans in the drawer for a mid engined 4WD Group B car, Mercedes abandoned the sport for good only weeks before the 1981 season began.
Holger Bohne/Peter Diekmann with a 500SL Group 4 on the 1981 Hunsrück Rallye, a European Rally Championship round (https://en.wheelsage.org/category/wrc/55884/pictures/ewhlum).
Although official involvement had ended, the shorter 500 SL was homologated in Group 4 (later transfered into Group B) and privateers used the car in the early eighties. A few years later the Cosworth engined sports saloon 190E 2.3 16 appeared in the German Rally Championship with Harald Demuth/Christian Fellinger. Rallying wasn't quite forgotten in Stuttgart as once Mercedes caught wind of it they became suspiciously interested and offered technical support. Demuth/Fellinger had a realistic chance to win the German Championship in 1987 but ultimately finished fourth. The RWD Group A cars competitiveness was limited to tarmac but unlike the Prodrive developed BMW M3 it was never successful on international level due to a lack of support from Mercedes or a big rally team.
Harald Demuth/Christian Fellinger with their 190E 2.3 16 Group A on the ADAC 3-Städte Rallye (https://mb190e16v.com/rally/#jp-carousel-970).
The 190E 2.3 16 Group A was to be the last contemporary Mercedes rally car. Even though Mercedes had an impressive track record in the infancy of modern rallying they failed to make a significant impact in the World Rally Championship when they returend in the late seventies. Soon after the withdrawal Mercedes lost all interest in the sport and today a Mercedes on the special stages is a very distant past.