By on November 25, 2016

1979 Mercedes-Benz 450SLC 5.0 (C107), Image: Daimler

In 1978, Mercedes-Benz made the decision to expand its efforts in rally competition. But its choice of platform to enter into the World Rally Championship was, to say the least, unique.

At the time, the WRC was dominated by small sedans like the Fiat 131 Abarth and Ford Escort RS1800 — cars that finished first and second in the championship that year. Mercedes-Benz took a decidedly different route, as it had no small sporty sedan.

What it did have was a large, heavy and expensive personal luxury coupe in the C107 SLC. While the choice would seem unnatural, under the direction of Erich Waxenberger the premier 450SLC was prepared and developed over the next few seasons into a rally winner.

Mercedes-Benz 450SLC

1978 Mercedes-Benz 450SLC (C107), Image: Daimler

For the 1978 rally season, Mercedes-Benz entered what were effectively production 450SLCs into a few world rally events. These cars carried the standard M117 4.5-liter V8 — a single overhead cam, 16-valve 90-degree bank producing 227 horsepower. The transmission was unusual for a rally car, as they carried the standard production 722.0 hydraulically controlled three-speed automatic.

With little else than some skid plates, extra lights and roll cage protection fitted, these cars were entered into the grueling Vuelta a la América del Sud — a 30,000 kilometer lap of South America. Matched up against those Fiats, Fords and Africa-conquering Peugeots, the luxurious automatic Mercedes-Benz coupes seems to be at a distinct disadvantage. However, at the hands of Andrew Cowan, who would later go on to start Mitsubishi’s Ralliart race team, the big coupe won the event. Co-driving in Timo Mäkinen’s 450SLC was none other than Jean Todt, future Ferrari F1 director and FIA President. Video exists of the cars competing in 1978.

While the standard 450SLC had proved unexpectedly triumphant, Mercedes-Benz was hard at work on a much improved model.

1978 Mercedes-Benz 450SLC (C107), Image: Daimler

450SLC 5.0

Alongside the production M117 4.5s, Mercedes-Benz decided to up the ante on the rally effort with the introduction of the increased-capacity 5.0 M117. Now the the suffix E50, power increased to a reported 290-310, and the 5.0 ran in FIA Group 4 competition for the 1979, 1980 and (briefly) 1981 seasons.

In order to help curb the substantial weight of the 107 chassis, aluminum doors, hood and trunk lid were produced for the 5.0. The 5.0s gained large black flares, some housing wider BBS RA light alloy wheels, instead of the standard Bundt alloys found on early cars. To order to conform to FIA Group 4 rules, the engine was destroked from the production 5,025 cc to 4,973 cc. Unlike previous Mercedes V8 blocks, this one was all aluminum to help reduce weight.

1978 Mercedes-Benz 450SLC 5.0 (C107); Image: Daimler

Mercedes-Benz had to homologate the car in order to race, so the company created the C107.026. Ultimately, the company built 2,769 examples of the 450SLC and later 500SLC, but for 1978 the rules necessitated the production of at least 400 examples. These were obviously detuned compared to the race cars, but still packed a respectable 240 horsepower. As with the race cars, they featured aluminum bodywork to reduce weight. The automaker also had spoilers fitted, which was judged by some to be a bit shocking for the typical flagship Mercedes-Benz buyer of the time. (The owner could opt out of the spoiler, but doing so would also remove the aluminum trunk and fit a standard steel unit in its place.) Mercedes-Benz claimed the use of aluminum cut 125 pounds off the curb weight.

1978 Mercedes-Benz 450SLC 5.0 (C107), Image: Daimler

At the hands of Hannu Mikkola, the 450SLC 5.0 would win the Rallye Côte d’Ivoire and came second in the Safari Rally.

Mikkola would ultimately place second in the World Rally Driver’s Championship for 1979, in part thanks to the 450SLC 5.0, and the 5.0 would continue to place in world rally events in 1980, finishing third at Rally Safari in the hands of Vic Preston, Jr.

500SLC/500SL

1980 Mercedes-Benz 500SLC (C107), Image: Daimler

For the 1980 and 1981 seasons, Waxenberger once again turned the wick up on the C107. Now called the 500SLC, the C107 was moved to Group 2 – Touring Cars, as opposed to the Group 4 “Special Touring Cars”. This was allowed because over 1,000 units had been produced. The M117 was now over 300 hp, with Mercedes-Benz claiming an output of 329 hp by the end of the run. The biggest change between the 450SLC 5.0 and the 500SLC was the switch from the three-speed automatic used in ’78 and ’79 to a new four-speed unit.

It also coincided with a nomenclature change at Mercedes-Benz, resulting in a 5.0 V8 for normal series production. However, while it shared the same M117 engine designation as the 450SLC 5.0, the internal structure of the engine was changed for larger-scale production.

The 500SLC went 1-2 at the 1980 Bandama (Ivory Coast) Rally with Scandanavians Björn Waldegård and Jorge Recalde, and with Mikkola driving finished second at the Rally Codasur (Argentina) and third in New Zealand. These results contributed to a fourth-place overall standing for the SLC in the WRC.

In the ultimate development of the 107 chassis, Waxenberger proposed a move to the much shorter (and lighter) SL platform. With the +2 taken out of the equation, the shorter wheelbase allowed for better response in cornering.

1980 Mercedes-Benz 500SL Group 4 Röhrl (C107), Image: Daimler

As with the SLC, the 500SL carried a 722.2 four-speed automatic. To lighten the car, the windows were all replaced with lexan, while the roll cage material was changed to aluminum. A large, high-rise handbrake was fitted in front of the plastic Recaro racing seats to help rotate the big Benz. That rotation would be assisted by new drivers Walter Röhrl (the standing WRC Driver’s Champion that year) and Ari Vatanen for the 1981 season, which looked like it had the potential to be dominated by the big converted convertible.

1980 Mercedes-Benz 500SL Rally (R107), Image: Daimler

The only problem was funding. Daimler-Benz’s board called on Waxenberger to justify the budget, then promised only to deliver enough funds to run one car. Waxenberger, in a bold move, said he’d rather not run at all than only run one car and left the meeting. His wish was granted; funding to the rally program was cut for the 1981 season, leaving the ultimate development of the 500SL stillborn.

The company hasn’t forgotten the project, though, as the 500SL rally has recently appeared in a promotional video of the bellowing convertible rally car sliding through the desert, and one of the four prototypes was crashed at the Goodwood Festival of Speed with Roland Asch at the wheel during a demonstration run.

In what may be an even more unusual twist of the racing heritage of the SLC, in 1978 Affalterbach-based AMG Motorenbau GmbH entered a variant of the 450 into the European Touring Car Championship in Group 4 (and later, Group 2). Competing against the likes of the Alpina-built BMW 635CSi, Luigi BMW 3.0CSLs, Zakspeed Ford Escorts, Speiss Volkswagen Sciroccos, Eggenberger-run 320is and some trick Audi 80 GTE full works cars, the privateer entrant seemed out of place and outclassed. In short, all of them were lighter, but not more powerful. AMG took the standard 4,520 cc M117 V8 and managed to massage it to a claimed 390 horsepower for the 1980 season. Massive 11-inch wide BBS magnesium wheels were barely contained under the hugely custom flared arches, and the entire chassis was lowered several inches.

1978 Mercedes-Benz 450SLC AMG Group 4 (C107), Image: Daimler

However, as no manual transmission had been homologated with the 450SLC, AMG was forced to retain the standard 722 three-speed automatic! This left the heavy Mercedes again at a disadvantage to the much lighter manual Audi, BMW and Mazda entrants. However, the AMG SLC once again showed the legendary Mercedes-Benz legacy for engineering prowess on its way out. At the Nürburgring Nore in June 1980, the SLC triumphed — a four-hour war of attrition saw the sole Mercedes-Benz (in the hands of Clemens Schickentanz and Jörg Denzel) emerge as the winner. It was the only time a C107 would win in the European Touring Car Championship, but it pointed the tri-star towards a return to circuit racing and an end to its self-imposed ban following the 1955 Le Mans crash.

1978 Mercedes-Benz 450SLC AMG Group 4 (C107), Image: Daimler)

[Images and Source Material: Daimler]

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27 Comments on “The Big, Bad, Automatic Benz That Took on the WRC – the C107...”


  • avatar
    Pete Zaitcev

    I was always curious, just what was Mika Hakkinen driving in his appearance on the Top Gear, while on the rally circuit. It looked like a wider 190, a 4-door sedan, with AWD.

  • avatar
    never_follow

    Not sure they get the most clicks for the site, but your Friday history articles rock!

    Sad to see AMG go from indie tuning house to where they are now, just “the most expensive one” for a trophy wife to drive to the mall in, never hitting 3000 rpm…

    • 0 avatar
      Maymar

      Not only that, if that spoiler on the 500SLC was considered a bit much, your 70’s Benz buyer probably couldn’t survive the strain of entering a modern Benz dealer.

    • 0 avatar

      In some cases not even properly engineered by AMG. The current AMG 43 is essentially an ECU reflash on the regular V6 and some fancy accessories. How the mighty have fallen.

      • 0 avatar
        never_follow

        @rust – my point exactly. Hell, even through the naturally aspirated monsters of the early 2000’s, there was something SPECIAL about an AMG Benz.

        //M and quattro are going much the same way, selling their souls down the river. Very sad, but inevitable when your target market doesn’t want an involving, special ride.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      @never_follow – thanks for the compliment! I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t more interest in this one, but maybe there are only a few that enjoy this type of story. In any event, I’m glad that someone else did!

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    Cool story. A big heavy car would probably stand more of a chance in a 30,000 km race. Survival is more important than outright speed.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      @Lou_BC – exactly – the MBs were never the fastest out there, but they were better built. Still a bit surprising given the low slung, large overhang nature of the SLC that it did well on those muddy roads in South America pictured above.

  • avatar
    rpn453

    That touring car looks mean.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      One of the coolest of the period. Too bad it wasn’t better developed. If MB had thrown their considerable resources at it, they would have been very successful there too.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    Now you need to do a story on the rally Rolls-Royces from the ’70s.

  • avatar
    Big Al From 'Murica

    I think I am going to read only these sorts of articles from now on. Too much douchbaggery/a$$hattery/Tomfu(kery/windbaggery in anything that might be political. And lest you consider responding with some snark let me fire off a preemptive SHOVE IT to you.

  • avatar
    pragmatist

    My wife, who frequently rides with me in my Jeep at offroading events, has her beloved 107 (560SL). I showed her these pix and suggested we take her car off road. The answer was a definitive NO.

  • avatar
    fendertweed

    Interesting. My father’s partner had a 450 SLC in the 70s. He picked it up in Germany and brought it over.

    He lived in NYC and the dealer was in Morristown, NJ so when service was needed he’d swap cars with my father (their office was in NJ) and I’d take the 450 in for service and pick it up, and also get to drive it over the weekend (!). He asked me to please not go over 80 mph since that’s all he did in Europe on delivery.

    I remember a couple of ~125 mph runs on I-80 when it was brand new and very lightly traveled. It would squeal the tires if you floored it at 90 mph and just hunker down and take off. I chickened out testing the 137 mph top speed stated in the owner’s manual, figuring I was already in multiple-year license suspension territory if a cop caught me at 100+.

    It wasn’t the most reliable car (IIRC it went through at least one transmission) but it could move. ;-) I told my father’s partner about 30+ years after the fact that I had, in fact, given in & tested the 100 mph+ range, but by then the car was long gone and he took it with a grin.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    First throught I had.

    Clarkson, in the Africa Special: “There has never been a Mercedes rally car!”

    WRONG.

  • avatar
    skotastic

    Great article.

    As has been mentioned, the larger size, comfort, build quality, and power largely offset the obvious drawbacks on endurance type rallies.

    Interesting though, in civilian form with an open diff, its hard to imagine a car more unsuited to snow than a C107, which may be another reason why MB stuck to warmer weather affairs.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    By the way, seeing that 450 photo I remembered something that sold a few months ago and searched it out. Had no idea the 450SLC was so rare. This one went for just $3841. I have a feeling it was worth more.

    https://www.ebth.com/items/3097813-1979-mercedes-benz-450-slc-coupe

  • avatar
    WildcatMatt

    Cool article, thank you!


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