Erich Waxenberger, a Bavarian rebel in Mercedes’ sober Swabian ranks, slipped some wondrous cars through the net. Jerry Sloniger revisits an old friend.

Mercedes returns to factory-backed racing? Ridiculous! That was the Stuttgart party line from 1956 to 1987. Yet all it took to create tabloid headlines in the German media was a single M-B technician spotted at any remote race track. Following the denial from the top brass, the leaders in motoring magazines would bemoan Mercedes' determination to concentrate on 'grandpa cars and taxis.'

Erich Waxenberger, a 6ft Bavarian hurricane in the test and development department, heard the world from Olympus as often as any young M-B engineer - and managed to ignore it. Several times. During the three decades Mercedes denied competition interest, Waxenberger managed to create and run some astounding, big-bore race machinery. Such devotion to racing and rallying should be applauded.

Wax'l (a typically Bavarian nickname) recalls fondly his cowboy image - but he must have combined considerable savvy about company politics with his talent for fast driving. If you're going to sneak two 6.3 race saloons off to Macao, even drive one yourself, ignoring a company ban on engineers in the cockpit, it's a great help if you can report a victory when you telephone board chairman Scherenberg on Monday morning. There are parallels to the career of Rudolph Uhlenhaut, although the more urbane and better-known Uhlenhaut flourished in an era of official team entries. He was also the direct boss who recognised Waxenberger's abilities and protected the younger charger's back whenever he could. Wax'l admit that a combination of inexperience and excess enthusiasm led him to wreck too many test cars when he first joined Mercedes-Benz. The insurance team wanted Uhlenhaut to ban the big man from driving. His answer was: "I'm just glad to have somebody who can push our cars to the limit. Leave him alone."

They were rivals too. Once Waxenberger turned in the first Nurburgring lap under 10 minutes with a C111, he knocked off for supper. Uhlenhaut continued driving into the dusk, trying everything he knew to undercut the magic mark as well. He finally announced a 9:59 with glee. Wax'l never told. The time-keeper, getting hungry by this time, had subtracted the vital second from a flat-10 lap time to satisfy the famous test director.

This odd couple clearly appreciated each other's tricks. Wax'l agreed fully with journalists (and many customers) begging for a power package with the star. He found the ingredients in the massive 600, introduced at the Frankfurt Show in 1963, plus Bracq's new SEL design, unveiled at the same salon two years later: "The idea came from a German journalist who told me I was getting old, building Granny cars", says Waxenberger. "I decided to show him and ordered up a SEL body rejected from Sindelfingen. We put the 6.3 V8 into that. Uhlenhaut didn't know a thing about this until he heard it go past his office window late night and immediately insisted on driving the car. I wanted to get it right so I put him off for another day and we worked all night."

Uhlenhaut loved it and drove one all over the Continent. As a journalist, I recall one ride around a tiny track outside Geneva with Rudi sideways for the entire lap and a very V8 beat coming from the exhaust. When I asked to see the engine Uhlenhaut demurred: "It's all dirty. "

The first thing he'd asked was where Waxenberger had found the money to build one: "I had a special budget", Wax'l explains, "from Keyser in the PR office, to prepare cars for very special customers. Uhlenhaut just said: 'You're on your own. Sales was sure we'd never sell 50, so I promised to get rid of that many myself. In the end they sold so fast I couldn't get one for my own test department."

This department was three engineers and six or seven mechanics from the pool, and a small machine shop so they could satisfy special people, like the Riviera owner who wanted his 300 SL narrowed by 4in to fit his garage. Wax'l told him blasting 4in out of the cliff would be cheaper.

When a European prince complained that his 6.3 was 2.5mph slower than his brother's, the king, Waxenberger fiddled some small items like the fan pulley - and set the speedometer to read faster. The royal owner was overjoyed to feel 1 mph faster: "But don't tell my brother "

Mercedes eventually sent forth 6526 300 SEL 6.3 sedans, easily the ultimate machine of its age, at twice to three times the price of an entry-level SEL 2.8. I will never forget putting 500 miles into the five hours after midnight, on a drizzly German autobahn, without even noticing the pace. But that was merely phase one for an eager engineer who'd cobbled the first car together in a dark corner of his test shop.

His ultimate goal was to race a car. Any car which could run down the 911 S crowd - even a two-ton charger with the frontal area of a small barn - had to be a winner in the saloon class. So he and his team build a handful. Perceived wisdom has always claimed only three, the figure Waxenberger repeated automatically this summer. But once we added up his back-door efforts, we came to five. The sole rhd version remained in Asia after Waxenberger drove it to the Macao win. He took the scat because local pilots were 5 secs off the pace. He took pole and victory, during all but 20 mins of the six-hour enduro and he had to sling the long saloon sideways every lap to make the hairpin. Although the cars were always called 6.3s, Wax'l soon added an engine man to his team for flow tests and to bore units to 6.8 litres for the 24 hours of Spa in 1969. They removed the vibration damper and learned to hurry through the critical realm between 5400 and 5800rpm.

AMG-prepared Mercedes 6.3 running at Spa. Waxenberger spent his evenings helping Aufrecht prepare the cars for the 1970 race.

Following a 24-hour test at Hockenheim, Waxenberger realised tyre fatigue was the killer. Dieted to the limit, the car still weighed 3500lb. He asked for fender flares 'like every other team used', but was refused unless he would promise they were standard SEL wear. M-B decided to Spa anyway, changing rubber every 15-20 laps.

The tyre problem was chunking, not wear. These heavyweights were pulling 1 lateral g, even on narrow tyres. Ickx/Herrmann had 358bhp, Glemser/Aaltonen 352 and Waxenberger/Ahrens drove the second (lhd) 6.3 car from Macao. Scherenberg was worried about thrown treads and pulled the team out before the race. Flares and wide tyres were approved immediately but the board vetoed Wax’l’s plan to run in the European Saloon Championship.

The fate of this former team car was rallycross. Waxenberger bent M-B rules to race (and win) in Macao '69.

The cars were sold - two going to Aufrecht who'd founded AMG in 1967. He prepared them for Spa in 1970 and Wax'l spent every free evening helping. But Scherenberg caught him going out the front gate on Friday before the race, so Wax'l had to race manage by phone.

It could have been worse. He was nearly caught racing himself, prior to Spa. AMG wanted to test the car and picked an event at Salzburg Ring. When the driver couldn’t make it, guess who happened to be visiting his parents nearby and had his license with him? Running as 'Enrico', be was spotted by a journalist who suppressed the news for a scoop if M-B ever did come back.

Preparing for these appearances, Wax'l had tested the 6.8 on seven European tracks, establishing comparisons with turbocharged works BMWs, Capris and Camaros. His own best lap of Nurburgring was 9:38 - 17 secs behind the fastest BMW. At that pace, he was running at 6mpg. He was faster than the works Capris and took nearly 2.5 secs off a good 911 time at Monza. But he couldn’t understand Herrmann being 0.2 secs faster around Jarama, until he realised he was 50lbs heavier. He bad the car ballasted and satisfied Bavarian honour with an equal time.

At Spa, AMG could use a five speed manual thanks to homologation by the factory. Waxenberger was a little worried: "We could build just one to race but had to make copies if anybody asked. I finally said: 'Okay' DM 20,000 [about £7000] for a road version, plus installation. One owner insisted and became our best customer. He was overjoyed to have the fastest road-licensed 6.3." Mercedes never raced the cars again and let homologation lapse.

Waxenberger himself laid low for a few years. Until 1977, when the British M-B importer decided to prepare a London-Sydney car for Andrew Cowan. Waxenberger said: "If it's a Mercedes, we'll prepare it, just not officially. It was done by the test department. And I went along for training, setting up depots and flew in six mechanics. I returned home after Asia to make up parts and took them back to Freemantle. Then followed by small plane or chase car with my two best mechanics."
1977 London-Sydney marathon was won by Brirish Mercedes-Benz crew Andrew Cowan, Colin Malkin and Mike Broad

Mercedes (unofficially) ran six 280Es with two retirements and a 1-2-6-8 result. This prompted an attempt on the Safari a year later with four saloons, but engine problems meant three retirements and sixth place. Undaunted, Waxenberger managed to sell the idea of eight cars, four 280E saloons and four 450SLC coupTs, for an 18,000 mile circuit of South America.

The big engineer recalls: "I was always asked: 'where do we have a chance? I said: 'Our cars are too wide and heavy for sprint events. ‘I also saw that the 280 wasn’t fast enough so we slimmed the SLC as much as possible and set the suspension a little higher. Our engines were virtually standard. The drivers screamed about servo steering and a four-speed automatic too. I said automatics stay in them but we'll take out the shift plates next time and use a positive hydraulic pattern."

The rough-edged team boss admits he never pampered drivers as Neubauer had. Kling once told him: "Neubauer was a showman, you're a tough nut." And Jean Todt, Makinen’s co-driver in South America, recently commented he could never treat Ferrari drivers like Wax'l treated him. It's seldom easy to live up to a legend like Neubauer or Uhlenhaut.

His tough, thorough approach paid off. Timo rolled the lead car three times but Cowan, perhaps not the quickest man over a short stage, displayed his ability to go just as fast weeks later as he had at the start. He headed a 1-2-3-4-5-9-10 Mercedes sweep of this five-week chase through 10 countries, including more than 3500 miles of special stages. Mercedes was criticised for calling it a private entry, then hailing the fine result.

Chassis tweaks apart, the 220-230bhp SLCs were almost identical to the 33,354 examples M-B sold between 1972 and 1980. Nothing like a 282bhp lightweight 450 SLC run by the test department, which still felt indestructible. For 1979-'80, Waxenberger proposed a proper rally plan. He gathered six engineers, three technicians, a shipping specialist, foreman and around 30 mechanics to implement it. He realised Mercedes couldn’t be World Champion from the six events selected - the longer, tougher ones - but it could learn and perhaps win the Safari and Bandama. It turned out it would never win the Safari. A 2-4-6-11 in 1979 was the closest any Waxenberger team came, but his cars finished 1-2-3-4 in the Bandama that year, plus two seconds, a third and a fourth in other events. Better than he'd promised the board but not wall-to-wall victories, when M-B expected no less.

Before the 1980 Safari Waxenberger discovered telemetry and fitted a car with 123 sensors. Results were transmitted to a helicopter following Vic Preston Jr. across Kenya. This led to a tough 290bhp car, but bad luck cost a win. Wax'l only got away with his telemetry costs by 'forgetting' to file his expense estimate with Breitschwert before leaving for Africa. When the boss asked how far over budget he was, Wax'l promised to add it all up at the end of the season.

The 1980 season brought a second place in the Cadasur, thirds in the Safari and New Zealand and a fourth in Portugal before their second Bandama effort as his sixth event. At that point there were no victories and French TV told him M-B didn’t have a chance in the Ivory Coast either. Peugeots and the like had been far quicker in training. Waxenberger merely said, Mercedes had trained faster too and would do its best: "Halfway I through we were so far out in front they switched to complaining about this 'German Panzer'."

After the second Bandama, where Wax'l had already lined up Walter Röhrl to drive in a bigger effort the next year, he was reined in again by the board. Waxenberger proposed a 2.5-lire, four-valve engine in two versions, with and without turbocharging. The first would go into a mid-engined car, the other was intended for a four-wheel-drive machine, pre-Audi Quattro: "I guaranteed them a World Championship with those, but marketing got cold feet about selling 100 or 200 of each. When Breitschwert asked which one I wanted, I said: 'Both'. If they couldn't do that, I wouldn't promise a title. The result was neither. "

This was the end of the Waxenberger era at the head of Mercedes competition. He wouldn't touch the 1988 return to big-league saloon racing, because Mercedes wouldn’t do a proper (turbocharged) engine. He'd snuck into a competitor's race saloon at Hockenheim and knew what was needed. In the event, this project fell on its face in the first year: low power.

Wax'l was happy to stay with his own pre-development department. He retired in April 1996, but then spent nine weeks in the Sahara, helping to sort the M-class SUV. The next S-class, due within months and the C replacement, early in 1999, will have as much lead-foot aura as he could slip into them.

The sometimes stodgy image of the three pointed star was certainly different behind the scenes - in the Waxenberger years, at least.

Reprinted from Classic & Sports Car, January 1999
Material supplied by Giovanni Verzoletto