The Mercedes rally car German automaker has a little-known history in rally racing dating back to the 1950s. Long before rally became synonymous with brands like Subaru and Mitsubishi, Mercedes competed with big sedans in the World Rally Championship’s precursor.
Let’s shine a light on Mercedes’ surprising rally pedigree and the motorsport accomplishments of models like the 220, 300SEL 6.3, and 450SLC 5.0.
Mercedes Rally Car Rallying Begins in 1952
Mercedes’ first foray into rallying came in 1952 with the entry of a 300 SL into the legendary Carrera Panamericana road race in Mexico. This initial success led Mercedes to develop the smaller 220 sedan into a competition rally car for the 1955 season.
The stock 220 sedan body hid a highly tuned 2.2L engine making 145hp. With updated suspension and brakes, the 220 proved quick in the hands of drivers like future Formula 1 champion Juan Manuel Fangio. This humble start sparked Mercedes’ rally ambitions.
European Rally Domination in the 1950s
In top-level European rally events, the improved 220 cemented its pace, winning both the 1955 Sicily and 1957 Sardinia rallies outright. The upgraded 220 a/b models with 2.2L engines tuned to nearly 190 hp continued Mercedes’ rally success through 1959.
The tail-fin equipped 220 SE coupe kept Mercedes’ winning momentum going from 1960-1962. Mercedes proved highly competitive even against dedicated sports cars like Porsche and Alfa Romeo. Rallying success helped build the performance reputation of Mercedes’ sedans and coupes.
Mercedes Rally Car Big Power in the 300SEL 6.3
Seeking a powerful luxury flagship, Mercedes dropped a 6.3L V8 into its stately 300SEL sedan in 1968. This gave engineers a new basis for Group 5 rally competition. Extensive modifications turned the Regal 300 SEL into an unlikely rally weapon.
Bored out to 6.9L, the big V8 churned out over 400 hp through a 5-speed racing gearbox. Limited slip differentials put the power down through big 19-inch wheels. Beefed-up suspension and brakes reigned in the bulky sedan’s dynamics. In 1972, the fearsome 300SEL 6.3 won its first rally in Africa – a true underdog victory.
The Surprise 450SLC 5.0 Coupe
Following the success of the huge 300SEL, Mercedes downsized into the new luxury SL coupe for motorsports duty. Introduced in 1973 with a 5.0L V8, the 450SLC became Mercedes’ latest rally experiment. The production coupe’s robust unibody and suspension were well-suited for racing demands.
Now making over 300 hp, the muscular 450SLC took numerous wins in international rallies through the later 1970s. Against the likes of Lancia’s lightweight Stratos, agile Mercedes coupes outpaced exotics to claim European Rally Championship races.
Why Mercedes Ruled Rallies
Given their luxury image and weight, how did Mercedes models find big rally success? Smart engineers maximized the durability of big, smooth engines and sturdy chassis for motorsports duty. This reliability edge allowed hard rally usage without failures.
Balanced suspension tuning also complemented Mercedes’ smooth power delivery for controlled handling at the limit. Rather than raw power, momentum and consistency drove Mercedes rally achievements. Their victories demonstrated excellence in engineering more than peculiar performance.
Mercedes Rally Car Lasting Impressions
Mercedes moved away from competition rallying in the 1980s to focus on Formula 1 and touring cars. But their rally accomplishments left a legacy proving Mercedes could build championship-winning endurance into plush vehicles.
Nowadays rally machinery conjures images of all-wheel drive and turbocharged engines, yet Mercedes found rear-drive rally glory in the 1950s-1970s. Looking back, rally competition complemented Mercedes’ engineering heritage alongside their racing endeavors.