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One man, one engine: the wholly unstoppable force of Mercedes-AMG

By on 18 January 2013 in Cars

One man, one engine: the wholly unstoppable force of Mercedes-AMG
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Walking up at 4:30 in the dark of Reims with memories of our – literally – deeply impressive visit to Piper-Heidsieck was a decidedly unusual way to start the second day of the Prodigal Run 2012.

Oh, who are we kidding? The reality is that every day spent on the Run was the pain of the early starts, long stretches on the road and the constant threat of the European law-enforcement community communally facing off against the privilege of having a Mercedes-AMG SLS Roadster as our ride, the sights and sounds of a blurred landscape and the genuine awe we experienced at each magical stopping point.

Trust the French to be able to kiss and slap you within the same 24 hours.

There was, however, nothing magical about trying to find someone to check us out of our hotel at 5:00. Or attempting to remember where we parked the SLS within a 5-story parking lot. Or even having to manoeuvre a EUR 250,000 car around sadistically tight corners and ramps of said parking structure. Trust the French to be able to kiss and slap you within the same 24 hours. Hard.

We eventually made it out of Reims with the dark still firmly in charge of the sky. It seemed only fair given we were behind the wheel of an SLS, ensuring near-total road-dominance. Let’s call it a draw, shall we?

We hunkered down inside the SLS, our eyeballs aglow with the light of the B&O tweeters, and furiously entered  the coordinates of our next destination, some 430 km away to the East. Amusingly, this was to be the tale of the prodigal son come to life writ large over the flanks of a super-GT. Without needing to be repentant, mind you.

The SLS was going home.

The SLS was going home, to the birthplace of its magnificent 6.3-litre V8 engine: the AMG engine assembly plant in Affalterbach, Germany.

Blackened skies, clear roads and an endless supply of crisp, clean air meant we did the only thing we could: we buried the throttle and held on for dear life. Departing France to enter Germany was a blitzkrieg, but in reverse. The manner in which the SLS can hit 125 mph from a peage stop beggars belief. All this while stunning fellow motorists with the aural violence of our twin exhausts. The Fool took a liking to lifting off after full throttle runs so that we could both cackle and gargle along in tune with the controlled misfires emanating from just behind our ears. And derrieres.

In typical fashion, we made our lives that much more difficult by entering the wrong address into the satnav. This meant that the last 100km of our trip were spent trying to find the outer limits of the SLS performance envelope. Yeah, we weren’t able to locate them, folks.

You spend most of your time chasing 571 horses in an SLS, rather than “steering” them.

Turns out you spend most of your time chasing 571 horses in an SLS, rather than “steering” them. Well, that’s not entirely correct. Six and the Fool came up with the perfect analogy for the AMG driver-engine experience, one that has its roots in a galaxy far, far away: podracing.

Star Wars Episode 1 was almost entirely forgettable, excepting the wild podrace. The latter were small, one-man repulsorcraft made up of an anti-gravity pod propelled by one or more pairs of large turbine engines, the latter connected to the pods themselves by means of long cables. Yes, that begins to give you a taste of what it’s like to be pulled along by an engine as powerful, unburstable and as unconstrained as this. We were always firmly in the grasp of this leviathan of a combustion engine, hearing, thinking and feeling little else.

The SLS is all about the engine.

The SLS – the first car built entirely by Mercedes-AMG, versus modified by – is all about the engine, you see. So, how apt to discover at the assembly plant that that is exactly how they’re set-up: entirely around these divine and unforgettable engines.

It was humbling to pull into the Affalterbach complex. Not least because the Union Jack was fluttering in the November wind, courtesy of the welcoming committee. With the SLS still pinging and ponging from our hair-raising run from Reims, the good folk of AMG greeted us – or more exactly the car – as the parents of the prodigal son no doubt did: with forgiveness, understanding and sincere love.

It’s difficult to describe just how proud the staff at AMG are of their engines and cars, and we’ve experienced enough tired/mock enthusiasm to smell the difference between that and the real thing.

Moving into the AMG showroom, we quickly downloaded several cups of espresso while soaking up the sights of a portion of the AMG family parked around us, including the coupe version of the SLS. In truth, we recall somewhat overwhelming the staff as we downloaded our SLS experiences to date. They smiled graciously, answering our every question with total authority and confidence. After all, these were the folk who built it.

Why have just a mere V12 when you can strap two turbos onto it and make it truly Prodigal, right?

It didn’t take long for us to be taken out of the showroom and over to the engine “shop”, as AMG refer to it. It is in this two-story, almost 10,000 square-metre space that all of the AMG high-performance engines are assembled. To be precise, five engines are assembled here: the 5.5-litre V8; 6.3-litre V8; 5.5-litre V8 bi-turbo; 6.3-litre V8 SLS; and the 6.0-litre V12 bi-turbo. Because why have just a mere V12 when you can strap two turbos onto it and make it truly prodigal, right? For the record, power outputs for the range vary from 422 horsepower to, ahem, 751 horsepower.

In contrast to large-series production, every Mercedes-AMG engine is traditionally assembled by hand according to the “one man, one engine” philosophy. A single AMG technician assembles the complete engine in the AMG engine shop in Affalterbach, and is responsible for everything: from the installation of the crankshaft in the engine block to the assembly of the camshaft and the cables and oil fill-up. Once this is all completed, the technician’s name is then put on the engine plate.

It’s this name plate that brought the AMG philosophy home to us. Why? Because we met the man who assembled the engine of our SLS – a bearded Steffen Gunther – during our tour of the assembly plant. That contact, and the realisation that the AMG assembly plant has more in common with haute horlogerie than anything else, clarified that this is no normal assembly line. It is the very embodiment of the AMG philosophy: one man, one engine. And all passion, given there is no shortage of folk trying to work here.

Furthermore, this isn’t a mass-production line: we have to push our guides to get an approximate number of engines each technician assembles in a day. This turns out to be approximately 3, or almost 1,000 engines per technician annually. The older chap featured in the video and pics has been with AMG for over 17 years, meaning over 15,000 AMG engines are out there with his name plate on them. Inspiring, no?

Over a tasty lunch in the cavernous lounge, we chat about AMG, its engine philosophy and where this all goes next. We’re told that AMG will only develop models and engines that can challenge current segment leaders. And beat them at their own game. Indeed, the upcoming A-class AMG will have the highest, forced-induction engine output in its class, meaning somewhere around the 370-horsepower mark. Turns out smaller displacement engines are unable to resist the AMG power-play.

The customisation boutique underlines just how far AMG has come since its days of modding.

The final leg of the tour sees us poring over customer’s cars, either being finalised ahead of delivery or serviced. The customisation boutique underlines just how far AMG has come since its days of modding engines in a garage. You can spec the car any way you want: exterior, interior and across the performance part spectrum. The only limit is your imagination, wallet and good taste.

We were always aware of just how special the SLS was, being the first-ever vehicle to be produced by Mercedes-AMG. There can be no doubt that as an overall proposition, the SLS has firmly established itself as a definitive super-GT; perhaps even the definitive super-GT. Five days and 3,000km spent bonding with the SLS (including the loss of one driving license…) means we’re comfortable making that claim.

And yet, the true character of the SLS physically manifested itself to us through the petite name plate bearing the signature of the man who assembled the 6.3-litre V8 engine. Our engine. No amount of carbon-fibre, leather, advanced composites or technologies could ever compete with the kind of luxury that allows you to shake the hand of the person that made your automotive pride and joy what it is. What it always will be: a car imbued with genuine soul.


One man, one engine: the wholly unstoppable force of Mercedes-AMG

We were in no doubt that the Mercedes-AMG SLS Roadster was a super-GT, perhaps even the super-GT. What we weren’t expecting was that a trip to the AMG engine assembly plant and a name plate with a single signature were key to discovering the SLS’ very soul.

All photos by The Prodigal Guide

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Straight-Six had a proper job as a journalist for Dow Jones before lowering himself gently into the warm, forgiving waters of The Guide. He’s our resident fanatic: he relished detailing his BMW M3 for two full days at a time before crashing it at Eau Rouge in the wet; he spends insane amounts on his home-cinema system and has thrown tens of thousands of euros at vintage Rolex sports watches. The little fool simply does not understand the concept of restraint or the meaning of excess. He also – following a legendary "heavy" lunch – once nibbled (yes, like little dogs do) a dear lady friend of ours.

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  • Jack

    Passion, power and responsibility… Indeed!

    • The Prodigal Fool

      I can personally vouch for all three. I hope the passion and the power shine through this post. For the responsibility angle, stay tuned. I have another post up my sleeve about how the SLS very nearly ended up ploughed into a Swiss mountain meadow…

  • Ahmed Elnaggar

    Could the video have been a little shorter?! Why is it so long? :))

    • The Prodigal Fool

      I have some outtakes I’m willing to sell…