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Waxenberger's Express

 

Born in the small Bavarian town of Miesbach, Erich Waxenberger grew up around motorized vehicles. His father and sister managed a DKW dealership and Waxenberger senior raced motorcycles in spring and summer while using the winter months to hone his skills on the frozen lakes around town. One could say, young “Waxl’” (as he was called) had it in the blood. (Photo: Waxl' and what looks like a production model 300 SEL 6.3 but for the extra large gas tank and customized license plate. Who ever said Germans had no sense of humor!)

 

Graduating from the Academy of Applied Technology in Munich in 1953 as the institution’s second best and second youngest graduate encouraged him still further to race and win and on the Monday after his last exam, the young Bavarian started work in the Passenger Car Testing department at Daimler-Benz where he would aspire to more speed for the next 43 years.  (Photo: Waxl' as a young man.)

Within two years at the company the young Bavarian would follow in the footsteps of the great Arthur Mischke as Head of Testing and in 1956 he moved on to the chassis development department. Here his primary task was the production and development of the trio of SL variants the 190SL, 300 SL Gullwing and the 300 SL roadster. Other experimental models were placed in his care such as the W127 series, a 190 SL with a 2.2 liter direct injection inline six engine that never made it to production. Then, at last, he was tasked with the development of the “Pagoda” SL, specifically it’s preparation for rallying in 1963 and 4. 

 

Wax'l developed a reputation for being an extremely pragmatic and flexible engineer. Once when a car broke down in the middle of a test drive, young Waxl’ did not hesitate to crawl under the car to jerry rig it so it could complete the test drive. He must have had duct tape in his back pocket. His ingeniousness that day did not go unnoticed as standing by the side of the track waiting for the show to go on was non other than legendary Head Engineer and Member of the Board of Management Fritz Nallinger. As the others grumbled about the breakdown, Nallinger commented without hesitation: “Let him be, Waxenberger always finds a way.” The complement from one of the pillars of the Pre-War Daimler-Benz made Waxl’ proud but alarmed many of his contemporaries jealous of his already close relationship with the legendary Head of Testing Rudolf Uhlenhaut. In fact, Waxl’s most enduring contribution to Daimler-Benz history was made possible by the patronage of his two illustrious superiors and sparked by the friendly dig of a journalist.

 

Sometime in the summer of 1966, Hans Ulrich Wieselmann, Chief Editor of the preeminent German car magazine Auto Motor und Sport came to visit his old friend Rudolf Uhlenhaut in his office. A race fanatic himself, who had witnessed Uhlenhaut’s glory days before and after the war, soon re-directed the conversation towards Mercedes’ current serious lack of racing mojo. Turning to Waxl’ he said, “You’re finally getting old too”. Wieselmann had publically commented that Mercedes had sunken to building cars for “executives, farmers and retirees,” and this final jab lit a fuse in Waxl to do something about it.   

 

His first idea was to add a turbo to the 3-liter inline six found in the newly resigned Mercedes executive saloons of the day. The solution was soon shot down by the engineering staff, certain the already overstressed and high - revving inline six couldn’t withstand the pressure.

True to his never-taking-a-no for an answer reputation, Waxl had an epiphany. By hook or by crook, he would shoe horn the goliathan 6.3 V8 of the 600 flagship sedan into the smaller saloon and Mercedes’ “Autobahn - Honor” would be restored.  In theory is was possible, as the big V8 was only being built in minuscule numbers and the production line had extra capacity. So he began sketching, turning the scribbling’s over at night to keep them hidden from his boss and colleagues. 

 

 

Next he finessed the unibody of a 250 SE coupe that had fallen off the factory assembly conveyor belt. It suited his purposes perfectly as the engine bay had almost identical dimensions to the sedan he wished to enliven. Nevertheless, Waxl’s shoe-horn would be working overtime. Everything was done according to his basic sketches with much of the steering mechanism getting modified as well as the engine’s intake and exhaust manifolds. The test mule was even given a manual truck transmission to give the car a more sporty feel.  (Photo: Mercedes 250 SE Coupe similar to the one used by Waxl' as a test mule) 

 

The whole project was financed by the VIP Clients account that usually covered custom modifications for very special clients. Of course all this was done without the knowledge of the head of the media department who was responsible for the account.

 

On a Friday night in 1967 the secretive work finally paid off and the beast was ready. At around 10:30 pm, hoping everyone had left the office and he would go undetected, Waxl’ fired up the beast and rumbled around the block. Impressed with his handiwork, he snuck it back in the shop and went home. His smugness was short-lived as on Saturday morning his slumber was cut short by a call from his boss Rudolf Uhlenhaut, remarking he had heard a V8 race car rumble by his office the night before and if Waxl knew anything about it. It was time to confess.

 Waxl explained that Wieselmann’s comment a short while before about getting old had struck a nerve and so had crammed a V8 into a coupe to show once and for all that Mercedes had not given up on speed. Uhlenhaut, still incredulous that the shoe-horning had worked demanded to see the car the next day, Sunday. But the drive never happened. Knowing that the prototype was not quit ready for its 15 minutes of fame let alone the discerning bottom of MB’s racing eminence grilse, Waxl had his conspiring mechanic remove the front brakes to hobble the car temporarily.  

Three days later, Uhlenhaut finally had his first taste of what would become a legend. He was thrilled. Nevertheless, he asked for a few modifications before he could present the project to the management board. He wanted more comfort but also less body roll in corners. And he wanted it ready within a fortnight. Basically - the impossible. (Photo: Rudolf Uhlenhaut, Legend, Father of the 300 SL "Gullwing" and Waxl' long-suffering boss.)

 

Waxl’s concoction was completed on time and the board were enthralled - all but one. The board-member responsible for German inland sales began to object complaining the car was dangerous and that the government would never certify it. He added that they’d never sell fifty of them. Finally Professor Nallinger overruled all objections. As far as he was concerned, once improvements such as air conditioning and better brakes had been added, Waxl’s Skunk-Works Monster was a go.

 

In typical extreme Waxl fashion, two test mules were taken not to the Nürburgring but to the Sahara and raced over the desert at speeds up to 232 km/h. Soon it was discovered that the rear axles overheated. Next they took the cars to the Stelvio Pass where the power-steering fluid overheated.

 

Waxl’ himself did some extracurricular testing on trips to visit his parents in Miesbach, Bavaria. It was on one of these “commutes” that he blew past a Porsche 911. While stopping for gas later, the Porsche pulled up at the pump next to him…

 

Humiliated Porsche Driver: “What kind of a car is that you’re driving?”

Waxl’: “Cant you see? It’s written on the back.”

Humiliated Porsche Driver: “But it can’t just be a standard 250 SE. I had my foot to the floor and you passed me like a I was standing still.”

Waxl’: “Well, your speedo must be out-of-whack. You just weren’t going flat out”

Humiliated Porsche Driver: “That can’t be, I’m sure I was doing 230”

Waxl’: “Then you must be missing two cylinders.”

           

Shortly after the production car’s launch at the 1968 Geneva Car show, Waxl received a phone call. “Maybe you remember me. I’m the Porsche driver from the other day. Now I know why you told me I was missing two cylinders.”

             In the end, only six weeks passed between the first test drive of the 250 SE coupe mule to the final production car shown in March 1968. Waxl’s team worked weekends to produce two exemplars for the Geneva show; one without a drive train to show on the MB stand and the “Full Monty” to demonstrate to the press.

 

6526 exemplars of MB’s wolf in sheep clothing were sold. The sight of its distinctive stacked halogen headlights in the rear-view mirror continued to petrify Porsche drivers and even the exalted few Ferrari’s in Germany preferred to err on the side of caution. There was no competition. But Waxl’s was still not satisfied. He wanted to race! (Photos: a. Burnouts! DB-Style. b. Looking menacing in gun metal grey with the iconic "Mexican Hat" aluminum wheels. c.Front page of the sales brochure. ) 

The Mercedes dealer in Hong Kong, had called suggesting a 6.3 be entered in the 6 Hours of Macau Race in November ‘68, the only long distance contest in the far-east at the time. Uhlenhaut, gave them the OK, crossing his fingers they might win which would lessen the reprimand they would surely all get from the MB board once news of their escapade got out.

Since the tragic 1955 accident at Le Mans that had killed French MB works driver Pierre Levegh and 83 spectators, wounding 180 more, the German firm had voluntarily retired from nearly all racing activity. Only in rallying did Mercedes still offer cars and technical support. To get around this challenge, the 6.3 entered in Macau was most likely owned by Hong Kong Billionaire Sir Albert Poon who would also co-drive it.  (Photo: Waxl' racing to victory in the 6 Hours of Macau.)

 

On arrival in Macau, the renegades from Hong Kong were almost laughed off the track. There was no way their thirsty leviathan could compete against purpose tuned BMW Turbos, Porsche’s and Hondas and Mazdas. Waxl himself was not convinced of his teams’ skills and so insisted on driving the car during qualifying, placing it in pole position. The rules stipulated that each driver could race a maximum of three hours at a time and so Waxl had to hand over the wheel to Poon who spun the car in his third lap. After suffering in the pits for twenty minutes, Waxl got back in the driver seat and fought his way back from fifth place to win the race drifting the beast sideways every lap to make a hairpin.  After pocketing the 10,000 DM equivalent prize money, Wax’l worked up the courage to call MB’s Director of Research and Development Hans Scherenberg at home.

 

Waxl’: “We’ve won!”

Sherenberg: “Who was driving?

Waxl’: “Well. Ok. … I didn’t want us to loose.”

Sherenberg: (with a knowing sigh.) “Waxenberger, who was driving?”

Waxl’: “Alright, I admit it. It was me.”

Scherenberg: (German expletives about engineers taking unnecessary risks and insurance policies etc.)

 

In the end, Waxl received a further 10,000 DM bonus from MB in addition to the 10,000 prize money he had already pocketed from the race organizers. Further testing was done with the car at the Nürburgring, Zolder, the Salzburgring, Monza and Madrid, but NO RACING. The board was adamant.

 

But Waxl’ tried one more time. He added an engine specialist to his team and bored the standard 6.3 engine to 6.8 and removed the vibration damper. His aim was the 1969 running of Spa. Three cars were prepared with Waxl’ as well as three other professional drivers ready for the unsanctioned gig. What is most telling about his choices is that all three of Waxl’s co -drivers had mastered exceedingly hairy cars in their careers and Aaltonen himself had earned himself the nickname “The Rally Professor” for his skills at racing sideways. It seemed Waxl’ was leaving nothing to chance this time.

 

Unfortunately at the last minute the board found out and made it clear as glass that no “Frankensteined” 6.3s would be racing at Spa that year. The big beast had a tendency to consume tires at an alarming rate, which the board feared might jeopardize a win and embarrass the company.  Realizing his dreams of racing victory were being shelved for now, Waxl’ did something providential. He gave the 1969 Spa cars to AMG. (Photo: Training for Spa in 1969. Unfortunately tire problems stopped Waxl' and his teammates from racing that year.) 

 

AMG’s founders Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher had once worked on rally car engines under Waxl’s leadership in the development department. When in 1967, despite multiple rallying wins of both 220SE and 300 SE sedans in places as far flung as Argentina, the mandarins on the board finally pulled the plug on what remained of any MB racing involvement, the Young Turks bolted.

 

Unwilling to help Waxl build taxis, farmers cars, and over engineered locomotion for murderous dictators, Aufrecht and Melcher set up their own shop in Großaspach.  There they developed hot-cam setups and other go-fast bits for similarly race-mad, MB customers.  Now Waxl’ had convinced MB to give two cars to the prodigal sons.

 

On top of Waxl’s earlier increase in cubic inches, Aufrecht and Melcher and their band of rebels used every trick in the Annals of German Hot-Rodding to turn Waxl’s Express into a fire-breathing monster. Oddly enough, automatic transmission, air conditioning and a rear bench seat remained. Finally, the Red Sow was ready to race. (The car is commonly called ‘Red Pig” in English which is an unfortunate mistranslation of its original German nickname “Rote Sau” (Photos: The Red Pig scaring economy sedans and eating BMW's for breakfast in Spa in 1971 under the stewardship of the prodigal sons at AMG)

The first outing, maybe in honor of Waxl’s aborted 1969 attempt, was to be the 1971’s 24 Hours of Spa and was a huge success giving AMG a second place finish. (Photo: Hans Heyer and Clemens Schickentanz beaming at their stellar performance.) 

 

But as a dress rehearsal the newcomers took their beast to the Salzburgring for one final shakedown. Waxl came along to support his buddies and before the beginning of the race Aufrecht asked him if he wanted to drive. Still wary of getting busted by his superiors, Waxl hesitated at first, muttering as if to himself that there would be hell to pay if he showed up on the starting grid. But in the end, he caved to the temptation and took the Red Sow on her first racing adventure under the pseudonym “Enrico”, managing a rather respectable third place against Porsches and Alfas half the big girl’s size. As he rushed behind a truck in the paddock after the end of the race to remove his helmet and racing jacket before anyone spotted him, a German journalist caught him;

 

Journalist: “That’s going to be a sensation, Mr. Waxenberger. Mercedes throwing its hat back into racing again!”

Waxl: “If you write that now they’ll have my guts for garters but if you hold off to when we’re officially back in the ring, I’ll give you an exclusive.”

 

Luckily for Waxl the journalist was true to his word and when Mercedes officially returned to the scene in the 1980’s under Waxl’s watchful eye going head to head with Bavarian archrival BMW in the German Touring Car Championship, the journalist got his reward.

Waxl’ would continue to race under the radar for a few more years even taking the old 250 SE test mule on the Acropolis Rally, but finally even Uhlenhaut could no longer afford to look the other way and Waxl retired his driving gloves.

The 6.3 remains Mercedes’ original velvet hot rod, soon spawning the technological powerhouse 450 SEL 6.9. Even the Porsche co-designed 500 E of the early 90’s can trace its DNA back to the grandfather of Mercedes Performance with Four Doors. The Red Sow’s racing career was short-lived due to its extreme appetite for tires. (The original wheels and tires were borrowed from the C-111 aerodynamic experimental car.) It was finally sold to MATRA where after being stretched into something akin to a dachshund served as a test bed for fighter aircraft landing gear. (Photo: The Red Pig in her second life masquerading as a stretched limo for MATRA)

 

A purpose-built replica of the original Beast of Francorchamps serves as the spiritual godfather of the Mercedes-AMG Division, long since back under Daimler’s wing. (Photo: The Red Pig Replica at the Mercedes Pavillion at Pebble Beach 2015.)

 

My father had a 6.3 around the time I was born. He bought it in 1970 after throwing a rod on his 300SE convertible. I was much too young to remember but I finally got to drive one about twenty years ago. As you can see from this article, I haven’t been the same since.

 

 

 

Sources:

http://www.auto-motor-und-sport.de/news/erich-waxenberger-eiliger-vater-1105123.html

http://www.auto-motor-und-sport.de/news/erich-waxenberger-eiliger-vater-11-1105125.html

http://media.daimler.com/marsMediaSite/en/instance/ko/Waxenberger-always-finds-a-way.xhtml?oid=9918274

http://www.m-100.co/6point3/magazines/classicandsportscar_jan1999/waxenberger.html

http://www.racingsportscars.com/etcc/results/Spa-1969-07-27.html

http://www.auto-motor-und-sport.de/news/sonderausstellung-prototyp-foto-heinz-ulrich-wieselmann-1299358.html

http://www.snaplap.net/mercedes-300sel-6-8-rote-sau-luxurious-race-car/