If you were a Wolf of Wall Street type in 1986, it was a good year for vulgar cars. You could walk into a Lamborghini showroom and purchase a white Countach, or you could go to Ferrari and have a Testarossa just like Sonny and Rico on Miami Vice. If you were a titan of the nascent tech industry, you'd probably have bought a Porsche 959 as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did.
If, however, you wanted a very fast car which was a little less vulgar, you needed to look farther afield, all the way to AMG in Affalterbach, Germany. You'd pay this small tuning company an obscene amount of money – $125,000 (U.S.) back then, which is $375,000 Canadian today – to turn a Mercedes E-Class into the Hammer, an overpowered cigar lounge capable of 303 km/h. Sadly, very few people had the good sense and vast finances to make this choice in 1986, so the Hammer is extremely rare.
This is the OG German muscle car, the car that made AMG's reputation, a thug in Hugo Boss.
Meeting the Hammer in person is like meeting a celebrity. Everybody who knows what it is can't stop staring. They are drawn closer by its Teutonic good looks and to find out if the legends are true. Note the subtle details: the flared fenders, the fat three-piece alloy wheels, the aggressive stance. To the uninitiated it looks like just another old Mercedes, which is part of the appeal. Nobody would've suspected this stately Benz would keep pace with Ferraris and Lambos in its day.
In its 1986 road test, Car and Driver magazine concluded, "the Hammer is the most scintillating sedan we have driven. The C/D staff drools as one."
Twisting the key to open the door I already know this is the coolest car I've ever driven. It was cool before I knew what cool was.
Inside, it's pure decadence. Imagine the analog cockpit of an old 747 but swathed in wood veneer and perforated black leather with a pair of La-Z-Boy recliners. There are so many buttons and it's not clear what most of them do, but they look important. The seats are infinitely electrically adjustable, sculpting to cosset every size and shape of buttock.
The speedometer with its yellow needle goes to all the way to 340 km/h. There are no Mercedes badges in the cabin, just the letters "AMG" debossed on the leather steering wheel.
The V-8 engine starts with a rumble so deep it's almost inaudible. You feel it as much as hear it. It's lower-pitched but not as loud as newer AMGs.
This particular car is from AMG's own collection. Technically, it's a 1988 Mercedes 300 CE 6.0 AMG with the widebody kit. "Hammer" was actually a nickname given by the press, but AMG adopted it wholeheartedly.
Earlier Hammers had 5.6-litre engines but this later example has the 6.0 producing 385 horsepower and 417 lb-ft of torque. AMG took the big V-8 from a Mercedes S-Class, polished and blueprinted it and then put their own four-valve, twin-cam head on top before stuffing it in this W124 E-Class coupe. The engineers in Affalterbach also redid the suspension, added the wide alloys and a body kit.
This gave AMG a reputation as a bunch of power-crazed madmen off in German farm country – which they were. Lamborghini's Countach made less power and was slower from 0-100 km/h, a sprint which the 5.6-litre Hammer – a family sedan, remember – did in 5.1 seconds according to Car and Driver.
Now, three decades later, it still feels absurd. The Hammer rumbles past rolling green hills and through the Adenau Forest, floating over narrow country roads. The ride is cushy compared to modern cars.
The pillar-less side windows disappear completely inviting you to stick your left elbow on the door.
Drop to first gear and put the hammer down and it leaves two black streaks on the tarmac until it shifts to second. The 6.0-litre V-8 pulses like the subwoofer at a Skrillex concert. It's got an immensely satisfying shove for a 30-year-old car.
It's not all good though. The four-speed automatic transmission is abysmal, reacting slower than dial-up Internet. You can get around that by simply leaving it in third and cruising on a wave of torque up to 140 km/h at 6,000 rpm. The throttle pedal has a big dead zone where it simply does nothing. This car is running modern tires which have too much grip for the chassis. On period-correct rubber it would be even more entertaining. Most terrifying, however, are the brakes, which are totally inadequate for stopping this 1,650-kilogram chunk of metal.
Understeer is its default mode going into corners. The car rolls around, as does its driver. The La-Z-Boys don't provide much support. But the thin, light steering wheel comes alive once the suspension has settled. Trail braking gently gets the nose tucked in and a heavy right foot brings the oversteer.
The car moves like rolling thunder rumbling toward the horizon. It's so smooth you don't feel the speed. It's sublime.
The thing about the Hammer is that you don't just want to drive it, you kind of want to be like it. People aspire their whole lives to be this cool and powerful. It's the same reason people choose pitbulls or poodles – they see something of themselves in them.
AMG has since become part of Mercedes-Benz. Its cars are not as absurdly overpowered anymore. They're more visually and sonically attention-grabbing, covered in intricate chrome badges. They're certainly less rare, too. Everything from affordable subcompacts to big SUVs are available with the full AMG go-fast treatment. Global sales have tripled since 2013. In gaining mainstream acceptance, the brand has necessarily been diluted. However, the cars at its core – the C and E 63, the GT – still adhere to the Hammer's basic formula; AMGs are still muscle cars at heart.
The Wolf of Wall Street can keep his vulgar white Countach. Pass me the Hammer.