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1987 AMG wagon: Hammer of the Gods of Suburbia

A 1986 Volvo advertisement for its 740 Turbo wagon showed the boxy Swede next to one of the decade’s favorite poster cars, a Ferrari Testarossa, with the headline: “Until Ferrari builds a wagon, this is it.” There was, however, an alternative—a 1987 European wagon that actually could match a Testarossa. But there was only one built.

Jonathan Hodgman is the fortunate collector who owns the only AMG Hammer built in the Clark Griswold body style. It is authentic, confirmed by its builders, who in the 1980s turned Mercedes-Benz cars into super-luxury, supercar slayers—right here in the USA.

Some explanation may be needed for the rare car enthusiast who doesn’t recognize the “AMG” or “Hammer” names. Founded in 1967 by two former Mercedes engineers, Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher, AMG was an independent tuner that turned mild-mannered Mercedes cars into road and track warriors. Mercedes took a controlling stake in AMG in the 1990s and eventually purchased the whole company in 2005 to make it an in-house performance division. During its independent years, however, AMG had a significant American footprint.

Some American enthusiasts bought AMG-modified Mercedes cars through gray-market dealers, but then something much better came along. Richard Buxbaum’s Classic Motors, located in the Chicago suburb of Westmont, Ill., offered all manner of federalized European luxury and performance cars not officially sold here by their manufacturers. In 1981, AMG signed Buxbaum as its U.S. agent. Later, AMG North America was formed, with Aufrecht as a one-third owner.

Exotica from Illinois

Buxbaum’s Westmont shop converted many hundreds of Mercedes into AMGs, using parts shipped from Germany, and it also sold performance and cosmetic parts to Mercedes owners. Leading the technical end was Hartmut Feyhl, who would later start his own company, RENNtech. Beautiful wide-body SEC coupes, favorites of Hollywood and sports elite, were among the machines that emerged from AMG North America.

In Germany, AMG’s Melcher had designed a 32-valve, DOHC cylinder head conversion for the Mercedes M117 V-8. This exclusive powerplant would become the heart of perhaps the most famous AMG of all, a formerly mild-mannered E-Class sedan transformed into a supercar-baiting animal. The car had no name until an American journalist pronounced it “as subtle as a hammer.” Since hammer has the same meaning in German and English, AMG made the name official.

Kits shipped from Germany to AMG North America included everything needed to turn a six-cylinder Mercedes 300E into a Hammer: the AMG-modified 375-horsepower 6.0-liter DOHC Mercedes V-8; a tweaked automatic transmission; chassis and driveline upgrades from the larger S-Class; special body parts, interior trim and more. The starting price in 1987 was a rather astonishing $125,000, not including the cost of a 300E. That's for the basic conversion, and AMG customers usually loaded on the options. One of Hodgman's other Hammers, a sedan, has paperwork detailing a total cost of $178,000.

Until Ferrari builds a wagon…

Car and Driver declared the Hammer “the hottest passenger sedan in history.” It was an apt description for a midsize car that could blast from 0-60 mph in five seconds flat, burn the quarter mile in 13.5 seconds at 107 mph, and top out at 180. The magazine recorded almost identical results from a Ferrari Testarossa, which, by the way, cost about $60,000 less than the Hammer.

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AMG North America would go on to build about 13 of the 30 or so Hammers made. Paul Fingold, a Canadian customer who’d bought numerous cars from Buxbaum, asked for something special for his wife: a Hammer wagon. Even AMG in Germany had not built one, but Buxbaum agreed. The project started with a 300TD diesel wagon, the only Mercedes wagon offered in the U.S. at the time. The conversion was more difficult than the sedan, requiring numerous specialized parts. Hodgman says the extra custom work drove the original price well above $200,000.

Prior to being delivered to Fingold, the Hammer wagon was trailered to a large gathering of AMG owners at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., in June 1987. There, a knocking sound was traced to the custom-made exhaust headers hitting the firewall. The V-8 was pulled, and Feyhl climbed into the engine bay to increase clearance by pounding the firewall with a hammer.

There was almost a second Hammer wagon. A 1988 long roof was built with a 6.0-liter version of the Mercedes SOHC V-8, but since this did not have the AMG DOHC engine, it was called the “Mallet.”

If I had a Hammer ... or three

Those dents are still there, according to Hodgman, a long-term Mercedes and AMG buff who runs his Mercedes repair business, Blue Ridge MB, from a 13,000 square-foot shop in Liburn, Ga., northeast of Atlanta. About 10 years ago, Hodgman bought his first AMG, a 1986 AMG 560 SEL with DOHC V-8. A year later, a West Coast seller offered a disassembled Hammer. Hodgman has since reassembled the car and drives it.

He’d been watching the wagon. The car went through RENNtech in 1992, when AMG North America veteran Feyhl installed new cams and other upgrades. It was sold again through Beverly Hills Motoring, which sold AMG North America cars in the 1980s. Hodgman bagged it at the 2010 Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale auction.

The auction also included a Hammer coupe, but Hodgman was at his limit with the wagon. Five years later, the coupe’s owner sold it to Hodgman. His Hammer sedan has 23,000 miles, the coupe has 29,000, and the wagon shows 46,000 kilometers.

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Ted Gushue

Having worked on his three Hammers, Hodgman has noted the differences. “No two are alike. You can see improvements made along the way.”

The AMG M117 engine is always a challenge, Hodgman says. Early versions were prone to cam bearing failure, the porous head castings can be leakers, and the complexity of the valvetrain is daunting.

“It takes us two days to do a valve adjustment. It’s an ordeal,” Hodgman says. “But these engines run so sweetly when they’re all dialed in.”

The Hammer wagon’s engine, with RENNtech’s tweaks, produces about 410 hp. Hodgman replaced the 3.27:1 axle ratio with a more highway-friendly 2.24, which turns 3,000 rpm at 90 mph and, he says, helps to preserve the rear tires.

The car is gaining more celebrity status; Mercedes-Benz showcased the Hammer wagon in its Classic Center display during Monterey Car Week 2017. Hodgman considered it a celebrity long before that.