Want a pre-merger AMG? Beware of murky waters
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As Radwood-era vehicles of the 1980s and 1990s have become more sought after, the rarer and more special examples are coming to market more often. The cars built by AMG (named for founders Aufrecht and Melcher in Großaspach) before the legendary tuning shop became part of Mercedes-Benz are prominent among this set. However, as with any developing market, it is best to get a handle on the nuances before getting caught up in the rush.
A full history of pre-merger AMG cars and their modifications is beyond the scope of this report, but we will hit upon the key features.
Made in Germany … and Westmont, Illinois
Many early AMG cars were converted in Germany for the European and Japanese markets. Some of those cars were imported to the U.S. in the contemporary gray market but others were imported more recently. However, not all AMG cars came from Germany—there was also an AMG-licensed U.S. agent in Westmont, Illinois, founded in 1981. Conversion kits shipped from Germany included exterior tweaks and the all-important drivetrain modifications. With modified S Classes often shown on the TV show Miami Vice (soundtrack by Jan Hammer) alongside Crockett’s Testarossa and occasional Jalpa, real AMG conversions became popular, and so did imitations.
Two vehicles that AMG nailed in the 1980s were the 560SEC and the 300E (the C126- and 124-series cars, for the chassis-code nerds out there). The 560SEC looked the part of a 1980s television villain, with widebody box-fender flares, and backed it up with a 6.0-liter, DOHC conversion of the standard SOHC 5549-cc V-8 engine. That engine also shoehorned into the 300E, and the 181-mph sedan was deemed the Hammer. Usually seen as a sedan, one Hammer wagon and a handful of coupes were built.
With the dawn of the 1990s and the launch of the new, R129-generation SL, AMG offered the same 6.0-liter V-8 in the new roadster. When the V-12 SL debuted a couple of years later, AMG enlarged the 6.0-liter V-12 engine to 7.3 liters, an iteration also used later in the Pagani Zonda.
Partnership with Mercedes-Benz, new perspective on the past
By 1990, Mercedes-Benz and AMG agreed to cooperate on developing new models. It would take a couple of years, though, before new AMG models could be bought directly from a Mercedes-Benz showroom, let alone developed from scratch. The slow change of AMG meant that it took a while for the market to wake up to the specialness of the pre-merger AMG cars.
Your values may vary
Early AMG cars started to appear at auctions in the mid-2010s, but it wasn’t until 2019 when RM Sotheby’s featured several examples from the Youngtimer Collection that the market gained momentum. Even then, a range of values was possible.
For example, one 560SEC fitted with widebody flares, the 6.0-liter DOHC V-8, and the popular monoblock alloy wheels sold for €149,500 (about $167,400) while the other with similar features sold for €297,500 (about $333,200). Why the difference? One had the original AMG engine, and one did not. The DOHC conversion developed by AMG has a reputation for leaking and not being especially durable, so finding one with the original engine is hard. Consequently, cars converted back to an unmodified SOHC engine are not entirely uncommon. Then there are undocumented cars, narrow-body cars, and “tribute” cars, all of which bring less money and further muddy the waters.
Several pre-merger AMG cars are coming to market in Florida at The Amelia auctions and, if the estimates are any indication, the wide spread of values will likely persist. Broad Arrow has two for sale, both of which are 124-series cars. A 300CE converted to a widebody and fitted with the 6.0-liter V-8 engine in rarely seen Nautical Blue Metallic has an estimate of $750,000 to $850,000. A 300E-based Hammer sedan with a 6.0-liter DOHC V-8 carries an estimate of $575,000 to $625,000. Bonhams has a 1990 model-year R129 SL roadster with AMG’s 6.0-liter V-8 that carries an estimate of $130,000 to $160,000.
If you want a similar bang for fewer bucks, remember that the Hammer inspired Mercedes-Benz to enlist the assistance of another German company that knew a thing or two about performance—Porsche—to build its own super sedan, the 500E. Broad Arrow and Gooding & Company will each have examples on offer (the former with an estimate of $60,000–$80,000, the latter at $70,000–$100,000).
As with any up-and-coming market, the rush to get in on the action can surpass the prudence of doing due diligence. The pre-merger AMG cars offer a rush of performance, but the market can also catch out uninformed buyers. Be sure to get a handle on what you’re buying.