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Moments in motorsports: How AMG had the last laugh at Spa in 1971 with the ‘Red Pig’

No one expected a portly sedan to conquer the 1971 Spa 24 Hours
PHOTO: TopGear.com

On a Saturday afternoon 50 years ago in Belgium, a big red four-door sedan sat on a starting line nestled amongst lightweight, full-bore touring cars. And it was mocked. Mocked enough to earn it a rather unflattering nickname. ‘Red Pig’, they laughed. A car with thick carpets, leather seats, a full rear bench, and even luxury trim on the doors. A racing Mercedes-Benz W109? Ha! The cheek of it.

It was the predecessor to today’s S-Class, which gives you some notion of the gall engineers Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher had when they elected to champion a big luxury bus against Ford Capris and E9 BMWs and Alfa Romeo GTAs.

The founders of AMG, however—A for Aufrecht, M for Melcher, and G for their hometown of Großaspach—knew they were onto something. They had prepared this Benz “comprehensively.” The V8 was enlarged to a mighty 6.8 liters, producing 428hp and 619Nm of torque. In 1971. AMG reckoned on a 0-100kh time of 6.1sec, which—for a car weighing 1,635kg—was more than acceptable.

And it was this prodigious power that helped bludgeon the SEL into the history books. It had an enormous thirst for fuel and destroyed its tires over the 24-hour race because it was so heavy, but along the big, long straights of Spa, drivers Hans Heyer and Clemens Schickentanz simply flattened the throttle and blasted through. “Luckily, the vehicle suited the old course of Spa-Francorchamps—14.863km long and with many straights that could be driven at full throttle,” AMG explained.

More than that, it was reliable and tough enough to actually finish. More cars retired with problems than finished the grueling 24-hour race, and only 18 made it to the checkered flag. The mighty SEL finished just three laps lap down on the winning Ford Capri (311 laps versus 308) in second place, and likely would have won had it stopped less for fuel. And tires. A moral victory, then.

The result made the local news and put AMG firmly on the map. It gave the engineers impetus to continue, and mainlined that SEL’s essence into a USP that stood for decades: big, hearty V8 power.

Pity, then, that the original SEL doesn’t exist anymore. It was sold off and used as an aircraft tire test rig, before being unceremoniously scrapped. AMG built an exact replica though, which we drove many years ago. Turns out it was actually really good, our correspondent remarking at the time that it’s “huge fun, but somehow soothing too. Carry on for 24 hours? I think I’d like to.”

Today, AMG rightly celebrates the ‘Red Pig’ and the importance of that 1971 result. Nobody’s laughing now.

NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: TopGear.com
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