LONG before Erebus Motorsport brought Mercedes to Supercar racing, an even more brutal V8-powered Benz was tearing up Australian racetracks.
A creation of legendary race car builder Peter Fowler in the late 1970s, this space-frame Sports Sedan donned a Mercedes 450 SLC body in a bid to turn heads and attract corporate support.
It was driven by the likes of John Bowe and Brad Jones and, following extensive development, helped Bryan Thomson to the 1985 Australian GT Championship title.
The car is still going strong today. In the hands of current owner Simon Pfitzner, it forms part of a 25-strong Sports Sedan entry for this weekend’s All Historic Mallala meeting.
Fowler is listed as a special guest for the South Australian event, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary with more than 130 entries across nine categories.
The 450 SLC was a personal project of Fowler, who had previously built cars for Thomson including his Camaro touring car and Torana and VW Fastback Sports Sedans.
While innovation has always been a key ingredient of a special Sports Sedan, Fowler also had to think outside the square to fund the build of the Mercedes.
Fowler rallied his local Shepparton Community which, through subscriptions, donations and merchandise, helped get the car on track by early 1981.
Although Thomson had supplied the quad-valve Chevrolet V8 from his VW for the project, he was at that point retired from competition, and young gun Bowe was given driving duties.
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“Nowadays you see very structured PR programs built around motor racing, but this was kind of before most of that was happening,” reflected Bowe.
“The whole community of Shepparton got behind it and helped facilitate the building of it and the running of it. It was a pretty eye-opening exercise for me as a young lad from Tassie.”
A tie-up with Advance Australia, a marketing initiative designed to promote local companies, failed to produce any monetary support and Fowler borrowed money to complete the car.
Not helped by a lack of funds, the car was fast but unreliable during its early outings and by the end of 1981 Bowe elected to step back from driving it.
“The engine sort of haemorrhaged itself going under the bridge at Surfers Paradise, all this gunk went all up the inside of the windscreen, it wasn’t very pleasant,” explained Bowe.
“I said to (Fowler) at that meeting, I honestly I don’t have time to devote to it and it needs somebody closer to it than me living in Tasmania, so why don’t you give Brad Jones a go.”
Jones already had connections to Fowler and Thomson but faced a major step-up from his previous mount, a Formula Ford!
“I remember the first time I drove it I felt like I was strapped to a rocket!” said Jones, whose initial taste of the car came at Melbourne’s Calder Park.
When Sports Sedans were swept into the reborn Australian GT Championship in 1982, Fowler knew the Mercedes needed major changes to be competitive, including turbocharging.
Despite being dropped to 4.2-litres to fit with the turbo equivalency formula, forced induction brought the power output as high as 1100bhp on the dyno!
It was also fitted with a revised body partly developed in the RMIT wind tunnel ahead of its return in 1984, where Thomson took the wheel.
Running around 850bhp in race trim, Thomson drove the reborn Mercedes to second behind Allan Grice (ex-Bob Jane Monza) in the 1984 Australian GT Championship.
A tilt at the Sandown round of the 1984 World Endurance Championship ended with engine failure in qualifying, but only after the Mercedes proved as quick as the Porsche 956s on the straights!
Thomson decided to have a big run at the GT title in 1985, buying the Monza and choosing between it and the Mercedes for each round, with Jones racing the non-preferred car.
The Mercedes was selected by Thomson for just two of the six rounds, but that included the Surfers Paradise finale where victory sealed a well-earned title over Porsche-mounted Peter Fitzgerald.
While a well-sorted package by the end of 1985, the 450 SLC remained brutal to drive, as Jones explains.
“It had a folded aluminium seat and you sat off-centre in it a little bit, so the steering wheel wasn’t actually parallel with the pedals, and the engine was right beside you,” said Jones.
“You used to sit on this aluminium seat with a lamb’s wool cover on it, and when they had the turbocharged engine… the aluminium used to be that hot you couldn’t touch it.
“So, the only thing between me and the aluminium was the lamb’s wool seat cover. Can you imagine how hot it was in that car?! It was unbelievable.”
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The Australian GT Championship was killed off at the end of 1985 and with Sports Sedan rule changes in 1988 rendering the car uncompetitive, the Mercedes was eventually parked.
It was sold on and passed through the hands of multiple owners, spending a long stint based in New Zealand.
The car was returned to Australia in 2017 and is now a popular part of the country’s booming historic Sports Sedan scene.