AFFALTERBACH, Germany—In 1986, AMG was a small, independent tuning shop. They were a deranged and power-crazed bunch working out of the small town of Affalterbach, surrounded by lush green farmland and speed-limitless Autobahns. From here sprang greatness.

If you were a serious gearhead in the ’80s, perhaps you’d heard of AMG. Perhaps you had a rich friend who’d paid an absurd amount of money to have his Mercedes given the full go-fast AMG treatment. More likely, you’d never heard of AMG.

That all changed in 1986 with the debut of the Hammer. This is the muscle car that put AMG on the map, a machine officially dubbed the Mercedes 300 E (or CE) 5.6 (or 6.0) AMG.

Car magazines were left gobsmacked. The writers ran out of superlatives and could not believe what the spec sheets were telling them.

“There’s not a penny to be saved by choosing a Hammer instead of a Countach or a Testarossa. There’s only one reason to buy a Hammer, and that’s to stay high on speed on a steady basis,” wrote Csaba Csere in the December 1986 issue of Car and Driver.

“Beware of this car. It means serious business, and I’ll bet most of its drivers do, too.”

Over 30 years later, we’ve got the keys to a Hammer. Can anything possibly live up to such a reputation?

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The absurdity of the Hammer formula has not diminished with age. In fact, it spawned a whole sub-genre of luxury super-sedans.

The Hammer is subtle compared to any modern AMG, even fitted — as our 1988 test car is — with the flared wheel arches of the optional wide-body kit. There is no shiny badging, no oversized plaque with letters and numbers announcing to the world what this car is.

There are only the three letters “AMG” de-bossed into the trunk lid. Only a connoisseur will recognize that this is no ordinary old Mercedes.

To an ordinary E-Class, AMG added the lower front bumper, those lovely deep-dish three-piece alloys, a subtle trunk spoiler, and a shiny exhaust. Imitation Hammers are abundant today, some even with real AMG parts. This one is the real deal, built by AMG in Affalterbach and kept in Mercedes’ historic collection.

Putting the key in the door to unlock a car feels nostalgic. It opens with a click to reveal a cabin that resembles the steakhouse bar at the New York Waldorf Astoria. The wood veneer looks as if it’s been polished over decades; the leather is an inky black with a soft patina. The Recaro seats are lightly bolstered.

The quality could teach a modern AMG a thing or two. Decades later, this car still feels tight as a drum. I love that the windshield-wiper covers are painted to match the body. The air-con blows cold-ish, but who needs it when you roll down both side windows? The pillar-less coupe design is beautiful. Modern safety regs have all but killed off this body style.

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The Hammer could keep up — or even outrun — Lamborghinis and Ferraris in its day. Imagine seeing this Teutonic brick speeding alongside a wedge-shaped Countach. You’d think you were hallucinating.

It’s because the goblins at AMG took the big V-8 from an S-Class Mercedes and added a four-valve quad-cam head of their own design. Earlier Hammer engines were 5.6-litres, but apparently not even that was enough for these lunatics, so they went and did a 6.0-litre, the Sledge Hammer, which is what we’ve got here.

The result is 385 horsepower and 417 lb-ft of torque. It’s a long way short of the 600 ponies the latest E-Class AMG unleashes, but still a respectable figure. It’s a hot rod, made in Germany.

With only an hour to drive the car, and traffic around the Nurburgring in gridlock mode on account of the 24-hour race, it seemed prudent to head into the countryside.

The fast, flowing, narrow roads between villages expose the AMG’s age. The steering is slow and vague around centre. The throttle pedal has a large dead zone at the top of its travel.

The automatic gearbox is the Hammer’s obvious Achilles heel. The four-speed unit changes gear in slow-motion. In “S” mode it holds gears to redline. In “E” mode – which surely cannot mean “Eco” – it shifts gears with the urgency of an old toad.

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But the steering, once turned into a corner, is light and adjustable. Once the suspension settles the steering becomes more purposeful. Understeer is the default here, but it’s easily squashed by the Hammer’s torque.

Our test car is on modern tires, which have too much grip for this old chassis. I imagine it would be vastly more entertaining on crappier tires. The car’s limits could be exploited so effortlessly at low speed. It’s what AMG would’ve wanted. As it is on modern rubber, the Hammer still leaves two black strips on the pavement flat-out in first gear. Third will do 140 km/h at 6,000 rpm.

The 6.0-litre rumbles at such a low frequency it’s barely audible at low revs. Wind it up and a whole baritone choir section echoes forth from somewhere under the hood. Windows down it sounds even better, but the noise is quickly drowned out by wind. The speed piles on like you’re in a power-boat. The nose lifts and the whole thing simply roars forward toward the horizon.

The suspension, while soft, is a delight. You expect a car called the Hammer to bludgeon the road into submission, but instead it wafts over it. It’s a genuinely comfortable car, just the sort of thing for extended road trips, the kind of car that could make rush-hour traffic tolerable.

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By the end of the hour I’m genuinely impressed. I want to keep driving, but, alas, not even if I sold all my worldly possessions could I afford this car. In 1986 you’d be looking at $125,000 (US) for a basic Hammer. A 6.0-litre coupe with the wide-body kit would’ve added to bill considerably. In Canadian dollars, adjusted for inflation, you’d be looking at nearly $400,000.

AMG is a very different outfit today than it was in 1986. It’s a household name. Now officially part of the Mercedes-Benz empire, AMG must sell, sell, sell. And it does. Like M Division, it churns out SUVs and shiny wheels and “appearance packages” more than anything else.

Its cars don’t feel quite as outlandish anymore. They’re not the product of a late-night what-if? but rather a meticulously thought-out business case.

On the other hand, AMGs are considerably more affordable today. The gearboxes are infinitely better and the handling sharper, albeit at the cost of ultimate comfort. Cars like the C63 and new E63 carry on the fine tradition of the Hammer, as modern-day German muscle-cars. They’re just not quite as cool anymore. Nothing is.

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Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.

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