The CLK63 AMG Black Series was the real deal

by Andrew Maness

This story originally appeared in Vol.7 “The Athlete Issue”

I suspect that many of you may be wondering what a “youngtimer” is and why the word is in the headline of this story. While it’s not the most widely used term in the global auto-enthusiast scene, it does seem to have become more popular in the last couple of years, gaining recognition beyond Germany, where it is said to have originated. Point your browser to Urban Dictionary (that paragon of truth) and you’ll see that it offers the following definition: “A common term used in Germanic car culture, a youngtimer is a well-kept car that is of the age between 20 and 30 years old. These are usually future classics/limited-production imports to foreign countries, most commonly associated with European-built vehicles.” Other sources around the internet say more or less the same, although the bottom of the age bracket is often viewed as having some wiggle room, with 15 years being about as low as it goes. Makes sense to me, given that 30 years is the threshold for classic status and interesting cars that are half that age deserve some sort of categorization of their own. While commonly used, neither “modern classic” nor “neo-vintage” has the same descriptive weight that “youngtimer” carries once you understand the types of vehicles to which the term applies. Seeing as we’re about to enter the golden age of used enthusiast cars (the 25-year import rule moves to 1998 in 2023), I think it’s the perfect time to take another look at imports 25 to 30 years old and domestic offerings 15 to 24 years old. Might I be persuaded to delve into the 10- to 14-year-old range? Perhaps, but I’d argue that those cars are still recent enough to just be pre-owned vehicles — certainly anything fewer than 10 years old is. I mean, some automakers are offering six-year financing, while others have models that have gone relatively unchanged for a decade. Any collectible status in the enthusiast scene should be reserved for specialized vehicles no longer in production, because their existence is finite and their qualifications have been proven out over an extended period of time. Sorry, your 2006 Ford Mustang GT isn’t a youngtimer; it remains just a mass-produced, adequate means of transportation. That goes for most (not all) American “performance” cars that are 15 to 30 years old. OK, now that I’ve sufficiently angered a bunch of you, let me get to what I believe is a prime example of a youngtimer: the 2008 Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series.

Arriving in the summer of 2007 as a 2008 model, the CLK63 AMG Black Series was a paradigm shifter for Mercedes-Benz. Up to that point, the U.S. market had received only a handful of AMG models over the years, usually limited to one range-topping model in each segment. Oddly enough, we didn’t get the CLK63 coupe in America in 2007, just the convertible, which at the time must have seemed rather strange. Mercedes decided to grace us with 349 examples of the 500 they offered globally over the car’s three-year run, and with the benefit of hindsight it seems they were wisely testing the waters to see what Americans wanted from AMG. As it turned out, it was their badge on as many Mercedes models as the brand would slap it on. Once the worst of the economic turbulence wrought by the Great Recession had subsided, AMG became a household name among a certain set that couldn’t tell you the difference between DTM and NASCAR. Whereas there have been only six AMG models to bear the Black Series name, there were 40 Mercedes-AMG models available for the 2021-22 model year, plus the sold-out $2.7 million Mercedes-AMG One hyper-car. Basically, while AMG cars have become ubiquitous, AMG Black Series models have remained rare as can be. Having spent an entire week mobbing a well-kept 2008 CLK63 AMG Black Series owned by Mercedes-Benz Classic around Los Angeles, I’m glad they’ve continued to reserve the Black Series badge for the best of the best, because this was a truly special car.

By 2007 standards, this car was, to put it eloquently, fucking gnarly: aggressively flared fenders, real carbon-fiber pieces inside and out (including one of the finest rear diffusers ever to grace a street car), and a quad-tip chrome exhaust that belts out a throaty note that gets progressively angrier as one of the best naturally aspirated V8s of all time does what it was intended to. I was 21 when this Black Series hit the market, and had I been given the chance to drive it back then, I doubt I would have respected it the way I did when I spent time with it recently. Back then I would have likely put it in a ditch, or worse. That being said, by today’s standards it’s not a scary machine. Despite the 6.2-liter M156 delivering 500 horsepower and 567 pound-feet of torque exclusively to the rear wheels, I found the Black Series to be plenty compliant during the more-spirited moments we shared. At 3,911 pounds, you’d really have to do something daft to get the rear end to step out of line (when you don’t want it to, that is). Besides, more than enough information reached my hands through the thick flat-bottom steering wheel to let me know where the front end was and where it wanted to go. Fortunately, we remained on the same page throughout our time together. The deeply bolstered bucket seat firmly held me in place, but did so gently and without punishing my kidneys. I swear, automakers are in dire need of a reminder on what constitutes a comfortable sport bucket seat, and they would do well to look back at these seats, as well as others from the same era.

The two areas in which this Black Series shows its age are the interior materials and the transmission. From an aesthetic standpoint, the former has aged well enough, I suppose, but damn, does their choice of materials for high-frequency touchpoints stand out as cheap. If anything, it shows just how far mass-market-brand interiors have come in 15 years, because all of them currently make cars with nicer stuff inside. As for the latter, the gearbox has a contemporary seven available gears, but the manner in which those gears change shows the car’s age. There’s an aftermarket module that fixes the lackadaisical shift speed and tells the transmission to hold gears longer in Sport mode, but I suspect even with that installed it’s still best to put the car in Manual mode and use the aluminum paddles to change gears yourself. That’s what I did every time I took the Black Series on a winding mountain or canyon road, and it was mighty rewarding. There’s just something about looking in the rearview mirror and being reminded that the rear seat has been removed for weight savings that makes you want to push a car a little harder. This was the era of in-house tuners declaring “we know better than you” by way of retuned suspension setups and chassis-stiffening bits like front and rear strut-tower braces. If you wanted to adjust anything, you had to break out a tool kit and know what the hell you were doing with regard to suspension parameters, whereas today you can tap a screen or twist some knobs and feel like you’re a few steps away from being rung up to drive at the 24 Hours of Daytona.

The Black Series benefits from being a singularly well-executed performance car. It wasn’t intended to be a bunch of things to a bunch of people, but rather one thing to a specific type of person. Yet it is taut without being brutal, explosive without being unmanageable, and extravagant without being gaudy. It is a car whose like we won’t see again. That’s precisely what makes the 2008 Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series a poster child among the youngtimer set. It was respected in its heyday, but, with the benefit of hindsight, we now know just how deserving of praise it is. The supposed diversity offered by adaptive modern technology is no match for the precision of very carefully considered engineering. Bottom line: I’ll take the analog feel of this car over its digital modern counterpart any day.