The sleeper car, also known as a Q-ship, is one of the automotive world's coolest traditions. It can be traced back to the early days of southern bootlegging, when drivers like Junior Johnson created road-going stealth fighters by stuffing outrageous hotrod engines into plain-looking sedans. (Plan A: slip through town unnoticed. Plan B: outrun the law.) So when I spent a day at the race track in a performance-kitted C 63 AMG, I realized that I was in the car Junior Johnson would have built if he'd been given several million dollars, a factory filled with digitally-controlled tools, and a team of elite German engineers.
The C 63 epitomized the sleeper car's misleading dichotomy. At rest, it had the slightly cautious, buttoned-down style of an accountant who spends time at the gym. But turning the key was like applying a Taser gun to the testicles of an angry, steroid-abusing rodeo bull. The 481-horsepower V8 raged into life, torquing the car to one side when I blipped the throttle. Out on the track, the car was a bootlegger's dream come true, blasting up the straightaways and rocketing through the turns with its surefooted suspension, which was augmented by a first-rate Electronic Stability Control System.
Turning off the ESC converted the C 63 into an utter hooligan. I could drift the back end through corners at will, and I sailed through long power slides that were the motorsport equivalent of crack cocaine: the grey stripe of the road unreeled before me at hyperspace speed, and the Wagnerian thunder of the V8 filled the cockpit. I hung out on the edge of control, tires shrieking, and it was all good.
British car journalist Jeremy Clarkson once described the C 63 as "an axe murderer with headlights." With the ESC off, I would concur. But with the stability control switched on, the C 63 was utterly composed, and it reminded me how far automotive engineering has really come. As a young mechanic back in the late 1970s, I built some sleeper cars myself, which gave me an appreciation for how hard it is to meet the genre's conflicting demands: high power, race-style suspension and unaltered appearance. One of my efforts was a Volkswagen Beetle with a high-compression 2.2-litre engine jammed into it. It had no heater (extra weight) and the engine exploded like a grenade after less than six months. But by then I had shocked enough Porsche and BMW drivers to make it all worthwhile.
I had succeeded on the power front, but failed miserably on comfort and reliability. If I'd had a factory, a foundry and an engineering department, I would have made stronger engine cases, a more robust crankshaft, and much more besides. I couldn't then, and I couldn't now, either. But with C 63, the engineers had done it all for me. The march of automotive progress has delivered an air conditioned, heated, stereo-equipped, leather-lined, carbon-trimmed machine that will carry groceries, transport you to the office, and play axe-murderer at the race track for good measure. Not bad.