Over the last two decades, the word "tuner" has become bastardized and cliched. Most of the world now considers any company screwing on random body bits and dodgy performance pieces a tuner. These car vandalizers are normally forgotten in a year or two, but clearly anyone who acknowledges these hack artists as tuners doesn't fully understand the gravitas of this once hallowed title. Visiting Brabus headquarters in Bottrop situated in the industrial Ruhr valley of Western Germany is a shocking reminder of what being a tuner really means—or at least meant at one time. Regarded as the world's most successful Mercedes-Benz tuner, its premises could easily be confused with a factory belonging to Stuttgart-based Mercedes-Benz.
It all started in 1977, when a young Bodo Buschmann angered his father by driving up to his Mercedes dealership in a brand-new Porsche. Bodo was ordered to drive nothing but Mercedes, but back then Benzes were anything but fast or fun—unless comfort and granite-like durability are your kind of fun. The young German obeyed his father's wishes and ordered a W116 S-Class sedan, but he wasn't happy with it. Until he modified it. Soon, Bodo's big Mercedes was as fast as the offending Porsche. Bodo turned out to be a natural at this kind of work. His W116 gained the attention of customers from his father's dealership and he was quickly building similar cars for them. The idea of setting up a tuning company was born and by the end of 1977, Buschmann established Brabus with his university colleague Klaus Brackmann. The latter left the company not long after, but the name of the company remained, a combination of the last names of both: BRAckmann and BUSchmann.
The newly founded Brabus started to develop luxury and performance features for the then-current S-class. After just seven years in operation, it opened an R&D facility where it could work on its new tuning programs for all Mercedes models and even help the other manufacturers improve their cars (the company still offers this kind of services; remember the slightly maniac Infiniti FX70 S Sebastian Vettel edition? Yep, it was done here).
Brabus Benzes were becoming more and more advanced (the company debuted the small 190 with a 276hp V-8 in 1984, a W124 E-class with a world-record-setting drag coefficient of 0.26 a year later), but the real breakthrough came in 1992, when Bodo's engineers started their affair with V-12 engines. The first product of this relationship was the magnificent 6.9L 501hp V-12 that was installed in the W124 500E, and in 1996 it evolved into the 574hp 7.3L beast in the Brabus E V-12 7.3S, which, with a top speed of 205 mph, rightfully gained the title of the world's fastest sedan. Arguably, it was the car that defined Brabus as we know it.
The gargantuan V-12 soon found its way under the hoods of the E-class wagon and ML, making them the fastest of their kind in the world as well. If the V-12 were deemed too big, Brabus used its 6.5L V-8. The company's ambitions stretched far beyond shuffling engines; it used the carbon ceramic brakes as early as 1995 and showed some extraordinary quality levels with the extended Maybach-like S-class years before the ill-fated limousine appeared from Mercedes. In 1999, archrival AMG purchased by Daimler Corporation, which was actually the best thing that could happen for Brabus; that acquisition left Brabus as the only tuner to cater to the craziest and least politically correct whims of Benz owners.
The once-small German garage had become a worldwide specialist, with its dealerships located in nearly 100 countries. By the end of 1999, the company's headquarters grew to 1.2 million square feet, making Brabus far and away the largest tuner in the world. But the Germans didn't rest on their laurels. They went on with launching a tuning program for Smart, which would later transform into a Mercedes-backed cooperation, and a new subsidiary called Startech, where they could use their expertise to modify the cars of premium British makes. Over the following years, Bottrop has given the world noteworthy creations based on all kinds of Mercedes models, starting from the basic A-class, all the way to the Unimog all-terrain heavy truck. Currently, the most advanced cars to leave Brabus pack as much as 900 hp and 1,106 lb-ft from a twin-turbo 6.3 V-12 with sticker prices hitting as much as $600,000.
Currently, the Brabus production facility is a huge complex of five factories that takes care of each part of a vehicle. You can almost think of Brabus as a car manufacturer, but it's important to remember it still builds everything by hand. In the main workshop, dozens of mechanics work around an eclectic mix of cars, doing everything from simple ECU swaps to entire engines, while others install custom-built interiors and bodywork. There's so much variety in the cars being built. A quick survey reveals inconspicuous-looking black sedans packing more power than the fastest Lamborghinis and McLarens mixed with the look-at-me projects from motor shows; everything being painstakingly prepared before delivery to all corners of the planet.
It's a safe bet that a majority of world's rarest and most exclusive versions of the everlasting G-class will end up here either before or not long after delivery. Whether it's the V-12 G65 or the even crazier 6x6 and 4x4 squared spin-offs. It seems that even owners of the hyper-rare and shockingly expensive vehicles still want something even more unique and brain-meltingly expensive.
Funnily enough, this year there are as many Defenders here as well; currently, the old Landie is one of the hottest starting points for exclusive modifications. As the popularity of these classic SUVs has exploded lately, Brabus' sister company Startech was already prepared for it.
Aside from the normal oligarchy, Brabus has grown to be a kind of skunkworks for certain special Mercedes models. In some cases, the cooperation between the two companies is overt. Every free inch of space at the Brabus production facility is filled with heavily tuned Smarts, which are sold in select markets through Mercedes dealerships. At other times, as witnessed by the most recent spottings of Pullman S-Classes long before the official debuted, the work is done in a more private manner.
No matter who the end customer may be, everything you see on the workshop floor is the grand finale of the hundreds of hours spent on meticulous engineering and design. Just like a philharmonic performance, months of preparation from countless people are required to pull off the end result.
So there you have the story of Brabus; a company independent of Mercedes, but still as advanced and capable. The once small tuner was relevant in the times when there were no other Mercedes tuners, and it's still just as relevant now that the tuning market is more competitive than ever. The facilities rivaling a car manufacturer and employing enough people to fill a football stadium aren't requirements to be a tuner. The desire and ability to build factory quality components are. Next time you are about to refer to a company as a tuner, ask yourself, are these improvements to the car or just changes? Don't be afraid to save the title for those that deserve it.
To see how all the theory translates into practice, we sample three of the latest Brabus creations. First up is the GLE63 Coupe-based uber-SUV, christened Brabus 850 6.0 biturbo Coupe. The name explains it all: as classic Bottrop-made V-12s have increasingly bigger problems meeting ever-stringent emission standards, Brabus is forced to turn to downsized powerplants. The company has found a solid partner in the AMG 5.5L M157 twin-turbo V-8. The big by most standards engine is capable of huge performance, while still maintaining proper comfort and efficiency. Brabus engineers bore it out to 6.0 liters and replace virtually everything (turbochargers, pistons, cylinder heads, crankshaft, intakes, and downpipes); it is a fantastically versatile and effective design. The bigger unit is so full of character that it gives the car a wholly different meaning. It's like an AMG, just greater in every aspect: more luxurious inside, more imposing outside, and just a whole lot faster. Just like in the old days, Brabus turns a seemingly normal family car into a hot rod that can compete with the supercar elite: the 850 Coupe will accelerate to 62 mph in 3.8 seconds and reach 199 mph. Forget Bentley Bentayga, this is the angriest SUV in the world.
The next step is the AMG GT-S based Brabus 600. This is a car to prove that the Germans know how to deal with even the most complex of Mercedes-AMG creations and make them faster. For the time being, Brabus offers a simple power hike from 503 hp to 592 hp via a simple ECU tweak. More power is the last thing this rear-wheel-drive beast needed, but it certainly benefits from the luxury added to the interior. Trimmed in striking blue quilted leather, the cabin certainly looks the part and manages to build the sense of occasion. A good thing about Brabus is that it resists the temptation to go over-ambitious with suspension tuning. Making it stiff and low doesn't automatically make it better, so this kit is only 0.6 inch lower and barely stiffer, meaning it's still bearable in everyday use. Unlike many tuners, Brabus knows how to make cars faster without ruining their all-round usability; it may not be as flashy as that slammed wideboy car, but the Brabus is good for more than just parking and posting.
In its continuous expansion, Brabus decided to add vintage Mercedes models to its portfolio. Brabus Classic has a dedicated facility where collectors from around the world can send their priceless Mercedes models for renovation to an unthinkable level of precision. We're not talking about a shop that re-chromes period-correct bumpers for your W123; enter the hall and you'll see Gullwings stripped down to bare chassis. Eventually, they will drive off restored, repainted, and fitted with updated wiring so that it will be in better condition than when they left the factory. Out of all the beautiful 300 SLs, Type 300 Adenauers, and Pagodas, on hand, we're loaned a factory-owned 1970 W111 280 SE 3.5 Cabriolet. Being the biggest and most luxurious (and fastest in the 3.5L engine trim) convertible in the Mercedes lineup at the time, it is the equivalent of today's S-class cabriolet. Thanks to the restoration completed by Brabus, the car feels as tight as its modern-day successor.
After the Classic department's job is done, the car is returned to its owner, together with a two-year warrantee and a certificate proving the authenticity of the restoration. Even if the company is against modifying the classics the way they do the new cars, they still know how to provide a serious boost in their worth...