In the fall of 2007 I was a 21-year-old production assistant at the then-booming Winding Road magazine in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It'd still be a couple more years before I added the coveted "editor" to my title, so at that point, I was ecstatic to drive any car in the magazine's test fleet. Seriously, even a PT Cruiser was an absolute privilege.
The Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series, by contrast, seemed wholly out of reach. This car was a big freakin' deal. AMG took the elegant and sophisticated CLK-Class coupe and turned it into a road-legal DTM racer, complete with racing bucket seats, miles of carbon fiber trim, bulging fenders and, oh yeah, Mercedes' M156 6.2-liter V8 -- one of the best engines ever built, German or otherwise. The coupe's 500 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque seemed ridiculous by 2007 standards; ditto the Black Series' $135,825 as-tested price.
But one day I got an awesome assignment. At that time in the magazine's history, we were known for shooting videos that focused on the beauty of a great car on a great road. There were no presenters (and thus no egos), no talking, no distractions. Just the car and its noises, accompanied by music. The CLK63 Black Series more than deserved this treatment, and I was asked to drive. For two days, I'd do nothing but run the CLK63 along gorgeous stretches of Huron River Drive in Ann Arbor, as well as wide-open country roads outside the city, going up and down through the gears so we could record engine and exhaust noises from inside and outside the car. After work, I'd take the CLK63 home, where I'd stare at it from the window of my apartment and make up excuses to drive anywhere, anytime.
I put hundreds of miles on that Black Series and loved every single one. Fifteen years later, I can remember exactly how that CLK63 felt and sounded and smelled. Test fleet cars are just that: fleeting. But some stick with you forever. That Winding Road video of the CLK63 Black Series is still on YouTube, and watching it gives me goosebumps every time.
On a very personal note, the past few months of my life have been, let's say, emotionally taxing. But I truly believe there's a lot to be said for the therapeutic nature of a long drive. When you dig into automotive passion and understand that cars are more than just appliances, meaningful ones can really make an impact. So perhaps you can imagine how I felt when that exact same CLK63 Black Series rolled into my driveway last month.
All my memories from 15 years ago came flooding back, pushing aside more recent traumas. I got in the CLK63 and everything felt familiar: The thick steering wheel, the comically small gear shifter, the cold metal of the paddles against my fingertips. It was a sorely needed jolt of happiness during a bout of depression. I honestly cried a little.
The Mars Red CLK63 Black Series had completed some 25,000 miles since my last drive. Mercedes kept this car in its internal fleet, using it for promotional purposes and putting it into service as an instructor car at one of the company's driving schools. Now it's living a posh life in the care of the skilled technicians at the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center, which recently moved to a new facility in Long Beach, California.
Mercedes brought this CLK63 out for its annual group drive from Los Angeles to Monterey ahead of Car Week, where it would head up California's Highway 1 along with a R107 380SL roadster, R230 SL55 AMG roadster, W109 300SEL 6.3 sedan, W113 280SL Pagoda and a pair of brand-spankin'-new AMG SL63s. We'd head northwest from LA, stopping at the kitschy-to-the-max Madonna Inn for lunch, followed by several hours hugging the coast before sunset. Idyllic, to say the least.
For its time, the CLK63 Black Series was decidedly hardcore. It came with a fully adjustable suspension -- manually, at that -- a limited-slip differential, huge brakes and a lower curb weight than a standard CLK. The seven-speed automatic transmission allowed this car to hit 60 mph in a manufacturer-estimated 4.1 seconds, but several independent tests revealed quicker times. No, that's not super impressive in our current world of lightning-quick EVs, but again, this was 15 years ago. The CLK63 Black Series came out the same time as the original iPhone; think of how many advancements we've seen since then.
That 6.2-liter V8 is dynamite, by the way, delivering its power with benchmark levels of linearity, not to mention one of the best unassisted exhaust notes I've ever heard. The stiff suspension communicates lots of road feel through the hydraulic steering setup, with just enough play at the rear axle to let the CLK shake its rump around hairpins. The seven-speed automatic feels lazy by modern standards, but it works well with the V8, holding gears up to redline in sport mode, the paddles offering a satisfying level of tactility with each shift. Look, I know I'm viewing the CLK63 Black Series through rose-tinted glasses, but even when I take those off, this is a car that's hard to fault.
For the final leg of the drive, I briefly swapped into a 2022 Mercedes-AMG SL63, and it really made me realize how far we've come. The technology and performance the new SL offers would've felt like a pipe dream for Mercedes 15 years ago, but I suppose so, too, would the idea that the 21-year-old production assistant would now be the 36-year-old running CNET Cars.
At our current rate of advancement, I can't begin to imagine what the car industry will look like in another 15 years. But I can tell you I'll never forget the CLK63 AMG Black Series. Here's hoping we meet again.