Lake X, Mercedes-AMG, and the Future of the V-8
If you visualize the lifespan of the production V-8 engine as that of a Funny Car on the quarter-mile, let’s just say the driver’s getting ready to pull the chute. That ticking you hear ain’t your lifters; the lap timer’s running down on the great eight, with the final V-8s likely thumping around under the hood of trucks and a forlorn contingent of muscle cars and rarified sports cars into the early 2030’s. There will be holdouts after that, but increasingly stringent regulations will continue to push out big displacement in favor of a gently humming set of electric motors.
It’s written on the pitlane wall, folks. Ford announced its intentions to have 40-percent of its fleet electrified by 2030, while General Motors shoots to eliminate its portfolio of internal combustion entirely by 2035. Dodge’s first battery electric car—known only as the goofily named Challenger eMuscle— allegedly arrives in 2024. Even if these automakers keep pumping out V-8-powered Mustangmaro GT-Hell500s for decades to come, the market will have geographically shrunk; California announced plans to ban sales of ICE vehicles by 2035, with similar bills in place in New York, Massachusetts, and the city of Seattle. We’re not saying we’re positive these proposals will come to pass, but the sentiment certainly isn’t going away.
Mercedes-Benz: A V-8 Dynasty
That’s just for the American stuff. It’s worse for the overseas V-8 junkie; Jaguar Land Rover and Bentley are two V-8 purveyors among a growing number of automakers taking the all-electric pledge. As did Mercedes-Benz, with the German automaker announcing this past summer that every new vehicle architecture launched after 2025 will carry batteries only.
This is quite the loss for the greater V-8 portfolio. By our count, the 2021 model year offered American buyers a stunning 24 distinct Mercedes vehicles with a V-8 under the front hood. Granted, the mass majority carry a variant of the same M176/177/178 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8, but we’d rather not see that engine’s prolific status culled to zilch in the coming decade.
Bummer. Not only has Merc played in the V-8 game for 59 years as of 2022, but the iconic German marque is responsible for some of the greatest eight-cylinder engines in history. The 6.3-liter M100 was Merc’s first, roaring to life in 1963 under the hood of Der Große Mercedes 600, serving as Europe’s first post-war production V-8 following the three-pointed star’s rich history of inline-eights.
The M100 proved hearty and hale enough to last through 1981, replaced in-step by the pre-existing M116 and M117 V-8s that ranged from a tiny 3.5-liters up to a full 5.6-liters. Before it was snuffed, the M100 stunned the world in 6.8-liter guise, shuttling dignitaries, bankers, and celebrities in the mighty 450SEL 6.9.
Development and production of the Mercedes V-8 continued unabated through the 1980s and 1990s, a flowering family tree sprouting gas-guzzlin’ greats like the supercharged 5.4-liter M113 V-8 found in AMG’s early-to-mid 2000s “55” series. 2006 saw the introduction of the 6.2-liter M156, AMG’s first fully in-house V-8 that kicked off the incredible “63” series of AMG-ified Mercs from its debut year through 2015.
Flat-Out Into Flat-Plane
Mercedes gradually phased out the M113 in favor of a blend between the twin-turbo 4.7-liter M278 and the AMG-facing twin-turbo 5.5-liter M157 in the early-to-mid 2010s. Then, the new 4.0-liter twin-turbo M176/M177/M178 family streamlined it all under the roof of a singular engine family; by 2020, every V-8 Mercedes carried some variant of the four-point-oh. In most cases, output differences boiled down to programming, turbo size and configuration, and intake/exhaust; depending on what the alphanumeric scrawl read on the rear decklid, power ranges from 456 hp to a wicked 720 hp. Jumping to the Mercedes-AMG GT’s M178 adds beefy hardware to handle extended thrash sessions, notably swapping wet sump for dry sump lubrication, though most of the exploding stuff under the cowl of an AMG GT is recognizable when parked next to a C 63, or even S 560—with one notable exception.
Enter the M178 LS2. In direct contrast to every production Mercedes V-8 ever—yes, ever ever—the AMG GT Black Series’ 4.0-liter packs a flat-plane crankshaft in place of the garden variety crossplane spinny stick. Fresh camshafts and exhaust manifolds are snapped on to make sure everything plays nice with the exotic firing order, while turbochargers are upsized for an extra 5.0 psi of boost over the crossplane AMG GT R.
Black Series is Code for Badass(er)
Even amongst the rarified roster of atomic Black Series (BS) weapons, the GT BS oozes brutality. The body of the GT BS swells with menace and bristles with an arsenal of wings, canards, diffusers, vents, and slats that wouldn’t look out of place on the Sebring starting line. You can rarely accuse Mercedes-Benz of goofing off on the job, but the GT Black Series is so serious, so singularly focused in its task of trackday subjugation, we wouldn’t be surprised to learn the development engineers slept on the shop floor, munched on coffee grounds for breakfast, and only got to work after a three-hour morning MMA training routine. Aside from the leather and Alcantara swaddling the interior, the GT BS feels like a performance car commissioned by SEAL Team Six.
Much like enemies Ferrari or McLaren’s boosted flat-plane screamers, the bulk of the Black Series’ 720 hp and 590 lb-ft arrives fashionably late in the rev-range, with all 720 braying racehorses peaking at 6,700 rpm, just 300 rpm short of redline. That thick shmear of torque fills in the gaps, the full 590 lb-ft coming into effect between 2,000 and 6,000 rpm.
The result is a V-8 soundtrack and character unlike any other Merc thumper we’ve ever experienced. Power is predictably ferocious, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the outside—or inside, for those hard of hearing. In fact, be careful where you flex with your new third-million-dollar track toy, lest you’re aurally shown-up by the slower, less expensive, less exclusive, and surprisingly louder AMG GT R with its trademark AMG snap, crackle, and roar.
The M178 LS2 sounds like a McLaren yelling from a padded asylum cell, with the best banshee notes scrubbed into sterilized, no-nonsense whap-whaps when you jab the throttle. Europe’s stringent sound regulations no-doubt play a role in the odd hush, but you’d think a 720-hp hand-built AMG flat-plane V-8 would be challenging to render street-legal, let alone tolerable to stand adjacent to while idling. Still, it’s a tremendous engine, and the perfect honed titanium hand grenade to sit at the top of Merc’s gas-burning weaponry cache until made obsolete by a watermelon-sized electric motor.
The Future of the V-8 is Salty
If you’re less of a brand tribalist and more of a general enthusiast of the great and mighty V-8, there is a safe haven from all the plug-in and shush-up on the horizon—you’ve just gotta be willing to get a little wet from time to time. For the foreseeable future, gas-burnin’ boats and the marinized V-8 have solid sea-legs even as the landlubbers turn zappy, and that’s not something at risk of changing overnight.
While the bloodlines of the automotive V-8 sprouted out like a river delta, with each iteration expressing unique character and range of application, the marinized V-8 is less about personality than it is pure, uncut power. Don’t expect your flotilla of V-8 cigarette boats to return the same experiential variance of a Ferrari V-8 against Chevrolet’s finest smallblock, but hey—it’s nice to know the V-8 thunder will still peal long after the echoes fade on shore.
We came to this realization lounging on a dock down in the Florida Keys, specifically as we watched the latest collaboration between Cigarette Racing and Mercedes-AMG gently bob in the quiet marina. The orange-and-black 41-foot Nighthawk Black Series is the 13th AMG-branded boat to emerge from this partnership, and only the latest in a long dynasty of tremendously potent showcase powerboats from Cigarette Racing.
Big names, big power. This waterbound AMG-branded speed-shard packs a cluster of five supercharged outboard V-8s rated for a combined 2,250 hp. Yeah, and you thought you were hot stuff with your C 63. The power-mad waterdogs over at Mercury Racing supply this firepower; an obvious matchup, as Mercury Racing is the biggest name for powertrains in the performance watercraft industry, and a subsidiary of one of the most storied and powerful marine-focused manufacturers in the world.
It’s fortuitous—and obvious— that Mercedes-AMG and Cigarette Racing would choose Florida as the debut stage for this latest mashup. Boats, big-blocks, and off-shore racing courses through the Sunshine State’s sky-blue veins; Cigarette calls Opa-Locka home, while Wisconsin-based Mercury Marine holds deep, deep roots in the peninsula’s waters—and not just the salty stuff.
An Eight-Cylinder Mecca
A short drive southeast of Orlando, a 1,440-acre enclosed lake laps placidly against its heavily wooded shores. On Google Maps, it’s billed as Lake Conlin, just one of 50 named lakes in the county, but to the powerboat faithful, it’s known by the outlandishly enigmatic moniker of Lake X.
In 1957, Mercury founder Carl Kiekhaefer buzzed central Florida in a single-engine prop-plane, scouring the topography for a private lake on which he could conduct secret watercraft testing during the winter season away from the eyes of competitors and ears of annoyed neighbors. The 10,000-and-change acre property containing Lake X was soon purchased, and testing got underway immediately.
Lake X soon became known as the off-limits mecca of powerboat development, with rumors growing into legend; up until the early 2000s, if it was fast, if it was loud, and if it was powered by Mercury Racing, it was fine-tuned at Lake X. Regardless if you prefer your feet wet or dry, this unassuming Floridian lake is a holy site in the bible of the V-8. We had to pay our respects.
This roadtrip from Miami to Lake X was, in a sense, our decade-early epitaph for Benz’s V-8. Our funeral procession was tiny, but meaningful; Mercedes opened the archives and tossed us the keys a 2008 CLK 63 AMG Black Series, one of the most characteristically V-8 AMGs to ever spin a tire in anger. If the flat-plane M178 LS2 is the cutting-edge, sci-fi warp-drive zenith for the Merc V-8, the CLK’s 6.2-liter M156 is the heart of an old warship pulled straight from the industrial era.
It’s got all the mechanical hallmarks of a modern engine—dual-overhead cams, four-valves per cylinder—but out on the arrow-straight backroads lancing through central Florida, it feels like something plucked from the streets of Byzantium. In direct contrast to the clean, crisp guttural blats issued from the current crop of 4.0-liter M178 V-8s, the rear of the Mars Red coupe clattered with dirty, oily thunder. The sound is paleolithic, almost inappropriate; if a medieval peasant heard this metal-on-metal crackle emitting from the bowels of a bone-strewn cave, a raiding party would be assembled.
500 hp and 465 lb-ft means it certainly has the hustle to match the roiling heavy metal soundtrack, though progress has sapped our serotonin receptors; hampered by a slow-ish shifting seven-speed automatic transmission, the CLK 63 Black Series offers about as much forward poke as a 2022 Ford Mustang GT; less, actually, as an automatic ‘Stang undercuts the CLK by 0.6-seconds in the quarter-mile.
But in its prime? What an athlete. In 2008, 500 hp was enough to step on the necks of the contemporaneous BMW M3, poke the eyes of the 911 Turbo, kick sand in Aston Martin’s martini, and grab at the heels of the C6 Corvette Z06. The noises make you blush, but the power delivery makes you swoon; power is relatively peaky, encouraging a heavy right foot and deep, deep drinks from that wellspring of torque.
Orlando-Based Bond Villainy
The chainlink gate to the Lake X facility arrived in a rush. After rumbling down a tree-lined path, a place-out-of-time greeted us; a back parking lot gives way to a cracked and uneven stretch of concrete that extends from the main structure to the water’s edge. The first thing constructed at the testing facility was a channel of concrete sea-walls, sluicing straight into a covered engineering workshop built in 1969 that has the space to house a small marina’s worth of boats. There’s a distinct spy-thriller vibe to the complex, with large plexiglass dome portals ringing the primary building and peppering the exterior of the disused but oh-so-neat observation tower.
For a site so integral to the history of the loud-and-brash marine V-8, Lake X sure is tranquil. Mercury used the lake for testing until the early 2000s, when boats were just too fast for the lake’s size. “180 mph shrinks any size,” laughed Ken Eckert, facilities manager and engineer. After Kiekhaefer sold the property to entrepreneur Kenneth Kirchman in 1984, the new owner established a foundation dedicated to using the lush grounds and wetlands of Lake X to educate the public on Florida’s ecology and wildlife.
Mercury returned in 2017, using the historic grounds as a satellite engineering and testing shop. “We can do stuff here in a day that would take five days to do on a public waterway,” explained Eckert. “No wake zones, no other boaters, and no one to get in our way.”
It’s a small, wild capsule of serenity teeming with life. As we staged photos of the bright red CLK, a flock of wild turkeys strutted through the adjacent field. A gator floated lazily by one of the seawalls, while a heron waded a few yards down the shore. Inside the workshop, an engineer stripped down a 600-hp V-12 outboard for inspection.
V-8 Boats Forever? Maybe, Maybe Not
Much like an empty race track, Lake X was eerily quiet without the one-note roar of a powerboat. Luckily, I was just there on a quiet day; chatting with the folks at Cigarette Racing and Mercury Marine instilled in me the belief that the marine V-8 has a long, long life ahead of it—but not without change.
There’s far less regulations and oversight levied onto marine engines, and depending on the engine, most units are uncatalyzed. “Is there potential for stricter regulations going forward? Most definitely,” said Eckert. “That’s certainly on our radar, and as everything we do, we look to the future. If the regulations change, I am 100-percent confident we could seamlessly change with them.”
As of right now, widespread adoption and development of purely electric boats is unlikely, due to the aforementioned lack of legislative pressure, a nonexistent charging infrastructure, and the dramatic inefficiency of electric marine drivetrains relative to the electric car. Still, there are moves being made behind the scenes. Mercury Marine’s parent company—the Brunswick Corporation—just acquired a battery company last September “to extend its leadership position in electrical systems innovation,” the company said in a release. As of right now, this expansion might just be for small-scale lithium-ion battery systems for auxiliary power, but this seems like a logical first step toward serious electrification.
So, no speedy-but-silent powerboats for now. But in the future? “I think you’ll see electric outboards in smaller vessels to start with, and you know how it goes—you’ve got to start developing the technology to make strides,” Eckert mused. “I’m confident that over the years, it won’t be an uncommon thing to see an electric powerboat.” Then, the V-8 might truly begin its final decline. Maybe.
If that dreary dystopia ever arrives, perhaps we’ll pull one of Cigarette Racing’s AMG collaborations out of storage and go for one final blast. We know just the lake for the occasion.
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