A couple of weekends ago, I found myself in what seemed to be an impossible situation. Our 1999 Mercedes-Benz E320 ‘Ski-Klasse’ wagon failed spectacularly while on the Gambler 500. Its hydraulic suspension suffered from a shock failure, which sent hydraulic fluid spitting out of the vehicle faster than it could be replaced. I had to drive this vehicle 10 hours back home, uncertain if the car would even make it. As luck would have it, I would end up at a 24 Hours Of LeMons race, where a crafty team of racers got me back on the road. Here’s how disaster was turned into a heartwarming story.
I think we have officially reached the end of testing our snow racing car off-road. The Ski-Klasse, a fun car crafted by the genius mind of Bill Caswell, is supposed to be a snow-crushing party wagon. We also felt that maybe it might have some other hidden talents, such as rallycross or maybe an off-road endurance rally. After all, Bill crazy overbuilt this car with a custom structure so beefy I bet you could pull a train with it. [Editor’s Note: Bill did amazing work on this wagon. Like, it’s way cooler than you might think. -DT]. For Matt Hardigree, this car is a test to see if the Mercedes W210 is a more modern Volvo 240.
Unfortunately, Ski-Klasse has proven itself to be challenging. In Bill’s construction of Ski-Klasse, he found that working on an old Mercedes is more difficult than you would think and just making progress feels a bit like trying to pull a boulder up a hill. Parts failed, bits and pieces were in places you wouldn’t expect, and Mercedes really liked using vacuum for things that didn’t need to be vacuum operated. You can feel Bill’s frustration when you read his evaluation.
And now, through my off-road testing, we know that these old Mercs are so complicated and expensive that emergency field patches to the vehicle’s hydraulic system are nearly impossible, even for a Mercedes specialist. So, is the Mercedes W210 the second coming of the Volvo 240? Well, just keep reading.
Off-Roading The Snow Racer
For a recap of how we got here, Matt and I launched an experiment to see if the snow wagon could handle some light off-roading. I took Ski-Klasse onto a rally track at 4Fest at Holly Oaks ORV Park just outside of Detroit. There, a small bump and a rock deleted the wagon’s muffler and rear bumper cover. I put the car back together and took it out again, just for a pothole-like bump to destroy one of the vehicle’s Hella lights. Then I tried taking on light trails, where the car got stuck a few times.
Matt and I were still interested in the Gambler 500. See, a Gambler 500 is sort of a choose-your-own-adventure thing, where you can opt out of doing hard trails and bypass checkpoints that require a 4×4. In theory, Ski-Klasse could handle it. I’ve been on Gambler 500s where the off-roading involved was no harder than a fire road. In 2020, I successfully rallied a lowered Smart Fortwo on the Gambler 500 Tennessee. Surely, I could replicate the same success with Ski-Klasse, right?
Well, as I detailed in-depth in Part I of this saga, it didn’t work out at all. Click here to read that article, but here are a few paragraphs:
For a while, it seemed as if Ski-Klasse was going to get through this Gambler 500 with little more than some new pinstripes and maybe a few extra bumps to the undercarriage. The convoy I was in took mild trails and dirt roads. There were times the Ski-Klasse got challenged, but the car handled those challenges with surprising grace. In one instance, I got through a mud hole that a lifted Volvo wagon had some trouble with. It helped that this area of Tennessee was going through a bit of a dry spell. So, even the mud holes weren’t particularly deep.
One thing Ski-Klasse had going for it that other vehicles didn’t was the ability to really hustle through dirt. Ski-Klasse effortlessly performed dirt donuts and high-speed turns on smoother trails, stuff that would make your butt pucker in a $500 Jeep ZJ with a collapsed suspension. The drifts were also equally awesome and to me, made up a lot for the lack of ground clearance in other situations.
Yet, despite all of my careful planning and line-picking, the car still found a way to break. Sometime after noon, my convoy decided to take a trail that led to a nice sandy area under Interstate 40 as it crossed the Tennessee River. While there, a few of us took a refreshing swim in the river while others played in the small mud pit behind some foliage. It was the perfect place to stop, relax, and cool off after getting dusted and rocked in our vehicles for hours.
After I saw a mostly stock Subaru wagon go through the mud, I decided that Ski-Klasse could totally handle it. Honestly, the car got through the mud hole with little drama. I heard the skid plate take a hit and I also felt the rear end hit a bump under the muddy water. None of it was particularly violent. The car took harder bumps on Chicago potholes and the skid plate showed no evidence of slamming into something.
A Bump Turns Into A Nightmare
Yet, when I parked, I noticed the rear end was down on its bump stops. The car was squirting out hydraulic fluid at an alarming rate. In fact, the car was hemorrhaging so much hydraulic fluid that it ran itself dry roughly every 5 to 7 minutes. That created an emergency.
See, that hydraulic fluid was gushing out of the Mercedes Self-Leveling System (SLS). SLS is a hydraulic suspension system that automatically levels the rear end of the vehicle to compensate for a load. The system uses hydraulic fluid, accumulator spheres, and hydro shocks to keep the ride height at the rear level. Here’s how it works, from Pelican Parts:
The pump is always creating pressure and pushing fluid through the system. The leveling valve maintains the level of the rear end. It does this by maintaining pressure or diverting it to raise or lower the rear. When the car is unloaded and sitting at the proper ride height the leveling valve is in the Neutral position. In the neutral position the struts and accumulators are still pressurized which maintain the unloaded height along with the springs. The valve maintains the neutral position pressure in the struts and the accumulators by not allowing the pressure to bleed off and also directs the pressure that the pump is creating to back to the reservoir. When a load is put into the back, the lever arm on the valve is deflected into the fill position which diverts the pressure and fluid flow to the struts and accumulators. This pressure expands the struts which lift the rear until the lever arm is in the neutral position again. A check valve in the leveling valve keeps the increased pressure from bleeding off until the arm is deflect into the return flow position. When the load is removed, the arm on the leveling valve is moved to the return flow position which allows the increased pressure in the system to drain off, until the valve returns to the neutral position and the rear of the car to its normal unloaded ride height.
So, what happens if you were to blow a part of this system, say, one of those struts or a line? Well, the SLS fires the hydraulic fluid right out of the break with a geyser of a spray. It doesn’t know the strut is bad, it can’t know that, so fluid is sent through in a vain attempt to lift the rear end. Oh, and the hydraulic system that feeds the SLS also runs the power steering and is driven from a pump run off of the engine’s serpentine belt.
I had to drive about 50 minutes back to camp, where tools and help would be. There was nothing I was able to do on the trail itself. I needed to get to where I could put the car on jackstands.
As a result, I raided the shelves of just about every gas station I could stop at on the way back to camp. As you would expect, no gas station in rural Tennessee has the fancy fluid Mercedes wants you to put into the system. Besides, putting that stuff in probably would have bankrupted me. Instead, I fed the monster generic power steering fluid and when that ran out, I started dumping in transmission fluid. Still, I couldn’t feed the car enough and I still ended up running Ski-Klasse for about 10 minutes without any fluid.
According to Bill, all of this was rather bad:
Had I run the pump dry for long enough, it could have burned up and failed. If that failure results in the pump seizing, the engine would almost certainly throw its serpentine belt, resulting in no alternator and no water pump. That shuts down a road trip really quickly.
At first, we thought we were facing broken hydraulic lines and Bill started preparing me for a lengthy battle of fixing it. The hydraulic lines take a weird route, which should have protected them from damage, but to Bill, breaking one of those lines made sense.
I made it back to camp, barely, with a car that dragged its butt across the ground like a dog. Bill lowered the car one inch during his build, so the car was already lower than stock. Toss in the blown SLS and the car could barely drive over a leaf without impacting the undercarriage (This car was designed to handle on ice/snow, not off-road, so the lowering helps with the agility of the vehicle). The lowest part of the car was the gas tank by a wide margin, and it just barely hung over the ground. It was no surprise to me that by the time I finally got the Ski-Klasse to safety, the tank had taken so many unavoidable hits that it actually crumpled a little bit. Yet, that was the least of my worries.
As luck would have it, I set up my camp next to a prominent Georgia Mercedes-Benz specialist. This guy brought five MB products to the Gambler, all of them modified in awesome ways. There was a lifted SLK, a W123 diesel wagon, an ML SUV, a lifted W210 wagon like ours, and a Smart turned into a Mad Max-esque buggy. If there was anyone at that Gambler who could get me back on the road, it was him.
The morning after the SLS blew, we jacked Ski-Klasse up to examine the damage. Unexpectedly, we found the hydraulic lines to be in great shape. None of them were leaking or were damaged in such a way that they would start leaking. Likewise, the valve box where the lines meet up was also clean. What wasn’t clean and still had lots of fluid dripping from it was the left rear strut. There was a pool of hydro fluid in the control arm and the strut looked like it had blown apart.
Bill told me when he serviced the SLS, he replaced the spheres but not the struts. At camp, I was still beating myself up over going through the mud hole. My mission was to get Ski-Klasse through the Gambler 500 unharmed, and I failed so badly at that mission. Honestly, I felt a bit like a failure. Had I just not gone through the mud hole, Ski-Klasse would have been fine. After his examination, however, the Mercedes specialist told me that he didn’t think the mud hole killed the strut. It was an old part and if it didn’t fail in the hole, it probably would have failed somewhere else. Perhaps it would have failed while doing something more innocent, such as driving down the highway.
Either way, the fact that the strut blew was bad news. The nearest Mercedes-Benz dealership was 45 minutes away and already closed. Plus, the part is pretty expensive even at FCP Euro (thankfully FCP Euro has frequent sales), who knows what the dealership would have charged, even if it had the part in stock. Since it was already nearing afternoon on Sunday and options were awfully limited, we decided to bodge the car back together just enough to get me home. The problem was, none of the bodges worked.
Attempt #1: Rerouting The Serpentine Belt
The easiest bodge was to get a shorter serpentine belt and effectively delete both the power steering and SLS. In theory, this would work just fine. I found the car easy enough to steer without power steering and it would get me home without burning up the pump.
Unfortunately, we immediately hit a roadblock. The serpentine belt snakes its way around the W210’s accessories in a way we couldn’t figure out to overcome. Even if we did somehow find a smaller belt that fit, the water pump and alternator would end up running backward, and you don’t want that.
Attempt #2: Blocking Off The Pump’s Output
When we thought the damage was to the hydraulic lines, Bill suggested that we just crimp a line and then shore it up with a vise grip zip-tied to something under the body. This was a fine idea, except for the fact that the lines were perfectly intact.
So, those of us at camp came up with a different plan. What if the pump just didn’t send any fluid to the SLS? We traced the lines back to the pump, where we found more or less two outputs. In theory, if we blocked off the output for the SLS, I would have a pump that wouldn’t seize, power steering, and an inoperative, but not leaking SLS. Brilliant!
Well, we inserted a bolt into the pump’s SLS output. When we fired up the engine, the pump immediately started spewing hydraulic fluid from its seals. Bill figured maybe I killed the pump’s seals by running it dry. The Mercedes specialist wasn’t so sure but told me he did all he could do. Either the vehicle would leak from the blown strut or from the pump. The best I could probably do is limp it home leaking from the pump, which was at least a slower leak.
Attempt #3: Diverting Fluid Away From The Strut
I wasn’t convinced. See, when the car first blew the strut, I went on an expedition to search for the source of the hydraulic leak. I knew for a fact it leaked only at the rear of the vehicle, not from the pump. In fact, on that very morning, the pump was dry before we decided to block off the SLS output. My conclusion was that the pump leak was from the high pressure necessary for the SLS, not from damage to the pump. Clearly, the pump wasn’t made to have all of that high pressure directed at itself.
Bill came back to me in agreement. We figured the hydraulic system most likely works on a loop, so blocking off a high-pressure part of the system will ultimately lead to too much pressure in the pump itself.
I explained this to the Mercedes specialist and this gave him an idea. We jacked the car back up into the air, reconnected the SLS to the pump, and took a look at the leveling valve lever arm. As the specialist explained, the lever arm’s position tells the leveling valve whether to add or remove fluid from the system. This lever arm could be adjusted so that the SLS thinks the car is level, or even too high when it actually isn’t. That way, the SLS doesn’t attempt to fill the strut. Instead, hydraulic fluid would just loop right back to the pump, with no leaks.
Under the car, the Mercedes specialist put the lever arm at its highest setting, which should tell the SLS that the car doesn’t need fluid in its struts. After adjusting the lever arm, we let the engine run for about five minutes. During that time, there were no leaks. It seemed we finally vanquished my hydro spray woes.
Then, we put the vehicle back on the ground. I said goodbye to my friends and used the bathroom. When I got back to the car I was the only one at camp. As I was pulling out, the car told me I was low on hydraulic fluid again. I checked behind the vehicle and sure enough, a puddle of transmission fluid sat where the rear left wheel just rolled from. Clearly, whatever worked while the car was in the air no longer worked now that the car was on the ground. I relayed the information to Bill.
Now faced with exactly no help and having exhausted what I thought were all options, I started driving toward home. The pump ran dry and there was nothing I could realistically do about it. I had to drive ten hours; there was no way I could keep dumping any kind of fluid into the pump. So, I crossed my fingers that I would make it home without the pump seizing.
About an hour into my trip, I got a call from Matt and Bill. They figured out a hail mary pass of a bodge. Since the car was lowered, it’s possible that the highest setting of the lever arm was still just a touch too low when the car was actually sitting on the ground. So, we had to lift the car high enough so that the lever arm trick worked while on the ground.
Bill came up with an idea: what if I just shoved a coil spring spacer into the spring? It should raise the rear end just enough to tell the system to knock it off. Now, this seemed like a winning idea, but there was one problem, well two. The first is that I didn’t have the proper tools to safely get the wounded car in the air and in my experience, those stupid coil spring spacers are darn near impossible to install. I’ve never been able to get one in successfully.
Matt found a nearby Walmart, where I prepared for a nightmare that I wasn’t even sure would work. I figured I’d buy a bunch of tools and end up in a Walmart parking lot until nightfall trying and failing to install a stupid spacer.
That’s when Bill and Matt asked where I was, and I indicated that I was passing by the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Bill quickly ran a search and found out that there was a 24 Hours Of LeMons race happening at NCM Motorsports Park next to the museum. Both told me that if there would be anyone who could fix Ski-Klasse, it would be the crafty racers of a LeMons event.
As luck would have it, both Bill and Matt knew people in the 24 Hours Of LeMons organization, too.
Attempt #4: The Redneck Fix
Matt and Bill sent me looking for Jay Lamm and Eric Rood. Lamm is “Chief Perp” of the 24 Hours of LeMons while Rood is “Justice of the Lemons Court and Rallymaster.” Sadly, Lamm was not in attendance, but Rood was. I paid for a spectator pass and as I watched a wonderful parade of wacky racers zoom by the paddock, I met up with Rood. He set me up with an empty garage to work on Ski-Klasse and with some LeMons staff who would help me find wrenching help. With all of that secured, I ran to a parts store to pick up some tools and the spacers.
At first, I tried installing the spacers myself, but surprise, I couldn’t. The spacers I bought were neat in that all you needed to do was insert them into a breaker bar or ratchet and then turn the tool. Only, the hole for the breaker bar or ratchet was smaller than 3/4-inch but larger than 1/2-inch. I figured that the spacer was looking for some increment of square drive socket, which was equal parts ridiculous and difficult to find. Not even the LeMons racers had square drive sockets lying around.
After I failed to install the spacers, a flurry of awesome racers stepped up to help me find additional tools and some muscle. Along the way, we obtained a gigantic socket from the owner of the Mazdarati Miata, which fit on the outside of the spacer, bypassing the whole square drive nonsense.
The awesome folks of Redneck Rampage Racin’ then helped me get Ski-Klasse on the road. They even fed me a delicious burger along the way! If that isn’t kindness and hospitality, I don’t know what is.
Anyway, the team wasn’t convinced that simply installing the spacer would do the trick. After all, the suspension will dip on bumps and the like on the way home, which would cause the SLS to send some fluid to the blown strut. Instead, the racers decided on a two-fold fix. First, they cut the hydraulic line after the accumulator.
Then they would crimp the line off. The logic here is that cutting the line right before it enters the strut will allow the car to pressurize the line without a leak, and then permit the rest of the fluid to circulate as it should. The SLS would work as normal, just without a strut on the left side. The end result would be a vehicle without a leak.
However, once the SLS gets back online, it would almost certainly try to fill the intact strut on the right side, so the second plan was to install a spacer into the left spring. If everything works out, the car will ride level and won’t leak. It would be as good of a field repair as you could get.
Team Redneck Rampage Racin’ first attacked the hydraulic line with a cutting wheel. Then, they removed the sliced-off line, flattened it with a pair of hammers acting like an anvil, bent it over on itself, and then hammered that down, too. The racers then installed the line back into place.
Getting the spacer in required more power than I had on deck. It took two guys, a breaker bar, and a very long floor jack handle on the end of the breaker bar. Only then did the spacer twist into place. There wasn’t a chance I could have done that myself in the parking lot of a Walmart.
With both pieces in place, I filled the system up with generic power steering fluid (sorry, Bill) and woke up Ski-Klasse from its slumber. To my surprise and immense joy, the SLS powered up, lifting the right side of the vehicle to the new ride height achieved on the left by the installed spacer. And most importantly, there wasn’t a drop of anything on the ground. After an emergency that had me worried for more than 24 hours by that point, I finally found some relief. Who knew I would find it at a LeMons race.
The Drive Home
The LeMons repair was remarkable in how much it restored 90 percent of Ski-Klasse’s functions. I did not have the damping benefits of a working strut, so the car took bumps way harder than normal. Some of those bumps unsettled the rear end in a violent manner. But you know what? I was able to easily sustain 80 mph like the car didn’t just spend a day spewing hydraulic fluid. Sadly, the bumps were so harsh that as I tried opening a rear window for ventilation, the regulator failed, sending the glass down to the bottom of the door hard enough to crack. So, I’ll be replacing that window, cleaning the car, and fixing as much as I can before even attempting to show it to Bill…
Even with the cracked window, I was so happy to have the car back on the road. Save for an hour lost trying to fix the window, I made it home safely without any further issues. The car still even got 23 mpg on the highway after its ordeal. I’m not sure what’s next for Ski-Klasse. Maybe we delete the problematic SLS or replace the fuel tank with a fuel cell placed in a better spot. Maybe we’ll lift it or carve out some more clearance. Who knows, the sky is the limit!
On my way home, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the SLS makes the W210 an iffy budget car. You can get these things for pretty cheap and have a nice luxury car from a brand that carries prestige. Sure, while the SLS works, you get a smooth ride and can roll around with a load without tons of sag. All of that is great! But if the SLS fails and you don’t have access to a racing team, there’s a high chance you’re getting stuck wherever you are. And if you aren’t a car person, and therefore perhaps not aware of the dangers of running that pump dry, you could throw a belt, which will eventually lead to the engine overheating if you don’t shut things down quickly. That just seems all-around bad. I said it before but I’ll say it again, a blown strut shouldn’t run the risk of eventually overheating your engine.
Still A Fantastic Experience
In the end, I still had tons of fun. Not only did I still have a blast in Tennessee, but I finally got to scratch “see a LeMons race” off of my bucket list. Sure, I was there only for the final two hours of the race, but I had a ton of fun watching awesome cars and talented racers put down some serious laps. I also got to witness the ceremony at the end of the race.
I saw a lot of parallels between LeMons racers and Gambler 500 participants. These are guys and gals who love wrenching, love solving impossible problems, and love pushing silly cars to their limits. Fixing Ski-Klasse didn’t seem like work to the team of Redneck Rampage Racin’, but a triumph of backyard engineering. They’re two sides of the same coin and I figure if LeMons and the Gambler somehow ever joined forces, the result would be the coolest car event on the planet.
Spending my time with LeMons racers that evening reaffirmed my belief that there are still tons of good in car culture. When it seems like there’s so much wrong in today’s world, these car people rallied together to help a stranger get home. They didn’t need to, but they did, and they were just happy to solve a mystery and help someone out. That brings tears to my eyes.
To Redneck Rampage Racin’, I cannot thank you enough for your help. Seriously, words cannot describe how happy you made me and how thankful I am to have found you. If your team is ever in Northeast Illinois, I’ll buy you all rounds of shots or whatever you drink!
(Photos: Author, unless otherwise noted.)
- There’s No Such Thing As Too Many Pop-Up Headlights: COTD
- USCGC Point Brown, Smart Crossblade, Chevrolet Cruze RS Diesel: Mercedes’ Marketplace Madness
- Ford Stole The “SS” Trim Level For One Car And It Was Super Slow: Glorious Garbage
- If You Can’t Afford A Cybertruck, The Volkswagen-Based Brazilian Renha Formigão Is The Next Best Thing