Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of embarking on a wrenching project grander than any that I’ve previously done. I joined forces with rally legend Bill Caswell to turn our Ski-Klasse Mercedes-Benz E320 wagon into a snowcross and rallycross racer, while maintaining its good road manners. Along the way, I’ve learned skills that I will hopefully keep with me forever.
The first part of my mission was just meeting the guy. Through Jalopnik and the Autopian, I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many of my automotive heroes. It’s exciting to say that a trio of inspirational figures to me–David, Jason, and Beau–run this site with more great inspirations, Matt and Patrick, keeping us on track! Even after three years of doing this, my face still lights up when I see one of my favorite car YouTubers or some famed racing drivers at a press event. Now I’m building a car with the Bill Caswell, and I found myself starstruck once again.
[Ed note: This project is a big deal for us. We’ve got Vredestein Tires and FCP Euro (and more, stay tuned) supporting this project. We’ve got the legendary Bill Caswell helping us build it. We’re also attempting to create a sensible and sustainable model for writing about these things as we do them. To wit, you can follow the project almost in real time on our Instagram account and on Bill’s account. We’ll have posts coming, approximately, about a week after we do things. Then we’ll have a couple of big videos to wrap it up. This should hopefully reduce waiting for posts and updates. – MH]
We spent a lot of our first meeting getting to know each other and, it turns out, Caswell and I have a lot in common. We hang in similar HooptieX off-road racing circles, only his are out west and involve cars that are even crazier than what I see out here. He’s used to seeing cars prepped for racing in the desert while I see cars like a salvage-title Audi A5 with a lift kit, or my entry, a totally stock Toyota Camry spray-painted by a bunch of drunk people.
We also dream similarly big and we have some grand visions for the Ski-Klasse project. Racing in the snow may just be the start. We’d love to see this big barge setting rallycross lap times, going the distance in the Gambler 500s, and maybe, modified in such a way that we can just skip this machine through the desert.
Like a pair of characters from Mad Max, Caswell and I started imagining the Ski-Klasse in a much different form factor. What if it didn’t have a roof at all? Or, what if it was like a limo from a century ago where the cockpit was open and the passenger cabin covered and separated? Matt, the one with the level head in this build, told us not to cut off the roof… yet. We’ll see what happens because Bill’s known Matt for a long time and seems to be able to talk him into things pretty quickly.
We’d also love to see this thing with quick-release doors and a quick-release tailgate. This car has rear-facing seats in its trunk, how cool it would be to have some people sitting in the back as the driver drifts through the dirt or snow!
We also feel that the Ski-Klasse could also be used as a camera car. Basically, we want this car to be able to do whatever we want it to.
All adventures have to start somewhere, and for this one, Caswell decided that we had to get me acquainted with the Ski-Klasse before it entered the operating room. He put me in the driver seat with his camera rolling and got my live first impressions. By now, our readers should know me as Queen Cheapskate at The Autopian. Aside from the two Smarts that I purchased new, I’ve never spent more than $8,500 on a car and I usually don’t spend more than $3,000 on cars. I drove to Caswell’s house in the $1,500 BMW E39 wagon that I bought from the Bishop.
How The Ski-Klasse Drove
So, what was our $4,500 1997 Mercedes-Benz E320 wagon like? Well, it’s a little complicated. There are some things in the car that don’t quite work right. For example, if you hit the button to move the seat back, it instead decides that you should be one with the steering wheel. That’s rude! And don’t think that hitting the button the other way changes that because that’s also the steering wheel crusher setting. Currently, the only way to get the seat to go back is to hit the seat position memory button. Thankfully, one of the car’s previous owners loved driving it “gangster style” with the seat reclined ridiculously back.
Also, Caswell and I couldn’t stop laughing about how everything in this car happens gradually. When you close the doors, the interior lighting takes a good five seconds or more to finally dim to off. The mirrors turn toward the ground when you put the car in reverse, but then they take a good 30 seconds to return after you’re done reversing. Everything electronic in the car just moves so slowly. It’s great, that’s late 1990s luxury right there.
All that aside, I was amused by the car’s controls. When I tried to engage the turn indicator for a left turn, I hit the cruise control stalk instead, which responded by making the car accelerate. The turn indicator stalk is behind the spokes of the thick wheel. Huh! When Caswell tries to open or close the driver window, he instead turns the traction control off. I didn’t have that problem, but did find it hilarious that the buttons are so close.
Ok, ok, but how does it drive? Well, it drives oh so smoothly, just as you would expect a Mercedes to. It accelerates with grace. Sure, if you hold the brake pedal and the gas then release, you can get the rear wheels to peel out, but the car would rather you be a gentlewoman with it. How dare you ask of it to do such infantile things as a peel-out.
Other characteristics about this car make me laugh, like its numb steering feel and power steering that’s so boosted that you can do single-finger turns. And this may be because of its worn-out shocks–which cause the rear end to twerk on Chicago potholes–but it handles closer to a boat than a car. These are all qualities that will make this car so stupid, yet so fun at racing.
We got the Merc back in the garage after dark and began our mission of cutting it apart like a pair of mad scientists.
Welding Is So Fun
Before we started, Caswell wanted to teach me some of the basics of how a welder works, and show me that welding is safer than it looks. We got some scrap metal from his basement of old BMW wonders, then he showed me how he lays down his welds with his MIG welder. My mission was to either practice how he did it or develop my own style. The goal, of course, was to achieve penetration.
This piece was his teaching tool:
But there was more to it than that. Caswell taught me what happens when you weld too far away from the surface, when you don’t stay on the button for long enough, or when you go too far. For example, being on it for too long could just blow a hole into what you’re welding and too short means no penetration. Then you have to make sure that you have the welder set just right for the job at hand.
Honestly, Caswell’s crash course was just the tip of the iceberg and I will be learning more. He set me loose on some pipe, where I did this.
The welders in this crowd will probably have a ton of helpful advice and criticism. For me, someone who had grabbed a welding helmet for the first time in her life maybe 20 minutes before? I’m proud of myself. I took the pipe home and will hang it on a wall with the caption “Mercedes Gains A Superpower” or something like that. I love learning new skills and arming myself with a welder was just as exhilarating as my first time piloting a plane. Perhaps, with time, I’ll be able to fix my own rust buckets!
With me addicted to gluing metal together with an angry bug zapper, we turned toward the car and decided to get to work.
Cutting And Breaking Things
Honestly, I felt a little bad about tearing this old Benz apart. It may have had north of 160,000 miles on its odometer, but it was in remarkably great shape. It had a little bit of rust in its rockers, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a wire wheel. The same story could be said for the rust on one of the fenders.
The situation under the hood was unbelievable. As Midwestern gearheads, Caswell and I know what it’s like to wrench on anything that’s been around for over a decade. You encounter stuck bolt after stuck bolt and they always seem to crumble, round out, or break, making your day an absolute horror. This car, despite spending its time on the east coast, was almost impossibly clean.
The engine bay smelled like that of a new car and the bolts? They zip off so easily it’s almost like they were scared of us. I’ve never seen this before on a car that wasn’t new or wasn’t from California. This car hasn’t put up much of a fight during our quest to turn it into a rally car. If anything, it’s almost been like “more, please!”
We started up front by removing the front bumper cover. Now, I’m pretty experienced in removing Volkswagen bumpers (insert jokes about the service position) and I can also remove the bumpers from a Smart without difficulty. This? It confused us both. We looked up a how-to online and it seemed far too convoluted. One guide said to remove the fender liners entirely and that the bumper removal could take up to a few hours. No way! Caswell and I poked around until we found that the bumper was held on by about two bolts and four screws.
The bolt on my side was missing and a previous owner fixed it by drilling a hole into the left fender and threading a zip tie through it and the bumper. I reckon that this DIY fix is part of why this panel started rusting around the hole while the other fender was squeaky clean.
After we got our respective sides unbolted, we were surprised that the bumper wasn’t coming off and there weren’t any more obvious bolts. Determined, we decided to peel off the plastic trim that spans the bumper cover. Sure enough, there were four small screws under there. We found it interesting that these screws looked like self-tappers, but they were clearly installed at the factory. Oh well, they had to go.
With the bumper off, Caswell covered up the radiator with cardboard and started letting his reciprocating saw rip.
He cut through the steel bumper like it was butter. Our shenanigans caused some collateral damage. The first cut was fine, but the second one nicked a line going to the car’s auxiliary water pump (you can watch video of that here).
Oh yeah, this car has an electric pump that circulates warm coolant through the heater core so the heater core can stay warm for as long as possible. That way, you can even have warm heat when the engine isn’t running. Well, not anymore because we totally killed one of the lines.
Then, when Caswell was cutting more of the front structure out, debris from the cutting punctured a pinhole into the radiator, so that started bleeding, too. This diverted our time and we had to spend about a few hours just disconnecting the radiator, removing hoses, and draining fluids.
One thing we had to be careful with was the air-conditioner condenser. That was in good health, so we had to remove everything around it and make sure it didn’t get damaged by cutting and welding.
Caswell spun the punctured radiator as a good thing, as he wanted to replace the 13-year-old piece, anyway. With the radiator out of the way, we had far more room for welding up the car’s support structure. Caswell wasn’t done yet, he next took the saw to a crossmember just ahead of the engine oil pan. [Ed note: Oh no… – MH]
His logic is that this crossmember is thin, so if it took a hit during rallying, it could make love with the oil pan, which would be a really bad day. His plan involved cutting it out, welding in stronger steel, then shoring up that steel with a cage structure.
From there, we’d weld up a thick steel bumper. The desired end result is a front end that can take some huge hits without part failures.
Caswell then cut out the crossmember, cleaned up the leftover metal, then welded in plates to weld the new structure.
I Need More Of This In My Life
By this time, it was five in the morning and the sun was just beginning to light up the sky. I tapped out and went home. That night, I had seen and done things that I’d never done before. When I got home, I couldn’t stop chatting to my wife about welding and the fun of gutting an old Mercedes. I haven’t been able to have a good wrenching session since my condo association towed three of my cars, so this was desperately needed.
Honestly, I do feel a little bad about cutting up such a nice car. This car is so nice that Caswell and I joked that it must have driven all 160,000 miles indoors. But, its condition is also a good thing. Unlike a Gambler 500 car, this should be able to last us for many events and years of time if we choose.
Caswell, the car-building machine that he is, did a ton of work without me there, so I will get to see the progress tonight and help him finish what needs to be done. It’ll be like a reality TV show where we’re racing against a clock and I just cannot wait.
Matt has signed us all up for a Wintercross event with the Sports Car Club of Vermont and we have to make it to the Airbnb by Sunday morning! [Ed note: Ahem, pretty sure I said you need to make it by Saturday night!!! – MH]
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