Home » I Took Our Snow-Crushing Mercedes Party Wagon Off-Roading And It Was Total Chaos

I Took Our Snow-Crushing Mercedes Party Wagon Off-Roading And It Was Total Chaos

Skiklassetop1
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I just spent the weekend at a celebration of all things off-roading. Detroit 4Fest was Michigan’s go-to party for wheeling and to learn how to take a vehicle off-roading. The weekend saw a lot of newly-minted off-roaders, including our own Ski-Klasse, the Mercedes-Benz E320 wagon that rallying legend Bill Caswell turned into a snow slaughtering machine. Me being me, I had to take it into the off-road park to see how a snowcross car handles dirt, sand, and mud, and it was just total chaos.

Before I continue, I want to note that none of what happened is Bill’s fault. He was given a mission to build the ultimate snowcross car, not the ultimate off-roader. It is Ski-Klasse, after all, not Sand-Klasse. Still, Bill is a visionary and he sees great things for the Ski-Klasse. His colorful ideas for Ski-Klasse involve bombing through whoops in desert races, navigating forests during Gambler 500 rallies, and so much more.

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20230909 160542To help make these goals a reality one day, Bill overbuilt the front end of Ski-Klasse and his clever work is why I was able to drive home in the car despite what you’re about to see.

Detroit 4Fest

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Erik

The venue for the destruction you’re about to read was Detroit 4Fest. The event, which just completed its fifth year with record attendance, was a weekend party about all things off-roading. The host site of the event was Holly Oaks ORV park in Holly, Michigan, just outside Detroit.

This was the place David sent a cheap and cheerful Tracker and where I sent my $1,700 Volkswagen Touareg on street tires and a worn lowered suspension. The park has an excellent mix of easy trails and hardcore, technical stuff that will bite you hard if you don’t know what you’re doing. Something excellent about Holly Oaks is that you can experience just about everything in one place. There’s dirt, there’s a track, there’s plenty of water crossings, rock climbs trenches, tight forests, sand, mud, and just about any other off-road obstacle you can think of.

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Holly Oaks is perfect for an event like Detroit 4Fest. People brought their Jeeps, Fords, Toyotas, buggies, side-by-sides, and even some Subarus out there to get dirty in various situations. 4Fest was also a place to check out the latest in off-roading gear, try out a new off-road vehicle, and meet some fun folks along the way. Even better, Detroit 4Fest was for anyone at any experience level. There were a number of folks out there with Jeeps that had never gone off-road. We partnered up with 4Fest to provide the onsite Off-Road 101 course, where these people got their first taste of off-roading and their Jeeps and Broncos got to see dirt for the first time. It was awesome watching these people, including a lot of women, gain confidence and skill at the same time.

When I wasn’t tagging along with the Off-Road 101 course drives, I was fooling around with the two cars I had on hand: a 2023 Ford Bronco Heritage and Ski-Klasse.

Getting Our Snow Car Dirty

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Erik

Ski-Klasse was really out of its element out here, but that didn’t stop it from having the draw of a rockstar. To get to the Off-Road 101 area, you have to drive through Detroit 4Fest’s vendor area. Everyone going into the Holly Oaks park had to pass by Ski-Klasse before going off-road. The car got constant looks, thumbs up, and more pictures than I could even count. The vast majority of the vehicles at 4Fest were some flavor of Jeep or Ford Bronco.

Everything that I could see was a four-wheel-drive jacked sky high. Even the few Subarus that showed up appeared to be lifted. I saw one other two-wheel-drive car, and it was this freaky Jurassic Park-themed Chevy HHR.

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Ski-Klasse, with its snow tires and just a few inches of ground clearance, looked out of place. At the same time, Ski-Klasse represented a different kind of motorsport. This car was built to slay snowcross and icecross courses with a possible future in dirt racing. Despite not at all being a 4×4, the Ski-Klasse was incredibly popular at 4Fest. A number of people commented about how cool it is that we turned a wagon into a race car while others just adored the car’s killer livery, bullbar, and enough Hella lights to challenge the Sun.

During the training courses, I used Ski-Klasse as an example of how you don’t necessarily need a Jeep to have a ton of fun in dirt and snow.

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Throughout the weekend, I watched various vehicles hit the dirt track just outside of the Off-Road 101 training area. A kid in an off-road go-kart looked to be having a great time and that HHR was putting down some serious times. To my eye, it looked just mild enough for Ski-Klasse to handle. Our plan with Ski-Klasse is to take on a Gambler 500 run later this month, so I figured Detroit 4Fest would be the perfect place to see how competent the car is in the dirt. I slapped an orange flag onto the black Benz, hopped into the driver seat, then followed a Jeep down into the pits.

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I Broke It, Fast

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Erik

I’ve wheeled a lot of different vehicles over the years, and a good mix of them started life as regular road vehicles. I turned a Ford Festiva into a discount side-by-side. I turned my daily drive Smart Fortwo into a machine capable of driving up and down a small waterfall. My wife and I used to rally stock Dodge Grand Caravans and a Toyota Camry. When I’m not taking a road car into the sticks, I’ve had access to proper 4x4s with tons of ground clearance, lockers, tall tires, smart off-road systems, skid plates, and more.

Since I’ve driven so many incapable vehicles off-road, I’ve learned how to drive to compensate for my vehicle. If I know I don’t have much ground clearance, I’m going to pick the flattest line possible. If I know my gas tank or oil pan is on the right side and that a rock ahead will be hitting my underbody, I’m going to pick a line that ensures that rock hits something on the left like the floorboard or maybe a rocker. Likewise, if I could use my surroundings to make up for a lack of ground clearance, I will. Driving like this has allowed me to get stuff like Smart Fortwos into the same kind of places you could get a rear-wheel-drive pickup into.

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Ski-Klasse combined two variables I hadn’t encountered before: A long length with really low ground clearance, and this turned out to be a rough recipe. As you can see in my photos, a good chunk of the car continues past the rear wheels. The gas tank hangs really low right at the rear wheels. Behind it is a suitcase-sized muffler and a low bumper cover. I don’t know what the departure angle is, but I would guess it is single digits. Looking at the front and middle of the car, approach and breakover can’t be much better.

 
 
 
 
 
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In practice, Ski-Klasse proved my guesses to be correct. The car made it down the entrance into the park, only bottoming out a few times. But I expected that. Once I got to the dirt track, I decided to do a parade lap to get an idea of the terrain before putting the hammer down. For my parade lap, I figured maybe a quarter send would be appropriate. I was maybe just 30 seconds into my parade lap when disaster struck.

Yard Sale!

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Erik

For those 30 or so seconds, the car was doing fine, really only scraping with bigger bumps in the terrain. Bill put a big and fat skid plate up front, so I wasn’t concerned with hitting the dirt as I rounded the track. Apparently, what was a problem was any elevation changes at all. The first hill of the track is really no worse than the transition between a street and a steep driveway. Yet, when I hit that transition going maybe 15 mph to 20 mph, I heard a loud bang and felt some commotion. Admittedly, everything looked and seemed fine at first so I continued a little further, then I saw a big gray thing in my rearview mirror.

Yep, I created a yard sale by trying to go up a simple hill. I am known for full sends that can cause damage, but this wasn’t a real send and the car didn’t go through any hardcore stuff. It couldn’t have been any longer than 5 minutes since I left the training area and I already ejected the muffler, bumper, and some trim from the car. Even the foam behind the bumper cover was falling out.

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Since this was a track where some people do fully send their vehicles, Holly Oaks advises that you should not stop on the track and you absolutely should not get out of your vehicle. In this case, I was the only person on the track. I also thought about what could happen if someone is really sending it and they hit that suitcase-sized metal muffler. So I hopped out and quickly grabbed all of the parts I could, then literally kicked the rear bumper back into place.

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Broken, But Improved

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My yard sale did have a positive improvement on Ski-Klasse. Losing the muffler and the lower half of the rear bumper gave the car a lot more breathing room in back. Another bonus? Bill welded in an exhaust cut-out so you could have a sporty exhaust note when you want it, but the cut-out didn’t really seem to do much. Well, now the car sounds mean all of the time!

With the muffler in the trunk and half of the bumper reassembled, the Ski-Klasse became a bit more capable. It was able to run laps of the dirt course, only slamming into the ground on the harder bumps and transitions. Sadly, I wasn’t really able to do the full send I wanted to do. I reached maybe a third of the pace I planned. Fact is, the gas tank is still one of the lowest parts of the car and I don’t want to slam that into the ground at race pace. Still, it’s impressive that the car was even able to do it considering how low it is.

[Ed note: It’s here I should mention that we built this car for the snow but by the time we were finished we… were out of snow. It’ll get on some snow adventures as soon as it snows anywhere close to where the car is. – MH]

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Also limiting the speed of my laps was the bodywork up front. Bill covered up his clever front-end reinforcement work with the vehicle’s original front bumper, which makes Ski-Klasse look stealthy. Unfortunately, the lower apron took a lot of hits, as did the lower left Hella lamp. I’m not entirely sure why it was just the left one, but first, a hard bump ejected the light from the bucket. I picked up the light, reinstalled it, then went for another run. On the next run, the light got shattered as it was ejected. Then on another run, the bucket itself got cracked in half. Alright, I get it, Holly Oaks really doesn’t like that one Hella.

After enough of beating poor Ski-Klasse up on the dirt track, I decided to explore other parts of Holly Oaks. After all, if Ski-Klasse is to survive a Gambler 500, it’s going to need to do more than just a dirt track. When you go on a Gambler 500, you’ll often find yourself on trails in forests, mud, sand, and rutted trails, so I decided to do those.

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In terms of capability, Ski-Klasse did a little worse than my last Dodge Grand Caravan. The lack of ground clearance and its long length meant I got stuck on trails that a stock Smart Fortwo could handle. Or, at least, I reversed out of those trails because I didn’t want to rip off any more bodywork than I already had. I could get through them with liberal application of the skinny pedal followed by trusting Bill’s handiwork.

Likewise, the really low ride height meant that I really only had one shot to get myself out of a sticky situation. The Vredestein snow tires got the Ski-Klasse through the mud with some ease, but they were not built for very soft sand (we should probably hit up Vredestein for some Pinza A/Ts, which are designed for what we’re doing). I got stuck a few times in the car. One time was when I didn’t give it enough skinny pedal to make it over a big hump–the two other times happened in a sandy area. At the back of the park is a loose sand loop, sort of like the dunes next to a beach. At first, Ski-Klasse was making it through, but then I took the wrong trail and had to back out.

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As I backed out, I paused to think about where I wanted to go next. When I decided to start moving again, both rear wheels started sinking. Given the car’s super low ground clearance, I knew I had just one shot to free myself. I chose to throttle out. All that did was dig me in right to the floorboards, which took what, five seconds?

A Jeep crew rescued me and while I was performing a 3-point turn to get myself pointed in the correct direction, the tires gave up just five feet where they got stuck before. This time, I chose gentle throttle, and got the same result. The Jeep crew saved me again, but this time, they dragged me out of the sand area entirely, not trusting Ski-Klasse to be a Sand-Klasse, and I can’t blame them.

This Car Has Potential

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When Bill Caswell built this car, the goal was to make the ultimate snow car. Honestly, I think he accomplished that and then some. Bill cut out an incredible amount of the front end of this car and replaced it with thick square steel tubing. He then reinforced and shored up all of that metal. The bull bar up front? Yeah, that’s welded directly into the car’s structure. That baby is functional! Bill also moved the radiator a few inches up and covered all of his artistry with a big skid plate.

Why did he do this? Bill’s future for this car includes the kind of stuff I did at Holly Oaks. Ski-Klasse won’t just be a snow car, but as much of an off-road beast you could make a rear-wheel-drive automatic wagon be. Bill told me that the strength of his front end work hadn’t been tested, so my time at Holly Oaks could be considered a shakedown run.

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That big black frame bar isn’t original!

My conclusion? We’re only scratching the surface of what this car can do. I accidentally lawn-darted Ski-Klasse into terrain at this event and the car did not skip a beat. Bill’s structure held, no leaks were sprung, and the engine continued to run like a fine watch, just now with more noise. In fact, when I got stuck, I had the Jeep folks yank on that front bar just to demonstrate how strong it is. To say that Ski-Klasse is physically stout is an understatement. It even drove over 350 miles home just fine! Oddly, the sans-muffler exhaust was pretty quiet at highway speeds. Quiet enough that I’ll be driving Ski-Klasse back out to Detroit for the auto show.

Moving forward, I see a couple of immediate concerns. The first is protecting the gas tank. I realized that it’s now the second lowest part of the car (the remainder of the exhaust is the lowest) and the dents on the bottom suggest I accidentally used it as a skid plate. That’s not great. The black thing hanging near the rear axle in the below picture is the gas tank:

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Also not great is what’s left of the exhaust. For now, it’s ok as it’s not dragging on the ground and doesn’t appear to be causing carbon monoxide problems. But I know from experience that an exhaust that ends in the undercarriage like this is a recipe for damage if someone needs to recover the vehicle from behind. The exhaust will get caught on something, get ripped off, and things will get louder and ugly. In my head, a cure for this stuff would be a lift kit, more skid plates, and maybe an alternate set of taller tires.

Still, I’m having a ton of fun with Ski-Klasse and I cannot wait until my next adventure with it. Now that I confirmed that the car can kinda sorta play in the dirt, the car will go on its first Gambler 500 later this month. Hopefully, it’ll return home in as many pieces as it left in.

(Photos: Mercedes Streeter and Erik “3wiperB.”)

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MP81
MP81
5 months ago

The HHR belongs to a buddy of mine – gots a turbski and everything.

Broke a halfshaft during the Dream Cruise, so looks like he got that back in working order in time for this event!

Old Hippie
Old Hippie
5 months ago

I see one glaring failure with this build: It’s called “Ski Klasse”, yet has NO SKIS on the rack!

A vehicle with such a name should ALWAYS be ski-mounted! You don’t even need to ski! The skis could easily be yard-sale 1970s Heads (or are those collectable now?).

You think the SK draws attention now? Show up mid-summer at some desert rally with skis in the rack…. Always draws a crowd and lots of attention.

Admittedly, when I’ve done this, we were actually going BC summer skiing… either the best or the worst of ski conditions, and usually a mix of the two.

OptionXIII
OptionXIII
5 months ago

I never have understood the “Battlecar” fascination, especially since my impression of the Venn diagram of people who like battlecars, and people who hate the crossoverification of everything, is basically a circle. Or concentric circles.

For me, I prefer to have tools designed for the job. I don’t use a machete for chopping wood or an axe for clearing brush. Same with cars. I have a Jeep for Jeep stuff, and a Miata for Miata stuff.

Admittedly, I am a grouch.

Geoffrey Reuther
Geoffrey Reuther
5 months ago
Reply to  OptionXIII

So, at least with the Gambler 500 crew, the mentality is generally “well, this thing is clapped out beyond use, so let’s get to the mayhem.”

The absurdity is exactly the charm. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s perfectly ok.

OptionXIII
OptionXIII
5 months ago

Don’t get me wrong, I understand demo derby and Gambler type stuff. Low buck mods and whatnot are great. You know those cars were otherwise going to be sent to the junkyard, and get a good deal of fun out of them first. I get that.

My confusion is in trying to understand how that became such a cultural phenomenon that people started spending serious money on it. They’re making battlecar Lamborghinis at this point and people eat it up.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
5 months ago

I still think you guys started with the wrong car. Should have been C4 Audi UrS4/S6. Real Quattro. Stickshift. Rally bred 5 cylinder. With this being RWD I think it’ll always just dig into soft terrain and get stuck.

Morgan van Humbeck
Morgan van Humbeck
5 months ago

“stealthy”

C.A.R. Doctor PhD
C.A.R. Doctor PhD
5 months ago

First thought seeing that picture was “that hasn’t gone well”

But it looks like a hell of a time

Geoffrey Reuther
Geoffrey Reuther
5 months ago

Knowing they’re taking it to a Gambler event later, I’d say that the rapid unscheduled muffler delete was actually a perfect thing to happen.

PL71 Enthusiast
PL71 Enthusiast
5 months ago

Are y’all going to lift it a bit? Looks lower than my stock Audi.

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
5 months ago

Fuel cell gas tank delete?

Opa Carriker
Opa Carriker
5 months ago

Why do you take such pride in breaking things that don’t deserve to be broken?

Opa Carriker
Opa Carriker
5 months ago

Appreciate your reply. I guess I just don’t understand the concept of playing with your toys until they break. If I took that approach, what few toys I have would be quickly out of play. None of my business I suppose, but it seems to me that taking the roof off of a station wagon will be a bitch for your structural integrity.

It’s not like I don’t modifications so long as they have a purpose and direction to it. When I weld up a bullbar/brushguard for my 2004 Silverado it is with the intent to provide a mounting point for a winch, not to look cool. Although it did turn out aesthetically pleasing to my eye.

FWIW, I really like the way this project looks at this point, especially the paint job.

Just my 2 cents worth.

Last edited 5 months ago by Opa Carriker
PL71 Enthusiast
PL71 Enthusiast
5 months ago
Reply to  Opa Carriker

As someone who plays with my toys until they break, I just have backup toys.
I try to take it a little easy on the backups until the primary toys are fixed though.

Opa Carriker
Opa Carriker
5 months ago

I guess I just don’t have the income to have extra toys either to use or to break.

PL71 Enthusiast
PL71 Enthusiast
5 months ago
Reply to  Opa Carriker

For me it’s more of a “welp I broke the autox car I guess the daily will pass tech inspection”

ChefCJ
ChefCJ
5 months ago

I see nothing here worthy of regret, well done

Forbestheweirdo
Forbestheweirdo
5 months ago

Oh I enjoy content like this so much more than a bland write up on some new Camry. Also, I was looking for Autopian coverage on the new Lotus, whatever it’s called, and was very pleased to see it was not merely a writeup, but also had a historical comparison. Love this site for the weird and quirky crap like that!

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
5 months ago

Very surprised SLS survived that!

3WiperB
3WiperB
5 months ago

Bill did an amazing job on this car! As you would expect, Ski Klasse was getting a ton of attention and compliments. There was always someone snapping a photo or coming up to talk about it.

Chronometric
Chronometric
5 months ago

I pride myself on being gonzo. I bow to your awesomeness.

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