In my mind, there’s no more exciting and accessible form of driving than wintercross, aka driving fast on snow, aka aka experiencing delightful oversteer on a wintry surface. I decided we should build a car to do this and, because this is The Autopian, we weren’t going to do it with something obvious like a WRX. Nope. We’re doing it with a classic Mercedes E-Class wagon from the ’90s. The Ski-Klasse! Why? Because, in my heart of hearts, I know this will work. I also know I can’t do it without some help, so I enlisted ultimate BMW guy and driving legend Bill Caswell. The fine folks at Vredestein Tires, Hella, FCP Euro, and Fifteen52 are also onboard to help make this happen.
Along the way, we have a few goals:
- Learn about the ’90s E-Class and find out why they seem to be so robust.
- Try to build a car for wintercross on a budget.
- Have fun. This should be easy with Bill involved.
Buckle up for an adventure.
The Mercedes 210 Is The New Volvo 240… I Think
I was working on a project where, for about six months, I had to keep track of all the highest mileage vehicles for sale in the United States. I mostly found the obvious stuff like Volvo 240s and diesel heavy duty trucks. The standouts? The 1996-2002 Mercedes E-Class, codename 210. I kept finding extremely high mileage 210s all over the country. Almost every week I’d find one with 300k+ miles and, once a month, upwards of 400k.
Having owned two Volvo 240 wagons, I took this as a sign that perhaps the universe was providing enthusiasts with another refined and robust platform. But an old German car? The line on old German cars is they’re a headache and expensive and complicated. I had to know if my gut was correct.
The efficient way to do this is to buy a car, work on it, and drive it around for a while. The fun way is to buy one, work on it, and turn it into a car specifically built to do what it wasn’t initially made to do (i.e. a sideways snow racer). The extra fun way is to get a group of people together to do this.
I have high hopes for our E320 with the 3.2-liter V6 and 722 five-speed automatic transmission.
I’ve known Bill Caswell since his $500 Craigslist rally car days and he’s remained one of the craziest and, at the same time, most genuine dudes I’ve ever met. He’s also one of the few people I can call with a wild idea that’s basically sketch + urge and, rather than tell me why I can’t do something, offers to help. He’s going to be supervising the build, doing a lot of the work, and hopefully teaching us a few things along the way.
This wouldn’t be possible without Vredestein Tires, our main partner for Project Ski-Klasse. I went to them at SEMA and presented this idea and they immediately got it and offered to help. They’ll be providing the tires and a lot of expertise to get this done. I worked with Vredestein’s high performance tires on a film I worked on and was super impressed, so getting a set of Wintrac Pros for this project was a no-brainer.
In addition to Bill and Vredestein, we’ll also be getting help from FCP Euro, Fifteen52 wheels, Mercedes, Jason, David, Huibert, and the Autopian crew.
[Editor’s Note: This is The Autopian’s first sponsored build project, and hopefully the start of a beautiful wrenchtopia that not only provides you all with the wacky used-car projects you want to read, but also helps our site become more sustainable as a business. Yes, working with brands and wrenching on old cars is part of our business plan; what a world we live in. I’ve joked with Matt that this automatic wagon is a bit of a grandpa car, but he just responds with “That’s the point — turn a humble Mercedes into a beast. Also, we have Bill Caswell; this won’t be a grandpa car for long.” He has a point. -DT].
For this to be a truly accessible car for enthusiasts it has to be ubiquitous enough to find cars and parts, cheap enough to have a low barrier to entry, strong enough to take abuse, and straightforward enough to be worked on by a home mechanic. Step one was to find an S210 (in Mercedes-speak W is sedan, S is wagon, and C is coupe. This is confusing until you realize W means Wagen, which is car in German. S then means station wagon. Get it?) in decent shape.
Bill is a BMW guy and has no Mercedes experience, but between my searching and his instinct we decided we wanted an E320 in RWD form (as opposed to 4matic all-wheel drive). I found a great one in New Jersey, and Mark, the owner, was an old fan and gave us the good price of $4,500 on a clean model with only 160,000 miles on the clock. It did have a rebuilt title because of a fender bender. Given our plans for the car this wasn’t an issue.
I just got the car, and our first move is to get it up to VIP Tires & Service in Vermont and do a quick pass on the car, as well as get the tires mounted on our wheels so we can see how the car looks and how we might modify it from there. After that, the wagon will go to FCP Euro where we’ll learn from the Mercedes experts there what the general maintenance requirements are at this mileage, and we’ll try to get the car in bulletproof shape so Bill and the rest of us can set it up optimally for winter driving. When I ask exactly what that entails, Bill just sort of maniacally laughs so… we’ll see what happens. The most important mod for this kind of driving is the tires and that’s taken care of right up front.
Our goal is to have a fully functional, sharp looking Ski-Klasse wagon by mid-March so we can start taking it to winter-cross events. Expect many more updates between now and then with many more updates on our Instagram account and Bill’s account.
I think Matt did this on purpose! BMW makes wagons. Why didn’t we buy one of those? Because Matt wants to see me struggle. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Except… I think he’s right about this being the next Volvo 240. Our car is 24 years old, and while it rattles and clunks, it drives incredibly well and feels solid.
Certain parts of the car almost look like a BMW. Not the bodywork, or the interior, but all the mechanical stuff underneath it. Mercedes and BMW share many of the same parts suppliers so it makes sense that the layout of the driveline and subsystems are incredibly similar. The flex disk(s) in the driveshaft look exactly like the ones in a BMW. Same with the engine mounts, exhaust, plumbing, wiring, etc. But the rest of the Mercedes? It’s like a mirror image of the BMW, except everything is… backwards. We have a Bizarro BMW! Which isn’t really fair given Mercedes history, but I started with BMW.
And I’ve never looked under a Mercedes so this is entirely new to me. But our E-Class looks strong! Maybe it’s because they added another car with two more seats to the back of their sedan, but from what I’ve read on the internet, the sedans and wagons are nearly identical… until you get to the back.
Oh, this reminds me: Our wagon is a bit like a mullet.
Coming down the road, we look like a classy Mercedes sedan. But as we go by, it just keeps on going… until you see two more people facing out the back in full party! So maybe it’s a Bizarro BMW, or maybe it’s a Mullet Merc, but I’m going to do everything I can to make it Ski-Klasse. And yes, I was hoping for an E55 V8. They sound so good. But once I saw all the room around our little 3.2 liter V6, I decided this will be so much easier to work on. Another reason to think we have the next 240. But is it strong enough? We’ll find out soon! – Bill Caswell
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Step one: drop in OM606.
Step two: Do basic stuff, like intake, mufflers, diesel pump and nozzles, port heads and of course put huge turbo in and:
Step three: Boom – You have like 500-600 HP down on wheels and gazillion newtons with stock internals, fairly reliably and a nice bonus with great mileage considering the performance.
Step four: POWAAAH to the win.
This build looks like it will be fun and interesting. However, if you want to bring it out west, you are going to need a set of tire chains. It is not legal to drive most roads in the Sierra without chains or all-wheel drive when the roads are snow covered.
Just a perfect project with a perfect car, curious to follow this one. I too agree with the next 240, but rust was really a problem for these, especially the rear rockers. Racking up the miles was never a problem, a friend of mine had one wagon over 500k kms in the CDI diesel form.
This is super exciting and living in Maine I’m 100% all in on winter driving. It’s the best. To be honest I also immediately started looking at how cheap e-class wagons were. But I have a full fleet that I need to thin, so it will have to wait.