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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Oh, one other note: Those roof racks are near unobtainium. If you don’t need them for the build, pull them off and hang on to them. They’re actually worth some money.
It’s heavy and rear wheel drive, so it’s going to skate around in the snow, when it’s not stuck in the snow. But please proove me wrong 🙂
A (a) and Å (å) is really not the same letter, they have different pronunciations.
(sulks in misunderstood swedish)
Looking forward to reading more about this one. Drove one for a few years and found it to be a solid car. My only transmission problem was tied back to leaks in the lines to the cooler.
I do wonder how the wagon-only hydraulic “self-leveling” rear suspension will handle the ice on track…
Anyways, had to sell mine when the rear suspension failed and the rust started bubbling up everywhere.
My friends, you had me at wagon.
Bill, I own an ’06 E61 (6spd!), and have spent much time lying underneath. Please, at some point, give us a pic-to-gram or a paragraph detailing the “inverted” stuff.
Yay nice to see/hear about Caswell again
I’m surprised you went out of your way for RWD as opposed to 4matic. I thought you would just take the cheapest example worth buying, RWD or AWD 😛
You appear to have a post-facelift (1999-2002, IIRC) S210. I had one of those in 4Matic guise and loved it so much that I’ve had nothing but Mercedes since. Given your plans for it, RWD makes sense.
One thing to check out: the RWD 210s had problems with the front spring perches: they tended to rust out underneath the rubber coating they sprayed on them, and that’s a bear to fix. Make sure your spring perches are solid. The 4Matics used a different setup that wasn’t susceptible to this problem.
Go for it! I think you’ll have lots of fun.
It’s great to see you guys doing something really unique and fun! Can’t wait to see the finished project…going sideways of course. The Vredesteins are a great choice for winter shenanigans. I’ve had them on a number of cars going back to 1980!
One thing to maybe think about, the manual trans of the era might just bolt right in and play well with the computer provided you get the Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring setup correctly.
Here’s a similar build with one of the Merc crossovers of the era that also used the 722.9 7-speed trans. If a later model trans plays well I’d bet that the earlier will be even easier.
One of the fun things about M Benz, according to enthusiasts I’ve spoken to, is that they keep the files and molds and whatnot for everything so if you need a part you can get it.
Might cost ya, but you’ll be able to get the part.
Looking forward to this
Rear facing jump seats are a thing that needs to make a roaring comeback, fuck third row seating facing forwards.
Agreed. We had a Camry wagon with rear facing seat that was awesome!
I was about to say: AAAAAAH IT HAS JUMP SEATS!!!!!! YESSSSSSS.
This is great, it will be fun. Three things:
-The automatic gearbox is not something I’d like on ice. But that’s just me, a crazy Euro dude talking nonsense.
– The bloke running the grocery shop (selling booze and maybe milk when you run out, like an offy) under our flat has this car. Basically this color, gearbox, the lot. A car working hard stocking the shop, especially because parking suck in the middle of Budapest.
– These rust like crazy. This Benz generation is just crusty.
Good luck, my buddies!
– You’re 100% spot on. Mid corner, the trans is going to downshift and it being RWD the tail is going to come out. Manual trans swap would make this entire project 1000x better.
And yes I am a member of Manual Wagon Elitist Jerks on FB. My car is currently the cover photo.
what do you drive. I’ll try to come back tonight and check for an update.
Can’t wait for reply notifications!!!
Unless this thing has a manual mode to gear select? And one that will hold gear and not nanny shift for you if its revving too high while the wheels are spinning.
OH MAN, that car is so hot! What are those wheels, if you don’t mind spilling the beans?
We all have our likes, I can respect that.
Excited to see the progress! Love these cars and working towards making a merc wagon my next vehicle before they disappear forever.
The fact you picked something with an automatic transmission makes me not care at all. Good luck. I think the guy in the $1500 Subaru with a stickshift is going to have way more fun than you.
Eh, I dunno. For several years I had both an 87 Subaru GL 4wd wagon (5MT dual-range, of course)and an 84 Mercedes 300TD wagon. I’d take the roo when I needed to get somewhere, but the old diesel (with truck tire on the back, mind) was more entertaining to hoon-plus I loved the look on people’s faces when they saw that long old thing coming at them at an angle.
I certainly prefer 3 pedals, but fun can certainly be had out of a slushbox
I think the 722 series 4-speed automatics in that era of Benz are fantastic. Attached to the 3-liter at least, you can pretty reliably break the rear wheels free on loose surfaces using the kickdown button, which is incidentally one of my favorite tactile inputs ever on a car, and getting the hang of “tromboning” the shift timing gives as smooth a ride as perfectly rev-matching a manual.
My 1976 300D doesn’t get tossed around too much because I quickly learned that oh boy does gravel not play well with nearly half-century old single stage paint. But every once in a while I’ll take it out to the muddy cornfield trails near my house, and I’m sure that stately old thing looks absolutely ridiculous flinging muck everywhere.
I can smell the hate from here, GD!
I’m sure all of us in the office would be delighted to hoon in a manual, however, that wasn’t really in the cards with this project. It took a while just to find an old Merc wagon in our budget that wasn’t a total pile. Finding one with a manual and in our budget and in working order might have been impossible.
The car search has been going on behind the scenes for a while! Each time we’d find one we want and it would disappear before we got a chance to even set up a meet with the seller.
The auto box will be fine for what we’re going to use this car for, which won’t just be ice racing.
They didn’t make them with manuals… hence you guys should have just gotten something else. Those cars suck. Good luck, wish you guys the best, wish you had picked a better car.
Why even comment this if you “don’t care at all”? You should “not care” in silence and let the rest of us have a good time
until the head gaskets give up and you have to remove the engine to replace them 😀
Looks like it’s time to go buy a big ol’ canister of popcorn!
I mean, a quarter-century old RWD, Bill Caswell, and our usual cast of miscreants building a car to hoon in the snow. The possibilities are endless
This sounds rad and I can’t wait to see how it goes! But, I have a bit of an issue with the very first sentence here…
“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 don’t think driving on snow is as accessible as you think it is. Besides the fact that snow doesn’t typically fall for what I’d wager is a majority of the readership here, we also have this little thing called climate change that is increasing this majority every year. Heck, three years ago I moved back to within 5 miles of where I grew up in Michigan. We’d have snow on the ground every year from Thanksgiving until April. The joke was we have four seasons – Summer, almost winter, winter, and still winter. The last three years we have had enough breaks in snowfall that it entirely melts off in between. We had a green Christmas with rain. I have only had to shovel/snowblow my driveway about a dozen times since moving back.
So yeah… driving in the snow is awesome fun! But accessible for most of the world it is not.
I heard over the weekend that this year is only the 3rd time since they started keeping track in 1890 that we haven’t had even an inch of snow by this time(NWS office in Blacksburg VA). I mean, we normally get a couple teases, and 2 4-6” events, but it’s looking like we may not get anything at all this year. Futz! Those snow tires I bought a couple years back have only had 3 good outings and a couple wishful-thinkings. Maybe I should go ahead and make that skid plate: may have to settle for mud [hands over face emoji]
That is fair, but if you live in a warm place like San Antonio, you can go to a track day almost 365 days a year. If you live up North it means you normally have to ditch your track car or fun car for a few months. This opens up a lot of fun possibilities.
For sure. The problem is that there is now a growing shitty in-between phase. I have three decent tracks within 2-3 hour drives of me*, but I doubt they’re open between November and April because of temps and intermittent snow. So half the year no tracks… but now there is also no significant snow for winter activity. It blows!
*disclaimer – my track days went on indefinite hiatus ~7 years ago because kids
With climate change there’s now snowstorms in places normally without any snow so there’s that.
should read “now” instead of no
Certainly supporting this, you do know about the resurgence of rust problems with the 210 series? Eco-friendlier water based paint had bacteria start living in the spray paint system. So depending on the system flush (aka production day of the week) state, some are so so, others a nightmare. I hope yours got good paint adhesion. There used to be an option code (and therefore no order-able parts) “Schlechtwegefahrwerk”, usually higher ground clearance and underside protection. Could be helpful in the winter as well.
Hopefully the heater core is easier than a 240
Oh boy, you just triggered a case of PTSD about my old 240…
Loved that car SO much, but replacing the heater core was a terrible experience.
replacing every heater core is a horrible experience. A dashboard removal should be 8 bolts. fight me.
Nope. About 20 hours labor to replace a W210 heater core.
And a plethora of W210 parts NLA.
I’d have been happy to sell you a 118k miles RWD 1999 E320 wagon for that $4500…
Having owned an E320 Wagon 4-matic like this, but a 2001, I can say that towards the end of it’s life with me, the transmission was a major sore spot. It failed and needed a rebuild, and then they did a poor job on that so it had to be rebuilt again within 6 months. So get that checked out. Otherwise it is a smooth and very comfy car, that I still miss sometimes. You are going to have a lot of fun with this one!
We are literally working on it right now!
Automatic transmissions, being unreliable garbage? No way.
It’s a good thing they’re more fun to drive! Oh… wait….
It’s a good thing they get better MPG! .. oh….
It’s a good thing they have a superior resale value! hmm wait that’s not true either..
Automatics are good for commutes with heavy traffic and towing things, especially boats out of boat ramps. Other than that, they’re terrible.
I can hear your sarcasm, but I don’t think you really understand. They didn’t come with a manual option. So you work with what you have.
I completely understand. I would have spent $4500 elsewhere on something without a piece of shit transmission.
Can you tell us the same thing for a fifth time? Maybe that will finally convince everyone how much you don’t care.
My bad, you already did.
Oh man, this is gonna be great! That car looks like a fantastic platform and I’m a big fan of Vredestein tires. I have some Quatrac severe snow service rated all-seasons on my Fiat 500e and it handles dry, wet or snow-packed roads with ease and confidence.
I’m also a fan! I run Quatrac 5s on my Smarts and they’re better than the Continentals that Mercedes wants me to buy for more money.
I really like the idea of this project and diversifying The Autopian to make it more sustainable. It breaks my heart to see so many quality writers from Ol’ Lightening, the Drive, etc. go through so much uncertainty and turnover.
This sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun reading
*722.6 – the ‘.x’ is important in MB transmission parlance, as, well, ‘722.x’ describes pretty much every Mercedes transmission from the past half century.
Why no 4Matic? By all accounts, the system on the W210 has proven to be pretty robust. I have a friend with a wagon with over 300k miles on it, AWD still functions well.
Also, not to encourage bad ideas, but, AMG 5.4 V8s are very cheap second hand, and are not an overly difficult swap into that car, seeing as how the M112 is just an M113 with 2 cylinders chopped off.
For sure the 4Matic has its advantages, but for fast and fun sideways snow driving we’re thinking RWD is going to be more exciting.
Bill Caswell?!? And the Autopian?! What a bad ass pairing! Without trying to make anyone feel old, I remember reading about the $500 rally e30 when I was in high school (driving a ratty e21) thinking that was the coolest story. It’s probably a big part of where my affinity for less than ideal cars off road comes from. Following that story was formative for me for sure.
Glad to see you’re working on this Bill! Can’t wait to read more!