I was visiting a friend in Vermont several years ago, and he asked me what my PPC was. “My PPC?” I asked. “Your Personal Piston Count!” he explained. “It’s a way for engineers to objectively measure their self-worth!” This friend has a particularly sarcastic sense of humor. He’s also an engineer. He said that it was a tally of how many pistons in internal combustion engines you were personally responsible for. His PPC was somewhere around 20, and his dad, who had several acres of land and a model airplane hobby, scored an 82. I did a quick tally, and asked if all the pistons had to be functioning at the time (the answer to that was “no”). Between my Mini, my Ranger, my wife’s Rogue, and a few lawn tools, I was around 17. Sounded like I needed to get to work building up that PPC.
A couple of years passed, I went through a few cars, and eventually found myself back with that same PPC, and browsing Craigslist for my next project car. Ever since Tavarish wrote about the Mercedes S600 that he flipped, I’d been itching to get my hands on one. After years of sporadic searching, I had never been able to find one that was in my price range (read: cheeeeaaappp). But suddenly, there it was. Black-over-tan (so classy), a V12 monster-barge listed for $3000, 20 minutes away from me.
Now, this would be the third car I tried to flip. My record, to that date, was 1-1. I was coming off a win from my 2006 Mazdaspeed 6 - so I was feeling pretty good about my mechanical aptitude after replacing that transfer case and putting together a pretty nice car. I looked over the list of things that the seller of the Mercedes said it needed:
- Ball joints
- Hydraulic hoses
- CD changer
- A/C sensor
- Hydraulic pump (for the suspension)
Now, I remember explictly, back when I read Tavarish’s post about buying his S600, that he said that the ABC (Automatic Body Control) system on W220 Mercedes chassis were very expensive and difficult to fix. As in, if you are buying an S-class with ABC, and it needs work to that system, DON’T BUY IT. So I took that little mite of knowledge, examined it closely, turning it over and over in my head. Then my cavalier side came out and I said to myself, “Eh, how hard can it be?” I promptly called the seller up and set up a time to go see it.
When I got there, I saw an enormous stain on an otherwise clean concrete driveway, and another stain sitting below the car, which was currently parked at the curb. OK, so he was serious when he said that the hydraulic pump needed to be replaced. Upon talking to the owner, I learned that this was the last year of the naturally aspirated V12 S-class. It wasn’t until the next year that they switched to the venerated, supercar-fast twin-turbo. OK, a little disappointing, but, it’s still a V12, and it still pulled strong on my test drive around the neighborhood. There was a distinct knock coming from the suspension when turning right (“probably ball joints,”) I thought, and the dash lit up bright red saying “ABC - VISIT WORKSHOP.” The car rode like a fishing boat, bouncing over bumps - boing, boing, boing. Not exactly dignified. But, I was sold - I offered him $400 less than asking, and he and his wife followed me home so that I could drive it with legal plates, and they could take those plates with them when they left. And with that, I had nearly doubled my Personal Piston Count in a single day. Very inexpensively, I might add.
I dove into the suspension system pretty quickly; or, I tried to. Turns out the online write-ups for DIY ABC pump changes on a 2 model-year-run engine in a rare car are hard to come by. And, when I went out to try my hand at it free-form style, I realized that Mercedes REALLY likes their E-torx bolts. That’s a star-shaped head, which requires special tools to remove most of the bolts holding the pump to the engine block. Fortunately, I live in a world with Amazon, and I had a nice shiny set of E-torx sockets 2 days later. But, when I returned to the task, and had completely detached the pump from its mount, I still couldn’t pull it from the engine bay. Some kind of hard line was wrapped around it, and refused to move without feeling like it was going to break off.
So, in the first (and not the last) sketchy decision I made with this car, I ordered a “factory” manual DVD set from eBay - covering every single Mercedes model manufactured between 1985 and 2015, on 4 DVDs, for $15. This can’t possibly be healthy for my computer. But, I installed the program, and soon afterward I had a fully-operational Mercedes WIS/DAS, which is a beautifully over-developed digital German workshop manual. Type in your VIN, select the system you want to work on, confirm the health hazard warnings related to that system, and poke around until you find instructions for installing and uninstalling any part you can think of. And find instructions I did. Want to know how the official procedure begins for removing the hydraulic suspension/steering pump from a W220 S600?
Step 1: Remove engine.
That’s right. This thing sits where the alternator lives on a normal car, and the first step that a factory mechanic takes is to pull the ENTIRE ENGINE. It’s no wonder dealership costs for replacing the pump start in the $4000 range and go up from there. And this isn’t the little 1.8L four-banger in my old BMW, where you could look in the engine bay and see the pavement below the car. No, this is a 5.8L honker that has so much mass that it almost has a tangible gravity well around it. The S600 is a big, big car, but the engine fills up the engine bay so much that there’s less space to work than there is in my Mini. So, as doubt crept into my mind, I let the car sit.
As months passed, I would go out and pop the hood, take a look at the mahoosive motor, still sitting partially disassembled, tinker idly and fruitlessly with the pump, and close the hood again. The longer the car sat, the more depressed I got about the fact that I had bitten off more than I could chew, that something that seemed so simple had foiled me, that I had to walk around this unmoving monster every time I took the garbage out or had to mow the front lawn.
At some point, I admitted that I couldn’t do what needed to be done, and that I wanted to make progress somehow, so I called up my independent mechanic, who is fluent in German (cars), and asked him to take a look at it. Which he did, over the course of several weeks. He told me he was able to replace the pump, the only problem was that the dashboard light was still on. He had plugged it into every computer he owned, and he’d even sent it to the Mercedes dealership, and not even they could figure out why the light was still on. “Can I drive it?” I asked. “Absolutely,” he said. So I picked it up, and actually drove it for the first time since the day I bought it. After, of course, relieving my wallet of more than half the amount of money that I paid for it.
After that the car sat a little bit more. It wasn’t really road-worthy yet - I still needed to do the ball joints, and I was still upset with myself for not being able to fix what needed to be fixed on it, and the brakes were in desperate need of replacement. I would take it out and tinker with little things every once in a while, in between doing other things that I cared more about, so it only got attention once a month or so. Sometimes my efforts would be immediately fruitful, and others would then crush my spirit again.
For example, I lifted the car up for one reason or another and found that one of the four front subframe bolts was really, really loose. Like, no tools required for removal. Once I torqued it back to spec (85ft-lb; thanks, knockoff-WIS) and took it around the block, that suspension knock that I thought was the ball joints was magically gone! Seems the subframe bolt had been so loose that the subframe had been flexing and knocking against the unibody... That was an unexpected and fortunate surprise. But, a few weeks later, I went out and found the battery completely drained - and after some digging, it was because an absurd amount of water was getting into the trunk, filling both the battery compartment and the audio component compartment. The water shorted out the amp, and drew on the battery constantly, draining it completely. Also, now it smelled like wet dog.
This seemed to define my experience with the big Benz. Take a large, potentially costly, piece on, finally make some semblance of progress on it, and then, out of the blue, something new, unrelated, and equally costly pops up out of nowhere.
So now, the battery needed to be replaced, as did all of the audio components. And I had to find the leak. So I tore out all the (saturated) trunk lining, had my wife shut me in the trunk with a flashlight, and she sprayed a garden hose over the whole back end of the car. After a few minutes in the unsurprisingly spacious hold, I located a telltale dribble of water coming from above the taillight. A strange intersection of panels along the rain gutter (this car has more gutters than my house) had rusted out and was letting an unreasonable volume of H20 go where H20 should not go. So, I sanded the rust away as best I could, hit it with some spray paint to seal it, then filled the hole with some gasket maker, and covered it all with aluminum tape.
After I replaced the battery and the CD changer (I hadn’t done that since I bought it), the radio worked briefly before kicking out again. Fine, whatever, I’d drive it without music for a while. But, it was finally roadworthy! Except that it hadn’t been inspected in over a year, so that was my first big trip - out to the NJ MVC, where the tech plugged it in and promptly failed it for an emissions code. But wait! I thought. The check engine light isn’t on! And indeed it was not. In fact, it didn’t even light up when the key was turned to the “ON” position, like it’s supposed to. So I put on my detective hat (not really) and ordered a special tool to remove the instrument cluster. Then I took the hat off and waited a week for the tool to get here. Then, after it finally came, I puttered around for several more weeks, my motivation again having been sapped by the endless stream of disappointments.
When I finally got around to pulling the cluster (I put my figurative detective hat back on again), I found that the previous owner had, certainly with the best of intentions and not maliciously or deceitfully in any way, covered the back of the CHECK ENGINE light with electrical tape. When the I removed the tape and reinstalled the cluster, a cheerful yellow glow came through the newly uncovered plastic, and a scan of the system indicated a Secondary Air Pump malfunction - yet another addition to the list of problems.
A few weeks later I was complaining to a friend about the disaster that this car had turned into, and how I had totally lost the excitement about owning this beautiful, imposing, stately V12 beast. He told me, “Look man, these cars, they’re built to be driven. Sitting is no good for them, sometimes you just need to thrash them to understand them.” And I realized, he was right. I had never mashed the gas pedal in this, I hadn’t tried out the massaging seats, I’d never seen how it could take a corner. So, I resolved, that night, since it was at least road-worthy (I had recently replaced the front brakes), that I’d take it out and see what was what.
I don’t know if it was because I vented my frustration on that gas pedal, or if it was the discordant experience of driving a restrained mammoth at incongruous speeds, but I couldn’t believe how fun that night was. The normally silky quiet 5.8L howled any time I took it over 4,000 rpms. There was a kickdown switch under the gas pedal; If you really wanted to move, you stomped on it, felt the transmission grab the lowest possible gear, and it would rocket you off toward the next hill crest riding a wave of sound. Click off the traction control when the road was even thinking about moisture, and the (admittedly balding) rear tires would scrabble for purchase. With 365 hp, the acceleration wasn’t manic, it was just... inevitable. Irresistible. Effortless. Where acceleration in my old Mazdaspeed was a psychotic, brutal, head-snapping experience which required you to wait for the turbo to spool up before it shot you out of a cannon, this was a smooth, refined force of nature. I can’t even imagine what the extra 200hp out of the next model year’s twin-turbo motor is like. I just know that I need to experience it at least once in my life.
And so, suddenly I liked the car again. It made it into the rotation and became my daily for a few weeks. It gobbled up the pavement on my 25-mile commute through the Delaware River Valley. When I wasn’t pushing it, it was a solid, serene oasis on the highway. It wasn’t faaaast, but it was - self-assured. Traffic jam? No problem, no stress, the seat is giving me a massage right now. Getting a little toasty? Turn on the ventilated seat - that’s much more comfortable. Road noise? What road noise? It’s insulated like an igloo. A very high-tech igloo.
My next-door neighbor saw me working on it a number of times. He’s an antiques appraiser, a classically-trained opera singer, and a man of discerning taste. One day he came over and poked his head into the interior. He said, “Man, I had a few Mercedes. Nothing like them.” Then he withdrew, looked over the lines of the exterior, and nodded approvingly. “This is a diplomat’s car.” To me, it was as high praise as he could have given.
Mild sidebar here - for as staggeringly comfortable a ride as the W220 chassis has, especially with the ABC suspension, I found one niggling little qualm that irked me: The steering wheel isn’t centered on the driver’s body position; it’s 1-2 inches too far to the right. This doesn’t seem like much, but it’s actually uncomfortable, to the point of shoulder strain, to keep two hands on the wheel for a long period of time. Here’s photo proof - my body is centered in the seat, and you can see the centerline of the wheel missing the centerline of my body. I’ve been fortunate enough to drive a number of cars in my life, and I don’t remember ever noticing another car with this quirk. So strange for a car that cost more than $150,000 from the factory. Although I suppose you’re not the one who has to deal with the physical discomfort - that’s why we have chauffeurs, isn’t it?
Anyway, I commuted with the car for two or three weeks - I even got so arrogant as to start to imagine keeping it. I planned out the next projects, the next steps, the last things to button up to finalize its rise to glory. I reveled in the sense of majesty and power I felt when I drove it, right up until the point that, 5 minutes from home, it started running like a tractor. Because the entire driver’s side cylinder bank decided to start misfiring.
I parked it and didn’t drive it again for months. Didn’t even look twice at it. It crushed me - the engine, one of the few working elements of this car decided to stop being a working element. At that point, my wife and I had put our house on the market, too, so I barely had time for cars anyway, but the Mercedes had betrayed me for the last time. Our house sold in 10 days (the market in New Jersey is crazy right now), and we moved in with my parents until we could find our dream house. The Mercedes made one last trip to the curb in front of their house - for some reason running as well as it ever had. But, I knew. The second honeymoon was over, and I started seeing the blemishes - the not insignificant rust bubbling beneath the surface of the paint at the wheel wells and bottom of the doors. The faded and cracked clear bra that some earlier owner put on. The cigarette smoke smell embedded in the alcantara headliner, probably from the same earlier owner.
From that point on, whenever I went out to run it, to raise the settled suspension back up to normal ride height, I found something else new and exciting wrong with it. A huge, vertical crack in the windshield that somehow happened just from sitting there. Way more rust than I remembered. The hood ornament ripped off, laying on the street, borked by a mischievous teenager or overzealous snow-plow driver. Somehow, more water in the trunk. Suddenly non-functioning central locks, soft-close doors, and massaging seats. It was the complete opposite of my trusty old Ford Ranger, which kept running and running no matter what I threw at it. With each discovery, my self-esteem and my belief that I could bring the majesty back sunk lower and lower, until I finally had enough and called it.
I listed it on Craigslist almost two years after I bought it, for not much more than I paid for it. I usually like to do a nice photo-shoot as a farewell for my flips, but I couldn’t even be bothered with this one. I was losing money, I knew. My wife, God bless her, knew too, and cared more about getting rid of the possessed wretch than the money. When I moved the car into the driveway to clean it out before I sold it, it decided to evacuate all of it’s coolant onto the street. Because of course it did. Which scared off one potential buyer who was coming to see it the next day. I buttoned up the coolant and finally found a buyer who understood that this was a project, not a reliable whip to ball on a budget. He rolled up in a CL55 AMG and asked all the right questions about the car, so I felt comfortable that he understood what he was getting into. I got less for it than I had initially paid for it - I didn’t care. As my dad said, “Better than a sharp stick in the eye.”
Here’s the thing though; I know what I bought. This was a flagship car, a technical achievement for its time, that had been ridden hard and put away wet, long before I got my grubby hands on it. And I know my year or so of neglect and disuse did a number on it. But for three weeks during my ownership, I dined at the millionaire’s table. OK, I ate the scraps from the dumpster from behind the millionaire’s house, fine, but filet is filet. I have no doubt that a cared for, well-maintained W220 is heaven to live with. If you have the money, and the mechanical aptitude (or extra money), to handle it, the velvety ride and silky power are addicting and the engineering is a sight to behold. The twin turbo has to be even better.
David E. Davis, the great automotive journalist, said of the Lamborghini Countach, “I firmly believe that anyone, who is worth anything at all, should own a 12 cylinder car before they die. Because there is nothing else like it.” The S600 is no Countach, it’s true, but those words ring true to me. And, now that I know, what do I do with that knowledge? I’ll probably long for that presence, that gravitas, that class for the rest of my life. It’s my siren song. At least now I know the cost.