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Project Car SOTU: The Wombat

Jeff Glucker September 13, 2018 Featured, Project Car SOTU, Project Cars, The Wombat 23 Comments

This one has been a long road, and we’re still far from the end. I bought this 1984 Mercedes-Benz 300TD back in 2013. My dreams and plans were filled with smoky burnouts, roadtrips with my family, and living that longroof lifestyle.

None of that happened. The shop we first used for this build managed to fit the 5.7-liter HEMI V8 engine and gearbox into place and that was it. That’s as far as we got on the project before that shop got too busy to give our wagon the time it needed. Granted we weren’t paying them… so there’s that.

Fast forward five (fucking) years, and there’s a pulse on Project Wombat.

A lot’s changed in the five years since I first acquired this car. My daughter is three. We moved away from the beach to a condo in a quieter corner of Orange County. I’ve owned and sold a ’65 F100. I own a ’74 Mercedes-Benz 280. One thing that hasn’t changed is my determination to see this thing through and get the car running and driving.

Saying good bye to my 1965 Ford F100 [Shift Happens]

That’s involved a lengthy (and costly) stay in a friend’s family tow-lot in Garden Grove. After I couldn’t handle the car sitting there anymore, I reached out to a local shop (OC Cars Inc, who fixed an engine issue on my truck and installed fresh front glass) about this project. We discussed my goals and an actual budget and a portion of that budget has been paid so that work can begin.

Step one was removing the HEMI and the 545RFE transmission. I listed both for sale on Craigslist and Facebook marketplace. The first person to respond asked if I’d separate them and sell just the engine. Thankfully, the second or third person to respond asked if I’d sell just the gearbox. I had both sold within a week and a half of listing them.

At a loss compared to what I originally paid, but enough that I didn’t feel cheated. Plus we needed them gone anyway. When first purchased, the engine, transmission, and a now-gone wiring harness cost us $2,500. I sold the engine and transmission for a combined $1,250. That figure has gone right back into the car.

The plan is to now source an LS-based engine, likely an LS3. We’re open to LQ engines as well, which are less expensive and can be made to produce to easy horsepower. From there, it will be a matter of custom mounting costs and fabrication plus all of the electronics and a custom driveshaft.

The initial goal is to simply get the car running and driving. After that, my plan is still to “Safari” it. That will entail a slight light, likely through a mild spring and shock upgrade. I’ll fit a set of off-road style wheels, which at the moment will be Motegi MR139s. Likely in the 15-inch size and finished in Bronze. They will wear BFGoodrich tires. Eventually I’d also like to get the car painted and I’m thinking of a dark green color, especially if I can find a vintage MB dark green and get the car sprayed in a family color.

Like I said, this has been a long road… but it’s one upon which this wagon is still traveling. Hopefully the journey is about to get a bit faster.

  • Harry Callahan

    Engine swaps totally suck in CA. Getting emissions compliance sign-off is going to be a royal pain. Good luck.

  • Zentropy

    I like the direction, especially the safari-in-green theme. The engine swap is now much less interesting, but for big power on a budget, you can’t beat an LS. I’d be surprised if those Motegis are available in your 5x112mm bolt pattern, though. They’re largely used on Subarus, and most Subies are 5×110. You might find some old G-Wagen wheels that would fit.

    • Jeff Glucker

      I know the Motegi seller here in the States and I can work with them to make it happen.

      Yes, I agree on the change in engine direction – the Hemi was fun and hilarious, but it just wasn’t going to work. Now with the LS this project will move along and still be a blast to drive.

      • Zentropy

        Pays to have connections!!

        • Jeff Glucker

          You work in the industry for long enough, you hopefully meet some solid folks at various companies at all levels.

  • neight428

    Given the ubiquity of LS swaps and an offhand comment that Mrs. Neight428 made indicating a desire to own an R107 SL, I dug around the internet thinking there was surely a dozen or so examples out there, but apparently there was something in the front suspension crossmember and steering geometry that made the effort pretty difficult. Those that progressed beyond idle fantasy seemed to graft in an entire aftermarket front subframe. Awesome stuff, but well beyond my personal resources.

    Hopefully that doesn’t apply to the bigger sedan/wagon cars, but you had the Chrysler V8 in there, so I’m guessing it’s not as bad.

    • Zentropy

      I think it’s interesting, as classics go, that the SLs are such a particular hit with women. I’ve never given them a passing glance, but even my wife (who is nearly oblivious to cars in general) finds them appealing.
      In my experience, the biggest obstacle with engine swaps are just as you said: crossmember/oilpan interference and steering geometry. Less so is firewall and hood interference. You can pretty much make custom engine mounts for anything.

      • neight428

        The R107’s are a two seater convertible, so a plausibly interesting thing to have in garage, though I always filed them under “expensive to maintain/repair; malaise-era slow”.

        The most offensive thing about Mrs. Neight’s affinity for them is that she prefers the dumb looking US spec 5 mph bumpers as opposed to the Euro spec tightly tucked chrome jobs.
        In my amateur psychology, it leads me to believe that there was some association formed in her network TV influenced 80’s childhood between those cars and a life of limitless luxury. The more it looks like Bobby Ewing’s ride in Dallas, the closer you are to a billionaire.


        • Zentropy

          As the owner of an E28 535i with “diving board” bumpers, I can’t fault your wife on this. The tucked Euro bumpers on the BMW are much cleaner, but I prefer the U.S. versions just because they better fit my memory of the cars.

        • wunno sev

          a friend of mine strangely insists that the US-market headlights are better, despite correctly (facts!) preferring the little Euro bumpers.

    • Jeff Glucker

      Yep, the engine and trans were in but we would never have had space for steering or exhaust.

      But I too love the idea of the R107 SL. I’ve heard they’re uncomfortably small but I need to find out for myself.

  • Spongebob Squareback

    I don’t know if it’s vintage enough, but the 1st-gen ML was available in a dark green. I’d also be curious to see how the 5-spoke wheels from the early ML’s might look on your W123. Just an idea. This, coincidentally, leaves you one step closer to completing a Jurassic Park 2-style Safari Wombat! Just sayin…

  • 0A5599

    Since you want green, what about Metallic Pea? Add airbrushed woodgrain below the body rub strip.

    • Jeff Glucker

      heh, no Metallic Pea thanks

      Maybe something like this: http://www.mbzponton.org/pax058/people/hamidzadeh/mb_180D_1957_Hamid_Zadeh2.jpg

      • Jeff Glucker
        • Manic_King

          I join in with others here and ask: why not keep it MB also engine-wise? What kind of hp number you need, there must be MB I-6, V6, or V8 somewhere with enough power, no? Some crashed AMG something.

          • Zentropy

            I vote “no” on the MB engine (pricey), and “hell no!” on the AMG engine (stratospheric). I recall a story where someone bought a reasonable used R63 for his family hauler, only to find that a faulty head bolt broke. The estimate for repair was over $50k.
            The LS swap is boring, but it’s reliable and affordable, easy to work on, and has huge aftermarket support if you want more power.

            • Manic_King

              What about that SRT6/MB engine I linked to. Not too pricey and has 330 hp from the factory, probably can be increased to 400+. For a wagon that’s light as Wombat is, this should be enough IMHO.

              • Zentropy

                It’s not terribly expensive because it’s not that great. Also note that this one’s just a long block, without the intake, supercharger, wiring, and computer that would actually make it fire. Transmission options are limited to the 5G-Tronic automatic, the aftermarket support is weak, and in the end you’ve still got a 330hp V6 that sounds like a minivan and isn’t much stronger (a Toyota Sienna has nearly 300hp).
                In contrast, LS engines can be found in just about any junkyard (often with all of the electrical components and transmission attached), and have immense aftermarket support for a variety of builds. Engine swaps are a pain no matter what you choose– no sense painting yourself into a corner with a modest SLK engine, even if the concept of sticking with MB running gear is cool.

        • Manic_King
  • SlowJoeCrow

    Since the car is currently engine-less, how about putting a diesel back in and building a Black Smoke Racing style super turbo? I’m sure Teemu would approve.

    • neight428