Malaise Heavyweights Do Battle: 1979 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 Versus 1975 Ford LTD Landau

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

Of all the cars at the ‘Shine Country Classic, none inspired more speculation than the ’75 LTD of the Tunachuckers and ’79 W116 of NSF Racing. So many questions! Would either car be ready for the green flag on Saturday morning? Which one would be quicker around a road course? Could an ungodly complicated Teutonic flagship even make one lap on a race track after 32 years and a 99.97% value depreciation? Could Grandma’s long-abandoned big Ford roar into life and survive on the race track with little more than a cage installation and a hasty tune-up? Each team had joined the elite of LeMons veterans, with one Index of Effluency win apiece, so expectations of horrible failure were high.

The Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 is, of course, one of the most legendary Mercedes-Benz luxo-bombs ever built. In 1979, you’d have handed over a staggering $50,190 for one. That’s $155,482 in 2011 dollars, according to the CPI Inflation Calculator. With the money a 450SEL 6.9 cost, you could have bought a brand-new Ferrari 308GTB and had enough left over to buy a pair of 1979 Z/28 Camaros. Put another way, the ’79 450SEL 6.9 cost roughly the same, in inflation-adjusted dollars, as seven 1975 Ford LTD Landau sedans.

The Tunachuckers’ 1966 Volvo Amazon got pretty well destroyed in a brutal wreck at last year’s LeMons South Fall race, so the team scoured the woods of South Carolina for a replacement car suitable to their status as Legends of LeMons. Finally, they got this ’75 LTD Landau for free, from the original owner’s son. It ran, sort of, and came with a 153-horsepower 400M engine.

NSF Racing, having had such a helluva time keeping their 340-powered 1962 Plymouth Fury running at the previous race, decided their mechanical skills would be better applied to a two-ton-plus Mercedes-Benz flagship with Citroën-licensed hydropneumatic suspension, 417-cubic-inch overhead-cam engine with 32-year-old Bosch fuel injection, and brakes better suited for autobahn cruising than a tight, brake-eating road course. As we often say in LeMons racing, what could possibly go wrong?

Hmmm… that hacked-up wiring harness doesn’t look promising. You say the battery isn’t charging and the engine won’t start? Plenty of time, my friends. Plenty of time!

Actually, the clock was ticking Friday night, with no sign that the big Benz would be ready to go in time for the green flag the next morning. The bar coming out of the rear window opening was intended for the mounting of a huge disco ball, as befitted a coke-dealer-grade Malaise Mercedes. Quick, to the parts store for a new alternator!

Meanwhile, things were looking better for the Tunachuckers. Their 400M engine fired up on request… but why does the exhaust smell like 20-year-old bad gas? “Don’t worry,” said team captain Mike, “We drained the bad gas and flushed the fuel lines when we got the car.” Wait, the tank hasn’t been cleaned? Uh-oh…

When the race started, the LTD roared right out onto the track and began racking up some stately laps. The old Ford wasn’t exactly fast, but it kept up with the likes of the S10 with a couch in the bed, B23-powered Volvo 244s, and the like. The 6.9 wasn’t quite ready, but the NSF guys assured us that it would hit the track “real soon.”

After a few hours, the NSF 450SEL cruised onto the track, its electrical woes apparently solved. It had respectable power down the straights, but the Citroën suspension didn’t respond very well to the turns. The brakes quickly became hotter than the sun-facing side of Mercury. Still, NSF was in the race.

The Tunachuckers’ troubles were just beginning, however. After an hour or so on the track, the engine started losing power and misfiring. The driver would pit, the crew would swarm around the LTD for a while, and then the car would return to the track for a few laps. Repeat. Endlessly. Repeat. Endlessly.

Maybe it’s the distributor! No, wait— maybe it’s the coil! No, wait— we’ll try swapping on the spare carburetor, while we rebuild the old one! All the while, the smell of ancient, varnish-and-rust-enhanced gasoline permeated the Tunachuckers’ pit space like a murderous miasma of misery. Everyone knew: the decades of weird petroleum compounds in the fuel tank were flowing right through the fuel filter, contaminating the gas and fouling the carburetor.

I had my timelapse TrunkLidCam™ mounted on the LTD, in hopes of getting good on-track shots of cars stacked up behind the Ford’s vast bulk in the turns ( which I did get, the next day). Most of Saturday’s photos turned out to have been taken while the LTD was pitted during its many hours of fuel-misery-related repairs. Here’s a video of the still photos captured by the TrunkLidCam, to give you the idea.

The Tunachuckers finally gave in and removed the car’s gas tank. The stuff they poured out was a chunky semi-opaque brown liquid that didn’t much resemble gasoline. Clearly, the crap in the tank would be contaminating any fuel that went into the filler.

Let’s try rinsing it out with water!

Dumping in a few pounds of nuts and bolts and shaking the tank vigorously helped some, but the team was getting increasingly skeptical about the tank’s utility.

After all that work, the inside of the tank still looked pretty ooky. At that point, the Tunachuckers put out the word: we need a fuel cell.

The NSF Racing 6.9 had to pit due to electrical-system ailments, engine overheating, transmission leakage, and burning brakes, but the car was spending a lot more time on the track than the LTD. Fortunately, they had the help of 2010 Unununium Medal Legend of LeMons Speedycop and his Galaxie-buildin’ teammate DC Doug.

Back at Tunachuckers HQ (right next door to NSF Racing HQ), the team had decided to give up on the hopelessly contaminated factory fuel tank and focus on finding a fuel cell. Fortunately, South Carolina is one of the racin’-est states in the country, particularly the part of the state in such proximity to race-obsessed Charlotte, and the concentration of used race gear in local garages is quite high.

Another local racer knew a guy who knew a guy who had a defunct roundy-round dirt-track car in his yard, not far from the track. 150 bucks for the allegedly good fuel cell. Done!

Of course, installing a fuel cell in a car isn’t just a matter of plumber’s tape and zip-ties. Well, actually, it is, but LeMons requires more substantial mounts. Here’s Mike welding up some brackets to hold the cell down in the trunk.

Measure once, cut fifty times. Repeat. Something like that. Eventually, the cell was mounted and hooked up, but the Tunachuckers weren’t done yet. According to the LeMons Safety Guide, fuel cell-equipped vehicles must have a metal bulkhead separating the driver from the cell.

The Tunachuckers canvassed the paddock in an attempt to find a piece of sheet metal big enough to cover the rear-seat opening into the trunk, with no success. Then, inspiration: just slice a big chunk out of the LTD’s roof!

A couple of guys wielding Sawzall and cutoff saw took about 45 seconds to produce the required bulkhead.

Self-tapping screws and metal tape finish the installation.

Ready! Sadly, the checkered flag had already waved over Saturday’s race session, so the LTD would have to wait for the following morning to get back onto the track.

Sunday morning: Both the LTD and the 6.9 were on the track for the green flag, and both ran well. The Benz was running laps a few seconds quicker than the Ford, but the LTD’s pushrod V8 had a throatier roar than the 450SEL’s OHC powerplant. Both cars plowed through turns in highly dramatic, tire-squealing fashion.

It was at that point that Judge Speedycop, sidelined from racing his team’s Lincoln Mark VIII by an injured left ankle, suited up and took the wheel of the NSF Racing car. Just like that, the 4,400-pound Mercedes started howling around the track with times just a few seconds off the pace set by the E30s and RX-7s. We figured it was only a matter of time before Speedycop cooked the brakes and deposited the car in CMP’s notorious Swamp Full Of Poisonous Snakes, but he kept the big German on the track. Best lap: 1:07.871, versus an overall best lap of 1:01.594 (set by the suspiciously NASCAR-pro-looking Grumpy Old Men & A Nurse team in an extremely cheaty 4th-gen Firebird; when was the last time you found a WS6 engine and transmission at U-Pull-It for 50 bucks?).

Both Ford and Mercedes-Benz stayed on the track for most of Sunday’s race session. In the end, the 6.9 beat the LTD, 307 laps to 267 (the overall winner had 768 laps). Best lap time for the LTD: 1:13.524.

When it came time for the awards ceremony, it went without saying that each of these teams would be taking home some trophy hardware. Not the big one, which went to the Greene County Moving Company S10 and its 526 laps, but something. For the Tunachuckers and their incredible LTD Landau, the Most Terrible Yank Tank award (usually this is the Least Horrible Yank Tank award, but we modified it to suit the car). This may make the Tunachuckers the team with the most LeMons trophies in their collection; they must be over a half-dozen by now.

For bringing the coke-dealer-est car ever built, NSF Racing got the coveted Judges’ Choice trophy. Congratulations, NSF Racing and Team Tunachuckers!

Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

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2 of 22 comments
  • Sector 5 Sector 5 on Dec 22, 2013

    Need to find a 70's XJ12 to thrash THAT Benz. If u can breathe trackside fire into 35-year Lucas. Never caught the 6.9 had Cit pat susp. Learned something new today.

  • Daviel Daviel on Apr 24, 2014

    Just think how the Ford would have done with a proper gas tank the whole race.

  • 3-On-The-Tree Lou_BCsame here I grew up on 2-stroke dirt bikes had a 1985 Yamaha IT200 2-strokes then a 1977 Suzuki GT750 2-stroke 750 streetike fast forward to 2002 as a young flight school Lieutenant I bought a 2002 suzuki Hayabusa 1300 up in Huntsville Alabama. Still have that bike.
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  • J Love mine, but the steering wheel blocks dashboard a bit, can't see turn signals nor headlights icons. They could use the upper corners of the screen for the turn signals. Mileage is much lower than shown too, disappointing
  • Aja8888 NO!
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