By on June 1, 2011

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!

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22 Comments on “Malaise Heavyweights Do Battle: 1979 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 versus 1975 Ford LTD Landau...”

  • avatar

    Needs more audio.

  • avatar

    1) Great reportage, the Lemons fun makes me happy, even on the inside. Keep up the great work!

    2)From whom did you steal? The video is popping up as geo blocked because it contains content from “SME”.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Wow two cars so similar and yet so different.

  • avatar

    I am rooting for the home team.

    No idea which one it is.

    Anybody grab a Slick-50 sponsorship yet?

  • avatar

    Actually, our teammate was able to bargain the fuel cell seller down to a hundred bucks. And the internal foam was actually in pretty good shape!

    You’d think we’d have learned from our first car…we had this same problem with gunky fuel in our ’66 Amazon. Rule #1 of LeMons racing ought to be, if you’re running a car that hasn’t been daily driven since the Reagan administration, just buy a #$%& fuel cell for it.

    I do need to build a trophy case. So far we have won:

    Index of Effluency (CMP July 2008)
    First Swervin’ Swede (CMP July 2008, because Saab Story had left)
    Heroic Fix (2009)
    Highest placing 60’s/70’s car (2009)
    Class Winner: The Ugly (2010)
    Most Horrible Yank Tank (2011)

    I may be forgetting one…

  • avatar

    I read these articles with amusement, but I guess I just don’t quite get it, as I can not see myself doing any of this!

    I think it’s because we used to have to do things similar to our own cars back in the 60’s and early 70’s just to keep them running out of necessity, as no one ever had enough money to buy something half-way decent (until I entered the air force and I got a good car – my friends weren’t that lucky)!

    Fortunately, there were plenty of shade trees in my buddy’s backyard and we had my parent’s drive-in basement garage where all this took place.

    • 0 avatar

      I get it! Cars that would normally be too clapped out to be of any use, except maybe to be crushed in China, get a second chance. All of our LeMons cars have been close to being hauled off, melted down and recycled. It’s the passion of 4-5 guys making something that has no business being on a track run well enough to compile 300-500 laps and doing it for under $500 bucks.

      Driving the cars is just a formality; the real challenge is just getting them to start, getting them on the trailer and keeping them on the track for as long as possible.

      LeMons is an event where likeminded, passionate car enthusiast gather to show off their engineering prowess, driving skills and dumb luck. I’ve never been so unsuccessful at something and enjoyed it this much in my big fat wide life.

  • avatar

    I probably would’ve kludged a T-shirt-based fuel pump sock teamed with a fuel filter for a large diesel and a couple cans of Acetone before messing with that tank. Who knows if it would have netted more laps (probably not). Dealing with fuel tanks and cells is the worst part of a Lemons build IMHO. I can’t imagine what it’s like to try it at a track. At least you had plenty of room in that beast.

    • 0 avatar

      The problem with bad gas is that the dissolved varnish gets right through any kind of fuel filter, then gums up the carb. The ethanol in modern gas is a very powerful solvent, which makes the problem even worse.

      • 0 avatar

        Hence the Acetone, used as a fuel additive to keep things moving in the carb. Just something I’ve heard about, but never tried. It’s all the rage these days with the kids running E85 in a old fuel system, resulting in clogged injectors as the ethanol frees up the crud. Some guys even use it as a high octane race fuel. A couple gallons and some track abuse might just rinse that stuff out of the tank and make it ready for gasoline-only duty once again.
        Some diesel fuel filters have a tighter micron rating, are bigger, and would take care of some of the gunk.

  • avatar

    Finally, the Streets of San Francisco vs. Ronin match-up we’ve been waiting for!

  • avatar

    Makes me YEARN for my 70 Fleetwood Brougham…D’elegance, y’all, in case you were wondering. Big block beater, smoky peg-legs for DAYS.

    Chip in for gas, and savor the sweet sweet fold down footrest, available to paying passengers of the extra posh aft settee: “Caddy-nugen”, to emulate the contemporaneous ad campaign of a non-competing builder (cause the Hun would never build such a beast, and not even Lansing offered something so…Large and in Charge).

    Loved to drive that mother, all ahem, caddy-wompus with coolers and dudes portside and the ladies and towels a-starboard, over notoriously curvy 4-lane Highway 17 in Norcal, eating up the hills effortlessly; suckers step aside as we Will use both lanes for ALL curves, and our squeal will precede us, warning those not paying careful attention to their mirrors to witness local knowledge of how to handle opposite camber curves with under-inflated bald whitewalls(sorry about the subsequent blast of eau d’coolant et huile, c’est “d’elegance”, mon frere).

    To it’s credit, the steering wheel could be turned by merely looking at it, that pump was somethin else. The brakes were mighty effective to the end. The stock gas pedal was the size of a skateboard, and the trunk could hold two cruiser bikes, no wheels removed or bars turned. It occupied 20′ 6″ (6.25m) I had to measure it for a storage yard. And that sucker MOVED, I mean it got to 80 in no time from standing start. With a lot of suffering and the services of a well-paid exorcist (my, that’s a lot of relays on the firewall), it would been a daddy for this class of competition. The best part of that car was the mile wide smile on every one who drove it, there is really nothing like it in the world.

  • avatar

    I’m surprised anyone was able to locate an intact late-’70s LTD that didn’t suffer the same fate as many of the others, ie: getting accidentally-on purpose torched by their owners in the early ’80s for the insurance pay-out rather than face another year of high fuel bills to run a car that no used-car buyers wanted any more.

    • 0 avatar

      LOL…funny you say that. Back in high school my buddies mom picked up a mint green 79 LTD coupe “the green machine” we use to call it. Mind you this was the mid 1990’s – so it was a rare beast then and just as hideous as they are now. Mint green paint, dark green interior, 351 or 400 modified – whatever it was it was gutless and the detonation noises it made were cringe inducing.

      It wasn’t cherry very long as he started driving it regularly when he got his license and it was a all downhill from there for the green machine.

      Ironically though, a guy down the street bought it for demo derby duty but it still – to this day – sits in his side yard.

      I think he’s waiting for it to be worth something, that is if there’s anything left of the frame.

  • avatar

    I always wonder what the original owner and Ford engineers, if they’re still alive, would think of these highjinks. Obviously, there was never any real intent to use such a car in this manner, except possibly as a police car, which likely had better parts underneath.

    • 0 avatar

      A lot of the engineers are still around, and I suspect they’d be cheerfully offering tech tips. There was no great affection for most of the cars from this period.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

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

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