Automotive dumpster diving is a lost art. It means looking through local classifieds, eBay auctions and knowing on every derelict door to see if you can negotiate a deal on something cool. However, when you’re Ed Bolian, current record holder for fastest cross-country drive and you’re looking for a cheapo beater to try another run, that difficulty goes from paint-by-numbers to Sistine-Chapel-with-a-blindfold real quick.
(Full disclosure: I was approached by Ed Bolian to relay the extensive process of his car’s build and document the outcome of the run. I understand that the car’s intended use is highly controversial, and personally I find driving across the country at enormous speed to be risky, dangerous, and ultimately unnecessary. But this story isn’t about the morality of speeding, but an abridged and edited account an interesting build that should inspire people to go and work on their own cars. For the entire build from start to finish, check it out here.)
Earlier this year, while I was hard at work driving a $1,500 car of my own across the country and hoping it wouldn’t blow its 900,000 mile guts all over the interstate, Bolian, cross-country record setter and mild-mannered insane person, came up with a plan.
He was poised to take place in The 2904, a run that spans 2,904 miles, on a specific route from The Red Ball Garage in New York City to The Portofino in Redondo, Beach, California. To qualify, Bolian had a maximum of $2,904 dollars to spend on the car, discounting shipping and safety equipment like tires, suspension, and brakes. This meant that although he had a little bit of wiggle room, it didn’t give him a ton of variety in car choice—it had to be rough.
Bolian gave himself a modest $1500 budget to find and purchase a car that would act as a platform for a drive from New York To Los Angeles in a time that would make Frontier Airlines wonder why they’re even trying. He needed something that was comfortable enough, had decent fuel mileage at speed, had enough power to get out of its own way, enough room for the GPS tracking and mapping devices, and two other people to act as co-drivers. Also it wouldn’t hurt if it was understated and classy.
On his record-setting run in which he blitzed the country in 28 hours and 50 minutes, Bolian elected to drive a heavily used mid-2000s Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG because of its road-holding ability, powerful engine, and the fact that there is probably no better car value than a used Mercedes, a point that I may have mentioned once or twice in my own articles.
After several attempts and shady Craigslist emails, Bolian became the 13th owner of a 2002 Mercedes-Benz S55 AMG, for the grand total of $1500. It had a salvage title, panel gaps more unsightly than an adolescent’s pre-braces teeth and it didn’t run.
However, none of that mattered, because the 5.5 liter naturally aspirated V8 engine and five speed automatic transmission were notoriously the most reliable parts of the car, and theoretically, that’s all they really needed for the car to move and make it across. All the inherent S-class-ness would be taken care of by co-driver and 30-year Mercedes Master tech Dave “Klink” Kalinkiewicz, who would end up putting hundreds of man hours and several months of work into the car to get it into the sort of shape that could stand up to the demands of achieving triple digit speeds for more than the running time of all the Harry Potter movies combined.
The Electrical Elephant In The Room
Bolian’s car came to him on the back of an open-air car hauler, with its suspension drooping just enough to have the car look cool and severely broken at the same time.
With an overwhelming amount of electrical issues looming and no way to start the car since the ignition system was entirely electronic, the only thing to do was to go through every single component one by one to see what worked and what didn’t.
Bolian’s partner in the build, Dave Klink, armed with three decades of top secret Mercedes-Benz dealer knowledge found that the dash wasn’t illuminating and narrowed that down to a faulty fuse.
With the dash working, they could code a key to the ignition system (a process that’s just as technologically simple as it is fun) and discovered that the chassis surprisingly had less than 100,000 miles on it, despite it having the structural integrity of a bent paper clip.
With a top up of all fluids including the Pentosin necessary for the complicated ABC hydropneumatic suspension to work, Bolian and Klink charged the battery, crossed their fingers, and started the car, which ran fine because of course it did. The suspension raised itself and stayed level, and other than some weird warning lights on the dash and issues with the car’s internal CAN BUS network, the S55 was back in business.
However, as any enthusiast knows, it’s the little things that can kill a build, and with a used Mercedes—a car almost completely comprised of thousands of little things—the challenge was daunting indeed.
The car was checked over and maintenance parts were ordered to take care of the various oil leaks in the engine bay—a symptom of negligent owners changing oil and gaskets infrequently or with the wrong weight.
Remember: Friends don’t let friends skip oil changes.
The Essentials: Brakes, Circuit Boards, Drink Warmers
With the power output of the engine sorted, Klink went to work on the AMG’s four-piston front and two piston rear brakes, flushing the system, getting some EBC Yellow Stuff pads, and painting the calipers for a clean look. He also had to replace a caliper that had a stuck bleeder, which came at a reasonable but not insignificant expense.
With the stop and go aspects of the car sorted, it was time to bring attention to the qualities that really made the S-Class. The guys found that the sunroof was inoperable, getting stuck in its track intermittently. A removal of the wind deflector coupled with a quick clean n’ lube made the part good as new and probably twice as reliable as it ever was from the factory.
The center console had a connector dangling underneath it, and it was reconnected to let some light into the crevice beneath the armrest and get the analog cell phone working again.
Fun fact, that area has a flap that also brings in air conditioning so you could theoretically cool or heat a drink in there. My S-Class doesn’t have this feature, as it’s taken up by the blower for the rear air conditioning, which proves that even if you don’t have a high dollar feature in your particular S-Class, Mercedes-Benz will have probably put something in its place that’s just as practical.
In addition to the issue above, the car’s ignition began acting funny - and by funny, I mean it stopped working. The Electronic Ignition System, or EIS in an S-Class doesn’t actually use a key and tumbler like in any other car in the world, but an RF transmitter in the keyfob. Every S-Class key can fit in the ignition slot, but unless your key is coded to the car (a process only done by the dealer once), that car isn’t starting. It makes the car nearly impossible to steal, but it can also give you a massive headache if the system produces a fault.
As I have had this exact issue with my S-Class in the past, I elected to simply buy a working EIS with engine computer cheaply on eBay. While that may have worked for me, Bolian and Klink were out of luck because the S55 AMG had a more rare ECU, and the car was only made for two years in a limited run, which made things expensive used, and astronomically untouchable if bought at the dealer. Since they couldn’t afford buying new or used, the only option was to fix the unit they had, a procedure that Mercedes-Benz says can’t be done.
Klink took apart the circuit board and found a fracture in the windings for the sensor. He also re-soldered some of the components for added strength and durability.
While I describe this as an easy fix, Klink told me that this took weeks of off and on testing because the component is so fickle and unforgiving to tiny changes in its architecture. It’s not designed to work one millimeter out of its parameters, so it was imminent that everything was put pack exactly how it was from the factory.
On a personal note, considering that this is one of the most complex components of the entire car and he was able to solve it with some wire and solder speaks to his expertise in his trade.
Bolian and Klink noticed two distinct issues while driving at speed: an unidentified noise coming from overhead, and the driver’s mirror . The overhead noise was caused by a temperature sensor that had an integrated fan built in, and had developed a fault that made it unbalanced and noisy - a quite common issue for the W220 chassis S-Class.
After a can of compressed air was blown through the fan, the issue was resolved and focus shifted to the driver’s mirror.
In remarkably low-tech and penny-pinching fashion, the mirror’s vibrations were quelled with regular two part epoxy and a plastic clamp to hold it while it dried.
With the car running on all eight cylinders, most of the most alarming vibrations gone, and the front two seats relegated to the duty of massaging and cooling their passenger’s butts, Bolian stopped focusing on fixing the car and began actually modifying the car for the nearly 3,000 mile run.
So Much Fuel, All The Fuel
When you’re driving across the country to make good time, you want to avoid being stopped for any reason. Traffic and police are something you can’t control, but one aspect that you can control is how often you stop for fuel.
If you know your fuel mileage, which for the S55 AMG was a combined 16 miles per gallon, then all you’d need to cut your time down considerably would be to carry more fuel - lots more fuel.
Bolian enlisted the help of Michael Hill to build a fuel tank that was awesomely engineered out of a junkyard tank from another W220. As it turns out, if you simply cut a huge hole in the tank and extend it so it takes up the entire length of the trunk, you can fit a combined 73 gallons in it.
At 16 miles per gallon fully loaded, that would mean that the team could book it 1168 miles without having to stop for a pee break. They even made a mount for a full size spare underneath so no one would have to ride shotgun with a 19 inch rim in the backseat.
If each stop means at least five minutes of not moving and another minute or so lost due to slowdown and acceleration, having a stock fuel tank where you’d have to stop three times as much would mean that you’re sacrificing a fair chunk of time when a bit of planning beforehand could solve that issue.
With a huge baffled metal box welded on to the back of the stock fuel tank and painted Nothing To See Here Black, it seemed like Bolian was on his way to have a car that could run longer than a camel in the desert, except for two slight issues - Georgia State had notified him that in order to have the car squared away with registration, he would need a state salvage inspection, and the massive amount of fuel in the tank was allowing fuel to spill into the evaporative emissions lines and leak raw fuel into the intake manifold, causing an engine stall when accelerating or braking particularly hard.
This would trigger a Check Engine light and potentially fail the car at the state emissions inspection, which he also needed to pass to register the car.
Uh, It Came Like That
To solve the emissions issue, Bolian just elected to clear the code and drive it like his hair wasn’t on fire, since the problem only emerged when he buried his foot in any of the available pedals. With a Driving Miss Daisy attitude and no Check Engine lights illuminated, Bolian got the car through emissions testing and passed without consequence. He would later disconnect the EVAP system altogether, preventing from the engine stalling out in the future, no matter hard the acceleration or deceleration.
The one thing that could potentially stop this build in its tracks, however, was the state salvage inspection. If Bolian couldn’t register the car, he wasn’t going anywhere, and although the car did start, drive and stop just fine, the enormous fuel tank that took up the entirety of the trunk was a cause for concern because it was so far from stock that anyone that knew a thing about cars would be able to put two and two together.
What Bolian and Klink did was slap some OEM Mercedes-Benz stickers on the top of the tank and hope for the best. Bolian told me that he was so nervous that the inspector would find something wrong that when it came time to open the trunk of the car to inspect it, Bolian just left and let the inspector make up his own mind as to what the hell he was looking at.
This act of subtlety worked, because although the inspector did a triple take, Bolian was granted a passing grade, which meant he could then register the car legally and run it in the 2904.
After thanking the heavens for this obvious save from above, Bolian spent whatever cash he had left in the budget on technology. He had Monty Knight at Conceal-Pro install this not-quite state-of-the-art stuff in the Merc, hard-wiring everything and making sure there were redundancies for every component.
There were police scanners, radar jammers, multiple GPS systems, including the car’s decade out of date COMAND navigation system, Bluetooth communication, and auxiliary antennas for CB.
With the budget all but blown save for fuel, toll and food expenses, Team Great White Whale, comprised of Bolian, Klink, and third driver Chris Staschiak, set off on their arduous journey from the Red Ball garage and got to Redondo Beach in 32 hours and five minutes, breaking the 32:07 record that stood for nearly three decades.
If you’d like to read more about their actual crossing, which may or may not have included a shunt with a confused deer, you can do that here.
Hell, it was within shouting distance of Richard Rawlings’ 31:59 run time, and although Richard and Dennis Collins did their run in a Ferrari 550, these three guys did it in a 12-owner, salvage title 13-year-old Mercedes-Benz that they bought non-running and got it running at record pace within a year. If that’s not the embodiment of automotive utility and thrift, then I don’t know what is.
For anyone that wants to start their own epic build, with or without a cross country drive, you can start here and make something freaking awesome.
Here’s the breakdown of costs for this half-year build:
- 2002 Mercedes S55 AMG - Craigslist Hollywood $1,500.00
- Replacement Key (lost by Trucker) $148.40
- Storage in California $300.00
- Used Battery - on hand $20.00
- 2nd Stock Fuel Tank - Benz Store $125.00
- Shipping from California $325.00
- Misc Fuses - on hand $5.00
- Retrofit Source - HID Light Kit $335.15
- iPad with 4G $212.93
- Oil-20W50 Maxlife Adv Auto - $4.42 x 15 $66.30
- Wheels & Tires - eBay $725.00
- Amazon - CB, Wiring, Mounts, Chargers $333.97
- Epoxy - on hand $5.00
- Wheel Swap - Motorcars of GA (Cash) $60.00
- Valentine 1 Parts $69.08
- MB Sealant 003-989-98-20 $16.68
- Fuel cell engineering, parts - Michael Hill $1,925.00
- 12V Splitters $23.97
- Used Air Filters - on hand $10.00
- Decoy OEM Stickers for Fuel Cell Inspection $10.00
- Amazon - CB, Wiring, Mounts, Chargers $333.97
- Trans Fluid Filter - Used $15.00 Brake Caliper, Steering Rack Clamp $372.75
- 2 x Garmin GPS Units - GPS City $369.90
- Diff Fluid - Used - 2 containers at $5 $10.00
- Wiper Blade Kit $35.20
- GA Emissions $20.00
- Trans Conductor Sleeve - Used $8.00
- ZB Fastener - Washer Bottle Cap $2.75
- 12 Months All State Insurance (Lia Only) $548.56
- Used Escort Laser Jammer - Free from CarTunes $20.00
- Locking Cap - Seal for Washer Bottle Drain $1.87 GA Tag & Title $109.00
- Used Laser Interceptor Jammer - Free from friend $20.00
- Grommet - Seal for Washer Fluid Pump $2.20
- GA Title Ad Valorem Tax $570.64
- Misc Fasteners/Crews/Clips/Dampeners - on hand $25.00
- Bulbs $15.40
- GA Salvage Vehicle Inspection $100.00
- Used Belt Tensioner - on hand $20.00
- Protective Cap - Suspension Fluid $4.51 Speed Tracker App $3.99
- Crank Case Vent Hose $8.74
- Seal Ring VLRUB - Susp Filter $9.46
- Exotic Auto Transport Ship to Bham $300.00
- Engine Oil Filter $9.90
- Seal Ring - Power Steering Filter $3.74
- Hotels.com - Hotel 31 10/30 - Room 1 $178.30
- Lock - 2x radiator clips $2.64 Suspension Oil Filter $28.60
- Hotel 31, NY - 10/29 Room 1 $178.03
- Screening - battery heat resistant cover $13.75
- Grommet - Suspension Oil Filter $2.75
- Hotel 31, NY - 10/29-11/1 Room 2 $534.09
- Crankshaft Position Sensor $104.50
- Air Reservoir - Pulsation Dampener $129.80
- Hotels - Portofino - Nov 1-4 $640.00
- Screw for battery mount $1.10 Rear Suspension Valve $1,243.00
- EZPass - Pennsylvania - Preload $38.00
- Rail for Battery Mount $9.79
- 8 x Hydraulic Oil $184.80
- E-ZPass New Jersey - Preload $25.00
- Transmission Mount $44.55
- 2 x Control Arm Bushings $91.30
- Oklahoma Pikepass - Preload $40.00
- Gasket - Air Mass Sensor Housing at Throttle Body $2.86
- 2 x Link Rods, ride level $40.70 Entry Fee/Shirts $299.12
- Gasket - Air Mass Sensor Housing at Throttle Body $5.39
- 2 x Rear Brake Disks $140.80
- Flight ATL to LAX $79.10
- 5 Screws-Oil Vapor Separator Housings @ Valve Cover $6.60
- 2 x Front Brake Disks $191.40
- Dave Flight LAX to ATL $98.10
- Seal Ring 1 - Oil Filter Housing $1.76
- 2 x Bushing $12.98
- Third Party GPS/Cellular Tracking Dev. $125.00
- Seal Ring 2 - Oil Filter Housing $12.20
- Brake Fluid $12.10
- Ed & Megan Flights LAX to ATL $500.00
- Gasket - Oil Filter Housing $8.91
- 3 x Brake Wear Sensors $13.86
- Car shipping LA to Atlanta $600.00
- PK Dust Filter - Cabin Filter $13.20
- 4 x Pan Head Fit Bolt $10.12
- Crank Case Vent Hose #2 $8.80
- 2 x Bleeder Valve $12.32
- Crank Case Vent Hose # 3 $9.02
- Brake Hose $24.20
- 134A Refrigerant - Old Stock $8.00
- Fuel Filter $36.85
- Kroger - Food, Supplies $91.60
- Brake Pads - Front & Rear - Amazon $172.08
- Tolls - NY, NJ, PA, OK - (Estimated) $30.00
- Misc. Window Cleaning Products $40.00
- Gasoline - 2811/14 mpg*$3.20/gallon $647.52
- Monty Knight-HID Install, Accessory Wiring $500.00
- Grand Total: $16,401.65
For more details about this build, with hundreds of pictures and updates, you can check out Ed Bolian’s site.