Name your favorite classic car, and there’s probably a specialist out there that’s built a business on stuffing that car with modern components and all the Alcantara you can shake a stick at. I mean, the fact that SEMA exists is evidence of the appeal of this kind of restomod.
There are those kinds of shops, and then there’s Icon, out in California’s sunny San Fernando Valley. Icon does things differently, not because it’s financially smart or easier, but because founder Jonathan Ward is the kind of obsessive nerd who absolutely has to do things the hard way.
Take, for example, Icon’s restoration of this iconic 1971 Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3 sedan, which has taken more than three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars. The transformation is almost unreal. Yet, somehow, after all that work, it’s still recognizably related to what rolled out of Mercedes’ factory in Stuttgart over 50 years ago.
I’ll clarify. See, the 6.3 was built by Mercedes from 1968 to 1972. It was based on the W109 chassis, which was the longer-wheelbase, air-suspension-equipped version of the W108 sedan (one of which I own). It was powered the massive (by European standards) 6.3-liter fuel-injected M100 V8, lifted from Mercedes’ cost-no-object, for-despots-and-rockstars-only 600 limousine. It produced 247 hp and 434 lb-ft of torque, routed through a four-speed automatic transmission. When it was introduced, it was one of the fastest cars in the world.
Of course, 247 hp isn’t anything to write home about these days, so as he’s done with several other Icon builds, Ward turned to General Motors — specifically, the venerable supercharged LS9 V8 from the C6 Corvette ZR1. The modern motor has a ton of advantages over the ancient (and elephantine) Mercedes mill. First, it’s way more powerful. In this application, it’s running in a fairly detuned state, sending around 470 hp to the wheels. (In the ZR1, this engine put out 638 hp to the crank.) It’s also significantly smaller, lighter and more reliable than that 50-year-old German SOHC V8, which is a shock, I’m sure. The engine is paired with a 4L85E four-speed auto, also from GM.
This Mercedes belongs to Icon’s “Derelict” line, where modern mechanicals are paired with honest and painstakingly preserved patina. Most of the cars that have received the Derelict treatment have been body-on-frame vehicles from the 1950s, which gives Ward the chance to replace an ancient chassis with a one-off unit from Art Morrison. This, in turn, means it’s easier to slap in a new drivetrain and suspension without being beholden to stock geometry. Unfortunately for Icon, the W109 is a unibody design, which presented Ward with a big decision: leave the unibody and figure out how to strengthen it, or find a way to shoehorn a ladder frame underneath a car that was never meant to have one.
They went the latter route, and came up with a plan involving quite a bit of body surgery, raising the floor of the Mercedes slightly to get the boxed steel chassis underneath. Even cooler is that, from the outside; you’d never know it was there. The move to a ladder frame allowed Icon to toss the W109's sketchy-at-the-limit swing-axle rear suspension and move to a Dana 60 independent rear axle.
Speaking of suspension, the Derelict 300SEL uses adjustable coilovers from Strange Engineering at all four corners, allowing for precise ride-height adjustment and significantly more reliable operation versus the notoriously finicky original air suspension. The steering system has also been upgraded from recirculating ball to a modern, power-assisted rack-and-pinion system.
What’s the result of all of this? A vehicle that still feels like a legendary vintage Benz. Icon decided to keep Mercedes’ gigantic, super-thin-rimmed steering wheel, and dialed down the assistance in the power steering. The steering feels direct and accurate, but only somewhat modern, which is a good thing.
The big Benz’s ride is excellent. Like the original, it maintains a balance, comfortable for cruising and controlled enough to drive swiftly without feeling like you’re piloting a Boston Whaler. Sure, you could dial up the coilovers, but why would you? Like the steering, this setup makes the car feel better but not unrecognizable as a classic.
You might think that the LS9 would dominate the driving experience here, but you’d be wrong. The exhaust burble is ever-present, but the power — and the linear way it’s produced, thanks to that massive supercharger — makes the car feels sane most of the time. Of course, when you put the loud flap to the burlap, that changes, with go-to-jail speeds coming up fast, but the car doesn’t feel violent or nervous. It’s as effortlessly swift and composed as Mercedes imagined it should be back in the 1960s, though I suspect it’ll do some super gnarly, un-Benz-like burnouts when provoked.
One area that Mercedes nailed with the W108 and W109 cars is braking. The power four-wheel disc setup is easily ranked among the best classic-car brakes I’ve ever used, with better feel and modulation than some modern cars. That said, with significantly more power comes the need for even better stoppers, so Icon slapped a set of its Brembo-sourced Sport Brakes on this Benz, along with larger billet aluminum wheels to clear the calipers. As with other Derelict builds, the wheels look remarkably stock, and if you didn’t know something was up, you’d probably never notice the extra size of the 18-inch wheels.
All the mechanical stuff in a Derelict build is super cool. But it’s the aesthetic department where things tend to get spectacular. This car might be Ward’s best work yet on this front, because he hewed close to Mercedes’s original gorgeous interior design while supplementing and tweaking it in subtle ways. It feels (and smells) nearly perfect. It shows a ton of restraint on his part, which differs from other, wilder Derelict builds.
For example, one of the hallmarks of the 6.3 is its dash. The wide expanse of beautifully polished wood, with a small binnacle for three gauges, looks gorgeous, and leaves the view out over that long hood unobstructed. That’s still true here, but Ward wisely decided to ditch the clunky factory climate controls in favor of one unbroken piece of wood, with climate duties shifted down to a stock-appearing air conditioning unit on the underside of the dash. It cleans up the whole aesthetic, and should work a lot better too.
The Derelict gets a gorgeous, restored original Becker Europa radio, but it’s now paired with Focal two-way speakers behind milled aluminum grilles that have been finished to look like the original plastic units. To keep that stereo sounding good, Icon has covered much of the sheet metal under the carpets and upholstery with sound deadener. The result is significantly less road noise and no weird, unpleasant old car sounds. Compared to a stock old Benz like mine, the difference is dramatic.
The gauge cluster looks mostly original, but the VDO instruments have been extensively yet subtly modified by Redline Gauges. Gone are the weird analog guts, with coolant and oil lines going into the dash. All the readouts are in their factory locations, plus small, unobtrusive LCD information panels under where the needles mount. The tiny, 6.3-specific tachometer is here, too, and retains its function. For those of you playing at home, on non-6.3s, that tach was replaced with a Kienzle clock.
The seats have been reupholstered in thick, period-correct leather, and they’re both visually gorgeous and extremely comfortable, if not exactly supportive during cornering. The seatbelts are odd, magnetic units originally made by Kangol – the same people that make Samuel L. Jackson’s favorite hats – though they’ve been re-webbed. A custom center console looks appropriate while adding modern functionality like storage for your phone, wallet and beverage. This was created via 3D printing, and, like the wheels, if you didn’t already know better, you’d completely overlook it as factory equipment. The delicate floor-mounted gearshift looks stock, too, but has been modified for use with the modern transmission.
Things aren’t all perfect inside, though. Remember how Icon had to modify the floor pan to fit the Art Morrison chassis underneath? It was done at the cost of legroom. That means that, while I fit quite comfortably in my car, I struggled to find room for my legs under the massive steering wheel in the Icon. I’m a giant at 6'4", so I suspect most people wouldn’t have an issue.
The car still has a few things that need to be tweaked. The throttle and brake pedal both feel more or less like they’re made of wood, for example. But having driven other Icon vehicles in the past, I believe this will be sorted before the car goes to SEMA.
Finally, you can’t talk about an Icon Derelict without talking about the car’s patina. The W108 and W109 chassis cars were well-known for rusting with enthusiasm, so finding a solid car with the appropriate level of funk should have been a massive hassle. In actuality, it wasn’t. Ward found the donor car in Riverside, California, about an hour and a half drive from Icon’s shop, where it had lived its entire life.
The result was a rust-free shell with some fairly hashed paint on the top surfaces, which only shows up in photos a little. Part of that comes down to this 6.3 wearing original silver paint, rather than a more vibrant color, so you don’t get as much color change in the areas with sun damage. Being a subtle car overall, the subdued color works well.
There’s a reason why people aren’t building one-off cars the way Jonathan Ward does with these Derelicts. It’s hard to try and make money on a no-expense-spared build, even considering the deep six-figure price tag the customer pays. Most shops find a formula that works for them, and offer a set amount of personalization via small aesthetic tweaks.
That’s how places like Singer do things, and while those cars are profoundly special, they don’t come close to the utterly unique work that Icon has done on this Mercedes. There will likely never be another 6.3 restored or modified to this level. That’s a shame because, as a platform, it really works.
The experience of driving one of Icon’s one-offs isn’t something that fades quickly, and the memory of driving this Derelict 6.3, a car I’ve been following for years, will stick with me forever.