You can’t explain how you like cars – you’re just born with it, or you’re not.
I’ve always loved cars, despite my parents having no interest. Before I could drive, I would install stereos in all of my friend’s cars, and then once I got my driver’s license, I started working on them.
When I was 16 I bought a ’95 Acura GSR, the coolest thing at that time. It was the same year The Fast and the Furious came out, and I thought, “Yep, this is it.” I lent it to my sister’s boyfriend, who totalled it later that night.
My parents offered to buy me a new car, but all we could afford was a beat-up ’88 Volkswagen Jetta.
I spent hours researching it until I found I could swap a VR6 into it. After whopping up on Hondas and Acuras in my Jetta, I was VW hooked. I’d probably still be a Honda guy if it weren’t for that wreck. (My sister and her boyfriend were unscathed by the way.)
Like all ethnic parents —I’m Vietnamese – my parents wanted me to become a doctor, or lawyer, or something. Not a mechanic. During high school, the Universal Technical Institute (UTI) had just opened, and they came to recruit new students. I begged my parents and eventually convinced one of the reps to visit them. They let me attend, and after graduating I went to the Volkswagen Academy in Pennsylvania.
I worked at a VW dealership for four years and then GMP Performance, a performance shop in Charlotte, North Carolina recruited me. At the same time, I started doing some work in my home garage and found I was making more from 6:00pm to 10:00pm every night than I was during a full day at work.
So, I decided it was time to open up a shop.
I searched on the Charlotte Craigslist one night for a garage and found the building I’m in now. It was shared with another shop which only had one rule: I couldn’t work on a Nissan. It was $1,500 and included one lift. I took a leap of faith, quit my job, and went to work for myself.
Two years ago, I was approached by Mike Ng of Mr. Nice Guy, to build a German-style hot rod. I’ve built numerous cars for Mike in the past: A Ferrari, a Lamborghini, a convertible G-Wagon, and a Rolls-Royce, but never something like this, a vintage restomod. I was entirely on board.
[Note: the owner and builder have very similar names: Mercedes owner, Mike Ng and Eurowise owner/author Mike Ngo].
I’ve always loved the Mercedes-Benz W108 chassis. The goal was to achieve an American hot rod style German sedan; chopped roof, Lincoln-style suicide doors, black paint, and American muscle.
After three weeks of searching, we found one on eBay in Pennsylvania. Sight unseen we bought it and a friend drove it back to Charlotte for me. The seller was an older man who had owned the car since new, and it was mint. We felt so bad about cutting it up that we didn’t tell him our intentions with his beloved car.
The original plan was a naturally aspirated 5.7L LS1, but as most builds go, it snowballed. We ended up ripping out the 5.7L and putting in a built 5.3L LS motor with a BorgWarner 66mm turbo. We routed the twin wastegate dump tubes out the top of the hood.
On top of that, we added a sequential shifter box with the T-56 6-speed transmission.
Inside, Mike wanted a combination of things: a hardcore look with modern amenities, but also a vintage feel to match the era of the Mercedes.
We started with black suede and leather with hexagon patterns. The headrests were shaved off the front seats and we opted for red lap belts. There are carbon fiber dash accents and a gear position indicator in the center.
The steering wheel is from a Mercedes-AMG C63, which took some lathe work to make it work as we had to retain the C63 steering column. We also added all the nice stuff like power windows, door locks, and a Bluetooth stereo system.
To continue the old school, low rider style we decided to go with air ride, but we wanted a quick lift and drop. We built the system with half-inch lines front to rear and a manual seven-switch controller. We also installed an Air Lift Performance 3P management system with quarter-inch lines for smooth operation and fine adjustment. With everything exposed in the trunk, it looks pretty cool and complex at the same time.
It certainly drives like an old Benz, very soft and subtle. We tested the car without a front sway bar and quickly found it needs something to handle the added weight of the LS – nearly double the weight of the original drivetrain. We built a NASCAR-style front sway bar out of 1.25-inch solid steel.
It’s been 11 years since I opened the shop. Initially, I had to share the space, having access to only one lift. Now, we’ve taken over that entire building and added two additional buildings.
The Mercedes has been one of the most rewarding builds to date. Seeing everyone’s expression and the comments online make my day every time. Making people happy and seeing a product from start to finish always makes it worth all the stress and hard work.