There’s no shame in buying built, and when the end result is as handsome and rapid as this bonkers Benz, it deserves an added…
Words: Dave Smith, photography: Andy ‘Fly’ Tipping
Make a list of all the cars made in the Seventies that were built to last. It won’t be a long list, but you can be pretty certain that Mercedes Benz will be at, or near, the top. And yet, the three-pointed star is hardly a common sight at the custom and rod shows, and even fewer and further between at the strip. It makes you wonder why, especially when you can make a beautiful, yet brutal, street/strip machine such as this 1975 Merc 280CE pillarless coupe.
The owner of this superstar W114 is Nick Hale, and he’s only been into the drags scene for about seven years. I say ‘only’, because most people take more than seven years to graduate to a nine-second street beast like this. However, Nick got himself quite a head start.
“Thirty-two years ago, I had a Saturday job behind the counter of the local tool hire shop in Rugby,” says Nick. “This guy was always coming in and renting an engine crane, so I got chatting to him, and it turned out he was building this car. One day he asked if I wanted to come over and see it, so I went over and helped him, and from then on, I regularly checked on it. I always said that if he ever wanted to sell it, I’d buy it, but he insisted he’d never sell it. We stayed good friends all those years.”
The guy’s name was Louis Michael, and he never did finish the Mercedes. It was close, but not quite there. Apparently, it was slated for a feature in Street Machine way back in the early Eighties, even being mentioned on the Next Month page, but Louis and the editor fell out over something, and the feature never ran. If anyone can shed any more light on this, I’d love to hear about it!
Earlier this century, Nick’s brother, Nigel, had bought a flat in Wollaston, not far from Santa Pod. One pleasant summer day, he was sitting there with the windows open and heard the sound of all hell breaking loose. He traced the source of the commotion to Santa Pod, and the mighty noise to the Top Fuellers that were running. He immediately sent a letter to the local environmental health department at the council complaining that he’d just bought a flat near a long-established motor sport venue and the racket was ruining his enjoyment of Countryfile… Oh, hang on, no he didn’t, because he’s not an arsehole. Instead, he went along to check out the cacophony and was blown away, immediately summoning Nick to come and check it out. They started going along to the ‘Pod in Nigel’s double-cab Chevy pick-up, and, back in 2010, they were at one event called the All-American Car Show. It was a poorly-attended event that never really took off, sadly, and the announcer, Paul Venners, put a call-out for anyone who’d like to take their car up the track. Nigel brought his truck out, ran 13s, and Paul said “That’s good enough for Street Eliminator!” It was all downhill from there. The following year, Nigel’s enormous truck was entered into Sportsman ET, and now runs nines in Street Eliminator. Nick’s heading the same way, and the brothers moved their furniture factory to the industrial estate at the gates of Santa Pod, right next door to Jon Webster! I think it’s safe to say that they’re hooked. Some American soldiers who were visiting the strip loved Nigel’s truck, and labelled it “a real redneck racer,” so Nick and Nigel soon became “Team Redneck Racing”!
It was around the time that the guys had first been bitten by the drag racing bug that serendipity struck, and Nick received a phone call. “Louis ran a chip shop, and one day it caught fire and burned down. He needed money, and fast, so he called me and told me he needed to sell. We haggled, and I finally bought the car. This was in August, 2010, and the car still wasn’t finished, though it was running. It had a 350 small-block Chevy, TH400 and a nine-inch rear on ladder bars, and ran 13s. That first year I just did Run What You Brung, plus crewing for Nigel, then the second year I entered Sportsman ET as well. By the last meeting of the year, I was second in the Santa Pod Street Challenge, and Nigel was third, and that’s when I found I was losing water. It seems that when the car was laid up for all those years, there had been no anti-freeze in the water, and the water passages had corroded enough to make the block porous. Knowing that I’d have to change the engine soon, the week before the last event, I drained the water, put block filler in the block and ran without water. I had to beat my brother! And I did… I ran a 12.42 and won the championship.
“I spoke with Pete at Knight Racing Engines, and he built me up a 434ci small-block, and I had the transmission uprated by Penn Autos. It made 627bhp on pump fuel, and 847bhp on nitrous; that was four years ago now, and I’ve been racing ever since with no issues. My first check-out pass with that engine was an 11.3, and since then I’ve nibbled down to a 10.9 on the motor; this year it ran 9.73 at 140mph with gas. I think there’s plenty more in it. You just have to get it right on the day with minimal driver error!” Nick must have been doing something right, because he finished third in this year’s TopSpeed Street Eliminator championship.
This winter, Nick reckons there’ll be plenty to do, port-matching the heads and suchlike, but is he going to go the forced induction route? “No. At the end of the day, it’s just a hobby, and I’m not going to get rich at it! I’d love a new chassis, as this one was built years ago and they’ve moved on a bit since then, but I can’t afford it. There should be a 9.5 in it, and I’m only running 190hp of gas at the moment, but it should take 350hp.”
Besides, it’s still very much a street car. Of course, it has to be streetable enough to complete the mandatory Street Eliminator cruise, but this is a proper street car. “I must do 2,000-3,000 miles a year in it,” Nick continues. “I’ve driven it and my missus has driven it on the track and on the street. My son’s taken it up the strip, and if I could get him insured, I’d let him drive it on the street too. It’s a family affair! You’ve got to respect it on the street, though – it has a spool, and if you boot it, it’ll come around on you. I’ve done the drag demos at the Silverstone Classic with it, and this year I did the press day demonstrations, too. I did eight laps of Silverstone, then, on the way home, it snowed!”
1975 Mercedes Benz 280CE
- 434ci Chevrolet small-block
- Dart SHP block
- RPM 4340 steel stroker crank
- CL77 H-series bearings
- Diamond forged pistons
- Cam Motion low-lash roller cam
- Solid roller lifters
- Harland Shard rockers
- Dart 230cc Pro 1 heads
- Comp 2.08/1.60” valves
- Brodix HV1002 inlet
- Holley 1,050cfm Dominator
- TCI Rattler 2000 harmonic damper
- MSD 7AL 2+ ignition
- ARP fasteners
- GM TH400 automatic
- Ford 9” rear end
- Hi-Spec brakes
- Weld Pro Star wheels
- Hoosier Quick Time tyres
- 847bhp/814ft.lb. (with nitrous)
- Best time – 9.73@140mph
Thanks to: “Thanks to my son, Jack, who is my crew chief, Alex for his help in the pits, my daughter Gemma for all her help, and to the rest of the family for putting up with it all. Thanks to Nick and Rob at ICE, and to John Webster who helps out quite a bit. It’s Jon’s fault we moved factories!”
Stop Press – At Santa Pod’s Flame & Thunder event, on the last weekend in October, Nick’s Mercedes suffered a nitrous burp that has brought all his upgrade plans forward… watch this space.