LeMons Rally Close-Up: The Knoxvegas Lowballers’ Smoky 1966 Mercedes 200D

The Retreat From Moscow LeMons Rally brought out some particularly special and terrible cars. From the world’s crustiest limousine to the pocket-rocket V6-powered Volkswagen Beetle LeMons race car, the machinery was all pretty crazy. No rally vehicle carried the real gravitas of the Knoxvegas Lowballers’ 1966 Mercedes 200D, a prestigious car when new that had, well, seen better days. When the Merc clattered into the paddock at Barber Motorsports Park at the rally’s end, the tail pipe belched acrid black oil smoke escaping through the diesel engine’s piston voids (as opposed to the rings that had previously existed there).  The Merc had required a pull-start to begin that final day of the rally, but it reluctantly lumbered to life and ran with only some inhibitions over the last 200-plus miles, the final segment of its torture test.

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The Lowballers, renowned for building some incredible and strange race cars, had found the tired Mercedes on CraigsList in Saltville, Virginia, for $900. Lowballers team member Gary Mitchell drove the 150 miles from Knoxville to retrieve it, finding the stately Mercedes a crusty, corroded mess, albeit one with a well-preserved interior. He forked over the money, loaded it up, and dragged the tractor-engined diesel back home.

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The chassis itself had gotten the brunt of a half-century’s weathering; among Mitchell’s first projects was rebuilding the rear floor enough to put the sagging rear seat back in usable order. Since the plan was to haul three adults—Lowballers racers Mitchell, Keith Stone and Seanan Burke—along for the rally, they’d need that restored.

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The clutch pedal also was extremely stiff, to the point that Mitchell couldn’t find the engagement point. It turns out that the clutch was stuck with a bad slave cylinder, but the young previous owner had tried to force the pedal to travel. He had instead bent the pedal and created some play in the pedal without moving any clutch parts. Once Mitchell figured that out, he ordered slave cylinder parts that were for the wrong 200D, as were a second set of parts. Because the Lowballers fear little in terms of fabrication, they simply used the two wrong set of parts to rebuild the slave cylinder with parts that fit.

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So much of the car’s mechanical design seems incomprehensible with modern design. In addition to the weird three-spring rear swing-axle, Mercedes designed the 200D, which weighed 3,000 pounds empty, to have an OM621 2.0-liter diesel four-cylinder engine that made about 60 horsepower when new. With the three occupants and their bags, they estimated the total weight around 4,000 pounds and the power considerably less than the original 60 ponies. That left top speed lacking, but they still scored high marks for style along the way.

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The transmission was a column-shifted four-speed manual, which seems a brutish way to get around in such an opulent (for the time, anyway) vehicle. Of course, Mercedes has always been a brutally luxurious marque so it seems to make some sense. Even the engine starting action was brutal: Yank hard on the dashboard knob to hear the engine sputter to life. All of the Mercedes drivers found that action far more satisfying than springing any other engine to life, though.

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To communicate, they installed a CB that was given to them for their perfect car by LeMons Judge Phil (aka Murilee Martin) with a telephone handset.

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The phone receiver fit the car’s dated luxury about perfectly and if some other features—like the windshield fluid reservoir—weren’t working, the Lowballers could improvise a modern-ish solution well enough for a few bucks at Wal-Mart.

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Eventually, the 51-year-old engine started to protest the long road trip. By the second day, West Virginia’s winding mountain roads had taken the toll on the diesel engine. The piston rings were decaying rapidly, requiring large fill-ups of oil whenever diesel was also put in the car. This was not helped by taking a wrong turn while listening to the Kenny Loggins cassette they had picked up at a Philippi, West Virginia, thrift stop. Eventually, they detoured to one team member’s home in eastern Tennessee to effect repairs that would allow the Merc to limp along.

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By the time the Mercedes turned up at Tail of the Dragon, anytime the throttle opened far—which is pretty often on a two-ton, 60-horsepower car—the Mercedes laid down a mosquito-repelling screen. They didn’t expect it to last much farther than Tail of the Dragon, but they limped into Memphis and coaxed it back to life for the final journey to Barber.

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Their rally wasn’t over, however; Roadkill put their Missing Linc ‘78 Lincoln Continental up for auction with the money going to charity at the beginning of the awards ceremony. The Lowballers entered a bidding war with some LeMons-racing rookies. For reasons still unknown, once bidding reached $1,000, the auction somehow turned into an arm-wrestling competition. The Lowballers called on their biggest teammate, Seanan Burke, who won the arm-wrestling match while wearing a ‘60s Mercedes-caliber business suit. After cutting a check to Lemons of Love, the charity for the LeMons race that weekend, the Lowballers took possession of the shortened ’78 Lincoln Continental.

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To add to their prize new car, the Lowballers also took home the “Putting the ‘Smoke’ in Smoky Mountains” trophy for the persistence shown by both the car and the team in keeping the Mercedes going.

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To top off the rally, the Lowballers had also entered their V6-powered, mid-engine Geo Metro—which they had also driven on Tail of the Dragon from their nearby home—in the race at Barber. This was the first-ever car to win the “LeMons Quadrangle of Emaculance,” which is all three class wins and the Index of Effluency. However, they Metro spit out a half-shaft that took them out of race contention and a spate of black flags ruined any chance at a decent finish.

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However, the team turned over the Metro near the race’s end to tame racing driver Randy Pobst, whose problematic Volvo wagon left him without a functioning drive. Pobst set the race’s fastest lap in the Metro and then promptly got a black flag for exiting the track, but he chatted up the car with the team and talked shop with them for a bit.

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The Lowballers had also spent much of the rally in a caravan with their sister car, “Sputter,” a Mercedes 560SL that had a rollcage and was regularly raced in LeMons. Robert Simpson drove that car without major incident through the rally’s entire distance and then followed it up with a strong showing during the race. The only thing that prevented them from winning Class C was a shredded alternator belt, which they fixed and went on to win LeMons highest prize, the Index of Effluency.

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We’re not sure what the Lowballers have in store for both the smoky Mercedes and the Missing Linc (We’re not sure they know), but we think it’s a pretty safe bet we’ll see both of them again before too long, be it in a LeMons race or pulling some other duties. Check out the gallery below for lots more photos of the Mercedes 200D.

Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover