Muscle car fan Jeff Wu Rally lookalike 1960 Mercedes-Benz 230S W111 with 5.0 V8
The driver Muscle car fan Jeff Wu turns an unsuspecting 230S into a V8-powered rally lookalike. In the tradition and spirit of American hot rodding (and the legendary 300SEL 6.3), Jeff Wu has built a special W111 230S with V8 powerplant.
WORDS & IMAGES RICHARD TRUESDELL
Californian Jeff Wu has led what many would call an extraordinary life. His story started in Taiwan, where he was born 60 years ago. From an early age, it was obvious that he was mechanically inclined. Living near a US Air Force base helped things along, exposing him to American cars, helping to give young Jeff an appreciation for, of all things, classic muscle cars of the 1960s and 70s. Interviewing Jeff for a story on his 280SE 3.5 Cabriolet, produced for our sister title Classic Mercedes, we were taken by this comment from Jeff: “You can say that I was born with a combustion engine for a heart.” Having talked with Jeff on several occasions, at car shows and events over the years, that sentence sums up Jeff ’s perspective. He’s the quintessential gearhead. He loves anything that burns petrol. Jeff crossed the Pacific, coming to America in 1978, in the aftermath of the impact of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, that effectively shut down the first muscle car era. The mid-1970s morphed into what we Yanks refer to as the Malaise era. But Jeff ’s timing was pretty good as America was turning the corner. The Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird kept the flame alive, albeit with engines that were strangled by lower compression ratios necessitated by the transition to lead-free petrol. In 1979, the corner was truly turned by the introduction of an all-new Ford Mustang. The domestic performance wars were reignited and ran basically unabated to the present day.
Upon arriving in America, Jeff earned an engineering design degree, living in Torrance, a suburb of Los Angeles. Jeff recalls, “If you know anything about Torrance and the surrounding area, then and now, it is packed with so many small automotive repair and speed shops. And I thought that someday, I would have my own shop as I loved cars so much.”
In the right place
Honing his craft, Jeff worked at a number of these shops, soaking up knowledge, not only on American muscle cars but European exotics like Ferraris and Lamborghinis, as well as Mercedes-Benz. Being a hands-on kind of guy, Jeff even learned how to do bodywork. But at the dawn of the PC era in the early 1980s, Jeff ’s career path took a detour, dashing his hopes of someday owning an automotive-related business.
Instead, Jeff went into the computer parts and data storage industry. Over the next four decades, he built a very successful business, Ci Design. Finding his niche, a pretty big one as it turned out, Jeff began working with major computer industry OEMs like IBM, Toshiba and Dell. Today, Ci Design has branches worldwide. “In 1993, we established a European headquarters in the Netherlands and over the years have established subsidiaries in France, Germany, Sweden, and Taiwan with manufacturing facilities in mainland China as well as Taiwan,” Jeff explains.
This success allowed him over the past two decades to indulge in his automotive enthusiasm. While this passion covers many marques – reflected by the cars in his small collection, Italian marques like Ferrari and Alfa Romeo as well as BMW motorcycles – his primary focus has been on the cars bearing the three-pointed star.
Jeff ’s love affair with Mercedes-Benz started with his first, a 280SEL given to him by his boss. Getting behind the wheel and recognising the opportunity he found in America, Jeff felt like he’d truly arrived. “Immediately, I appreciated the mentality of German automotive and product design because it is so precise.” But he didn’t keep that first Mercedes-Benz long. It was followed in succession by a 1995 SL600 R129 that he has owned since 1995, a 1963 190SL acquired in 2005, a 1969 280SEL bought in 2013, and a 1958 220S added in 2015. Other keepers include a 1957 300SL bought in 2017, his previously mentioned 280SE 3.5 added in 2018, and the car featured here, his 1967 230S also added in 2018.
Thinking outside the box
“As I already own several classic Mercedes-Benzes, I wanted to have one that I could drive without fear and which could be used for driving events. And I wanted a car that I could work on, leveraging the skills I acquired when I first arrived in America, my Torrance days. It just so happens that I like rally cars very much. I went online to check the results and found the 1962 Argentine Rally Mercedes-Benz 220SE. My car closely mirrors the look of the one driven in-period by the famous Mercedes-Benz factory rally driver, Ewy Rosqvist.
“The project’s genesis started when I asked my friend Daniel who owns a Mercedes-Benz junkyard what direction I could take. Looking at what he had available, I was immediately drawn to a Fintail, a 230S. It was as if the car was calling to me. It was rusty on the outside but I could see that its bones were solid. The interior was still original and in good overall shape. The sun had affected some areas but those could be addressed. The typical Mercedes- Benz vault quality was intact, apparent when you closed all four doors. It still felt as solid as a safe, just like my late-model Mercedes-Benzes.”
Going back to his early days, Jeff reverted to his American muscle car roots, wanting to do something a bit… out of the box. “I wanted to turn it into a hot rod because of its beautiful rust, but because I understand my personality, it had to be perfect! I painted it just like Ewy’s car, but kept the original interior including the seats. The underside was solid so it was just rustproofed and additional soundproofing added. I also converted the column shift to a floor shift,” Jeff adds. “The car is heavy, which affects performance, so I wanted to address that issue. I installed an engine from a European-market Mercedes-Benz 500SE. At the same time, I replaced all the suspension components, and upgraded the brakes including adding new discs front and rear. The car is now equipped with air conditioning, which makes it very comfortable even on hot California days. It’s not uncommon for temperatures here to exceed 100 degrees all through the summer.
Discussing his decision to go with a five-litre V8, Jeff explains, “When you know that the 230S engine is only two litres and that the car weighs in at over 3,500 pounds [1,500kg], you know that you will not enjoy it as a rally car without an engine transplant. There were several ways to go at this point, including the obvious – a V8 from that era, like that found in my 280SE 3.5 Cabriolet. There wasn’t too much thought on doing a factory-correct, in-period engine swap even though money was not an issue.”
In the end, Jeff and Daniel wanted to maximise the fun factor. “We started work in September 2017 and finished almost two years later, in June 2019. As Daniel’s team is very professional, they have no difficulty in giving me what I want.” Given his rally ambitions, Jeff had the car electroplated in Mexico.
“I spent a lot of time sourcing parts and restoring what couldn’t be easily found,” he continues. “The lighting was upgraded, giving the 230S the look of a 1960s rally car. Sourcing other things such as glass required much effort, but it all came together in the end. Is it an exact recreation of Ewy’s car?” Jeff asks. “No. Certainly, the engine choice takes it far afield of that and others have done perfect recreations of her car anyway. That’s not what this car is about. “After the car was back on the road, I immediately entered it in a series of driving events, including the Targa California 2019 and Targa Baja California 2019,” Jeff explains. “Everyone knows that I made this car to participate in these events. I also got first place among participants! When I showed up in this Mercedes, my competitors knew they had no chance,” Jeff laughs.
So, what’s next on Jeff ’s agenda? “Whatever I decide, I would like to work on ideas with my daughter who is a graduate of the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. An electric drivetrain isn’t being ruled out,” Jeff reveals. “I’d like to create an electric car with my daughter.”
Blessed with a fine collection of classic Mercedes, Jeff is certainly living the American Dream. At the conclusion of our conversation, it’s clear he understands his role as a temporary custodian of these cars. “You must enjoy these Mercedes while you can, then pass them to the next generation,” he says. Wise words, indeed.
After the car was back on the road, I immediately entered it into a series of driving events
This W111 has already taken part in rally events.
Five-litre eight-cylinder from a 500SE.
Resplendent steelies; Grabber AT2 footwear.
Ewy Rosqvist (centre) won the 1962 Argentinian rally in a 220SE. Extra gauges for V8; floormounted shift. Vertical speedo said to be a safety feature. Bench rear seat with belts; no front headrests.
I already own several Mercedes but I wanted to have one that I could drive without fear
Jeff Wu found success in the USA and indulged in his Mercedes passion.