Push the start button and what I’ve taken to calling the Frankenbenz immediately explodes to life with the aural chaos of about eight oil drums full of flashbangs hurled down an enclosed metal staircase. Just after everyone around it involuntarily blurts an expletive and shifts weight to their back feet, the ripped little Benz finds a bassy idle that transmits through the soles of your shoes and into your bones. It’s impossible to forget that the big supercharged V8 moves a lot of air, even before you’re sitting in the driver’s seat.
This is the one-of-one Mercedes-Benz C63 DTM Evolution, the unholy spawn of a pokey old 1985 Mercedes-Benz 190E sedan and a 2010 C63 AMG—the body of the former, the complete guts of the latter, with a fully custom interior whose astounding quality could shame most OEMs. Strapped in and behind the wheel, my only instructions are to hold back until the oil comes up to temperature. Given the intimidating noises the thing is already making, that sounds like a perfectly fine plan.
Even when the oil does reach temperature, this is a car that doesn’t have time for your childhood shit; shallow dips into the gas are definitely appropriate. Cautious as I initially am, acceleration is nevertheless what you might expect from a twin-screw supercharged 6.2-liter V8, which is to say there’s immediately too much power at any rpm—in a good way. Clench your teeth and dive further in, and you’ll find wheelspin is possible well into license liquidating figures, always just a big-toe’s suggestion away.
By the way, if the car’s angular and geometric silhouette looks familiar to you, it’s because it’s supposed to. The Frankenbenz is a homage to the DTM homologation Mercedes 190 E 2.5-16 Evolution II that was made to chase the E30 BMW M3. The big difference here is that the Frankenbenz uses the slightly smaller wing from an Evolution I model.
Maybe like me, you thought, “Wow, what a dream job, to build a thing like this and get paid for it.” This isn’t the first crazy project to come out of Piper Motorsport’s doors, but the guy responsible for it all, Mitch Piper, wanted to be sure I let you know that he owns a race fab shop—the kind that will happily build you an awesome roll cage, but not the sort of operation that wants to build more cars like this.
“These sorts of projects are side projects that only really work when you know the owner and happen to have the same vision—and timeline,” he says. This one here’s been in the works for over eight years. In order to pull off such a colossal undertaking, a long list of smaller, approachable projects is drawn up, but an equally big list materializes only as he digs in. In either case, they are projects that can be tackled on Piper’s own time, without the pressure of weekly or monthly deadlines. That’s not to mention the open checkbook of an owner who understands what it takes to do everything the right way. Maybe it’s best to think of the arrangement like you would one in the art world, wherein a patron has the vision, recognizes talent, and sponsors the artist’s creative brain until it’s done.
The thing that makes the Evolution so interesting isn’t that the C63’s 6.2-liter V8 engine has been shoehorned into a 190E and then supercharged with a Weistec twin-screw kit—it’s that this represents perhaps the finest and most sorted full chassis swap we’ve ever seen. The engineering behind hundreds of micro-projects that were needed to put it all together is nothing short of astounding. And the obsessive level of detail to which they’ve each been done are the reason the Frankenbenz deserves more than the title of “swap car.”
Much more detail lives in the photo captions below, but just so you have the general sense: The stuff that took the most time isn’t necessarily what you’d assume. A perfect example is the trunk-mounted liquid-to-air intercooler. Due to the tight constraints of the 190 body, the intercooler couldn’t be mounted up front as prescribed by its maker. It’s a relatively easy job to cut and run a heater hose to and from the trunk, and it can even be mounted cleanly and supported well. But the best way to do it is to fabricate some aluminum pipework that covers the entire run—each bend custom-formed to trace the C63’s tunnel twice.
Again, and this can’t be stressed enough: the chassis is that of a C63. The subframes, various cooling systems, brakes, electronics, dashboard—even the wiring harness—are unmolested C63. According to Piper, the fuel lines were never cut—they didn’t even drain the tank! So the Frankenbenz begs the question: What parts give a car its nameplate? Is this a 190E, because it occupies the same physical space and shares that body? Or is it a C63 with a body swap?
After the two cars were mated into one, the Frankenbenz went to Ai Design in New Rochelle, New York, to undergo an interior transformation that was no less detailed nor labor-intensive. Like a shadetree mechanic might be able to find a way to fit an LS-series engine into a 190E, someone could have easily bolted in a couple of Recaros and some leather wrapping. But that’s not this kind of project.
Not coincidentally, the Ai Design philosophy mirrors that of Piper’s—with a priority on all the work having an OE quality—from the way it’s put together and to the way it acts and looks. “There’s not a universal ‘Ai Design look’—we do what’s right for the car,” owner Matt Figliola explains. In the Frankenbenz, that means an interior that might have come from AMG 25-30 years ago: purposeful, understated, and oh… black.
Everything Ai custom designed and installed is modular and serviceable, just like factory Mercedes-Benz issue components, and none of it makes a peep—nary a rattle, squeak, creak, or otherwise unplanned noise in here. It’s all done with the help of computer modeling, advanced 3D scanning, industrial CNC machines, and 3D printers. Still, it’s not easy. Check out the rear seats, which make use of very limited space with aluminum tubs and removable fiberglass shells. Or consider the 3D-printed housing that allows the C63’s rain-sensing assembly to work behind a 190E windshield. Dozens of other details populate the rest of the interior, disguising the Frankenbenz as something that might have rolled off a showroom floor.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The beauty is in the details and the best way to convey those many details is through pictures. It’s not often that a project can be considered truly mind-blowing, but you best shield your cerebrums for this one. Ready? Set? Scroll.
1. The Merger
A man of few words, Piper simply says, “The whole problem was putting a smaller body on a larger car,” and hopes I’ll intuit the rest. The bodywork was carefully cut off the C63 from top to bottom to retain as much of the newer car as possible. The remaining chassis was shortened (by about 100mm) and narrowed to fit into a jig that would support a 190 body and fender flares. A surprisingly small amount of cutting had to be done—the two cars shared remarkable similarities and were very close dimensionally, with much of the C63’s additional width in the doors. A giant support frame was tack-welded to the 190E bodywork to keep it rigid as it was cut off. Finally, the two could be merged.
The chop revealed much of the 190E’s DNA already present in the C63, despite a 30-year evolution—countless little things like the fuse box location or the plastic cladding atop the control arms were designed the same way. The same can be said of many of the relative engineering dimensions. For example, the distance from the center of the steering wheel to the center of the transmission tunnel of both cars is the same.
As the owner wanted to keep factory headlight glass, custom headlight housings that could clear the C63’s complex radiator stack and still fit under the hood of the 190E were painstakingly fabricated from aluminum over some 60 hours. Hella HID projector lenses handle high and low beams and are fully adjustable, just like factory units.
4. Roll Cage
Perhaps the single item that Piper Motorsport is best known for, the roll cage is nothing short of a work of art. It is anchored across six points throughout the chassis and stitch-welded directly to the body. It also features hidden continuation beams linking it directly to the front shock towers. A-, B-, and C-pillars were cut open to allow the careful insertion of cage tubing before it was stitched in. Ai Design built contoured panels around the entire assembly and upholstered it all into the roof and pillars, hiding it from plain sight.
The Frankenbenz uses K&W coilovers with fully adjustable upper mounts. The team experimented with several spring rates and lengths before arriving at the ideal setup. Piper reports that it was nearly impossible to make room for the coilovers to have any sort of travel (just look at the hood height relative to wheel position in a 190E vs a C63—the 190E hood sits flat). Not only did the hood need reliefs cut into it, but custom hinges had to be fabricated that fold into hidden pockets in the car’s cabin.
6. Front Geometry
Custom shock towers had to be fabricated so that the body could sit right on the C63 chassis, but Piper was able to leave most of the geometry at factory C63 specs. “The almost impossible thing to figure out in advance,” says Piper, “is the wheel-to-fender clearance based on track, turning radius, and suspension travel.” In the end, the front track was narrowed slightly by bringing in the lower control arms in tandem with the upper shock mounts by about 20mm.
7. Dash and Center Console
The fact that the factory C63 dash could fit at all is a testament to the two cars’ likeness, despite a 30-year gap. But though the width worked out, getting it to bolt in was another matter, involving a lot of custom aluminum fabrication. The center console is custom, also built out of aluminum. Like the rest of the interior, it’s been finished by AI Design to seamlessly integrate. All of the factory switchgear is intact, albeit sometimes relocated.
8. Seats, Roof, and Roll Cage Upholstery
Ai Design considered six different designs for the rear seats before settling on the deeply bolstered modular units seen in the finished product. Space was incredibly tight, says owner Matt Figliola, making things particularly challenging when retaining factory serviceability. Still, the hardest part was upholstering the roof—just getting to it—and crafting fiberglass shells around each roll bar protrusion. The “clever use of fiberglass” involved making two shells; one in front of the main hoop, and one behind, connecting in the middle and covered with sound-deadening foam.
Careful searching turned up factory Mercedes Evolution II bumpers and side skirts—only the fender flares are reproduction pieces. Sourcing a high-quality Evolution II rear wing proved impossible, but an Evolution I wing worked in a pinch. Note also the specialized “6.2 Kompressor” badging on the flanks.
10. Engine Bay
While the biggest effort underhood was clearly the fitment of an engine more than twice the size of the original, it was the fabrication of each of the little things that sucked up the big hours. The wiper motor is a perfect example. Unlike most, it’s not cam-actuated. Instead, it changes polarity to wipe the opposite direction. A half-day project turned into a week-long endeavor as Piper fabricated a custom linkage from where they were forced to mount the motor to allow the use of the C63 unit. Not only would this avoid trouble codes, but it would also allow the “park” position and the use of the windshield-mounted rain sensor, which was moved over to the 190’s windshield.
11. Keeping Things Factory
The fab work necessary to make the Frankenbenz work was clearly exhaustive but equally impressive. It was simply squeezing in as much of the already well-engineered C63 gear as possible. Take cooling, for example—the factory radiator stack is comprised of a radiator, a power steering cooler, a transmission cooler, an A/C condenser, and an oil cooler. Then, off to the side, there’s another oil cooler.
The Frankenbenz uses a Weistec twin-screw supercharger for the C63 that is more or less factory spec. It draws air via two custom aluminum ducts integrated right into the custom radiator mount, and comes with a liquid-to-air intercooler that’s meant to be front-mounted. There’s no room here, though, so it was relocated to a cutout in the trunk. Custom aluminum pipework carries water to the trunk and back—there’s no heater hose to be found.
The owner didn’t want a 30-year old key to unlock the doors, so the mechanisms were taken out of the C63 and grafted into the 190E doors. As the manual linkages from 190E no longer worked, solenoids were added to pop the doors open electronically. The cost of this snowball effect? Fifty hours per door. That’s not to mention the time it took Ai design to make them look presentable after the fact. The aluminum work was second-to-none, but focused on functionality—Ai used diagonal stitchwork and more to disguise the visual protrusions, and 3D-printed custom speaker grilles and offsetting rings to match the offset aluminum work. Finally, the factory 190E trunk release was replaced, too, with “a BMW door lock solenoid of some description,” says Piper.
An estimated 90 percent of the wiring is factory C63; the major system that didn’t carry over was the power windows. Here, all new wiring was installed, along with new 190E window motors. Because of the significant carryover, there weren’t a lot of challenges other than codes created—issues with taillight voltages and the like. These were smoothed out by an unnamed Russian ECU hacker.
A dual 2.5-inch exhaust with X-pipe was crafted from stainless steel, clamping onto the ARH headers at the front of the car, and exiting through quad-tailpipes in the rear. Piper says the exhaust system was pretty straightforward—it was fabricating and fitting the aluminum bezels to the rear valance that was the challenge.
16. Wheels and Tires
The Frankenbenz rides on Fifteen52 Evo SC Wheels; 18×8 inches in the front, and 18×9.5 out back. Tires are Michelin Pilot Super Sport in 235/40R18 and 275/35R18.
If you weren’t paying attention, you’d never in a million years be able to guess the amount of work and customization that went into the Frankenbenz. That’s the beauty of the whole thing. Rare as they are, sourcing an actual Mercedes 190 E 2.5-16 Evolution II would take considerably less time and money than building a restomodded version from scratch. But then it wouldn’t be this—without a doubt, one of the most impressive projects we’ve ever had the pleasure to drive.
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