Towards the very end of 2021, FCP Euro Director of Motorsports and resident touring car die-hard Nate Vincent came forward with an entirely new concept for FCP Euro; a build series done entirely out of passion and respect for one of the greatest periods in motorsport history, completed primarily in-house, to create a modernized Mercedes 190E deserving of claiming its lineage.
“The W201 has that heritage that comes with the ‘Golden Era’ of DTM, but sort of flies under the radar still in comparison to some of its peers,” Nate said of the selected chassis. “It still has that credibility, but is very affordable to get into and has a tremendous amount of potential.”
His plan was relatively straightforward. First, hop on Facebook and purchase a stock, mundane example of a Mercedes-Benz 190E.
Second, turn it into a fire-breathing, curb-hopping tribute to the “Golden Era” of touring car racing, sporting all of the bark and bite of the 190E Evolution IIs of DTM fame. In doing so, build one of the most potent cars ever to sport a “190E” badge, utilizing a modern driveline that produces the same energy and output as the race engines of the 1980s but with the added reliability and technology of a modern Daimler-engineered daily driver.
Finally, drive it. Hard. And then repeat. Simple enough, right? We didn’t think so either.
Back when Mercedes debuted the W201-chassis 190E to the world’s stage at the end of 1982, nothing would indicate that the practical and somewhat-utilitarian boxy sedan would live on to be one of the most important cars to sport the “Silver Arrow” badging. It was handsome, sure, but it wasn’t the type of car you’d put a poster of on your wall; it wasn’t even something you’d stop to glance at. Despite its somewhat relaxed styling, the “Baby Benz” would prove to be a trendsetter in general vehicle architecture and performance engineering. It would be touted as one of the most utilitarian, durable sedans on the market at the time and would become a common sight worldwide as Mercedes would go on to produce nearly two million of the W201 chassis.
A few years after the W201’s debut, Mercedes introduced the Cosworth-modified 190E 2.3-16. Sporting a high-flow 16-valve cylinder head, bespoke exhaust manifold, “Dogleg'' 5-speed manual transmission, limited-slip differential, and multilink self-leveling hydraulic rear suspension (a first for any manufacturer), it provided the ideal base for a lightweight and balanced competition machine. From touring car champion to setting world speed records and even helping launch the career of Ayrton Senna, the 190E certainly touts an impressive resume, and yet, is often overshadowed by its BMW brethren.
“The 190E was a champion in its day but has sort of continued to fly under the radar as a potential modern motorsports platform…I wanted to do something different and inspire others to do the same.” Having sold the concept of the Golden Era Project and following a bit of Facebook Marketplace browsing, Nate was suddenly grabbing a film crew and heading to Rhode Island with a trailer to bring home a fairly mint 190E 2.6.
Nate’s fever-dream FCP Euro Project “Golden Era” was actually happening.
Once it arrived, the team stripped nearly everything from the shell, including its antiquated drivetrain. “It always had to have a four-cylinder. The cars of DTM heritage from the ‘Big Two’ (BMW and Mercedes) both had six cylinders at the time, which the manufacturers chose to ditch in favor of four cylinders to perfect the balance and nail turn-in. It was a key part of the period.”
From the idea's conception, Nate was dead-set on the Mercedes-AMG M133 engine. The turbocharged 2.0L went against everything Mercedes won with in ‘92, shedding the 11,000rpm redline and wailing induction noise for mid-range grunt and bird-like compressor surge. But as Nate began to unpack the similarities between the modern powerplant and the late ‘80s competition engines, it became clear that the M133 would be perfectly suitable for channeling the spirit of the “Golden Era.”
“The things that made the engines of the ‘80s so special have become sort of the standard; an oversquare four-cylinder, four valves per cylinder, and dual cams. The things that used to be ‘trick’ in the era are now sort of the norm, underneath a bit of electronic complexity. We’re just boiling it down to its essence again.”
When Mercedes-AMG unleashed the M133 stateside in the C117 CLA 45 AMG and the X156 GLA 45 AMG in the mid-2010s, it was an immediate titan. Producing the most horsepower ever delivered in a production four-cylinder at a whopping 355 horsepower while sipping fuel in comparison with V8s, the M133 was truthfully a sign of the times; a downsized engine using all of the technology available to deliver maximum performance. As if that weren’t enough, Mercedes also took it racing over in the BTCC with the NGTC-spec A45, cementing its touring car genes in the Mercedes lineage. Before long, the chosen engine from a wrecked but reasonably low-mileage X156 AMG was acquired. With an engine in-house, re-engineering the spirit of the Golden Era began.
It wasn’t long before Nate lowered what was likely the world’s first longitudinally-mounted, H-pattern-shifted Mercedes M133 into our fatigued little W201’s shell. Running an H-pattern manual transmission would undeniably be slower around a track than the dual-clutch transmission that the M133 was equipped with out of the factory, but doing so would take away from the spirit of the build; it wouldn’t provide “the spirit and soul of the heroes of DTM history, with the heart and engineering of today.” Instead, a lightly modified 716.6 6-speed from an SLK would transmit the turbo power to the rear wheels.
The coming months would be full of tension as Nate waited for parts to arrive from around the world amidst supply chain meltdowns. The original deadline for the project was quickly out of reach for a running car, but the team rushed through the bodywork process to have the rolling shell ready for its debut at Gridlife Circuit Legends. Hundreds of thousands had watched the build unfold as the “Golden Era” YouTube series ran ahead of the event, and the excitement it received at the event from fans and partners ensured that it was well worth the stress, even if certain components had to be skipped.
“I wish we could’ve tubbed the car to get it properly low to the ground like the cars of the ‘80s and cleaned up the underbody a bit, so it looked nearly new underneath. These are things we can always circle back and do this year or in the future, but looking back, it would’ve been great to do the first time if I were to do it all again. Deadlines are deadlines, though.”
Research, construction, and troubleshooting on the 190E 2.0-16 would be taxing but worthwhile. Most of the fabrication, assembly and development was done in-house by Nate himself, along with a host of members from the FCP Euro team. A handful of other companies, like Schaeffler and Hengst, and individuals would also lend a hand, believing in the spirit of Nate’s retro brainchild and raising the bar even higher. They understood the project was more than a simple “resto-mod” and wanted to be a part of the unique process of building an enhanced DTM legend capable of beating the originals and driving home afterward.
And as the brake dust settled following Nate’s first test sessions, he beamed with pride over the car he envisioned. “These chassis have a lot of merit out of the box. On my first laps around the FCP Euro Proving Grounds, I thought, ‘Holy crap, this car is good.’ The balance was excellent, it ran great, and our junkyard engine was driving flawlessly with its junkyard transmission. It was fast.” Sitting atop its C63 AMG suspension and brakes, with its BMW-sourced steering equipment and various other parts plucked off FCP Euro shelves, the 190E 2.0-16 was everything it was supposed to be.
However, while the first shakedown of the 190E 2.0-16 went well, Nate had a lot to report, some positive and some negative. “There’s still some smoothing to do. The crankcase vent system is still venting a bit more than we’d want, so that’ll be one to focus on in the coming months. There are some rattles and shakes from the solid mounts on the driveline, so adding a bit of rubber would make things more tolerable. Also, the springs are binding a bit, but custom top-mounts on the struts may solve for that.” Race car or not, any custom build needs adjusting after its first test; it’s all part of the lengthy engineering process.
“The key elements are solid. With all of the cutting and re-engineering we did, all of the things we didn’t know for sure would work. We’ve verified that the idea is good and sound. It just needs the last 5% buttoned up.”
So what’s next for the Golden Era Project? “[We’re going to]...Fix that final 5%, and then continue to test. I want to get out there and drive the car. Whether it's a GRIDLIFE demonstration or showing the car off at our Mercedes Sunday Motoring Meet, I just want to share the car with the world. I want to inspire people, make it slide around, make cool noises, and urge others to do the same.”
“We’ve been turning a crazy idea into reality, building something truly cool. Forging ahead with minimal custom fabrication, using a car and manufacturer somewhat under-represented in the ‘build space.’ When the car rolled off of the trailer at GRIDLIFE Circuit Legends and the public saw it for the first time, and when Episode 1 of the YouTube series aired, we saw the interest and the excitement. Now that the car drives, we’ve completed the proof-of-concept.”
What creates a classic?
Not just production numbers, engineering prowess, or racing pedigree but the relationships thousands build with the car along the way.
FCP Euro’s Mercedes Expert and longtime “Silver Arrow” tinkerer. Lover of oddball vehicles, and former owner of two 6-speed W203 C-Classes, a Kleemann-modified 5-speed R170 SLK, and a 1987 190E 2.3-16. The current owner of a daily-driven and AMG-swapped W208 CLK430, a 6-speed W203 C350, and a Honda Fit driven in GRIDLIFE’s “Sundae Cup.” ••• Instagram: @danny_playswithcars