For decades, hot rodders, builders, and enthusiasts of all kinds have relied on one simple thing to achieve something that the original car designer and engineers never intended: The Swap. Swapping engines, swapping brakes, even swapping transmissions, and entire drivelines has been a rite of passage and method of madness for decades. As our cars have become increasingly complex and vehicle electronics systems more interconnected than ever, it has changed the game and made it harder to do. Thankfully, there are still dedicated enthusiasts like Alex Bridges pushing the envelope and showing the world that sometimes, even today, The Swap remains one of the best tricks in the book.
Photos By: Kevin McCauley
Typically a swap story starts with a lifelong brand enthusiast using their intimate knowledge of a marque's particular quirks and cross-compatibility, or lack thereof, and sticking it out with a certain platform because they love it. Not because it's easy or convenient, but because of pure unadulterated passion. That's not the case here. Alex, as you will learn, actually considers himself to be a BMW driver first and foremost. This Mercedes E55 AMG? Well, it was basically a happy accident. He found that driving his top-mount turbo non-A/C E36 vert in the hot Texas summer didn't make for an enjoyable experience.
With his 3-Series convertible punishing him on a daily basis, Alex started his search for something a little more comfortable, and it had to have ice-cold A/C. Finding a good deal on an older Mercedes, just to use as a daily driver, was all that it took to start Alex down this slippery slope of trail-blazing swaps and pushing the Mercedes-Benz scene forward, one manual transmission at a time.
"I really didn't care for Mercedes-Benz cars at the time," Alex begins to explain. "My only history was that my mom had one that learned to drive in. I found this 1998 W208 CLK320 for $1000 on Craigslist. I went there, and to my surprise, it actually ran. The original owner was scared to drive it because of the ABS/ESP light illuminating, so he decided to sell it; I guess the dealership scared him with a good repair bill. I ended up buying that CLK320, recharged the A/C, and we were good to go."
After a year or so behind the wheel, the Mercedes ownership experience had clearly been positive enough to make Alex at least a bit of a fan. After seeing a W210 E55 bombing down the Texas highway, he knew what his next daily driver was going to be. After contracting a well-versed friend in all things MB to help him with his E55 AMG hunt, Alex picked up the car you see here just about a year ago. Unfortunately, the honeymoon didn't last long. The car proved to be adequate, but a bit of a letdown compared to expectations.
"While robust, it was sluggish, and frankly, I think the automatic transmission kind of dulled the experience when driving the car. Especially in comparison to say, an E39 M5," Alex said. "I just wanted more."
More to the point, Alex wanted more pedals for more fun and a more involved driving experience. Browsing the internet, he stumbled upon some forum posts and found out that a manual swap was not only possible but relatively attainable for an at-home hot-rodder. After that, there was no question: The Swap was going to happen. You might ask yourself, why go through the trouble of converting a 'Benz to a 6-speed manual when there are so many other great German sport sedans out there, including plenty of BMWs?
"The opportunity kind of presented itself. I am very much a DIY kind of guy, so when I found out that it was possible, and ultimately not that difficult to make work in terms of the ECU side of things, naturally I wanted to do it," Alex continues. "I really lucked out, because I had found a local junkyard that had the parts car I needed. Besides, who wants to miss out on the opportunity to make their E55 a manual with three pedals?"
As it turns out, all you need to manual swap an E55, or any other similar Mercedes equipped with an M112/M113 engine, is a manual Chrysler Crossfire parts car. You might be surprised to find out that there were over 50,000 Crossfires sold from 2003 to 2009. Thanks to Daimler-Benz and Chrysler's brief and unexpected marriage, the Crossfire is basically a Mercedes SLK underneath, right down to the transmission. The Mercedes SLK of the same generations can also be used to source the parts you need for a manual swap.
If you're looking to swap an E55 like his, a 2003 to 2004 model is the best choice as there's a production change in 2005-2006 to a different bolt pattern on the flywheel. Alex always tries to stick to a budget for his projects, so if he can reuse parts, he will. If not, there's always plenty of Mercedes-Benz parts at FCP Euro when needed.
Despite what you might expect, thanks to the relatively simple electronics of the W210 chassis, this manual swap requires very little in the way of complex control module re-coding. In fact, if you pick up one of the newer facelifted models with Bosch ME2.8 ECU, you can even reprogram the car to know it's a manual, meaning it doesn't check for the TCU. This is a big plus if you have emissions or inspections to worry about. Alex's car is, unfortunately, an older ME2.0 model, so he does have a check engine light to contend with, but thankfully that's not a problem for him.
"I think of it as a more involved clutch job," he says. "Most of it is bolt-in, and the only real fabrication work you'd need to do depends on how many of the parts from the donor car that you took. You kind of have to get crafty with some of them, but for the most part, it's pretty easy; you just do have to do some cutting, some drilling, etc."
Finding parts, or rather a complete parts car, has proved to be one of the more challenging aspects of the swap. Unless you can find a complete car that hasn't been picked over by fellow parts-hunters like vultures on fresh roadkill, finding some of the smaller bits is a common complaint. Buying new is always an option, but for the more budget-conscious among us, that can add quite a bit of cost, depending on what you need to complete your build. Still, a quick web search will yield plenty of used transmissions for sale, most under $1,000.
"Finding or sourcing the parts can be tricky," he explains. "The best way is finding an actual parts car, at a pick and pull junkyard. You can also shop at used parts places, it'll be much easier, but with an added cost. The big problem is most parts places like to take off small little pieces that you might need, like some on the shifter components. These are impossible to find otherwise, or at least very hard to track down individually."
This brings us to one of the best parts of Alex's manual-MB journey. He's on a quest to spread the word and let as many enthusiasts as possible know just how easy it is to perform this swap. And rather than getting into the nitty-gritty details of the swap process here, he's detailed the process on his YouTube channel and has recently just completed his second manual-swap, this time on a W208 CLK55 AMG.
Whether they're already a Mercedes fan or a soon-to-be-converted fan, Alex just wants to see more people enjoying these great cars. "After the swap was done, the car was a totally different animal," he enthuses. "It's so much more rewarding, and definitely a lot more engaging. The car is just so much more fun."
With the 5.4 L AMG-massaged V8 pumping out 349 horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque from the factory, removing the power-sapping automatic transmission undoubtedly puts more of that power through to the ground. A normal AMG-tuned V8' Benz tends to be pretty rowdy, in a respectable kind of way. Thanks to a freer-flowing exhaust system courtesy of a deleted resonator and rear muffler, Alex's E55 has an even more aggressive bark, with crisp shifts punctuating the acceleration as he rows through the six forward gears.
While most of Alex's E55 remains as Mercedes-Benz intended, manual transmission aside, he has made a few other changes to optimize the aesthetics. O.Z. Racing Opera wheels, measuring 18x8.5" front and 18x10" rear, are mounted with 235/40 and 255/35 Kenda KR20A tires, and the body is brought a touch closer to the ground thanks to the removal of the factory spring pads. DEPO LED taillights, W211 AMG exhaust tips, and a mildly customized front bumper round out the additional changes.
The interior of Alex's AMG is gloriously stock, replete with wood-grain and leather, and only a factory leather-wrapped Mercedes shift knob and boot, giving away his car's unique secret—not that he's looking to hide anything. The more he can spread the word and get more of these manual Mercedes out there, the better, as far as he's concerned.
"I just really want more people to be aware that the swap is possible and to see more of these swaps on the road," Alex continues. "Mercedes-Benz released a lot of cars with the M112/M113 engines, so just think of the possibilities! I see huge potential in this market, especially if these cars were to become more popular in the track and drift communities."
Alex reckons that the E55 would have been a proper E39 M5 fighter had Mercedes thought to include a manual option back when the cars were competing head to head. His own experience has been more than positive, with the notoriously tank-like reliability of these older Mercedes cars being of particular note. Coming from a self-proclaimed BMW-enthusiast, Alex's thoughts on the matter could be considered fighting words by some.
"I really do think that the E55 AMG with a manual transmission, and this is going to upset some BMW purists, is a much more reliable version of the E39 M5," he says. "The M113 engine is pretty much bulletproof. I have 223,000 miles on mine, around 6,000 of that on the manual swap in just this past year. I have no timing guides, VANOS, or random cooling system issues to worry about."
It's pretty clear that Alex is more than happy with his efforts, and says that the response from Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts, particularly those who have seen the car in person, have generally been very positive. Normally you may think of a traditional Mercedes-Benz owner as being a bit more traditional, and perhaps, surprisingly, there has been relatively little push-back on Alex's mission to help fellow owners hot-rod their Mercedes.
"I've had a few people who have done the swap and cited the videos that I made as inspiration for them to try it on their own, saying that it just gives them that little bit more confidence that it is indeed doable, and it's not going to ruin their car, or their wallet. Well, I can't guarantee the last one," Alex laughs. "It's really heartwarming for me to hear those kinds of replies or comments because I just want more people to enjoy these great cars the way I'm enjoying mine right now."
At the end of the day, Alex's genuine enthusiasm and new-born passion for the Mercedes marque is more than a little infectious; it has certainly got us excited here at FCP Euro. Maybe it's time to dust off our Dapper Drift project and make it a little spicier thanks to a little bit of manual magic, all courtesy of "The Swap."
Thanks to all my friends who helped me and supported me throughout this build! The most notable ones are
- @socalw210s: Him sharing the tidbits that I needed to know, and knowing that he was able to make it work on his S210, really inspired confidence in me in doing the swap myself. So really, big huge thanks to him!
- @carterxcollection: Big thanks to him as well. He helped me a lot in terms of pulling the transmissions from the yard, etc. Any sort of labor-intensive work. Huge help. A lot of long days.
- @quitplayinggameswithmyheart: for helping me find some elusive parts for a great price.
- @_jasonmags: For helping me with the build as well!
- @dapper_drift: For linking me up with FCP Euro! Haha.
- Stock M113 5.4 V8 AMG engine, 3-valves per cylinder, 349hp/391lb-ft of torque
- Secondary cat, resonator, and muffler delete.
- Manual transmission, clutch, flywheel, shift cables, pedal cluster, and all associated parts from 2004 Chrysler Crossfire/Mercedes SLK.
- Stock, removed spring pads
Wheels and tires
- OZ Opera 18x8.5 front and 18x10 rear
- Kenda KR20As, 235/40/18 front and 255/35/18 rear
- Stock, with manual C-Class Mercedes-Benz shift knob and boot
- DEPO LED rear taillights
- W211 AMG rear exhaust tips
- Modified front bumper
Let us know what you think of Alex's manual swapped E55 AMG in the comments below and be sure to check back to our blog for more car features like this one in the future.
FCP Euro's Event Director by day, writer and contributor by night, and wanna-be race car driver on the weekends. Nathan has been working in the VW and Audi performance aftermarket for nearly two decades, and dabbled with Porsche and BMW. He also used to write under the pen-name of Alex Rogan for magazines like Eurotuner, Performance VW, Total 911, and European Car. He has a Cornflower Blue Rabbit Edition GTI daily driver which is surprisingly still mostly stock, and a Mk5 GTI track car which is mostly not. ••• Instagram: @njbrown55