Driving This LS-Powered Mercedes 300SEL Icon Restomod, an Engineer’s Dream

This LS9-powered beast weighs less than a new BMW M3 while making more torque.

byPeter Nelson| PUBLISHED Dec 2, 2022 11:00 AM
Driving This LS-Powered Mercedes 300SEL Icon Restomod, an Engineer’s Dream
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In the ever-growing industry of restomods, one company that's been at it for a long time and has produced some truly awesome automobiles is Icon 4x4. Known for its Toyota Land Cruiser-inspired FJ, Chevy Split-Window-inspired TR, and Ford Bronco-inspired BR builds, Icon offers two additional project lines: the Reformer and Derelict.

The Derelict design philosophy stays true to the car's roots and purpose, while also modernizing various systems and crafting together components that look factory fresh. It's vintage yet modern, old school yet new school. They update the formula rather than rewrite it.

Recently, Icon completed a Derelict build of a 1971 Mercedes-Benz 300SEL, and it's quite a comprehensively under-the-radar project to behold. They recently invited me to their facility in Chatsworth, California to hang out with owner Jonathan Ward, learn all about this substantially prepped vintage sedan, and take it for a spin on area streets, highways, and twisty canyon roads. Here's why it was such a perception-warping experience.

Icon 4x4 Derelict Mercedes-Benz 300SEL Review Specs

  • Price: Contact Icon for inquiries
  • Powertrain: 6.2-liter supercharged LS9 V8 | 4-speed automatic transmission | rear-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 472 at the wheels
  • Torque: 500 lb-ft at the wheels
  • Curb weight: ~3,700 pounds
  • 0-60 mph: Somewhere south of 4 seconds (est.)
  • Seating Capacity: 4
  • Quick take: So much attention to detail and performance capability.

Luxuriously Simple Design

In the case of the 1971 Mercedes 300SEL, one word to sum up the build is confident. Between its sleeper appearance, stock-resembling interior, high-quality touch points, and the way it drives, it's quite confident on the road, and the sum of its parts has an air of assured quality and capability. Its low ride height and 18-inch, one-piece custom machined billet wheels give away some of its competencies, but they don't look out of place and still match the car's original aesthetic.

In keeping with a key feature of the Derelict series, the big Benz's coat of paint isn't some deep, five-figure glossy job that reflects our empirical world like a downtown skyscraper. Instead, it's quite original looking—despite possessing a lot of fade, it looks this way as a sort of ode to the era in which it came from. The paint tells a story on its own, why sand it off and start over? It's also quite handsome when contrasted by its original-resembling wheels and chrome accouterments.

As someone who's never driven any kind of old Mercedes before, Icon could've fooled me with how they outfitted the 300SEL's interior—it looks entirely factory. The shop utilized what looks like materials that were salvaged from the depths of a warehouse in Mercedes' home state of Baden-Württemberg, and included restored wood trim throughout. The fit, finish, and feel is second to none, and while it all looks like a well-kept time machine, it smells like any brand-new, high-tier luxury car's leather-rich interior. I also fit reasonably well in it at six-foot-three with long legs.

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The center console, while OEM-looking, was stereolithography-printed and vacuum wrapped to give it the rich texture and sturdiness it possesses. The original stereo was modified to control a hidden, high-quality modern audio system, and the instrument cluster is a work of art.

The front and rear seats were completely rebuilt, then every touchpoint, including every single piece of switchgear, was devoted time to ensure it had a feel of utmost quality. Even the backlit gear selector panel on the center console, while looking like something that was assembled back in the day, was entirely handcrafted from scratch.

The Business End of Things

Underneath the Mercedes 300SEL's handsome exterior, and on the other side of its well-appointed interior, is a chassis that'd get any race car engineering nerd's solemn nod of approval.

Icon used its experience in modular building here by giving the 300SEL similar equipment that other builds get. It possesses a custom-built frame by Art Morrison with tubular control arms, an Art Morrison-assembled Dana 60 rear differential with fully independent rear suspension, Strange coil-over suspension, and hydraulically powered rack-and-pinion steering. To reign in the speed, they used slotted and vented 13.78-inch front and 13.35-inch rear rotors, six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers with titanium hardware, stainless steel lines, and high-performance fluid coursing through them via hydroboost assistance.

Dropped in at the front of the chassis—completely aft of the front wheels—is a supercharged 6.2-liter LS9 V8 bolted up to a hand-assembled 4L85E automatic transmission. This gearbox is a common GM truck transmission that was disassembled and upgraded to handle the LS9's high output without breaking so much as a single bead of sweat. Speaking of output, it puts down 472 horsepower and 500 lb-ft of torque to the rear tires—in a total package that weighs just 3,700 pounds. Hell, yes.

Icon 4x4

The attention to detail doesn't stop there, either. Making the Merc's presence known is a  custom 304 stainless steel tig-welded dual exhaust with hand-built headers by Deeds Performance. Then, a Speartech engine harness was selected as the engine's nervous system, whereas Aviaid-modified dry-sump oiling was added for optimal efficiency and protection. Then, an HGM Compushift transmission controller ensures a seamless connection between foot and tire. There's entirely custom engine plumbing and wiring throughout, featuring XRP HS-79 hose and AN fittings, as well as stainless steel hard lines. It's all an engineer's fantasy and is as high-performance as it is aesthetically pleasing.

What's particularly neat about Icon’s parts sourcing, is that they use a lot of local SoCal fabrication and aerospace companies to outfit their projects. This ensures optimum quality control. Plus, in true SoCal hotrod fashion, so much talent is sourced locally.

Finally, Ward paid special attention to accessibility and serviceability. "My clients are all over the planet, so we try to use trusted, high-traffic, proven systems with which we have proven track records," he said. "We also provide full CAD drawings to the client of color codes, part locations, relays, fuse ratings, etc. We even provide backup copies of ECU mapping and transmission programming. Plus a non-encrypted spreadsheet of every part that went into the vehicle, including manufacturer sourcing. That's all on a memory stick attached to the car's key."

Despite much of its plumbing and wiring being tucked away, Icon made it easy to service the Mercedes' fueling system, perform regular oil changes (remember, it's a more complex dry sump system) and air filter cleanings, all by installing strategically placed access panels. This includes an entirely custom and well-insulated air box that gets an uninhibited flow of cool air.

Going For a Spin

Despite spending plenty of time going over the 300SEL's specs with Ward, my mind was still blown over how well the big beast drove, including how it put up with a tight, twisty canyon road. 

Although, is the term “big beast” even applicable here? Tipping the scales at 3,700 pounds, it's actually lighter than a new BMW M3 while making more torque. Not only that, but because its body is from a bygone era, it's comparatively small parked next to any of its modern counterparts. But still, the appearance of a somewhat-boat-like old Merc no way previewed how well this thing tackled twisties—low ride height, 18-inch wheels and all.

Icon 4x4

While I sat shotgun early in our drive, Ward swung the SEL hard into a tight, downhill right-hander at an impressive speed, and the car just turned and went with it, with nary a peep from any of its tires and not a hint of body roll. Then, a spirited corner-exit onto a proceeding short straight was equally full of undramatic, confident grip. Though, plenty of longitudinal G force.

When I took the wheel, the whole setup felt bizarre at first—never mind the archaic Mercedes seat belt design—but in a very good way.

It retains the gigantic, large-diameter thin-rimmed steering wheel, but features a normally twitchy 12:1 ratio. The combination of big-wheel-fast-ratio worked out perfectly—it had just enough lock to not feel boat-like and carved through tight San Fernando Valley tarmac with ease. Its action was incredibly light, which is fitting for the car's original era, but an upgraded, modern hydraulic rack gives it more character and flavor than most modern sports cars' electric racks could ever hope to have.

Then, it's astounding how light the nose felt—the car's handling is overall immensely neutral. Handling is sharp but in no way darty. Confident and comfortable, and in no way vague. Once you peer under the hood, you realize this is partly due to the LS9 sitting right up against the firewall, not unlike its modern GT3-racing relatives. Plus, there were no adverse side effects here—my shoes didn't melt to the floor and no unsavory mechanical chatter made its way into the cabin. Just the perfect amount of supercharger whine mixed with a big V8 growl.

Icon 4x4

In contrast to the steering's lightness was a very firm and confident brake pedal. It was a little vague at first, but that was simply due to the pads and rotors not quite being up to temperature yet. Once they were, the pedal feel topped most modern sports cars' and was surprisingly easy to modulate. I dare say—and I know this is a hell of a statement—that it was more McLaren-like than not. Yes, it's focused hardware sourced from motorsports, but you just don't expect such a sensation in a '70s Benz with some missing clearcoat.

Then there was its heart. The LS9 V8 was a hell of a choice and I'm glad it was made. Sure, a turbocharged counterpart by AMG might seem a tad more fitting, but my God, the noise that this single-cam aluminum lump emits is enveloping and so thoroughly rad. "We've used LS9s in several projects, and in reality the newer LTs were, dare I say, built by pencil pusher mandates," Ward said of this glorious powerplant. "The LS9 was the last of an era where the engineers were absolutely geeking out and trying to make it as best they could. I'm sad because I had a little horde of LS9s and I fear this might be my last one."

The SEL was loud and immensely fast under wide-open throttle, but power delivery was anything but insane. Instead, the way power came on mirrored the SEL's original iron lump—it's meant to waft into the power range and steam along with confidence, rather than rage up to redline and make wheeling it along without endless oversteer a mighty task. Though Ward said that traction control was on—when it's off, he said the thing will lay down epically long 11s.

The track-minded performance nut in me would happily trade the period-correct-resembling leather chairs for a Recaro Profi SPG fixed back racing seat, roll bar, and a racing harness in a heartbeat. I so badly want to know what it's like to push this thing to the ragged edge of grip, and I bet it'd absolutely stun. Though, by that same token, I admire how fun the thing was as-is. I was a little surprised by how well I stayed planted in its barely bolstered seats—it's truly a testament to the SEL's lack of body roll and overall athletics. This is just so damn capable and sure-footed.

Though, if Ward ever considers crafting together a track-ready, AMG-Pig-tribute variant, I hope it comes to fruition.

Icon 4x4

An Unforgettable Morning

Despite only having the better part of a morning to become acquainted with the Icon Derelict 1971 Mercedes 300SEL, it was by far one of the most memorable drives I've ever taken. Its main, overarching vibe can be summed up as high attention to detail bolstered by pure confidence, both in functionality and in longitudinal/lateral g capability.

Another cool part of the drive was that there was still some work to be done—Icon typically drives their projects 1,800 to 2,000 miles before delivering them to customers. "The reality of handbuild cars—even if they're CAD-engineered and built to a high level—there's always going to be a little chirp, rattle, vibration, or something that can be improved or dialed in," Ward said. "The reality is if it's going to fail, I want it to fail on me or my team before the client gets it." The 300SEL had a very faint drivetrain noise that he'd narrowed down to needing a very small driveshaft adjustment, and it sounded like tackling it was high on the to-do list for that afternoon. This is a very minute detail in the grand scheme of things, and considering how much went into its cobbling together, you could tell that Icon's build recipe is tried and true, as everything about this Benz was so freaking good.

Whoever takes possession of the Derelict 300SEL will have one well-sorted, immensely capable, comfortable, and sense-of-occasion-rich vintage Mercedes-Benz.

Got a tip or question for the author? Contact them directly: peter.nelson@thedrive.com