Heavyweight in disguise
The German term ‘Leichtbau’ roughly translates to lightweight – or light built, to be accurate. Apart from half the interior and most of the damping material missing, there is hardly anything lightweight about this Brabus tuned Mercedes-Benz 190 E though. It is actually more of a heavyweight in disguise, looking to fight anything that even dares to glance in its direction and prepared to punch well above its weight.
Recaro Racing Seats
When setting off at the Brabus GmbH headquarters in Bottrop, the 3.6S doesn’t feel very different from any other 190 E. There is more engine and road noise coming into the cabin and the suspension is firmer, but at regular speeds in everyday traffic it all feels pretty normal. The lightweight Recaro racing seats with 4-point harnesses are a clear giveaway, as is the sound from the Yokohama semi slicks when coming into contact with road markings, squeaking like wet sneakers on a wooden floor. Once on an on-ramp to a de-restricted stretch of Autobahn, the accelerator goes to the floor and the bright red baby Benz shows its potential. From 4,800 rpm the full force of 365 Nm provides a proper push in the back, and in an instant we are in the left lane looking at 230 km/h. A local commuter, clearly not using his mirrors, brutally blocks us from reaching the top speed of 265 km/h, but the way this car accelerates above the 200 km/h leaves no reason for doubts about that claimed top end. We give it a few more tries, but traffic is just too heavy and we exit the Autobahn, looking for one of the many old factories in this area to use as a background for our photoshoot.
At the photo location, I walk around the car with owner Sven Gramm and it becomes clear that the least visible areas tell the actual story. Next to the Recaro seats and 4-point seat belts there is a roll-cage where the rear seats used to be, but under the bonnet and in the boot is even more evidence of the extreme personality of this Leichtbau. In the front the large straight six seems to be wedged between the bulkhead and radiator and on the right of the red valve cover reading Brabus 3.6S, is a custom-made exhaust manifold looking like a family of anacondas in deep sleep. In front of the radiator are two extra coolers, one for the engine oil and one for the gearbox oil. At the back, Gramm points out a detail that made quite an impact when the car was released in 1989. ‘We needed a third oil cooler to stop the rear axle from overheating at high speeds, but we could only fit it here’, says Gramm, pointing at the small heat exchanger tucked away under the rear spoiler. Two oil hoses, to and from the thermostat, go straight through the otherwise empty luggage compartment, completely stripped from sound deadening and carpets.
We needed a third oil cooler to stop the rear axle from overheating at high speeds…
With over 130 kilos of ballast ripped out of the car, the big bore 3.6S propels the 190 E into the speed domain of the BMW M5 and Porsche 928 S4, but sprints quicker than these two Germans. On that level it could even compete with the 911 Turbo. For those who thought the bare inside was a bit too much, Brabus offered a luxury alternative with four seats, leather upholstery and basically anything the customer could ask for. In that case the car would still be recognizable as a 3.6S, by the three gauges in the center console, indicating operating temperatures of the gearbox, engine and rear axle.
That luxury conversion was exactly what a customer ordered on the bright red show car in 1989. The original Leichtbau does not exist anymore then, and Brabus’ PR director and 25-year veteran of the company Sven Gramm, was left with only one solution: ‘I wanted to have the Leichtbau as it was featured on shows and in magazines back in the days, so the only way to get a car like that was to build it. Every part of it has been replicated according to the original build sheets, and if we could not make it in our factory, we tried to find the original supplier. The project took months to complete and soaked up countless hours of Gramm’s spare time, but also of his friends and co-workers time. ‘Everybody was extremely proud of the end result, including company founder Bodo Buschmann’, smiles Gramm when we are back on the road.
Everybody was extremely proud of the end result, including company founder Bodo Buschmann
‘The engine is also exactly as it was, so we replaced the standard M 103.940 from the 190 E 2.6 with a three-liter M 103.980 from the W124 E-Class and W126 S-Class. Both bore and stroke were then raised from 88,5 x 80,25 to 92 x 90 millimeters, but just enlarging this lump to 3.6 liters was not enough. Stronger and lighter pistons were added, as well as a different air filter and a newly designed exhaust system to reach 272 PS and 365 Nm of torque. Staggering numbers in the late eighties, but nowadays still very impressive in car weighing not even 1,300 kilograms. Curiosity if Gramm ever secretly admired the iconic 190 E 2.5-16 Evo II homologation special, is met with a very straightforward reaction: ‘I’m not really interested in an Evo II, since it is less powerful and slower than my car. Maybe I would consider one with an original DTM engine, but that’s not an option of course.’
With turbo technology and electronics taking over both the automotive industry and the tuning business, honest craftsmanship and traditional metalworking are getting pushed to the background further and further. All the more refreshing it is then, to drive a prime example from an era long gone, flaunting its incredible competence with pride. What makes it even more impressive, is the fact that this 3.6S Leichtbau was built only a few years ago, proving that Brabus still has the skills and knowledge to make cars faster according to respected traditions. So, old wisdom might dictate that you should never meet your heroes, but in this particular case my childhood hero turned out to be even better than I could have imagined.