WHEN VIRTUAL BECAME REALITY

 Most of us petrolheads had model cars as kids. A few were lucky enough to have Scalextric cars to whizz off the grid for real while some younger fans got to hone their skills in a virtual race car, thanks to the world of PlayStation. But for one petrolhead that wasn’t enough, says Graeme Hurst, who met an enthusiast who’s been reliving his childhood for the past few years. Only he became so inspired by the popular Sony game he went one step further and built a replica of his favourite race car, so he could experience it for real. On the road.

The Le Mans 24 Hour race has had some epic moments in its history and the Sauber/Mercedes-Benz victory in ’89 is surely one of the standouts. That’s when the twin turbo-charged C9 Group C racer scooped the title with a one-two victory after a record-breaking 400km/h performance on the Mulsanne in qualifying. Not only had the C9 taken the crown from Jaguar, it had proven that Mercedes could out-perform its mighty rivals from Stuttgart, Porsche, who had enjoyed seven back-to-back titles at La Sarthe before Jaguar’s win the year before. And it was also the three-pointed star’s unofficial comeback in competition after a 34-year break following the huge loss of life after the tragic Mercedes crash during the race back in ’55. Of course the C9’s success didn’t stop there; it would go on to win all but one race in the Sports Car Championship that year. So, no surprise – it made its way into the world of Sony PlayStation. And into Johan Ackermann’s living room in Kempton Park.

 

“I was mad about PlayStation from PS1 but the C9 only came out with the fourth version, GT4. That was the first time I raced it and I got hooked,” recalls 62-year-old Johan, a trained aircraft technician with a lifetime of experience supporting professional motorsport teams. “The C9 was back with GT5 and it was even better as then I could race against other drivers around the Nürburgring in an online competition. It lasted a year and I won it by 3.5 seconds.” Johan was so stoked over his win that he started looking into the history of the car. “I bought a book on it and realised that it really is quite iconic. This was Mercedes-Benz’s big return to racing and it was helluva successful:  all four cars entered finished and they were so fast that the organisers added chicanes to the circuit afterwards.” And his enthusiasm soon boiled over.  “I’d always wanted to build something special and I thought, ‘Stuff it, this is the car to build!’”

 

That was May 2011 and although Johan had assisted in fabricating parts for racing cars run by the likes of the late Tony Viana and Michael Briggs, he’d not built a car from scratch. Certainly not one for which detailed drawings weren’t available. But that didn’t stop him. “I bought a 1:32 Scalextric model of a C9 and I had the basic dimensions from the book,” explains Johan. “There were also hundreds of photos on the internet.” Without exact plans a tool room copy wasn’t really an option and, in any case, cost-wise it needed to be based on off-the-shelf mechanical componentry, which came thanks to a charitable relationship.

“I wanted it to be a proper Mercedes but I didn’t have the money for all the bits,” says Johan, who clearly has a few connections who believe in his technical skills. He went to see Ross from CJ Autos in Edenvale and said, “I can afford the materials but I don’t have enough money for all the mechanicals. Give me a front and rear suspension – stuff that you normally throw away – and let me start. If you like what you see then you can give me the bits I need but if I make a hash of it then tell me ‘Sorry, go and buy your own stuff’.” He agreed and it paid off. “I got half-way with the chassis and he said, ‘Just come and take what you want.’ I was very lucky – they gave me every single Merc part on this car,” says Johan.

And those bits are quite varied. “I used W202 C-class front and rear suspension because it’s all steel so I knew I could modify it all easily and make it adjustable. The suspension is helluva low on the C9 and the W202 front suspension doesn’t have struts so I could make it as low as I needed.” Steering came courtesy of a Mercedes power steering box, mounted in the middle to enable a central driving position.

Although Johan was keen on making his Le Mans racer the same size as the original (his car has a near-identical wheelbase at 2.7m), opting to use C class bits resulted in it being about 120mm narrower (the original is almost 2m wide) but that has made it easier to park and garage. “I should’ve used S class bits as that would’ve allowed it to be wider, but you learn as you go.”

And the engine? “It’s a V6 from a W220 S320,” explains Johan. “The original has a V8 but I was worried about not having enough cockpit space with a longer engine.” However, to make it a bit more authentic, Johan plumbed in two massive turbo chargers, T3 units rebuilt with Garratt internals. The manual gearbox is from a W124 300E. “It has a long fifth gear and it was also one of the last Merc boxes with a mechanical linkage for the gear lever, so I knew I could modify it to run forward to the cockpit.” The only slight snag is that the shift pattern is reversed, with first gear forward, closest to the driver.

The ‘box is coupled directly (via a doughnut coupling that Johan had fabricated) to a 300E differential, with the drive shafts running into the C class hubs with spacers between them and the wheels to allow massive discs and calipers off a mighty S600. Sticking to one marque for all the parts paid off as a lot of it is compatible although some fabrication was necessary, such as mating the S320 engine with the earlier 300E gearbox. “The bolt holes are different so I made up an adaptor plate but the spacing is right.” The S320’s ring gear was replaced with a bespoke flywheel while Johan had a customised clutch plate made for the job. “I used the centre of a 300E clutch plate with the outer piece of a racing button clutch to give it some feel – a standard button clutch would’ve been too hard to use.”

But what about the chassis? That was all fabricated with a cut-off saw and MIG welder, with the frame starting from simple box-section tubing cut to size and welded up on the garage floor. Once Johan had flat base for the car he fabricated the necessary suspension pick up points and a roll cage before tackling the actual body, although not in the way most kit car builders would follow. “I had a lot of mates asking how I was going to do the body. ‘Are you doing a plug and a mould?’ I said: No, by the time I’ve done a plug and a mould I’ll be out of money!” Instead Johan opted to ‘shape’ the car using flat bar curved into shape.

“I built a skeleton frame for the back, the mid-section and the nose,” explains Johan. “And then I covered it in cardboard and a resin mixture.” Cardboard? Yes, you read that correctly! “I bought loads of 4mm corrugated cardboard and used a layer of chop strand fibreglass with diluted resin. It works just like honeycomb and is strong and cheap!” Section by section, Johan’s C9 slowly took shape – all by eye, based on photos in the book and, of course, his 1:32 Scalextric model. No surprise that the progress involved a lot of trial and error. “After doing the whole body I realised I was 60mm too low and it looked like a Lola.” Johan’s solution was to add a layer of 60mm foam on the top surfaces and re-apply his ‘honeycomb’.

Hours of careful finishing followed before it could be sprayed in silver in Johan’s garage – he hung up curtains and installed a factory extraction fan to create a spray booth. And some very careful detailing ensued with Johan even carefully replicating the AEG sponsor stickers.

He was equally fastidious when it came to the interior which differs from the simple finishes of a race car in the interests of road use. “It’s got a heads up display that gives you speed, engine revs and temperature and a separate screen that monitors tyre temperature as there’s no spare.” The gadgetry doesn’t end there as Johan – mindful of the lack of rear vision and the car’s delicate rear – wired in park distance control and a reversing camera. The dashboard is finished in a Pagani Zonda-like pod look, only in this case it boasts the same cardboard resin composition as the exterior but finished in a veneer of carbonfibre.

With the body finished Johan got busy with fitting it out and wiring up the engine, which was a challenge as opting to run a pair of turbochargers necessitated up-rating the fuelling. “I had to run much bigger injectors – 750cc instead of 350cc – and had the ignition system re-wired with special modules to run the S320’s dual plug set up.” The electronics – and the professional widening of the 18in wheels from a S600 – are the only aspects that Johan outsourced. His efforts to tweak the engine a bit paid off nicely. “The standard S320 engine is around 145kW but with just 0.5 bar of boost mine makes 230kW yet it’s very reliable – you can drive it to Cape Town and back, no problem.” That’s way off the original but plenty of grunt for a car that weighs just 1100kg when on the road.  Ah, yes … the road … and the million dollar question: How on earth did he get it registered?

“When I started the car I wanted to do it as a car for the track. And then a friend building a Lotus 7 at the time said: ‘Why don’t you put it on the road?’ I said: You’re  crazy! They’ll never let me do it! Then I started finding out and a guy in the Merc club gave me a contact for an ex-cop who does it for a living …. brings in cars from Japan and so on … all by the book, and he said it was possible.”

The process kicked off with a Letter of Authority from the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications, which was issued after some motivation as the car is clearly a one-off and doesn’t need crash testing. With that in hand Johan could apply for the C9 replica’s chassis to be stamped and the details entered into eNatis (SA’s vehicle registration system). After that it needed police clearance – to check that everything was in order with all the scrap parts it contained – and a roadworthy before it could be registered.

The whole process took about two months and the car sailed through the roadworthy. “It’s got more than a normal car – it’s got a hydraulic hand brake, a roll cage and crazy brakes. They couldn’t fault anything,” recalls Johan who spent 16 months in all building the car and a further two months fine-tuning its set up. That was three years ago and he’s since spent time refining his C9’s looks. “The thing I battled with the most by far was the roof profile. I must have done it about six times during the build and I still wasn’t happy. The problem is when you’ve finished building the car and it’s all sprayed up it’s easy to spot when the shape’s wrong. But when you’re building it, it’s got no colour and there are patches of this and that and so it’s hard to see what it looks like even when you stand back in your garage.”

The roof would remain a problem for Johan who was embarrassed about it. “I kept thinking that I needed to find out what was wrong with the roof as it was driving me crazy … if I stop somewhere, I’m embarrassed.” It was only when he got his hands on a more detailed 1:24-scale model of a C9 that Johan could see the problem. “I measured from the centre of the wheel to the front. The windscreen was 100mm too far forward so I cut the roof off and shortened it and remade the door and the windscreen.“

Since first finishing it, Johan’s C9 has done more than 12 000kms on the road and has been an eye-catching regular at various shows, most recently at this year’s Cars in the Park in Pietermaritzburg – a 1 000km round trip on which he was stopped four times by the cops, who weren’t convinced that it was legal until they checked the licence disc. Of course it can be made illegal very quickly. “I’ve had it on a dyno and it pulls 254km/h in fourth gear at 5400rpm,” adds Johan, who reckons it’s ultra smooth on the road. “There’s a little bit of vibration at around 90km/h from the rubber coupling but when you’re cruising at 180-200km/h it’s silk smooth.”

Would he build one again? Absolutely!  He’s already got a 1:18 scale model of his next PlayStation favourite:  the BMW V12 LMR that won Le Mans in ’99, which he plans to replicate. And it has the bonus of being a two-seater so he can share the driving pleasure, although the project will see Johan switch marque allegiance as he plans to make it as exact (in spirit) as possible by using the V12 engine from a 750i E38 saloon. Two Le Mans racers in his garage?  Looks like PlayStation may have lost one of its biggest fans for good!

              


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