When choosing a blank canvas to make your automotive dreams come true, it's sometimes like working in the family business: It's not so much that you choose the career, but the career chooses you. Such is the case for John Stratidis and his '96 Mercedes Benz C220.
The 21 year-old is the restaurant manager in the family-owned NYC landmark, The Cozy Soup 'n Burger. He's been working there since he was 12, and helping out famous patrons like Ben Stiller, Madonna and Lil' Jon was bound to make an impression. Like the burgers served there, his choice in automobile was never going to be subtle. Yet the big, black Benz was not his first choice. "It just happened," he explained. "The GTI I was looking at had a bent chassis. It was the only one there that day, so we ended up picking this." said John.
He wasted no time making changes. "I've always been into cars from a young age. You know, it starts off with the Matchbox cars when you're young and builds up into racing remote control cars. I got the C-Class when I was 17 years old and started modifying it little by little. I had my parents yelling at me 'Don't waste your money. Don't waste your money," he said. However, it wasn't long before the car began to take shape. "Now they look at it and don't believe what it's become," he added.
Most of the initial modifications were cosmetic, but it wasn't haphazard. After studying mechanical engineering and automotive design for two years, John knew the best results would come from careful planning. "I did all the sketching by hand, no Photoshop," he clarified.
The basis of the changes started with an AMG C36 body kit, consisting of a front bumper, skirts and rear bumper, all of which John sourced individually. Auto Couture widened the front fenders, while a modified Sarona roof spoiler and a specially imported Schataz trunk spoiler were also gathered. The task of painting them to match the jet-black Benz was given to Daytona Cosmo Car of Queens, NY. "The fenders gave me a hard time. We had them cut and roll them to fit the 9.5-inch rear wheel, and we added a 10mm spacer to bring the tire out even more," he said.
Mirrors from a W210 E-Class were swapped in place of the stock items. Surprisingly they bolted on with no problems, but John made a few changes to ensure they worked as originally intended. "I took the motor out and put my W202 motor in the W210 housing. I did all the wiring myself," he said proudly. In fact, John does as much of his own work as he can. "Unless it's really difficult, I believe if you want to do it right, do it yourself," he added.
When asked about his favorite element of the bodywork, John answers without hesitation, "The hood looks gorgeous. I look at it like a work of art. You can draw something and make it look good on a piece of paper, but that hood is like metal sculpture. It screams at you. And there's only one in the world like that."
The customized hood was created by taking the stock C220 piece and fusing the hood grooves from a Mercedes SLK. The result is a unique and muscular look. "It makes it look like the car's on steroids," he added. The labor and paint on the hood was carried out by Salamis Auto Center & Bodyshop, who also handled painting duties under the hood.
A Mercedes S600 grille was also painted black and installed, along with Euro projector headlights and matching clear corner markers. Hella 9000k HID lamps have been fitted to both the head- and foglights to ensure every NYC pothole can be seen when navigating its dark streets. A set of tasteful LED tail lamps has been added, giving a splash of color to the stark rear end. The 15% window tint gives the baby Benz a "mini-limo" feel as it moves through a sea of yellow taxis.
The effect of the extensive bodywork would be lost if the wheel choice wasn't up to scratch, but John is already on his third set. "When something new comes out I must have it," John confesses. Currently the C220 rides on 18x8.5" front and 18x9.5" rear Brabus Monoblock 6 wheels, with 225/40 and 245/40 Yokohama tires, respectively. The 10mm spacers he mentioned have been fitted front and rear to ensure the fenders are completely filled. "The next set of wheels? Probably HREs or iForged, maybe even BBS, you never know," he mentioned.
Bringing the car down a few inches and controlling the handling is a set of Vogtland springs and Bilstein shocks. Eibach sway bars have been added and while these upgrades are fairly simple, the results are solid. "The drop is nice and the car handles awesome," John assured us. Coilovers would already be on the car but, as he lamented, "they don't make 'em."
With such an aggressive look, the C220's stock 147hp was not going to cut it. "If I were to go back I'd get either the C36 or C43 but I've put so much time and money into this car that I decided to stay with it," John said.
To overcome the power deficit, John initially purchased a supercharger, but it never made it to the car. "I'm glad I didn't go with the supercharger because it wouldn't have given me that much. With a supercharger all you can do is put pulleys on it. It's not going to give you as much as a turbo kit," he said.
So John picked up a secondhand turbo kit. Based around an HKS 25/35 ball-bearing turbo with a custom exhaust manifold, the kit was not a simple bolt-on affair. The first order of business was to remove the Supersprint header to make room for the custom 3" downpipe and exhaust system. The two OEM catalytic converters were ditched in favor of a single, high-flow item, while a Supersprint rear muffler keeps the volume to a minimum as well as providing a great sound.
To ensure proper fueling with the positive manifold pressure, some changes were in order. "It had a fifth injector but I didn't want it. I wanted to do it properly so got four bigger injectors," John said. Not happy with the shop he originally enlisted to complete the turbo install, John had the tuning finished by Joe Soltys at Turbo Joe.
Joe kept the stock ECU, and along with the larger injectors, fitted a bigger 3" MAF to trick the ECU into providing the correct amount of fuel under boost. All of the intercooler piping was re-done in polished aluminum, with an HKS front-mount intercooler and polished HKS blow-off valve. A 3" K&N conical filter ensures the air supply is clean and plentiful. The motor retains its stock compression, and with boost set to 9psi John estimates power is over 300hp. "Joe made the car run sweet. With the turbo you feel so much more power. Once you hear that turbo spool and the blow-off valve working, it's no joke. This is a fun car to drive," John enthused.
The combination of a Ferrari red valve cover and polished intercooler piping really stands out. John puts it best when he says, "It's like when you open up the jewelry box and see the ring right there."
"I really want to get more power from it, but right now my biggest concern is the transmission," he mentioned. All the additional power is currently sent to the ground via a stock four-speed auto, and although it's not given any problems so far, John isn't taking any chances. "I'm looking for a five-speed manual from a '99 SLK to do a tranny swap. I'd love to do that," he added.
With twice the power of the original, it would be foolish to leave the brakes alone. John hasn't cut any corners, with a 13" StopTech brake kit up front, and drilled rotors on the rear. "The car stops on a dime," John confirmed.
To prevent the unavoidable NYC traffic jams driving him crazy, it's only natural that a number of interior upgrades have also taken place. An AEM wideband 02 sensor, pyrometer (exhaust gas temp gauge) and a boost gauge reside in a custom A-pillar gauge pod. "I got an Integra pillar and molded it, epoxyed it, sanded it down and wrapped it in suede. It took many hours to make but it came out nice," he said.
The stereo was upgraded with a selection of Sony, Pioneer and Rockford Fosgate equipment, including a 7" in-dash Sony head unit and two 5.6" screens in the headrests. Additional work has been carried out by local legend Mitsiwa Auto Custom, and, as John puts it, "I'm obsessed with the results."
The final interior touches include a selection of OEM Mercedes parts, consisting of C43 AMG door panels, steering wheel and a number of chrome accents.
With all of the time and effort - not to mention the money - that's been put into this C-Class, you can be sure he's careful when he takes it on the town. "It's a show car, it never sees rain or snow. If the sun's not shining, it doesn't come out," John says. "I do the detailing myself. And when I'm tired from work I can wash the car and it relaxes me. It's like a second girlfriend," he added.
What does the future hold? Much like the Cozy Soup 'n Burger, John plans on making his Benz a New York institution. "My kids are going to see this car."
Tech SpecJohn StratidisLocation: Astoria, NYOccupation: Restaurant Manager
1996 Mercedes-Benz C220Engine: 2.2 Liter i-4, stock compression, with a custom HKS 25/35 ball bearing turbo kit on custom turbo manifold, HKS intercooler and polished BOV, larger injectors, custom intake, 3" MAF housing, 3" exhaust with high-flow cat and Supersprint muffler, K&N air filter, stock ECU, painted valve cover and engine bay
Drivetrain: stock four-speed automatic
Suspension: Bilstein dampers, Vogtland springs, Eibach sway bars
Brake: StopTech Big Brake kit with 13" rotors and four-piston calipers, cross-drilled rear rotors, upgraded pads
Wheels & Tires: 18x8.5" front, 18x9.5" rear Brabus Monoblock 6 wheels, black centers, polished lips, 10mm spacers, 225/40 and 245/40-18 Yokohama AVS ES 100 tires
Exterior: OEM AMG C36 body kit, Auto Couture wide front fenders, custom fabricated Sarona roof spoiler, Schataz trunk spoiler, modified hood with SLK hood grooves, S600 grille painted black, modified W210 E-Class mirrors, Euro projector headlights, clear corners and LED tail lights, Hella 9000k HID head- and foglights, 15% tint, Mercedes-Benz flat badge, de-badged rear
Interior: custom pillar pod with boost gauge, pyrometer (EGT) and AEM wideband 02 sensor, chrome rings in cluster, chrome center for Burrwood shifter, AMG C43 door panels, AMG door sills and pedals, AMG engraved v2 steering wheel
Audio/visual: Sony flip-out head unit with 7" screen, ten Pioneer speakers, two Rockford Fosgate 10" subwoofers, 2 Rockford amplifiers, two 5.6" TVs, DVD player, rear-mounted camera
Thanks: George and Tommy at Daytona Cosmo Car, Sanders and Albert at The Wheel Supply, Shawn, Kenny, Bobby, Claudio, Moon, Joe at Mitsiwa Auto Custom, Paul, Mike, Terry and Dino at Salamis Auto Center & Bodyshop, John at German Autocare, club202.com, Joe at Turbo Joe, Walter and Dave at MercedesBenzparts