Mr. Rogers' Mercedes Hybrid
Driving The Ultimate Capitalist Tool
If you could do anything in the world, what would be your ultimate adventure? Jim Rogers answered that question with a three-year, 152,000-mile odyssey traveling through 116 countries. He and companion Paige Parker drove a specially built hybrid vehicle that combined Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon sport utility running gear with the bright yellow body from a Mercedes-Benz SLK convertible. Their trip took them across China and Mongolia, Russia and parts of the former Soviet Union, Europe, Asia and Japan, Australia, much of Africa and South, Central and North America. Along the way the pair crossed war zones, ate silkworms, dog and snake, and they even got married during their stay in England. Clearly, a trip of this magnitude required a very special kind of vehicle, and recently I had a chance to drive their unique Mercedes-Benz GLK.
The trip came from Rogers' desire to do something dramatic to mark the turn of the millenium. Seven years earlier, during a two-year-long adventure, Rogers rode a BMW motorcycle around the world and wrote a best-selling book, "Investment Biker," about that trip. This time he wanted to make a much longer trip and realized this would require the relative comfort of an automobile. Rogers, originally from Alabama and transplanted via Yale to Manhattan, hadn't owned a car since 1968, and that had been a VW Beetle. We aren't talking about a dyed-in-the-wool car enthusiast here, but still he wanted something sporty and stylish. Although he had never driven a four-wheel-drive vehicle before, he figured he would also need that and a lot of ground clearance to make it around the world. Rogers quickly found that the four-wheel-drive sports car that he wanted for his adventure simply didn't exist, so he set out to find a way to have one built.
Rogers needed a vehicle that was rugged and reliable and that could be serviced anywhere. His first thought was to merge the chassis and running gear of a Toyota light truck with a Porsche Cabriolet body.
This was the idea that Rogers brought to Gerhard Steinle, the former president of the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design studio in California and more recently head of his own Prisma Design International. He quickly saw an opportunity to build a vehicle based upon vehicles made by his former employer, merging Mercedes-Benz DNA from the SLK sports car with the rugged chassis and diesel engine of a G-series 4x4. Miraculously, the wheelbase and length of the SLK sports car designed in the 1990s and built in Germany matched perfectly to the short-wheelbase version of the Gelndewagen that was originally designed in the 1970s and built in Austria.
Mercedes-Benz USA, Inc. was presented with the outlandish plan and came on board with a donor SLK 230 and G-Wagon as well as a second long-wheelbase G-Wagon that would be used for support on the journey. The actual Frankenstein-like joining of the two vehicles was entrusted to Metalcrafter's Inc., a well-known West Coast body fabricator with numerous auto-show cars to its credit. The hitch was time. Metalcrafters had only three months to build the hybrid if Rogers and Parker were to begin their millenium odyssey on January 1, 1999.
The most difficult part of the project was getting the modern microprocessor-driven electrical system of the SLK body to work with the older, less sophisticated drivetrain and engine management system used in the G-Wagon. It finally took some 11th-hour expert help from a Mercedes-Benz electronics wizard to work out a way for the myriad of computers and electrical systems to communicate with one another.
Adding style and another level of practicality to Rogers' expedition was a special two-wheel utility trailer designed by Gerhard Steinle and echoing the styling of the SLK. Rogers then had just enough time to test drive the Sunburst Yellow rig to New York before loading it onto a ship for the start of his trip, in Iceland on New Year's Day.
The bright yellow hybrid and its custom trailer look strangely out of proportion, like something a child might play with-the vehicle sits a foot higher than a stock SLK. Huge 265/60R-18 Bridgestone Dueler tires on original Mercedes-Benz G500 7.5x18 alloy wheels dominate the styling, and all four fenders are flared to accommodate the meaty truck tires. Special matte-black rocker panels and end caps blend the sleek SLK shape to the girder-like G-Wagon frame. The rocker panels each incorporate a step to aid in entry and egress, giving an idea of how high off the ground the body sits.
From waist-level up the vehicle is an SLK, including the ingenious electrically operated folding hardtop roof that can be quickly lowered at the touch of a button to meet Rogers' original requirement of open-air motoring. The interior of the machine is also SLK, right down to stock seats and seatbelts and airbags in the steering wheel and in front of the passenger. The only clue that something is different comes from the stubby four-wheel-drive low-range lever that sticks up behind the driver's right elbow. There are also switches under a cover nearby that can be used to manually lock the front, rear and center differentials when the going gets really tough. Rogers added a satellite phone and used a global positioning satellite navigation system during some parts of the journey, and the standard AM/FM radio was exchanged for a short-wave unit, used mostly to get news from the BBC.
Rogers knew he wanted a diesel engine so he could get fuel in the most remote parts of the world. The 3.0L six-cylinder turbodiesel G-Wagon engine pumps out 177 bhp at 4400 rpm; more importantly, it generates 244 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm to help pull the vehicle's significant mass up, through and over obstacles. Depending upon how it was loaded, the combination of car and trailer weighed more than 5500 lb.
Power and torque is channeled through a Mercedes-Benz five-speed automatic transmission and is delivered to the standard G-series full-time 4wd system, including the three differential locks. Cramming the large inline engine under the short SLK hood required that the firewall between the passenger and engine compartments be moved rearward by several inches to make enough space.
Two fuel tanks give a capacity of 40 gal.; the vehicle and trailer could travel up to 620 miles on a fill-up. Experienced travelers usually incorporate some sort of water separation filter in their fuel system to avoid contamination, but Rogers simply kept the standard G-Wagon filter setup and never had any problems.
Because an SLK is a small car, the trailer was an important part of the plan. With front and rear opening lids, it was used to store 20L of drinking water, a spare tire, spare fuel, and a tent and sleeping bags. The rear luggage compartment of the SLK carried clothing and personal gear and a comprehensive first aid kit. The long-wheelbase G300 support vehicle carried a videographer and a person to maintain the expedition's Web site along with tools, spare parts, four more spare tires and three extra cans of diesel fuel.
The first thing a tall person notices about climbing into Rogers' creation is that you hit your head on the roof. Aside from the shortened footwells, it isn't any smaller inside than a regular SLK, it's just that the vehicle sits so high you are coming at it from a different direction. Once inside, the view is all SLK, exactly as you expect...except when you look out the side windows at a passing SUV and you are eye-to-eye with its driver.
The engine starts right away and settles to a rumbling idle that leaves no doubt a diesel truck engine lives under the gracefully curved SLK hood. Shift the Mercedes-Benz gear lever into Drive, transfer your foot from the brake to the throttle, and with a gentle prod the car rolls slowly away. The throttle is very progressive and the car builds speed in a stately way. It isn't quick, and the driving experience is definitely not that of an SLK; it is almost identical to driving a short-wheelbase G-Series. The biggest difference comes at higher speeds, where the lack of wind noise and superior aerodynamics of the sports car body make cruising at 55 to 65 mph very quiet and comfortable. Steering those big tires is no problem; the G-Wagon's power steering provides plenty of feedback while reducing the effort to an easily manageable level. The ride comfort is surprisingly good, even with the stiff, original G-Wagon springs that Rogers switched to after the custom springs proved too soft.
Vehicles that have been merged together from two others usually feel clunky and uncoordinated and they usually rattle. The GLK, after covering more than 150,000 miles over some of the worst roads on the planet, feels tight and competent, like it is ready to make another lap of the globe. Even the convertible hardtop roof works flawlessly. On rougher roads and on some light off-road travel the car never loses its composure, and the superb ground clearance easily handles obstacles in its path.
As the bright yellow roadster and trailer travel down the highway, people constantly look it over. Its shocking color may have something to do with it, and Rogers credits the bright hue for saving their lives on more than one occasion.
"We wanted it friendly and special," said Rogers. "That's why we picked yellow. Most people have never seen a yellow car. And then when we put the top down, they just knew we had to be from Mars...."
In Saudi Arabia, a sheik was ready to pay Rogers a million dollars for his unique vehicle, inquiring as to which currency he would prefer payment. Rogers politely declines to discuss what it cost to build the vehicle and for the trip. He will admit that the value of the donation of the two G-Wagons and the SLK by Mercedes-Benz amounted to less than the cost of the conversion. Adding in travel, shipping, hotels, fuel and the support crew, it is apparent that the three-year adventure was not inexpensive.
The trip itself was a sort of extended financial field trip. As a recognized financial expert, Rogers wanted to check out firsthand how the global economy was holding up to the pressures of the modern world. Rogers and Parker usually traveled in style, staying in major cities like Moscow for 10 days or more and rarely traveling at night. Rogers described their accommodations as being everything from "...five star to five roach." And with the G-Wagon following along as a support vehicle, help was never far away. The pair were always able to have the vehicle serviced and had minor repairs made either by bush mechanics or by the excellent worldwide Mercedes-Benz service network.
Needless to say, the couple's adventures could easily fill a book. Published by Random House, Rogers' "Adventure Capitalist: The Ultimate Investor's Road Trip" and provides a good account of the joys and sorrows of modern overland adventure travel in a vehicle unlike any other.