Last month we decided to embark on an all Mercedes-Benz 4x4 conversion. We are tearing into our little 2005 118" Sprinter know as the Pita Van. The running gear from a Mercedes ML 4x4 SUV platform uses a 4wd version of the NAG1 transmission, as well as a 2.64:1 low range transfer case. It seemed like we could get a lot of the parts we needed to make the swap happen and still be able to service it with off the shelf Mercedes parts anywhere in the world.
Our craigslist special ML430
We stripped the ML of the front / rear suspension, transmission, t-case, front / rear differentials, front / rear drive shafts and cut out the suspension mounting points of the frame to use as a reference to develop our conversion brackets.
Step one was swapping the 4wd transmission in. We swapped bell housings from the 2wd Sprinter trans onto the 4wd ML trans. We retained the Sprinter torque converter as the diameter of the Sprinter’s flywheel is slightly smaller than that of the 4.3L V8 of the 430.
Built a new transmission cross-member to hold everything in place.
Step two involved removing the front suspension sub frame of the Sprinter and lots of head scratching. We temporarily welded some motor mounts in place and got to work with measuring, drawing and fabricating the conversion brackets needed to get the ML’s front suspension sub-frame in place.
With concept and initial design figured out, a couple hours on the torchmate and welding bench, we had the first stage of a rough bracket sorted out.
With the sub frame bolted in place as low as we could get it and still have adequate room between the differential and oil pan, we could start building upper control arm mounts. Again, careful measurements, lots of head scratching and a couple cuts through the “frame” and we had room to tuck the control arms in place. Matching the OEM geometry of the ML’s suspension, we were able to keep the van at just a 2” lift over stock 2wd ride height. So, 2” lower than a brand new factory 4x4 Mercedes van.
At this point came more tedious measuring, lots of removing brackets, re-installing brackets, test fitting motor mounts and sway bar mounts, measuring for shock placement and clearance. Tons of work, but the end result is a completed bench welded bracket that is basically your ML front conversion all in one piece. Sub frame, upper control arms, motor mount, shock mount and sway bar mount. Everything indexes off of 2 factory sprinter sub frame mounting points so it self-indexes in the correct spot.
Now on to the torsion bar mounts. We're on the fence with the torsion bars and we are curious to see how they do under the van. We’ve had plenty of torsion bar sprung vehicles and do like them for several reasons, but the main downside in this application is the loss of ground clearance. Because we ended up with such a low ride height, these hang down much lower than we would like them to be. We have plans for a front Fox coil over or air shock on the next go around, but we are sticking to our initial concept and keeping the Pita van 100% ML parts.
The torsion bar mount is completely removable and ties into the transmission mount. It is also the front gas tank mount. The gas tank did need to get shifted back to clear the t-case but all the original components still work. We just need to extend some wiring and hoses to get the fuel system all hooked back up again.
That brings us up to where we are at today. Right now we are painting brackets and working towards wrapping up the van to get it out to Overland Expo West in May. Fabrication is about 90% done. We still need to get the steering shaft hooked up and fabricate a rear gas tank mount. Then it’s onto the nitty gritty of hooking up brakes, fuel systems, wheel speed sensors and all that other fun stuff.
We still have a ton of work to do, and this is all a rough first go of it, but our hope is to get this dialed to a point that we can offer this as a very complete, polished kit with detailed instructions so that a person who is confident with a welder and tools can perform this conversion themselves in their driveway in the matter of about one months’ time. Let us know what you guys think and please ask away! We want your feedback and thrive off the input.
Come check the Pita Van out in person in our booth at Overland Expo West in Flagstaff AZ May 20th-22nd.
Stay tuned for more updates and follow our build thread on sprinter-source.com