“That Merc is fantastic.” Four simple words that set in motion what was to be my first taste of classic car ownership. Of course there are many who would argue that 1991 does not constitute ‘classic’ at all; that’s a discussion for another day. Classic or not, this is the story of my five months, thirteen days, twenty-three hours and fifty minutes with a 1.8 litre Mercedes-Benz 190E.
Anyone familiar with 427 Motorsports will know that they have a collective passion for modern classics alongside the motor racing angle. While not actually part of 427 myself, I nonetheless have spent a lot of time around these classics; more Mk2 Golfs than I can shake a stick at, and some very tidy Peugeots. Now, neither of these are my ‘thing’, but there is a certain atmosphere around classic cars, even humble modern classics such as the Peugeot 309. Camaraderie among owners, retro charm, simple mechanicals coupled with build quality enviable by modern standards – a cheap classic can be a very attractive prospect.
My own interest from just about as soon as I could walk wears a green oval. It also boasts notorious oily incontinence and I would probably struggle to find much of what I have mentioned above to be attractive prospects of modern classic ownership with a Land Rover Defender. Not that I wouldn’t still love one. Indeed, the barrier to a modern classic Land Rover for a student comes long before you get to weekly repairs or water leaking in; this barrier is simply price. With prices of even the egregious 2.5TD engined 90s and 110s of the 1980s skyrocketing in the wake of Defender production ending in 2015, an old Land Rover was not an option for me.
As mentioned, I am a student. An undergraduate with all the usual trimmings; little money, little time to put work into restoring or repairing an old car, no private space to do so even if I had the time. My classic had to be reliable, dependable, built to last. I was lucky enough to live and study in Cornwall, and on the little crescent where my student flat is, there happens to be two automotive gems.
One is a lovely, albeit neglected, golden Mercedes W123 series 280CE. The car that sparked it all, the one I walked home past every day, appreciating it more and more as the year went on. I decided on a W123 Mercedes, a diesel if at all possible. Longevity and reliability is the name of the game, “million mile Merc”, as one Cornish mechanic put it to me.
The other gem parked on that street is a workhorse diesel W124 Estate, a 300TD. It is a picture of Mercedes from when they were built to last. Rough around the edges but soldiering on regardless. Only in retrospect do I even pay it any attention, my mind then, six months ago, was made up on the 1970s curves of the W123.
But that was not to be.
Had I been perhaps two years earlier with my desire for a W123 Mercedes I could have picked a fairly tidy one up for less than a thousand pounds. As prices are now, a fairly tidy example will stand you around £4000 for a diesel and £2500 for a petrol. Not too bad in the world of classic cars, but out of my student budget. Mine had to be cheaper.
Growing up, my neighbours at home had a white Mercedes 190D. The C Class before C Classes. Naturally I thought absolutely nothing of it then, and as I grew, it went from being a new car to an old car, and utterly undesirable by the time they got rid of it sometime in the mid 2000s. I didn’t even notice it going.
Fast forward to 2017 and you can buy an immaculate Mercedes 190 for £1500 as it turns out. Again, I would have preferred the Diesel for its longevity, but when a very clean looking petrol came up for sale at home, I sent Pattison out to get a good look at it and report back to me with whether I should put down a deposit.
“That Merc is fantastic.”
That’s a yes then. I picked up my white 1.8 manual 190E just days after coming home to Ireland for summer, and I was over the moon with it.
Initial concerns about the position of the pedals, seemingly too far to the right to be comfortable, were soon forgotten as I got used to the driving position. The 190 is a fantastically comfortable saloon. You will often hear about “magic carpet ride” with regards to the suspension, and this really is the best way of describing it. My other car, a 2015 Abarth, is a different, far bumpier world when it comes to suspension, naturally enough. The Mercedes glides over bumps in the road, but this comfort comes at a cost to handling. This shouldn’t be any surprise to anybody who is familiar with cars, unless you’re looking at Cosworths or AMGs, do not expect to be able to throw old Mercs around and get away with it.
It’s not quick either. The 1.8 manual will sit comfortably enough at 60, but it takes its time getting there, and any more than 60 is a constant struggle with the accelerator. Not that you ever even feel the need to go faster than 60. Whatever your speed always seems to feel just right in the Mercedes.
Being the Baby of the Benz’, rear legroom isn’t abundant, although it’s not notably lacking either. Just don’t imagine you’re getting into an SEL and you won’t be disappointed. The interior is a comfortable, pleasant place to be, despite mine being probably the most poverty spec model.
Mechanically, there isn’t much to go wrong with a 190E. The Bosch injection, which puts the E in 190E (Einspritzung, rather than E for E Class), is mechanical at a time when Volkswagen Golfs had electronic systems. The whole thing smacks of a well built, mechanically simple car, with retro charm – just what I needed. There is a warning light for low washer fluid when the washer fluid gets low; good luck finding that on my Fiat 30 years this cars’ junior.
The 190E even stands up well to frontal impacts, as I can tell you from firsthand experience. Yes, you might have wondered why, at the beginning of the article I said that I only had just over five months with this car whose praises I was singing so highly. Well for that you can blame old Auntie Cyclone and some snowmelt. In the worst ice I have ever seen, a small thing like turning a corner was the undoing of my 190. A slide across the ice became a bad collision with severe damage. I might have been injured by the detonation of airbags, if the Mercedes had any. A slight jolt was all I felt as the Mercedes took the impact that could have seriously injured me in a smaller car.
Don’t let that put you off though, the 190 was and remains an excellent example of affordable classic motoring. Mine was even running for an hour after it’s smash without a hint of overheating.
I will certainly have another. I will certainly not drive it on the ice.