Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about a video game that can help the least mechanically inclined learn the basics of cars and how certain automotive systems fit together, without having to actually get under a car. Between my play time, years of working on some things with my father, and the maintenance I’ve conquered on cars by myself, I decided it was time for a real project car. My mission? Have fun. Get frustrated. Finally get through the container of Orange Goop I have next to our soap dispenser in our guest bathroom. I’m going to learn how to really work on a car.
Of course, I didn’t listen to anyone’s advice on a good project car. After several weeks of scouring the edges of the web that is eBay motors and Craigslist ads, I finally found her: a 1989 Mercedes-Benz 190E.
This Mercedes was affectionately coined “the Baby Benz” for its rather small stature compared to its fellow brethren. It’s fitted with the “M103" 2.6 inline six engine putting out near 164 horsepower. The more well-known version of the W201 is the 2.5-16V Evolution with a spicy Cosworth four-cylinder that took on many-a-European touring car race. This, is not that 190E. Sorry to disappoint.
I found this navy-colored beauty on Craigslist just 20 minutes away from where I live. It cost me a tidy $1,800. Our new neighbor-car-loving friend told us that the car was originally his father’s and was kept in West Virginia for some time. When his father passed, his brother held onto the car for a couple of years, and then it arrived to take up some space in his garage(s). It hadn’t been anyone’s daily driver for years.
The man I bought it from had quite the collection himself, with a couple of Bel Air Nomads, another Bel Air in the garage, and an older VW beetle that he said “never gives him problems.” (You can laugh. We did, too.)
It feels reassuring to buy a car from someone who also loves cars, someone a bit mechanically inclined. I think the guy took good care of this car, and while it’s not in the most prime of shape, it’s at least in some sort of running order. The rest of the other working parts will need you to take a chapter out of the Hunger Games and hope the odds are forever in your favor.
Here’s what I know just from a few short drives in the Baby Benz that could use some extra love:
- We were informed the car tires were not balanced because at the time of installation, the tire balancing machine was out. That’s a top priority before we do anything, as well as an alignment. She prefers the right-most side of the road.
- The driver’s seat needs a little greasing or general help. My husband has to push the seat up while I hold the release so I can even reach the pedals.
- Wiring … lots of wiring. The radio and center console is the main problem area. There’s also an odd set of wires leading to the driver’s door to open the driver’s side window because the center console window buttons don’t really open things, nor do they open what you think you’re opening.
- The fan. I don’t know what’s going on, but it screams like a dying hamster until the car warms up decently. At that point, you still hear the fan, but it’s not a screaming hamster. Oddly, my ‘99 E320 wagon had a similar issue. Is this just a Mercedes thing?
- Headlights. I forgot to mention that it was dark in and outside of the car. My driver’s side headlight is out and has a crack in the housing. The one working headlight was pretty dim, so I put the brights on, and luckily both worked.
- There were a few idle surges when we arrived home, so we’ll attend to that as well.
- Brake fluid definitely needs a flush.
- More wiring. But really, most likely more wiring including the dashboard, because as I looked into this morning, they definitely do not work.
- The one windshield wiper doesn’t appear to work either.
The clear coat is also peeling, which is a common problem on cars of this era. I’m not sure if I’ll have to repaint it, or if there’s an easier fix. Maybe I could wrap it? Generally, she could use a round of cleaning, but she’s fairly clean as you can see.
Due to her home outside of the Midwest salt sprees, she’s nearly rust-free. There’s a spot on the trunk lid above where the 2.6 badge should sit, where someone had hit it years ago, so that’s a tiny bit rusted. But otherwise, she’s pretty clean for a 33-plus-year-old car.
I brought the Baby Benz home as the sun set quickly into the night. I’ll admit I was a little freaked initially due to the dark void where the dash lighting would typically illuminate my gauges. The headlights were a little [read: quite a bit] dim as well. That fear quickly fell away as my Mercedes brought me another mile closer to home.
It was rejuvenating. Sure, I had no readable instrument cluster, but that only made my ride more visceral. It reminded me why I wanted to own something that took away the loudness of what is today’s cars. There wasn’t a giant screen illuminating the cabin, or blinking lights warning about cars in your blind spot or obnoxious beeping as anything neared your car. No, it was just the little light coming from my AM/FM Cassette Radio, showing a very digitized call dial number, setting the mood for my evening ride.
I have a good feeling about this car, but that could quickly change as I spend more time with her in the daylight and warmer hours. I’ve heard all the Mercedes nightmare stories of yore, and even owned a nice 1999 E320 wagon a few years back that offered its own set of problems. However, I see my 190E as an opportunity, and a way to check another dream car off of my list.
I’m also open to advice from those of you who have also taken on a Mercedes in your garage. Throw some tips in the comments. And note that any of your words of warning have arrived a little too late...