I'm Letting Go of my Project Car and it Doesn't Feel Great

Saying farewell to my project 190E will be a bittersweet goodbye.

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Farewell, dear Mercedes.
Farewell, dear Mercedes.
Photo: Lalita Chemello

Since the untimely death of my 1989 Mercedes-Benz 190E late last December, I’ve been poking away on “Project Baby Benz,” hoping I would be able to revive it and return it to the road. I’m here to report, that revival will never come, at least under my care. My heart is broken.

The Mercedes was gently returned to my garage via our finest/only local flatbed tow truck on December 31st. The car’s demise, I thought, might not be permanent, but there was a sinking feeling in my stomach. Of course, it’s hard to listen to your gut when it tells you bad news, so I ignored mine, and decided to wait — holding out some little grain of hope.

Image for article titled I'm Letting Go of my Project Car and it Doesn't Feel Great
Photo: Lalita Chemello
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I finally dug into the Benz this spring. I checked the battery and relays. I replaced fuses. The shifter was loose, requiring a nifty (read: pain in the ass) maneuver to coax the car to start.

Through some research, I found that loose shifters are common in 190s, thanks to a nylon bushing on the shift linkage that disintegrates over time. I shimmied under the car and sure enough, the bushing was gone. Eureka. Another problem down. Hope could remain.

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The shift linkage with its new bushing. That sucker won’t be wobbling any more.
The shift linkage with its new bushing. That sucker won’t be wobbling any more.
Photo: Lalita Chemello

After some work travel and a bout of COVID-19, I was finally able to get into the garage and repair the shift linkage. The shifter felt happier, but I never was able to test that shifting on the road.

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The repaired shift linkage made the Mercedes more eager to attempt to start. But after a good dose of starting fluid, and many turns of the key, the engine would crank, but it still refused to start.

The spark plugs gave away how bad things were with Project 190E. We pulled one plug and found it coated in carbon buildup and an unhealthy amount of oil. Every subsequent plug showed the same signs. We cleaned them all, checked for spark (weak, but present), and attempted to start the engine again. Nothing — and once again, the freshly-cleaned plugs were covered in oil after cranking the engine.

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Spark plug + oil = not good.
Spark plug + oil = not good.
Photo: Lalita Chemello

Those of you who wrench are likely familiar with what this means: blow-by. The piston rings are not sealing properly, allowing oil to seep past the rings into the combustion chamber, dousing the spark plugs. A small amount of blow-by is manageable (your car just burns a lot of oil), but this much oil getting by the rings likely meant my engine was way down on compression, a fatal discovery.

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The prognosis: I would have to rebuild this engine if I wanted to get the Benz back on the road. And that’s to say nothing of the problems with the fuel injection system, a common issue with this era Mercedes. Adding a full engine rebuild, did I want to keep going?

Reality sunk in hard. Our garage has no workbench (yet), no engine hoist, and a small fraction of the tools needed for an engine rebuild. My summer calendar was already filling up with family obligations, friend outings, races and work trips. Finding free time to work on the Merc would be next to impossible. Call it a cop-out, but looking around, I realized I just didn’t have the space, time or energy to do this kind of work. Not now.

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So, The End

Many of us dream of getting a project car up and running. You mentally prepare yourself for the work ahead, whether that be a few mechanical touch-ups or a full restoration. You bring your darling home and eagerly get to work cataloging what needs to be fixed from the most urgent repairs to the “when I have time” tasks. You spend your free time scouring the web and local junkyards for parts, hoping to improve your car, or simply get it running. It’s almost a sickness, thinking about the next time you can work on your project car, what you need to tackle, and waiting for parts shipments like a kid at Christmas.

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Sometimes, we succeed in completing our projects. Sometimes, we just get the car up and running, with a long list of mechanical or cosmetic work still to be done. At least you can drive in the interim.

With the Mercedes, I was able to enjoy driving it on the road for a couple of weeks before the teardown began. The car’s real gift to me was how it challenged me and helped me grow my wrenching skills. For that, I’ll be forever thankful.

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With each project car, it’s smart to draw a line where you realistically have to step away, and stick to it. Whether that comes down to skills, cost, space, tools, or even time — you’ll know the point of no return, the moment you have to throw in the towel and move on. When I realized my 190E needed a full engine rebuild, this project crossed my no-return line.

It’s possible my Mercedes will drive again, but I won’t be the one to achieve that, and I’m okay with that realization. I’ve listed the car for sale on Craigslist, in hope that someone will resurrect it, or at least use it for parts. To get it running myself would require finding a new house with a bigger garage, and that’s not happening in this market.

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And so I bid a tearful adieu to the Baby Benz, in hopes it finds a loving home and can one day roam the roads again.

The license plate said macht schnell (“go faster” in German), but the car never did.
The license plate said macht schnell (“go faster” in German), but the car never did.
Photo: Lalita Chemello