I’ll be the first to say buying a cheap used luxury car is, above all else, tempting. It’s like ordering a $10 eight-ounce steak and then realizing that the measurement was in pounds, not ounces—even if it does have an expiration date that may prove uncomfortable for most. Here’s how my cheap used luxury car met its inevitable sell-by date.
It’s also how some calm reserve coupled with a little bit of cash successfully turned panic into progress.
A few days ago, I was on the hunt for yet another automotive hand grenade to add to my fleet. I found one that warranted an hour-and-a-half drive into the rural ass-crack of Pennsylvania, so I got in my $3000 Mercedes-Benz S500 daily driver and embarked on a mini-road trip.
About halfway into the interstate journey, and right as the Joe Rogan Experience episode I was listening to finally started to pick up a little steam, a flashing red light came up on my dashboard, accompanied with a loud beep.
It read: BATTERY CHARGE (VISIT WORKSHOP).
“Guess I have to change the battery, visit the workshop,” I thought for a split second, forgetting how cars actually worked.
If you’re not a seasoned car whisperer like me, that last part may need some explaining. The way a battery is charged in a car in motion is via its belt-driven alternator. The rotating crank drives a belt that wraps around another pulley, which in turn drives a magnet around a coil, witchcraft happens, and electricity is produced and quickly crapped back into your battery.
This crafty little component can make or break your drive, because when the battery isn’t being charged, it’s being actively drained by the various electronic components necessary to run the car’s sizable 5.0-liter V8 engine. With my battery not charging, I was on borrowed time.
I signaled to get out of the middle lane and targeted the shoulder to do some emergency roadside diagnosis. It was also at that point when I realized that the usually pinky-light steering was nearly impossible to move. With the alternator and power steering not working, the most likely culprit was a broken or missing serpentine belt.
As I ground the car to a halt on the shoulder of the I-78 within spitting distance of 18-wheelers with 75 mph closing speeds, I turned the car off and peeked under the hood.
Immediately, I found a ground off, shiny, and impossibly hot metal nub where one of the accessory belt’s idler pulleys used to be. The belt, in a fit of rubber-melting defiance, made a break for it and was unceremoniously chilling on the plastic splash guard safely below the engine, relatively unscathed. The plastic idler pulley didn’t fare as well.
The idler pulley, one that had been replaced with one of questionable quality from eBay about two years prior, had undoubtedly seen its last rev. It looked as if the bearing cover came off, allowing debris to build up in the grease inside the bearing, heating up the rapidly spinning metal components until it simply let go after enough heat was expelled through the system.
Since I didn’t have the part nor the tool required, I called AAA and convinced them that I was indeed a member, despite saying that my member number was “LOLWUT.”
After 45 minutes of roadside Twitter-surfing and double-checking that this breakdown wasn’t covered under an obscure lifetime rule in the Mercedes-Benz factory warranty, my savior finally came in the form of a flatbed.
On the somber ride home, the facts of the day hit me. It finally happened—the car that I had lauded as being reliable in the face of the overwhelming negative stigma surrounding German dependability had left me stranded.
While this could’ve been a setback and a half for someone on their way to work and not actively trying to fill their driveway with junk as I was, I decided that this was a great teachable moment, and one that didn’t have to be expensive, nor particularly time consuming.
While I sat in the tow truck, I tracked down a high-quality replacement part for $35 at a local parts shop. When the nearly dead Mercedes-Benz returned to its rightful place in my driveway, I took a 20-minute trip via Lyft to get the part, which was thankfully in stock in a few stores around me due to the fact that German car companies all used the same parts for everything in the early 2000s. A real parts bin orgy, that era was.
Installation of said pulley was as simple as unbolting one T45 torx-head bolt, removing what was left of the old pulley and installing the new pulley on the old bolt. A 13mm socket on a 3/8-inch ratchet was used to tighten the engine’s auto-belt tensioner, and I figured out how to route the belt with ten seconds of Googling.
After a few minutes of the easiest wrenching ever, the new warrantied German-made idler pulley was installed and the mighty Merc ran as it did when it sauntered off the production line 16 years ago.
As time and resources are the largest concerns for people facing possible breakdowns, it may be interesting to note that from the time I got the initial warning light on my dash to the time the car fired into a mode of faultless running, only about two and a half hours had passed and the grand total for the parts and transportation was $47, noting that AAA had covered the tow.
It’s not nothing, but way less than the first born plus interest that people think a fault on an old Mercedes would usually cost.
Granted, if your wife was in labor and the S-Class was the only ride to the hospital, you’d likely be cleaning the amniotic fluid out of the carpet. Barring that instance however, I can think of no rational reason why a breakdown of this nature would be a deal-breaker to purchasing a depreciated luxury car.
While a car of this complexity experiencing a fault can be daunting to noobs, it’s all about how well you can diagnose an issue and how ready you are to adapt to a certain situation and use everything you have—tools and know-how—at your disposal.
Had I relied on the dealership or shop to diagnose and fix the problem, I’d likely have been out a baker’s dozen of 50 dollar bills, not to mention carless for a few days at the very least. Doing it yourself, even something on such a novice level, not only gives you a sense of accomplishment but ties a neat little bow on what could’ve been a really shitty day with an otherwise extremely reliable cheap used German luxury car.
For those that aren’t afraid of a challenge, find a cheap masterpiece of your own and make it the daily driver you’ve always wanted, warranties be damned.