I used to call the original Mercedes-Benz C-Class one of the most timeless car designs ever created. Now almost 20 years after its heyday, the car definitely comes off extremely ’90s—and maybe not in a good way. But holy crap, these are some seriously inexpensive cars with awesome engines and interesting historical significance.
The first Mercedes to be called “C-Class”, known to nerds as the W202 chassis, came out fresh-for-1994 as a replacement for the 190E. The C basically looked like a version of its predecessor that’d been left in a bathtub to have its edges softened.
It was marketed as the baby Benz for ballers on budgets, although it certainly wasn’t “cheap”, ringing up at around $30,000—that would look more like $50,000 in today’s money.
The blocky taillights, big door handles and oh god that Lego interior all betray the car’s age, but even today I think the subtly-rounded boxy body design has held up well enough. The aesthetic is a little Apple computer to me. Anyone else seeing that?
Over its seven model-year run, Mercedes crapped out thousands and thousands of these things for just about every car-buying corner of the world. Today you can pick a decent one up for less than the price of a competitive mountain bike. Check out this creampuff I found in 30 seconds of casual Craigslisting:
“But that car’s going to be to expensive to run for what you get,” you say. “Did you see the spot where it says ‘MERCEDES’?”
I humbly disagree, since as we’ve already established, I’m smitten by the way this car looks and think any W202 that’s still in decent shape in 2017 is worth nurturing.
That said, I understand that most people might not be too turned on at the prospect of paying Mercedes parts prices to maintain a basic mass-produced sedan that was rated to a modest 195 horsepower 22 years ago.
The C43 AMG, however, was not mass-produced. It’s not slow, and perhaps most importantly, it’s a future classic. Hell, it’s a classic already. And it represents a significant story in the history of Mercedes-Benz.
Before AMG came to mean “most expensive trim level” on the trucklid of any Mercedes, it was an independent engine building outfit started by engineers Hans Werner Aufrecht, the “A”, and Erhard Melcher, the “M”. “G” is for Großaspach, the city Aufrecht was from. In the 1960s, both men were working for Mercedes, building high-performance parts for the company’s racing efforts on nights and weekends on top of doing their day jobs making passenger cars.
Whether they had always dreamed of going off on their own or just got fed up doing double-duty at Mercedes is a story for another time, but the two took off to establish AMG independently in 1967. Melcher is generally credited as having been the point man on AMG’s early engineering efforts, while Aufrecht drove the business.
The company kept a cordial relationship with Mercedes and continued to tweak more power out of its engines for competition and enthusiast customers, famously producing the first direct-injection system designed outside a large company (for the 300SE) in Aufrecht’s basement.
To fast forwarding through a nuanced history and get us back to why all this should make you care about a clapped-out old C-Class: AMG didn’t design an entire car until the mid ’90s, when the CLK GTR was cut lose to slay McLarens. But you can’t afford one of those.
You probably can afford a 1995 C36, though. And it’s almost as cool, since it was the first car to be earnestly sold in the U.S. as an officially AMG-tuned vehicle from the factory. That’s why it’s so significant.
But things got even more interesting later that decade, when Mercedes-Benz bought a majority stake in AMG and basically re-appropriated the renegade skunkworks that gave the company most of its performance-car street cred in the first place.
Around that same time, the AMG-endorsed C-Class was upgraded with a significantly better five-speed transmission and a naturally aspirated V8, as god intended. That powerplant was a modified version of the V8 in the E430, juiced to 302 HP earning it a 0 to 60 mph claim of around six seconds.
Sadly, despite an awesome power-to-weight ratio for a luxury sedan, the C43 didn’t exactly dazzle critics with its real-world performance when it was new. A 1999 Car & Driver showdown left the Benz in dead last against the BMW M3, Audi S4 and the freaking Saab 9-3 Viggen from the same era. Ouch.
MotorWeek’s John Davis didn’t hate it though:
As it bowed in 1998, Mercedes promised that only 1,500 units would come stateside, starting at $52,750, which is just shy of $80,000 in today’s money. C43AMG.org claims that actual production numbers ended up closer to just 1,100 units.
And yet, less than a day of looking for one of these cars myself has turned out okay-looking (if high mileage) examples for around $4,000 in the east, west, and middle of the country.
The W202 Mercedes definitely doesn’t look new anymore and it might not be a supercar killer in any era, but its simplistic design still looks stately. I think any AMG engine you can find that’s connected to an operational car costing less than $5,000 is worth your attention, but the early C-Classes also represent a pivotal moment in the company’s history.
Even if you end up spending a few thousand dollars to get a well-worn example sorted out, it’s not like Mercedes is making any more of these. And how much cheaper could they possibly get?
Hell, I might try and buy one myself before too many of you read this article.