Headlight wipers, asymmetrical mirrors and more!
Paul has already done and incredible job of covering the W124 Mercedes, but as it was the only Mercedes I have owned, I hope to provide a unique take on the car. You’ll have to tell me if you agree.
You see, I come from a Mercedes family, but I’m not a Mercedes guy. My dad (may he rest in peace) had 17 Mercedes in his life, but as much as I love nice cars, I am neither wealthy enough, nor flashy enough to want, need or pay for a Mercedes myself. Even at my most spoiled, I was still at most a Honda and Saab kind of guy.
But sometimes life intervenes and you say sure, what the heck, I’ll give it a try. Have you ever paid half price for something and still found it expensive? Here’s my Mercedes story.
In 2000, immediately after moving from Washington DC to Silver Spring MD in preparation for the birth of my first child, my ex-wife and I needed a second car. I had sold my BMW 2002 and my BMW 633CSI project cars, and having recently acquired a 1999 Saab 9-3, and planning soon to be a one income family, I needed a second car for commuting and didn’t want another car payment.
I mentioned this challenge to my dad, and he said, “you know, I can sell you Alex’s car”. You see, my dad had a series of younger boyfriends (yes, he was gay before it was in), and for the most recent, he had bought a 1993 Mercedes 300E with 72,000 at auction for $16,000. They had since broken up in somewhat spectacular fashion (Alex refused to pay my dad some money he owed him, my dad sold Alex’s motorcycle for parts to Columbia, Alex retaliated by pouring motor oil in Dad’s pool, and then Dad slashed Alex’s tires on his Fiero in broad daylight), and Dad found himself with an extra Mercedes.
So I said “I was thinking cheap transportation Dad; I can’t really afford a Mercedes”. Dad said “well it’s got 88,000 miles on it now, and it’s probably worth $13,000 or $14,000. What if I sell it to you for $7,000?” I said I’d still have to pay to ship it from Miami to Silver Spring. He said not to worry about it, he would it for me. So what was the catch?
The color! Yes, Mercedes Benz actually sold this color combination, and not just on the 300E! It had been a long-standing Mercedes color called Light Ivory, and was apparently popular as a taxicab color in Germany. It was also a color occasionally chosen in south Florida by folks who wanted an alternative to white, but it tended to be very hard to re-sell as a used car. Consequently, my father owned three Mercedes in this color, all bought used for significant discounts.
As you can see from the two other Mercedes dad owned in light ivory, the color was far more attractive prior to 1990, the beginning of the body-cladding era at Mercedes. So anyway, here I was at age 30, the new owner of a very sophisticated, 7 year old German luxury car in a grandparent color.
Airbag in the place of a glovebox
The 1993 300E was the final year before the 1994 W124 face-lift that brought new headlights, new wider wheels, the E320 designation, and a $10,000 price reduction to around $43,000. Despite the 300E name, however, 1993 was actually the first year for the 3.2 liter, 24-valve inline six cylinder that brought 40 more horsepower (217 vs 177), and it was also the first year of the standard passenger airbag which stole the space where the glove compartment originally stood.
In fact, the 1993 Mercedes 300E was in a way a car in transition, from what it was designed to be, to a car that could compete with the Lexus LS400. With a well equipped price of around $40,000, the V-8 Lexus had significantly undercut the Mercedes 300E in pricing and caused a huge slow down in sales for Mercedes. Mercedes responded first by adding the V-8 400E in 1992, and then additional horsepower for the six, in the form of the 3.2 liter, 24-valve engine mentioned above. As Paul wrote in his coverage of the 300E:
And a few years later, the 400E came along, with its creamy-smooth 4.2 L V8. It wasn’t so much about drastic increases in performance, but about refined and luxurious forward thrust. Undoubtedly, the Lexus LS 400 had a lot to do with its existence, which rather played havoc on Mercedes’ whole strategy and pricing. But that’s a story for another time.
I’m not quite qualified to tell the whole story of the Lexus challenge, but the argument I’ve heard is that Lexus changed the way Mercedes made cars forever. I’ve heard it said that pre-Lexus, Mercedes use to design, innovate and “over-engineer” without regard to cost, and then would price their vehicles once they were finished with the design. It also seems to me that Mercedes would often design the solution they thought best for the market, without regard to the way other manufactures were doing it, or how the American market might want it. The result was often interesting, often copied, and sometimes unique or a technical dead end.
Central Sunvisor Over Rear-view Mirror
So in 1993, what did one get for the huge sum of $53,000? You got a fast and comfortable German luxury sedan. Not soft, but spring-y. Not hushed, but quiet. Not quick to transition, but smooth. The engine was quite willing to rev and build power, but the transmission had a distinct pause when it would downshift. Once you were in the right gear, the car would take off with authority. And then you got a number of seemly contradictory or unique engineering efforts, including: one highly engineered windshield wiper on the windshield, and two wipers on the headlights; a power passenger mirror and a manual driver’s mirror; asymmetrical outside mirrors; a central sun-visor over the rear-view mirror; rear headrests that folded down with a button but required manual effort to raise; a metal sunroof when both American and Japanese cars had gone to glass sunroofs in the 1980s; a defroster that automatically turned on the high heat regardless of the outside or inside temperature. And you got a medium-fidelity-at-best Becker cassette deck with four speakers.
So in 2000, what did you get for $7,000? An incredible car in a terrible color! And a car that had fairly quickly moved toward obsolescence in a few categories, including the 4-speed automatic and the 195 width tires. And a car that tended to need expensive repairs.
First, the Engine Mounts had to be replaced…
Then the air conditioning…
Then the Becker CD Player my dad had installed in place of the cassette player died. I replaced it with a clarion for only $200.
I can’t remember the additional expenses, as the weren’t ridiculous; just regular and fairly often. Finally, after 3 years and 42,000 miles or so, the headliner de-laminated from the roof of the car and started flapping around in the wind like an old taxicab (which in a way, in this color, it was), and that was the final straw. I got an estimate to fix it for $2,200 and decided to trade it in on a new car with a warranty instead. I got $4,500 for it as a trade on a dark blue 2003 VW GTI 1.8T 5-speed with 17″ wheels. It was a dream finally realized, as I had always wanted a GTI, and it was the near opposite of the Mercedes, high strung and quick, a German hot hatch, and a car that looked like it was for a teenager, rather than a grandfather. I called it my Audi, as it shared nearly every component with a base model Audi TT, including engine, transmission, suspension, and wheel size. The wheelbase was slightly longer and slightly narrower, and it weighed approximately 50 lbs more. And it seated 4 adults in comfort, and cost less than $20,000! One of my all time favorite cars…