COAL: 2007 Mercedes-Benz S550 – Bertha Benz Rides Again

Bertha this week, 201,227 miles

I would love to attach lots of real photos of Bertha, who still very much lives with us. But it has rained for what seems like weeks now and she’s filthy. This first photo is actually her (you can see the Lexus’ gaping grille reflected in the doors) but we’ll have to let some other stock photos fill in for us. Maybe next time I give her a bath I can throw a few more up here and you can meet her for real. So how did we wind up with Bertha, and how did she get her name?

I have already mentioned that Bertha got me banned for life from “whole car” purchases off eBay. Well, at least that’s what my wife and I agreed to three years ago this month when this happened. Because Bertha has turned out to be a pretty good gal, my wife would probably back off that stance now. We have had her for three years this month and added 51,000 miles or so, to 201,227.

I had let reluctantly the 2000 S500 go, when I saw that the air suspension gremlins were about to darken my door. I traded it on a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, which I guess we need to turn the spotlight to at some point (my 17 year old son drives the JGC now). Not a lot of thought went into this. My parents had a 2012 Overland and my sister-in-law had a 2014 Overland, so I was familiar with it and didn’t do any shopping. It was a “this’ll do” kind of decision, just pick a color and go. I didn’t even test drive it, since I had driven my parents’ plenty of times.

I was happy with the Jeep but of course missed the S500. I cruised eBay looking for older, cheaper “rescue COALS”. I came across the car that became known as Bertha in the Summer of 2014. It was the same Obsidian Black as the old S500. It’s a metallic black, with a slight shimmer in the brightest sunlight.

It had the same beautiful black interior and burl wood too. It had a lot of miles, right at 150,000, so I figured it was going to go for pretty low money. More than most of my rescues, but still a pretty good deal for a seven year old S-Class. It was a reserve auction, and I bid $14,272.00, a completely random number. That would be a good price as it was about trade-in. I did not meet the reserve, and I did not raise my bid either. The bidding went up to $23,000.00 or so, which was too much for an auction. Close to full retail value, really.

Summer turned to Fall, and I didn’t think about Bertha again as I kept casually looking online. Then one night, there she was. Back on eBay, still at the same used car dealer about 12 hours away. This time, though, it was a No Reserve auction. The original buyer had failed to follow through. The listing had a paragraph in angry red font explaining such, and demanding that anyone wanting to bid please be prepared to follow through with a $500 deposit at auction end, etc.

I bid my same $14,272.00 just for kicks. I mean, I knew that the bidding would go on up and I wouldn’t get it. Probably not as high as before, but it would keep on higher than I was willing to justify for a sight unseen rescue COAL.

So I waited to see what happened next. And I waited. And waited some more. No one was bidding. No one ever did bid. Bertha was mine, for the $14,272.00. This was too much money to justify for a weekend toy/driver. But, my daughter had just turned 16 at the time, and we had been looking for cars in the $16,000.00 or so range for her. Slightly used Accords and the like. This could be a car for her, if it was a sound one. So in the reverse order of how I should have proceeded, I set out to determine what I had bought from a distance.

I was informed the title was clean, and it was a one-owner, from the pretty detailed ad. I proceeded to purchase a CarFax which showed it had actually been sold new about an hour away from me, and lived it’s whole life in an adjacent county.

It was indeed a one owner, and had been dealer maintained up until earlier that same year. In the prior six months, the air conditioning compressor had been replaced. Just a few hundred miles prior, it had new tires, brakes and rotors all the way around at the selling dealer. This was about the best maintained used Mercedes I had ever seen, especially given the price.

The miles didn’t concern me greatly, with the comprehensive history of work that had been done. It was an early 2007, built in August 2006 and sold in the Fall of 2006. So it had been driven about 20,000 miles a year or so, which was a good thing. That indicated mostly highway miles. The oil and filter had been changed like clockwork every 13,000 miles at the dealer. I prefer shorter intervals, but that was indeed the factory schedule for that model year. And, the dealer doing it meant that the proper fleece filter and synthetic 0w40 likely had been used.

I called the selling dealer to ask if I could get a reprint of all the maintenance work. They informed me they could not do that for privacy reasons, but, they could confirm they “know that car well” and that “anything we ever suggested was done”.

It had been traded back in to them on a new Mercedes. Like a lot of high mileage trade-ins, they didn’t want it on their lot with those miles. So, it made the trip about 12 hours away to a used import dealer in another state that was one of their contacts for offloading trade-ins they didn’t want.

Not Bertha, but an example of what simple aerosol dye can do for you

My next call was to the eBay dealer. Pressed for more details, they said it had a balky power driver seat and there was “a lot of leather dye fade” on the driver seat, door panel and steering wheel. The wheel and seat did look distressed in the photos, so I expected that. I knew from prior experience that some aerosol dye would work wonders. But otherwise, it seemed to need nothing to them, with new looking Pirellis up front and Michelins on the rear.

Work commitments meant I could not make an immediate trip up to get it. And I needed a way to get it back. And, I had to tell my wife. So, I broke the news and it wasn’t pretty. She didn’t mind the purchase per se, but buying it sight unseen didn’t please her.

I had already shown it to my daughter online, and she was over the moon in love with it. I explained to her that we needed to get it home, and me drive it some first to make sure it was sound. And, given it’s age, some things may not work perfectly.

I showed my wife the online listing, and she finally allowed “Well, that is the least crappy old Mercedes you’ve bought”. That was high praise coming from my wife, so I knew things were going to work out.

She and I made the trip up, and made it into a couples’ weekend at a resort near the eBay dealer. The car in person did indeed present well. It needed a good detailing, but it had clearly been garaged and well cared for. The only problems I noted were the driver seat, which would barely move fore and aft. And, when we were pulling into the garage at the hotel, there was a faint creaking noise from the front suspension which concerned me.

After driving around the area for a couple of days, the car performed well and started, stopped, and accelerated like it had 15,000 miles instead of 150,000. One pleasant surprise was the discovery of the front seat massaging features, in addition to heating and cooling. Upon seeing this, my wife claimed Bertha for the 12 hour drive home.

Bertha at the detail shop in late 2014, with her new taillights

As we headed out, we stopped to fill it with gas. Bertha didn’t like this one bit……you could barely add gas at all, or the nozzle would shut off. I tried another pump, but it was the same problem. Once we got home, I had it professionally detailed in and out. I was really pleased with how it cleaned up.

I didn’t like the taillights used on the early W221 body. They had the odd body color stripes (on the left in this advertisement) which I just never understood. Before the trip up, I ordered updated 2010-on taillights (on the right) off eBay, for a simple plug and play update.

Google diagnosed the gas filling problem as a clogged charcoal canister. I bought a new one online for about $200 and installed it myself, just three bolts, two hose clamps and a wiring connection.  That completely cured the issue. I searched under the driver seat for obstructions, but found none. I applied WD40 to the tracks and kept inching the seat forwards and backwards with the control, applying more WD40 all along. The seat finally started going fore and aft in a normal manner.

I had ordered aerosol black leather dye for the driver seat, steering wheel and door panel. I started rubbing it all down with acetone and a clean cloth, to remove dirt and oils. Well, instead, I started removing the “fade”. I was revealing dark black leather, and the more I cleaned, the better it looked. It wasn’t dye fade, it was makeup! So I guess Bertha had a lady driver, though one can’t assume anything. She had a well made-up original owner, that much we know. I used the aerosol to touch up a nick or two, but that’s all that was needed.

The COMAND system in the early 2000’s Mercedes combines a lot of features into a handful of dedicated buttons, with most audio/nav/phone/comfort functions being controlled by the silver knob you see here. It spins, as well as moves up, down, left and right, to scroll through the screens and menus. Selection is then made by pressing the knob down. It’s a lovely metal knob with heft. The system is widely disliked from what I have read, but I have to say, I found it all to be pretty intuitive and I actually have grown to like it.

Active Night View Assist Plus

Bertha was pretty well equipped, with a number of items that were optional in 2007: keyless entry and ignition, the massaging front seats, front and rear parking sensors, and night vision which is pretty wacky. The speedometer is really a screen, so with night vision on, the screen switches to the camera and the speedometer is a bar graph at the bottom.

The camera is adjacent to the rear view mirror. It does let you see further than headlights alone, on a completely dark country road. But any street lights or car lights appear as bright orbs. And, you need to pay attention to the view out the windshield, not the screen! It’s fun to play with, but I purposely didn’t tell my daughter about it so she wouldn’t use it and be distracted. She found it anyway and left it on because she liked it.

After I drove Bertha another thousand miles or so, I felt comfortable turning it over to my daughter. And I didn’t get to drive it much after that! It was her daily car through 11th and 12th grade, never missing a beat for the next two years and 25,000 miles or so. She did get it stuck in a wet lawn at a music festival, and I pulled it to dry land with the Jeep. A friend of hers backed into it in the high school parking lot with his Suburban, necessitating the trunk lid and rear bumper cover be repaired.

Bertha Benz, 1849-1944

Her friends said any car “had to have a name”, and the group of girls named it “Bertha”. They had no reasoning other than she just seemed like a “Bertha”, and it did seem to fit. The name certainly stuck, and that’s all we ever call it here at the house. What I came to realize later was that Bertha Benz was Carl Benz’ wife!

Her family fortune funded the creation of the first Benz “Patent Motorwagen” in 1886, what is credited as the first modern automobile. She was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Detroit in 2016. So the name chosen by a group of 16 year old girls was very fitting!

The creaking in the front suspension did gradually worsen. My master mechanic (Google) diagnosed this as the front sway bar mounts. There was a campaign on this, to loosen the mounts and inject epoxy into the gap. Retighten the mounts and let it sit for 24 hours, to quell the noise. I ordered the kit for about $25 online and did myself. That indeed silenced the noise.

After my daughter went college in the Fall of 2016, I went back to driving Bertha regularly. I noticed a vibration in the center armrest, mostly at low speeds.  On the highway, it went away. There was no noise, just a constant pronounced vibration that seemed to be coming from deep within the car, if that makes sense. Google told me this was likely one of several things: motor mounts, the three rubber driveshaft couplings or flex disks, or the center driveshaft carrier bearing. All of these were wear items, and at our age and mileage they could all be shot.

Instead of starting to throw parts at it, I took it to a local BMW/Mercedes independent garage I had used before a time or two and been happy with. This was not work I could do myself anyway, as the driveshaft work required that the exhaust and driveshaft come out of the car. The mechanic drove it and put it on a lift. The diagnosis was the transmission mount at the output/tail of the transmission. This is the piece highlighted by the green arrow, above. The rubber inside had turned to dust, so the transmission tail was essentially resting on the frame crossmember, indicated by the pink arrow above. The vibration was the transmission output end bouncing on the frame member around town.

He also checked the underside out generally. He found a front ball joint built into a lower control arm, that was about to separate in two from age and mileage. This was a safety item for sure. The arm on the other side was tight, so it must have been replaced at some point. Also, the three flex disks, driveshaft carrier bearing, and motor mounts all looked great. He felt they could not have been original, and must have been replaced already. The transmission mount was $50, and the arm was about $200, plus about two hours of labor for it all.

The most significant/priciest repair has been the stereo amp. The amp is in the trunk, against the driver rear quarter panel, behind the carpeted side wall. Although protected, it is in a generally damp environment in the trunk. This leads to corrosion and death of the amp.

This reared it’s head with this ominous screen. The W221, like other Mercedes, and some BMW, Audi, and VW autos as well, uses a fiber optic system for the audio, nav and phone. This message means any one of the components could have failed. But which one, and who to fix it? My online looking revealed very few possibilities. There was talk on various sites about gutting the whole system and starting over with aftermarket components. I reluctantly went to the dealer. I figured it was worth paying a diagnosis fee to get it properly checked out.

When I picked it up, the diagnosis was that the amp had failed. They had a new one on hand, for $2,500.00! They assumed I would decline and I did. They had washed the car inside and out, and refused to charge any diagnosis fee at all. They had a Mileage Award form filled it out for me if I wanted it. That was nice, and left me with a favorable impression. I did buy the Lexus two months ago from their sister store across the street, so they got paid back in a sense.

I had always meant to get around to applying for the mileage award, granted at 250,000km, 500,000km, and 1,000,000km. 250,000km was 155,000 miles, so we had cleared that. I turned the paperwork in to Mercedes-Benz, and a nice grille badge and certificate came in the mail a few weeks later, for free. I’d like to think I’ll get to apply for the next one for Bertha at 310,000 miles, too.

After some more research, I found a phone number for a Becker Audio repair center in New Jersey. They now have a modest website and an eBay listing too, but they were harder to find at the time I needed them. I called and lo and behold if a person didn’t actually answer! When I explained my predicament, he told me to wrap it well and send it in. Their base rebuild fee was $750.00, and that came with a warranty too. If it could not be rebuilt quickly, they would exchange it for an already rebuilt unit.

A week or so later, the amp came back and I reinstalled it. And nothing had changed. The same message appeared on the screen. I was distraught, but it was the weekend, and I would just have to wait and call next week for advice on what to do. My daughter took the car out, and texted me in all caps an hour later ‘BERTHA’S STEREO WORKS”. And it has worked ever since. I can only surmise the rebuilt amp needed to “find” the other components, or vice versa, in the fiber optic system.

This car introduced me to the aggravation of staggered wheel sizes. The 20 spoke wheels you see in the detail shop picture above, were staggered and wide…..19×9 front, and 19×10 rear. The tires were pretty nuts for a “luxury sedan”, 255/40/19 front and 275/35/19 rear. These were primarily ultra high performance sizes and all season, luxury tire choices were few. And, you couldn’t rotate them. The new tires on it when I bought it were bald after just 10,000 miles. The next set I installed, front and rear, lasted about 15,000 miles.

These were standard wheels for the V12 S600, and were a pricey option for the S550 in 2007. But they were hard to clean, the tires were expensive, and the car rode harshly. I thought stepping down to an 18 inch wheel would give a better ride, we could rotate them, and we would have a broader selection of touring tires.

On the Facebook marketplace part of the app, I started searching up AMG wheels. I found a set of 18 inch AMG’s off a 2008 E55 AMG. In doing a little research, it appeared they would fit just fine, with the same bolt pattern and offset. They were staggered, but only by 1/2 inch. You could use the same size tire front and rear, and rotate them, since the “rear” tire was 9 inches wide like my current “front” tire.

They would look good, but also be easy to clean, and the best part was they were $250.00 for the set! Most used AMG wheel sets I was seeing were $800 or more. I messaged the guy to see if they were still available. They were, and they were so cheap because he was tired of people not showing up to pay. He had bought them for his CLS AMG, because he was trying to address the same problems I had: too few tire choices, and too harsh of a ride. But, he had not checked the measurements ahead of time, and they would not clear his AMG brakes.

He told me he had lost count of how many times he waited for buyers who never showed. They had been in his garage for over a year, and he wanted them gone. He worked about 15 minutes away from my office, so we agreed to meet at his office and once we sized each other up, I could follow him home to get them. The tires were off of them, so they would fit in Bertha’s trunk.

I had them mounted at my local mom and pop tire place with new Pirelli P7 Cinturato all season touring tires, and it transformed the car for the better. I went with 245/45/18 as they just about matched the overall diameter of the factory tires. It didn’t corner quite like before, but the ride was much, much smoother and quieter. I really like these tires, and plan to use them on the Lexus when the Michelin MXV4’s wear out. They are about $350 a set cheaper, too, than the MXV4. After about 18,000 miles on Bertha, they hardly show any wear at all.

My youngest is 15 and has his permit. And he wants Bertha, very much. His friends are all into trucks and Wranglers, but “Bertha is so smooth and quiet”, he explains. After a few close calls, he’s gotten pretty good behind the wheel. So she’ll resume her rightful place at the high school lot in the Spring. I guess the future Mercedes rescue COAL hunters have to come from somewhere!

And before we hit “Publish”, the weather is cold but clear, and she got a bath!