By the summer of 2021, my enthusiasm for my 240D project was waning and I had became tired of putting money into it. Though I loved the car, learned a tremendous amount bringing it up to its daily driver status, and was proud of how it was looking and driving, I had also hoped the project would require less frequent attention by that point. I knew a vintage Mercedes would never be close to a normal car in terms of maintenance needs, but I thought it was reasonable to expect the list of to-dos to level off. Unfortunately, that is never quite the case with these older cars. It seems there is always something that needs doing.
I could have neglected many of the gremlins that popped up. Perhaps someone else might have. Perhaps whatever personality traits lead a person to attempt dailying a forty year-old car would by necessity leave them incapable of knowing when to stop. I couldn’t let things go.
The experience of owning a vintage Mercedes diesel is characterized by noises and sounds. While I appreciated the whirring of the mechanical fuel injection and the satisfying thunk of the doors closing, before long it became impossible to ignore the other noises that accompanied these charming harmonies; the clunking and rubbing of deteriorating suspensions parts, and a symphony of noises escaping the ancient, deteriorated, sound deadening techniques of 1982 when traveling at the speeds required to keep up with 2021 traffic.
Looking back, I realize that I was slowly being driven mad by noises and sounds.
One of the primary things that I used the car for was making regular long-ish trips from my home in DC to see my family in Northern New Jersey, about 250 miles away. 250 miles on I-95, at I-95 speeds of about 70-75 mph (faster if my partner Rose was driving). Even a tip-top shape 300D would probably be loud at that speed–these cars were just not geared for that, having been designed well before the 65 mph speed limits were ubiquitous. So, even my car with the 4 speed stick, the three liter turbo diesel that had been swapped in, and one of the longer rear ends, was pretty loud and buzzy at highway speeds.
I did everything I could to bring the noise down. I replaced the door seals, window channels, and even put extra sound deadening material in the doors, but, we would have to shout to hear each other and crank the radio through blown out speakers. Headaches became a common occurrence after longer stints at the wheel. I started questioning my belief that a vintage Mercedes was the correct choice for my driving needs, or maybe I was just getting older and longing for modern comforts.
It wasn’t just the noises at speed either. Even small noises became an ever encroaching dread. A rattle would present itself, or so I would think, and I would drop the volume on the radio, shush anyone in the car and point my ear toward where the phantom noise was coming from. Sometimes it was nothing, other times it was something I would add to an growing list of issues that needed to be addressed..
And then there was the ever encroaching menace for every vintage car owner, that worms its way from the edges of your fenders and into the back of your brain, infecting you with an ever-present worry: rust. I didn’t always have a garage and during times that I did it was too far of a hike for daily storage. Instead, the car sat on the street. It wasn’t a rust bucket by any means; it had rust in the normal spots below the battery tray on the passenger fender and underneath the seam between the front valence and the fenders. I just knew I had to take care of this eventually, but never decided if I was going to try it myself or have it done professionally.
And of course some other more immediate project always took priority. Rubber started to perish or fail, long in of replacement. Oil cooler hoses. Transmission mount. Engine mounts. Control arm bushings. And that is just what I got around to doing.
Then, concern over the safety of driving such an old car began to creep in. How would we fare in a collision with no airbags? I know there are some that will comment that these old cars are sturdy and that airbags are no big deal, but I just don’t buy it. It was starting to feel less and less worth the risk.
So in the end I put 12,000 miles on the car over three years. I took it on road trips, had countless roadside conversations with strangers who recounted stories of these cars from their youths, or enthusiasts like myself that had picked up a similar interest in vintage German metal. The Mercedes W123 will remain my favorite car, but I had to let it go for something more modern with airbags that needed less attention. Of course, as it turned out, the replacement I chose only ticked one of those boxes. But that’s a subject for another COAL…