COAL: Bertha Rides Off Into the Sunset

I wrote about Bertha, our 2007 S550, in a prior installment. After four years and almost 60,000 miles (206,000 on the odometer total), we reluctantly went our separate ways.

Our 16 year old had been driving her. The driver power window quit suddenly, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone (it was shut all the way, fortunately). However, she developed a tendency to have a “locked” steering wheel upon starting.

This seemed like a concerning safety issue, though it had thus far only happened in parking lot situations. Of course, this had been going on for a few weeks before he thought to mention it. One day, he backed out of a space at Chick Fil A (he had gone in due to the power window issue) and Bertha’s wheel would not turn, at all. So there she sat, blocking the parking lot.

Usually, turning Bertha off and restarting cured this issue, he said…..but not this day. She sat like a beached whale for about 30 minutes, diverting traffic, while he kept turning her off and restarting. Finally, the wheel would turn, so he left and drove home to tell me about it.

I drove her for a week and it never did this to me. But, we had that steering concern, the driver window wasn’t working, she was due for an oil change, and there was a vibration in the steering wheel that I had never noticed before. So I made an appointment at a local dealer to at least pay the diagnosis fee and see what was going all with all these issues.

I got the call from the dealer, and it wasn’t great news….it would cost about what Bertha was worth to properly fix the problems. The oil change was completed, no problem there.

The driver window defect was not the switch or the motor, but a computer of sorts in the door, near the A-pillar, which talks to the all the door panel switches (windows, mirrors, seat, seat heating, etc.) and carries out the requested function. If this was a switch connected to a motor with copper wire, it would still work. But that would be too easy. Labor and parts on that would be $800 or so.

The vibration in the steering wheel was the motor mounts, which had all failed. $750 or so parts and labor for that.

The steering issue was the sensors built inside the steering rack, which call for more or less boost depending on conditions (lots of boost in the parking lot, less boost on the highway). They are internal and not a serviceable part, so the rack has to be replaced. Which means most of the front suspension comes apart, and you can’t put it back together with rubber bits with 200,000 miles on them. So, parts and labor for a remanufactured rack would be $3000, give or take.

While you could pass on fixes one and two, and still drive the car just fine, the steering concerned me. The dealer explained it wasn’t “locked” per se, there was just no boost when the sensors decided to take a nap. So in a parking lot especially, or around town speeds, it would feel locked. If they napped going down the interstate, you might not notice.

I didn’t want a 16 year old driving it with that potential safety problem. I mulled what to do for a couple of weeks. Our older son wanted to take his Jeep to college after all, which the 16 year old started driving when Bertha got sick. Maybe I could drive Bertha for a while, and my son could take the ES350 to college.

We all still liked Bertha so much, but there was little sense in making all these repairs at those prices. And while you could get into junkyard steering racks, etc., I just wasn’t up to finding one, finding an installer, and going through the motions to still have a 12 year old car with over 200,000 miles that I didn’t trust to put my kids in. But certainly, that’s a viable path, especially for someone who wants to work on it themselves.

As we mulled her fate, she refused to start for my college son when he was home on fall break. He cranked her 4 or 5 times, and she never started. So he took the Jeep instead. Then she did the same thing to my wife at the grocery store, though she did finally catch after a few tries.

Now, we were seeing that we might be stuck with a car that wouldn’t start at all, which of course we would be unlikely to be able to sell or trade. And the idea of putting her at a local lot for consignment was off the table as well. If she continued to deteriorate, she might quit running (or have power steering) altogether while we awaited a buyer.

So, it looked like we needed to trade her, and I started searching online. After a couple of weeks of surfing dealer sites near and far each night, I finally narrowed in on a 2015 BMW at CarMax on my watch list, but it was a few hours away. They could transfer it for a fee, but you don’t get credit for the transfer fee, even if you buy. And I didn’t want to pay to transfer something, wait for it to be moved, not like it in person, and just waste that money and time. So, I decided to drive the 250 miles or so to that particular CarMax.

The trip on a nice Fall morning started off great. Bertha started right away that morning, and loved the empty interstate, with the cruise on 82. She was smooth and silent at that speed, and I thought “What am I doing this for? She runs great. Maybe I’m being too hasty.”

After a couple of hours, I pulled over for a restroom break, and that’s when Bertha started fighting back. She wouldn’t start, at all. Just crank and crank, and no effort to catch. It was getting zero spark or zero fuel, I’m not sure which. With the pushbutton starting, it would crank for about 6 seconds, then stop if there is no success.

I tried this about 20 times, allowing the starter to rest a little between tries, and then called Mercedes roadside assistance. Mercedes has changed their policy over the years; currently, you have free roadside assistance if you are under factory warranty, or, if you have had a dealer service visit in the past 18 months. So, I was covered for a technician to come to me, and a free tow to a dealer if they couldn’t fix it on site.

Fortunately, I was only about 20 minutes away from a dealer. The local dealer mechanic called me after getting dispatched by Mercedes, to see what the symptoms were before he left the shop. He seemed stumped by what I was telling him, which wasn’t a good sign. I wanted to hear him say “oh, that’s easy, it’s a relay” or something to that effect. He said in general if a couple of gallons of gas or a jump won’t get it running, they will have to tow it into the shop.

As I waited for him to make his way over, I kept trying the start button, out of boredom really. And she started! Just like normal, no chugging, no rough running, just perfect. So I hightailed it back on the interstate, thinking I will just have to skip lunch because the window won’t go down for a drive through, and I’m not turning it off again.

We made it, with no further issues. I met the salesman I had spoken to, and seated at his desk we did a preliminary review of the car I was there to see, as well as my trade.

“My appraiser will need to go drive your trade, you don’t mind that do you?” Well of course not, but good grief Bertha, please behave!

I’ll finish the trip, and the trade, in the next installment!