My experience owning a classic Mercedes-Benz
Most people’s image of Mercedes Benz is of a luxurious car, one that is sumptuous, fast, and costly. Driving a car made by a brand whose foundations lie at the very beginning of automotive history. A truly historic marque. A car adorned by a three point star is a status symbol. At least that how it was in Brazil when I grew up. Rich people had Benzes. Hell, very rich people had Benzes. Since importation of foreign made vehicles was outlawed in 1974, the only way to get a Benz in Brazil was to buy it off a diplomat. And diplomats made a killing selling foreign cars to wealthy Brazilians.
My family, while upper middle class, wasn’t rich. We drove Fiats and Volkswagens, the biggest sellers in Brazil. One of my uncles, however, was pretty well off. He had inherited a company that imported hospital equipment, and business was good. He had a late 70s Sonder Klass, the S Class Benz, the highest form of luxury vehicle made in Stuttgart. That car was huge by Brazilian standards. The only car that compared was the Ford Galaxie, the luxury car he owned before the Benz. I remember riding in my uncle’s Benz in Brazil just once. It was impressive, the leather seats were not rough like my mom’s Fiat seats, the car was quiet and the potholes of Rio’s street didn’t jar the whole car. That was a true luxury car. A Sonder Klass!!
But I kid you when I say that is my Mercedes Benz experience. That is just a child hood memory. My experience owning a Mercedes Benz happened fifteen years later when I was living in Miami. I was a recent high school grad going to the unglamorous Miami Dade Community College. At the time I was (most likely) still just a pimple faced teenager. My daily driver for the last year had been a Volkswagen Scirocco 16v. The VW was fast, very fast indeed. I had bought the car from a guy who was prepping the Scirocco to be a dedicated race car. The guy’s girlfriend got pregnant, and so the Scirocco was sold to make room in his garage for a Jetta. The VW had a tuned and modified engine, heavy clutch, lowered and stiff suspension, sticky tires, etc. The paint looked like crap and the rims needed polishing, but this VW was my sleeper. A nineteen year old with a fast hatch back is a dangerous animal, and so was I. I raced every Golf, Civic, Celica, Accord or anything else that dared try to trump my Scirocco. To make matters worse I removed the muffler and put a Cherry Bomb straight through glass pack. It was LOUD!!!
Needless to say, my life of street racing terror couldn’t last too long. I was lucky not to ever have crashed, and never cause a crash, but in no time I got a few speeding tickets and a reckless driving charge. At twenty years old I had one point left in my license. One. That meant that one more driving infraction and I would be riding the bus. And if you know Miami well you will know that riding the bus there is just misery. I might as well move to DC, NYC, San Francisco or anywhere else where one could live without a car in the USA. But one day, the gods of 80s Volkswagen reliability shined their graceful butts at my Scirocco and on one street race my engine quit. Just like that, the engine died at 6000 rpm while accelerating down a residential neighborhood. It hadn’t been the first time the wild ‘rocco had quit on me, and I knew exactly what had fried. For the third or fourth time. It was a small electric box the size of a cigarette pack that controlled something on the ignition. I had a few spares from hunting in junkyards.. But somehow I was tired of it. I didn’t want to fix the Scirocco anymore. I sold the car plus all my collection of parts for about $2000 to a buddy.
I was done with the Scirocco, and something told me I needed a slower car. So, off to the Auto Trader I went, looking at all those grainy black and white photos of used cars, and the ads that try to entice you to buy someone else’s headache or dream with three lines of text and a phone number.
It was on that cheap magazine that I saw it. I still remember what the ad said (mostly anyway). MB 300D, 1977 – VERY RELIABLE, SOME RUST, NEEDS TO GO TO MAKE ROOM IN GARAGE, 2000 OBO. CALL 305-XXX-XXXX BILL. Something like that. The halftone picture above showed a German sedan, light colored, the big chrome grille with the obvious three point star adorned its top. A real Benz! For twelve hundred bucks! Gotta be kidding me. I called Bill immediately and scheduled to come by the next day to go see the Benz.
At dinner that night (I still lived at home), I told my dad I needed to borrow his company’s van the next day to take a look at a car. My dad asked me what car, and when I said a Mercedes Benz for 1200 dollars he thought was nuts. He knew how much money I put in the Scirocco, and told me he would not help pay to fix the Benz. If I went broke I could ride the bus or borrow his Huffy bicycle. Thanks dad!
Next day I drove the ugly beat up Econoline van to Bill’s house. Bill was rich. Very rich. Bill lived in a very nice house in Coconut Grove (fancy area of Miami), and had no less than six Mercedes Benz parked on his drive way. Six. WTF! The 300D was there, as well as a few other German Autobahn machines, including a very expensive 600SL. This guy had money. I had $2000.
He showed me the Benz, and I instantly liked it. It was beige, with a brown leather interior. The engine fired right up, had a bit more than 180,000 miles, and started with a small puff of black diesel love. It was big, it was cushy. It had window tints. I asked him what was wrong with the car and why he was selling it. He said the air conditioner didn’t work, the radiator had a small leak, and there was rust on the floor boards. From the outside there was no rust apparent. He said he had just bought a new Benz and as I could see he had no more room for any cars. The 300D was his first ever Benz and while he didn’t want to sell it, he had to. I drove it, liked it, and then we talked price. I asked him again how much he was asking for it. He said two grand but he was open for offers. I gave him a small speech about going to college, having little money, then I have to pay taxes and get insurance (all true!), and that leaking radiator, whine, whine, whine. He said “give me an offer”. I said $900. He thought about it for a few seconds and then said “$900 is as good as $2000 to me”, money was exchanged, and I came back later with a friend to drive it away. It was mine, a Benz!
I soon realized that I was not going to get any speeding tickets any more. This car barely did 65 on the highway, and it was more content on cruising between 35 and 45 mph. Gone was the razor sharp steering in the Scirocco, now I had a car that leaned like an oil tanker on a curve. Spongy springs, soft seats, a relaxed auto transmission. I kept my license and also proved my dad wrong: the Mercedes Benz was dead reliable. In the almost 2 years I owned the car I replaced the radiator (used), rebuilt the vacuum pump (by myself thanks to the Bentley manual!), and replaced an alternator after having to call Mercedes Benz road side assistance a few times (more on that later). Other than that it was four tires, some brake pads, oil, filters and wiper blades. A few times I would venture away from Miami to see my girlfriend at the University of Florida. The ride to Gainesville took five hours on the Benz, cruising at 70 mph, the five cylinder diesel engine at 4000 rpm sounding like it was going to explode. It never did.
I found out there were five Mercedes-only junk yards in Miami. My Benz, with the venerable W123 chassis, was abundant, and I could find parts for cheap anywhere. When I had to go to a dealer to get parts (like the vacuum pump rebuild kit), I got a nice discount thanks to MBCA membership (more on that later too). Another thing I found interesting: while my old VW mechanic charged me $45 an hour of labor, the Benz mechanic cost only $38 an hour. I’ll be damned! South Florida is Benzland as all the Latin Americans want to buy one when they come to the US, so there is a stiff competition for Benz to work on. Supply and demand at its best!
Being a car guy I wanted to belong to a car club. I was no longer a member of the Palmetto Bugs VW Club (no VW!), so I joined the big one, the Mercedes Benz Club of America, the largest single-brand car club in the USA. I went to a few of their meetings. At first I thought I would get snubbed because I was a broke college kid with a rusty old 300D, but by many old guys driving expensive Benz I was warmly welcomed. Many of them would remember when they had a brand new 300D back in the days. It was actually a pretty cool club. I would dress nicely with some slacks and Polo shirt, go to a monthly meeting at some fancy dealership in South Florida with a million dollar showroom, and we’d have hors d’eouvres, get a presentation from some PR guy, visit the immaculate maintenance bay, etc. Very cool. All for the $60 a year membership to the MBCA.
Another very impressive thing I liked when I owned a Benz, and one of the things that makes you appreciate that brand even more, is the free road side assistance they give to ALL Benz. Whether it’s a brand new SLS AMG, a 1954 300 SL, or my rusty $900 300D, they will jump your battery, give you a gallon of gas or diesel, change your flat or tow you to the nearest MB dealer free of charge. I was really impressed and cancelled my AAA membership! My Benz had a bad alternator for a while and on more than one occasion I had to call the roadside assistance to give me a jump. Within 15-45 minutes a silver and blue maintenance wagon would show up, I’d get jumped, the tech would write down my VIN, get me to sign on the dotted line, and then drive off. That’s it!
One day I asked one of the techs why Mercedes bothers to give road side assistance to an old jalopy like mine. He said the corporation doesn’t like people seeing broken Benz on the side of the road, no matter how old or rusty. “You see an old Ford Pinto broke on the side of the road and the first thing you will think is ‘piece of shit Ford’, even though that car hasn’t seen the maintenance bay of a Ford dealership since the warranty expired. Not Benz, we gotta get you moving or take you to the dealer”, he said. It is truly impressive how far they take their image, just the pride they have in their products. That alone made me want to own another Benz, and I am sure some day I will again.
Owning a Benz came with perks too. Before I got the Benz I drove that obnoxious Scirocco, and I dated a girl who lived in a fancy gated neighborhood. Every time I drove there with the VW they would stop me, I’d say the building and apartment number, they would call, and they would only let me in once they got the OK from upstairs. Nice security! That was on a $2500 VW. The first time I drove there in my $900 Benz I got up to the gate and, as if by magic, it went right up! Could it be a mistake, maybe they thought I was someone else? No. Every time I drove up in my shiny diesel the gate would go up (remember, all the rust was hidden underneath). Nice security! So all you need is a decent looking Benz if you’re going to rob the rich people!
Life with a Benz lasted for almost two years. Then in June 1998 I joined the US Army. The Benz had by now a bit over 240,000 miles (I drove a lot), and soon I would be having a regular paying job, and dreams of owning a newer car. My little brother, who had just about turned sixteen, needed a daily driver. What better car for a teen than a slooooooow car? I gave my Benz to my brother, and he actually liked it. His friends had newer and faster cars, but he had a Benz! That whole status thing works in high school too! Besides, I had installed a new stereo and good speakers on the car, and he had the best sound system by far. Not only that, but when he went out with friend he could actually fit half a dozen of his best buddies in the German sedan. He was happy and I liked that the car would still be home when I came back, maybe I would borrow it from my brother when I visited.
It was with dismay that I found out after Army basic training that my brother had crashed the Benz. On a rainy day he had to get off the road for some reason, went into a wet grassy patch, locked all four tires (no ABS!) and went straight into a concrete light pole. The crash did enough damage to the veteran German that the car was totaled. No more Benz. I was a bit mad with my brother, but glad he was OK, and made fun of him because his car now was a truly depressing used Neon. Hah, serves him well for destroying my Benz!
So THAT is my Benz experience. It was cheap but utterly reliable car for me. It saved my driving record and kept me from riding the chump bus. I loved that car while it was mine, and nowadays every time I see a W123 on the road I have a deep feeling of nostalgia for those days of owning a Benz. Every time I see one for sale I have this urge to run to an ATM and start removing cash for a down payment. It’s a car I lust after. Someday I will have one again. It will be a truly historical car, the Mercedes Benz W123, one of the last truly over engineered cars that Mercedes used to be so famous for making.
I just hope my next one has less rust and a working a/c….
This article was originally posted on Automobile World.