Finding a Good 190E – How Hard Can It Be?

Mercedes-Benz W201. Today, two in one post.
It’s been a Benz-filled couple weeks lately; with the North Korean 190:s making the headlines I’ve been thinking of the Mercedes-Benz W201-series quite a lot. Over here, there are two kinds of W201:s driving around. The first category consists of the cars originally imported in Finland when new, which usually means well-used cars well past a quarter of a million kilometres in their respective odometers. The Finnish 190:s have something of a rock-solid reputation despite being often bitten by the rust worm; the epithet HONEST FINNISH CAR is most often attributed to a very basic, slightly brown-around-the-edges ’80s Mercedes. What, then, isn’t considered a honest one? It’s the second category of Mercs, the German imported ones. Finnish used car import taxation changed in the early 2000:s, resulting in a flood of 190:s, W124:s, E34 and E30 BMW:s and fully loaded Audis. And like one is likely to do, naturally doubtful and wary Finns eagerly associate these imported Germans with odometer tampering. “They’ve all been clocked, you can buy a service book from a Turkish guy for pocket change”. While that might ring true with some cars in the dodgier end of the spectrum, German examples usually have less rust and better specification. Today I’ll show you a few shots of both: a down-in-an-alley Finnish 190E and one of its latecomer brethren. This red 1984 190E is one of the more authentic Finnish cars: judging by the plate it’s originally been registered in the region and appears to be just as dirty and well-used as a handyman’s overalls. It even sports a pair of working gloves on the dashboard, and I bet there’s a toolbox in the trunk. The paint has dimmed, the paint on the fender has first started to peel and then rust, but the chrome grille shines on with the star standing proud, if a little tilted to the left. The combination of a red car and a brick wall works. Just ask those guys who shot the promo pics for the new Dodge Dart. I like how the soft-touch rear spoiler incorporates a cut-out place for the round star badge. While the spoiler isn’t much of a looker, I guarantee you it’s even worse to the touch, all floppy and spongy. But since it’s period-correct, I’d keep it on – even if I’d check the mounting holes for rust just to be on the safe side.   Moving on, to the Used Car Review part of this post: Here’s the second 190E. A German import with Wuppertal plates before boarding ship, it shows 153 000 km:s on the clock and has an asking price of 2900 eur. While it is a German car, it can only be distinguished by the Euro plates and a sunroof; otherwise it’s almost as basic as the Finnish one, with a 2.0-litre engine and a 4-speed manual. The paint on it is metallic black, which should polish up nicely. And nice it is, with little rust on it; I only found bubbles from the jacking points and under one trim piece. The underbody is rust-free, and so are the flanks and door bottoms. Why the snow on it? Well, it had only recently arrived at the Mercedes dealership, still dirty and undetailed, and it’s not been spruced up for photos at the dealer’s website. I don’t think this is a bad thing, as you get to see it in its natural habitat and with the previous owner’s handiwork still visible in how the car carries itself. As I brushed the car clean and started it from cold, I was pleasantly surprised how straight it seemed. The driver’s seat was as little worn as a 1987 car’s could be. While Benz benches are made of sturdy cloth, the driver’s side left bolster is often worn through. Not so on this car, and the sunroof hadn’t developed any leaks, either. A positive sign. As it warmed up and I hopped behind the wheel, I found a slight problem. The thing is: the 190E isn’t one of the roomiest cars built. The W201 had the seats improved at facelift time and more room was arranged from somewhere, but this sunroof-equipped pre-MoPf car had my hair brushing the roof and my head at a slight angle. That the seat was jammed in place didn’t help; I could adjust the backrest but a perfect driving position could not be arranged. Darn. Driving off in the snow, holding the wheel from slightly further away than I would’ve desired, I enjoyed the feel of the car. The first things I checked out was to see if there was any drivetrain thunk: a sure sign of the diff being on its way out. No. The four-speed stick was slick and gears engaged with gusto; no thunks in this car. The back end felt loose on snow, satisfyingly so – turning the car around in a T-junction with just a stab of the gas isn’t something I get to do on a daily basis with my front-driving daily driver. The 190E is a classically educated German car in all of its details, and the only sounds that made the way into the cabin was a roar from the studded tires, and something squeaking from around the passenger seat. The knobbly, old-style Mercedes wheel felt giant in my hands, as I tried out the 190E’s highway guts. It’s not a quick car, but acquires speed gracefully; with the road surface slippery I felt the car travel from side to side ever-so-slightly, but it felt trustworthy on a straightaway. Inspecting the Benz in the dealership’s outside lighting, I noticed a loose heat shield on the exhaust that made a rattling noise. Another thing was a slight lifter tick; the Benz shouldn’t sound too diesely but there was something that needed adjusting. Something also sounded dragging, and I suspect a worn fanbelt pulley. The camcover gasket had oozed oil on the engine, and in general the engine bay was in need of a steam wash. I also rummaged around the trunk. One place where the W201 rusts is the back, as the rear screen seals fail and rust out the screen surrounding. More water gets in and rots the trunk’s bottom and the saddlebag-style trunk side mouldings. The trunk on this Benz was dry, so at least it hadn’t leaked recently. I couldn’t remove the inside panelling in the cold and dark, as I didn’t want to risk damaging the plastic, but knocking the rear corners from outside procuced a solid sound. But this is where the car’s pedigree comes into question. There was no service history with the car except for a couple of stickers at the door jambs; other indicated the next service coming at 70k (ugh) and another an oilchange at 147k, in June without disclosing the year. The following day, I asked the dealer about the advertised service book. He told me the car didn’t come with a service folder at all. With a 1987 Mercedes this might be a moot point, but since there’s always existed a huge division of trustworthiness between Finnish and imported Mercs, a service book is crucial if I wish to sell one on someday. Trying to convince a service station café parliament of the Mercedes’s kilometres is difficult even with a stamped book; without as much as a owner’s manual it’s downright impossible. I had the dealer ring the previous owner and heard the news: the car was imported in 2003 without any history and in the following nine years they have had it it’s been serviced every 10 000 km. They had driven the car for 20-30 000 km:s, so servicing has been few and far between. These cars need their oil changes and scheduled services even if there’s not much to go wrong: and paying an admittedly hefty price for a 1987 Merc without a diligent backstory isn’t something I’d do in a heartbeat. I do admit, it’s only rarely that I’ve heard an official Mercedes dealer downplay the importance of service history. I’m still jonesing for the Mercedes, I tell you that. With the asking price at 2900 euros, I could have it for 2300 cash. I’m still not going to jump at the chance; despite my eagerness to own a quality-made German car. I’m sure one with the homework in its back pocket will come along some time – Finnish or imported. I’m not saying the black one is clocked, but the thing is: I can’t tell you it isn’t. Even if it’s a straight, rust free car that drove fine, I just couldn’t be satisfied with paying over 2k for an amnesiac Merc.

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