The Best or Nothing: 1998 Mercedes C280 nears the Finnish line

Sometimes it’s a huge relief when a car you bought is exactly as bad as you hoped it would be.

Let me explain that a bit further. For some time, we’ve gotten together with a bunch of friends for a weekend in January or February, booked an ice track and some accommodation and proceeded to get some cars sideways. It’s not unusual for some of these cars to end up worse for wear, as snow banks and over-driving can be tough on bumper plastics, side skirts and sheetmetal. This year, we’re getting ready for the ice track weekend again, and a question was raised whether the cars we were planning on bringing were indeed too nice to beat on. Valiantly, I stepped forward and chose a true beater that was local to me and would get me to the track some hours’ drive north.

It’s certainly not too nice.

The car in question is a 600 euro Mercedes-Benz C280 wagon. It has over 315,000 miles (500+k km) on the clock. It’s road legal til May, but it’s also unlikely it’ll pass another inspection due to the rampant rust and everything being different grades of bad. Every door is rotted. The side skirts are held on with self tapping screws. The spare wheel well has rusted through. There are signs of rust coming through the sheetmetal and the previous owner has been kind enough to spray the bubbles with rattlecan paint so they are a little more noticeable. Barely any actual repairs have been made on the exterior. The rust is all-encompassing and omnipotent. It will consume this car.

Sometimes with a rusty car you can at least get away with a nice interior. Not this time. The light grey cloth interior is dirty and stained – not grossly so but enough that you want to wipe down your clothes when you get out. The driver seat has a torn bolster, as always. The similarly stained door cards look bad, with the wood trim on the driver door curiously split in the middle. It reminds me of the time I did my best to get as nice a car as possible with not very much money at all and trying to fix it up with just polishing it and attending to the vehicle’s basic needs. Maybe adding some nicer OEM wheels while I was at it. Meanwhile, there’s no budget for niceties here as I’m quite adamant I’m the last owner for this car. Then again, the dash and the wood trim on it is intact, everything works including the driver’s power seat (except for the stereo’s volume knob is out of control) and there do not seem to be any dead bulbs, at least not on the gauge cluster.

The kicker is that this was a very expensive vehicle in 1998. I didn’t do the math for what a C280 sedan cost in the States, but optioned up to this level, with metallic paint, autobox, sports suspension, sunroof, climate control, ESP and audio/phone packages, this C280 Elegance wagon cost around 64,000 Euros (adjusted for inflation) in its day in Germany when it was delivered in April of -98. Had you chosen to get a similar car from the Finnish Mercedes importer, you would have started with a base price of 84,000 Euros (359000 FIM, 1998 money)and probably broken the 100k ceiling with the options you have here. And it’s a silver Mercedes wagon just like any other. This one got imported here in 2003 with a little under 200,000 km on the clock and was plated and put in use after import taxation.

Add fuel costs and servicing for 500,000 km and you’re easily looking at a total spend of a million Finnish marks, for an originally Finnish registered car. Depreciation is total as the car is now worthless 24 years later. Could it have been worth it to have it on your drive? I presume these Mercs started showing the first traces of rust before they were ten years old here, so the early W202s will have been there to drive down their values already, parked next to newer ones. The fall of the W202 and W210 from “Finland Man Dream Car” to “Eh, it’s terrible but it’s a Mercedes” was like taking a swim in a frozen lake directly from a blisteringly hot sauna. I also can’t help but wonder what kind of Mercedes was traded in for this car in -98. Could it be a better, more valuable car in better condition today?

Of course, fundamentally it is still a decent car. It’s road legal, it runs, starts from cold with the first turn of the key, the transmission hasn’t lost its wits and I feel like driving it north for an ice track outing isn’t an impossible task. The car only seems to need topping off the coolant and putting some gas in the tank (and replacing the terrible condition winter tires with ones that have intact studs) and we’re good to go. I won’t change the oil, as it seemed like it’s had some of it recently, the dipstick showed full and this sucker takes eight litres of the stuff. Ultimately, if the Benz makes it back from the trip I’ll sell some of its parts to recoup costs and then it’ll have a date with the crusher. That brings us to the beginning of this piece: it will not feel like a waste. Whoever has wanted to get the most out of this car, will have done so when its time is up. There aren’t that many parts I feel like I can sell: everything is used up. The rattlecan splotches do somehow work together to turn this into an art car, a complete, full-bodied experience of a run-down S202.

Loading the wagon with some steelies and tires today, in freezing temps, I felt like there was something dystopian about a formerly luxurious car reduced to a spraypainted shadow. I’d gladly read a short story where a constantly dirty, beat-up Benz was the hero car, in a story set somewhere north, with trailers and vans littering the barren landscape of a deserted mining town. I’d probably have to write it myself, and if I break down in the C280 somewhere east of Oulu I’ll certainly have the time to get started.

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2 responses to “The Best or Nothing: 1998 Mercedes C280 nears the Finnish line”

  1. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    ah the W202. rust assured. too bad – nice looking cars when they’re not disintegrating. i’m glad you’re giving this one a good viking funeral

  2. outback_ute Avatar

    Reminds of a friend’s white car that as-bought had stone chips and minor rust touched up with brown paint. To give the benefit of the doubt(!) that was done a long time before he bought it (50yo car so could have been 30yr earlier) and maybe the sun had fried the paint somehow? Fixed up and looks great after a repaint.

    We did a navigation rally in that car before the repaint, in a ‘standard car’ class that didn’t require a cage/harnesses, the scrutineer commented it had been a long time since he’d seen cross-ply tyres!