Fleet Update: Perfection or Patina?

I have this awful habit of buying old cars in varying state of disrepair with delusions of making them perfect while at the same time hardly spending a dime in the process. Admittedly, my DIY skills are good enough for oil changes, maybe a valve cover gasket or shock absorbers, and detailing. Much beyond those and I rapidly fall out of my element. I do keep spreadsheets on my project cars, and I can say that I am ahead of the game when you look at the big picture, but only just.


I bought the latest pseudo-project – my 1986 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 Cosworth – knowing full well that it had needs. For what I paid I didn’t expect perfection, and I was not disappointed. The good part of the car is that the motor was rebuilt about 30,000 miles ago including replacement of the very expensive Cosworth 16 valve cylinder head with a brand-spanking-new one from Mercedes. It runs like a scalded ape – once it’s warmed-up, that is. Cold start is not this car’s strong suit, but after a couple of minutes it’s fine. The transmission shifts beautifully, and the great-when-it-works rear self-leveling suspension works perfectly. The only things I’ve done under the hood are new rubber weatherstripping and a new under-hood insulation pad. Neither was critical, but they make me happy. The not-so-good on this car is all cosmetic, but no more than skin-deep.

Probably the worst thing about it from my perspective is the lack of the headliner for the (non-functioning) sunroof. It seems that one of the previous owners started taking the whole thing apart in an attempt to fix the broken sunroof cable, and gave up when he found that the whole process is only a little less complicated than rewiring the space shuttle (remember the space shuttle? But I digress..). So instead of doing it right, he left the headliner panel off (and subsequently lost it) so he could operate the roof manually. It’s really very easy: you move the big black bar rearwards about an inch, and yank it rearward. Since I do most of my driving this time of year with the roof open, it’s not the absolute worst thing in the world. When it’s closed, however, it drives me batty.

The rest of the interior is in reasonably good condition, and getting better, save for the front seat bottoms on which the leather is shredded. The driver’s seat is the worst, which is okay when you’re sitting in it, but I really want to have those panels replaced on both seats. I have replaced the shift knob with a new factory unit, and I have a factory sport steering wheel coming from Germany to replace the one on the car due to its peeling leather and rotted airbag cover. I have cleaned and conditioned the leather and added new OEM velour floormats, and the interior is really coming together. The only other real issue is that the last owner replaced the dashboard with a later one that is crack-free but unfortunately a slightly different color than original. This would be less of an issue if he had replaced the glove box door as well, but he didn’t, and they are two different colors. It’s certainly not the end of the world, but, sigh.

The outside of the car is remarkably straight and even more remarkably rust-free. All the special 16v trim is present and accounted for, and in good condition. The downside outside is that the paint is faded. A lot. To look at the car you would think it had spent 60 years dormant in the Mojave Desert baking in the sun day-in, day-out. Strangely, the plastic trim does not look as baked as the paint. Anyway, while it doesn’t need any bodywork save for repair of a few small dings, it does need a full paint job. That is, unless I decide to leave it just as it is. And I just may.

You see, my car is the same color scheme (Smoke Silver on Black) as the car that Ayrton Senna drove the wheels off around the Nurburgring. Although still new, his car looked decidedly worn by the end of the season, and was preserved in that state – at least it looked that way when I saw it at the ‘Ring museum back in 2007. I got to thinking that there is something to that patina: what my car has in common with the Senna car is that it looks like it’s been driven as opposed to sitting in a garage waiting for Wayne Carini to come and find it like the BMW E30 M3 that parked next to me at Cars and Coffee a few weeks back. I do want to do the work on the interior, because that’s where I spend my time. As for the outside, the car will not get a space in the garage in the foreseeable future, so I can’t help but wonder if the money spent on paint will be akin to peeing in the wind…

Thoughts?

~Reed

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5 responses to “Fleet Update: Perfection or Patina?

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