About a year ago I published a piece entitled “The Cars That Keep Me Coming Back for More” wherein I talked about a variety of cars that keep finding their way into my fleet – and my heart. Shortly thereafter, my good friend and editor of Classic Mercedes magazine, David Sutherland, asked if I’d be willing to do a piece on all the Mercedes-Benzes that have found their way into my life over the years – or at least the more *entertaining* ones – being that Mercedes is the marque that I seem to hold most near and dear. Following is that piece, first published in Classic Mercedes Issue 34, Spring, 2021. It’s a little long, so grab a coffee, beer, scotch, or plan on more than one sitting to make it through!
The first car I ever drove was a Mercedes-Benz – a 1982 280TE. It was 1983, and my Dad was teaching my reluctant older sister to drive on a private road in Hong Kong. I hounded him for a go, and he finally relented and let me drive about a quarter mile. My appetite was whetted, making it seem like that much more of an eternity until I’d finally be legal.
Four years on I took my driving test in another Merc – this time a 1981 300SD, formerly the property of Benny Goodman, the King of Swing. My folks bought it from his estate when he passed away in 1986, and it was glorious. I drove it as often as they’d allow, and probably more than I’d have let me.
As a young college graduate I couldn’t afford a Mercedes nice enough to serve as my primary car, so I drove Hondas, Mazdas, and the like. After getting married I finally jumped head-first into a W124 saloon. That was 1996 and I was 25 years old. I’ll be 50 this year, and since that first one I have owned at least one Mercedes of varying quality at any given time for the past quarter century – literally half my life.
This walk down memory lane reveals certain affinities I have and the wells I drink from time and again. W123s, W126s, and W124s are solid favorites, and I do love a diesel – especially the indestructible OM617a. But I also like to shake things up from time to time with cars like the 113 Pagoda, W210 E55 AMG, V140 V12, and anything with an M100 V8.
The first Mercedes we bought. We owned an Audi 100CS Quattro estate at the time which spent more time being repaired than in our driveway. Since the dealer was also a Mercedes retailer, we kept getting Merc loaners. In truth we preferred the loaners to our car, so we went hunting and found this clean W124 2.6. Ultimately sold due to a persistent hot starting issue – back before there were internet forums and YouTube to help solve such maladies!
I was looking for a daily driver and decided I wanted a turbo diesel like the 300SD my parents had, but I preferred the W123’s size and styling. This car previously belonged to an Iranian mechanic who fled his home country during the revolution in a stolen F16. We remain friends to this day. I regret selling this car more than just about any other. It was perfect – once I installed the rear headrests!
As a young family we decided that two 123 diesels would be better than one, so found an estate for wife and baby. We flew to Florida to spend some time at Disney, then drive home in our new wagon. Upon arrival we met a fright pig of a car, but the real dealbreaker was suspension in need of a complete rebuild to the point it was unsafe at any speed. Returned it after the test drive and flew home.
I always loved the C126 SECs, but could never find the right combination of good car and available cash. The C124, with similar sharp-edged pillarless coupé styling – fit the bill nicely. Despite being a sun belt car, it arrived with a broken coil spring. It also had a door seal issue where it whistled on the highway despite all attempts to remedy. Reinforced my love of the style and the 124, but there were happier cars to be had.
Another car I regret selling. Heck, I’d still own it if it’d had seat heaters! Truly a viable alternative to the E500E at a fraction of the price. Enjoyed several road trips in this one, but sold it on when I got bored (and cold). I heard a few years ago from the buyer that the car had sacrificed itself to save him in a highspeed collision. My loss was truly his gain.
As I got into the culture of the International M100 Group, at the urging of club president Stu Hammel I decided to jump in with both feet. Although it drove like a scalded banshee, this car literally came out of a barn, took about $3,000 to get it operational, and needed $30,000 more to approach “nice”. These days that would be a 6.3 bargain, but I got out and sold it to a fellow in Saudi Arabia. Thankfully.
This car belonged to a little old lady in our neighborhood and I would see it sometimes on my daily walks. It was garage kept and perfect. One day a “for sale” sign appeared in the back window – so I pounced. It turned out she was just too old to drive anymore. Nice though it was, the 240D with the automatic was painfully slow, so I decided to sell. It was the first Merc I made a real profit on.
Nostalgia is a funny thing, and I decided I wanted another W123 300D Turbo Diesel. I found this car on CraigsList a couple of hours away, owned by a woman who lived on a rural horse farm. It had 300,000 miles and an exhaust made of household plumbing. It sounded cool, but was not the 300D I longed for or remembered. Had been ridden hard and put away wet.
My parents had always talked about buying an SL, so I convinced them to go halves with me on this one. Bought in Atlanta, my Dad and I drove it 12 hours back to Virginia. It was the middle of summer and the radiator wasn’t working, so we put the heat on to keep the engine cool and drove all night long. Around 3am Dad started singing, and it got weirder from there. Sold to a fellow in Spain.
Having had success buying and selling my last 240D, I bought this one spotted on the internet locally. This one was a manual, came with full history including European delivery paperwork, but had a big dent in the door. I drove it for a bit, but wanted to see if I could turn as good a profit on this one as the last. I did! This car now lives in New Zealand, and I get periodic updates from the buyer.
I was recently reacquainted (virtually) with this car when it showed-up at a Sotheby’s auction and sold for over $40,000. I bought it in Memphis and drove it home with my 5 year-old daughter, starting what became a tradition of “5 year trips” for both of my girls with Dad. Ran flawlessly the whole trip, and the aircon even worked – after I gave the servo a whack with the lug wrench. Sold to Germany where it was restored.
Don’t drink and eBay. This car was about 2 hours away from me and was generating no interest, so on an inebriated whim I entered what I thought was a lowball bid. Whoops. I got it home and spent some time cleaning it up, and had the front wing repaired. I always hated the aftermarket side moldings like this one had. Detailing and a better ad generated a small profit for me.
Another car from my neighborhood, but this time spotted on one of the online Mercedes forums. I recognized the houses, and asked the fellow if he lived here. Walked over to his house to find a tired but good running 420SEL with horrible C-class alloys. Drove it for a bit, but got bored quickly. Not nice enough to be great, not bad enough to part out. Just about broke even after replacing the exhaust.
As much as I loved my E420, the E500E – with its Porsche connection and bigger engine – is just cooler. I found this one as a bargain with over 200K miles. What could go wrong? As it turned out, not much. I replaced a leaky coolant hose – that’s it. Had a memorable (and successful) race against a Golf R32 at 5am on a rural highway. Sold it to a guy who later sold me an E36 M3 – probably as payback.
Bought as another “barn find” M100 from a widow liquidating her husband’s collection. She had a 6.3 that needed paint, a ’62 Corvette that needed a tune up, and this car that didn’t run. I bought this one for a song and had it towed home thinking it would be a simple project. After three months I gave up and listed it for sale “as is”. It was winched onto a truck to California never to be heard from again.
Back on the nostalgia train, I dipped my foot into the W123 300D well once again. This was an unusual U.S. car, delivered with seat heaters and orthopaedic backrests. It had sunburned paint, hence the low price. I had it painted and drove it daily for several months until deciding that the ortho seats were the cause of – and not the solution for – my back pain. Very good car, but alas.
This was the second of my dad-daughter “5-year trip” cars – this time with my younger daughter. Exceptionally clean 16V, being sold by a guy who’d been hit in the head by an airplane wheel. I kid you not. He was standing on a fence, plane was landing, he was knocked in the head and mildly brain damaged. Probably my second biggest selling regret behind the first 300D. Simply a gorgeous vehicle – and great fun.
As much as I advise people to check cars in person and don’t fall for pretty pictures, that’s exactly what I did here. Car looked phenomenal in the photos, so I bit. It showed up okay but tired and kind of rusty. Nicknamed “The Valdez” by my Dad thanks to its propensity to leak oil all over his driveway. Replaced the transmission for $3,200, and decided to cut my losses afterwards. A lesson in heeding my own advice.
My first adventure in the world of AMG. Bought the car in North Carolina – it was a Canadian market car with a KM speedometer but the odometer was set to miles, which made for a recordkeeping nightmare. It also came with oversized rear tires which rubbed excitingly every time I floored it. Changed those right quick! Excellent car that only ever had one failure: the crank position sensor.
Some of my best deals have come from poorly-written ads. This falls squarely in that group. Great car in great colors – much nicer than the brown of the last (running) one I’d had. Required nothing more than to be driven more than I had time to accommodate. One of my old M100 mentors used to preach “garages kill” – so I sold it to someone who didn’t fear adding miles to it.
A return to the black W126 well for another daily driver – but this time I figured that 6-cylinder economy and conventional rear suspension would outweigh my need for heated seats, V8 acceleration, and long wheelbase. Truth is, it delivered in spades. It fell victim to my short attention span and I sold it to a gent who’d previously bought a set of alloys from me. I think he still has it. Was a keeper, that one.
They say there’s nothing more expensive than a cheap Mercedes. This was a very cheap one indeed – due mainly to miles but was also a little crispy around the edges. Still, it was local and I still hadn’t owned a C126, so I bought it. Ran out of petrol driving it home thanks to an optimistic gauge – live and learn! It cleaned-up nicely, but was still inherently rusty. Great for scratching an itch, not to keep for the long haul.
Under normal (non-COVID) circumstances I travel to California fairly regularly for my day job. I’d always wanted to take a day or two, find a nice rust-free car out there, and bring it home. This sweetheart belonged to its original owner and had a half-million miles on it. Came with all paperwork from new. Outside was pristine, inside was sunburned. Sold on to a guy who periodically sends me a mileage update – last check was over 600K.
This car had been sold by a friend to the person I bought it from. When it hit eBay I got an urgent email telling me “if it goes for less than $7,500 buy it!” I did. It was the third of my father-daughter car trips. Flew to NY to get it, drove home. This was my wife’s “fun” car for three years – we only sold it to help fund a home remodel. Stupid move.
Another father-daughter trip: Atlanta to Virginia (and 2 years ahead of schedule!). Mechanically a very happy car, but cosmetically challenged. It had proper European headlights and side markers despite being a US-car. The paint was faded, dash cracked, seat seams split, and the sunroof liner was MIA. Had it painted and sold it to a woman in Seattle who bought it for her son as a first car. Lucky kid.
I always feared the 140-chassis, especially the M120 V12 powered ones. I was also intrigued by them. This was yet another example of poor ad resulting in an underpriced car. Sublime to drive, but suffered from some strange electrical issues (wiggle the fuse to make the soft close doors work?) and had a hard time retaining motor oil. Valdez II. Still, I’m absolutely dumb enough to have another. When it was good, it was great.
It was a late night, I was surfing on my laptop and watching TV, when I tripped across this eBay auction on the verge of ending – for too cheap given the miles and apparent condition. Seller responded to my standard questions (leaks, functionality, etc.) quickly and favorably, so I bought. He may have slightly misrepresented the “no oil leaks” bit but otherwise a nice car made that much better with European headlights and new tail lights.
This car showed up on the local Mercedes club’s FaceBook page. Seller was funding his S123 project, and this car was cheap, documented, and DID have heated seats – yay! My daughter’s first car (1.5 years early) and mostly a good experience. She deloused it and assisted in some DIY repairs. Shortly after funding head gasket replacement the wiring harness failed. Donated it to a charity for underprivileged kids for a tax break.
One of seven 500Es delivered to the US in this color – I still have the personalized California license plate indicating same. Decided to get-in on the 500E market before prices skyrocketed. Babied it for about 6 months before I figured it was time to cash out. Essentially broke even. If you ever want to know which Mercs will jump in value, just watch what I sell. Would be worth nearly double today. I kid you not.
The mission here was to prove that one could buy a $2,500 25 year-old Mercedes sight-unseen, fly the family 2/3 of the way across America, and drive it 1,700 miles home without incident. Only problem the whole (August) trip was the aircon, which I had serviced in St. Louis. Daughter assumed it after the E320 wagon, named it “King Joffee” after Coming to America, and drove it until the transmission failed. Already had that T-shirt, so sold as it sat.
More pillarless coupé fun, but with the added joy of my old friend the OM617a turbo diesel engine. I learned from this car that I actually prefer the 123-chassis saloon to the coupé. Beautiful car, but would have been much better with a more powerful gas-powered lump under the bonnet. Sold to a Polish Chicagoan who planned to send it to his brother back home. I still have the OEM floormats he forgot.
I’d started working from home and didn’t see a need to continue making payments on a late-model car. Fondly recalling the black 300SE, I bought this car from a seller in California. Price was good, but it needed a dent repaired. It also had the M103 hot staring issues like that first 300E 2.6, but this time I was able to fix it thanks to the internet collective. Served its purpose beautifully, but another victim of microscopic attention-span.
Bored to tears during COVID lockdown, I found this car on AutoTrader from an elderly seller in Nebraska. He had the complete history of the car including the original order for European delivery to a US Serviceman. He took particular pride in rubbing the wood under the windshield with linseed oil to “keep it nice.” Lived in California most of its life, and every bit as fun as my 6.3 was back in the day. Absolute keeper – I think!
So there have been a handful of others, mostly more utilitarian in nature – our family cars mostly – a few wagons, SUVs, and some others that frankly weren’t around long enough for me to remember or have taken pictures of – but this paints a pretty good picture. On the whole, Mercedes youngtimers (RADmobiles, or those from the 1970s-1990s), as some of the best engineered and built cars ever, have treated me very well indeed.
With all my buying and selling, the stated goal (for my wife as much as anyone) has always been to make a bit of a profit. In totaling my 25 years of cars, it looks on the surface like I’ve made about $25K; in reality the goal is to at least break even. It’s hard to include the cost of repairs when setting a sale price on a car, as some cars have treated me well dollar-wise while others have been money pits of the highest order. When you consider things like transmission replacement in a Pagoda or a 560SEL, self-levelling suspension overhaul, or head gasket replacement, profits evaporate VERY quickly. I usually keep a spreadsheet on each car to track expenses and ultimate profit or loss, but admittedly on some cars I have been known to give up after a certain point. If at the end of the day when the tally is in on all the cars I’m close to even – which I believe at this point I am, if not just a hair ahead – then I consider the endeavor a resounding success! Cars, after all, are supposed to be depreciating assets, right?