This is why dating a classic car is no bed of roses

25 February 2021 - 15:25
The author and his 1990 Mercedes-Benz W124. The relationship was fleeting.
The author and his 1990 Mercedes-Benz W124. The relationship was fleeting.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

In the romantic spirit of February, allow me to relay a story about a passionate but short relationship between a 27-year-old and a German three years his senior.

We love to personify automobiles, giving them names, referring to them in affectionate terms, treating them better than our real-life partners at times. They can break our hearts too.

In October 2020, after years of deliberating and fantasising, my foray into classic car ownership had seen fruition.

It was a 1990 Mercedes-Benz W124, the 230 E derivative (or so one thought — more on that later) and it had filled me with considerable excitement. It certainly looked great from most angles. Excellent paint, with most of its original fixtures intact, including the set of heavy rubber mats that were factory-issued.

Best part was that it was a four-speed manual. We fell in love on that first interaction. The champagne-hued Benz felt sprightly, solid, with a positive gearshift action, a smooth-running motor and no perturbing rattles or clunks. She “presented well” and had a “fine patina” to steal the phases of seasoned classic metal punters.

A clean exterior hid a long list of unseen mechanical issues.
A clean exterior hid a long list of unseen mechanical issues.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Of course, there was money to be spent. My W124 was treated to a new battery, new radiator, new thermostat, new expansion tank, new fuel distributor and rotor, fresh spark plugs and fresh coolant.

You could say I got carried away, because I bought a small inventory of parts that, turns out, were not really necessary. That included new brake discs and pads, a timing chain kit, air filter, oil filter, water pump, cabin filter, fan blade and cabin filter. According to my mechanic, these parts already on the vehicle were still in fine fettle.

Then there were the cosmetic bits. I sent the interior wooden trim off for refurbishment. The guy did a rubbish job, so I had to find new replacements altogether. I also ordered a new gearstick and rubber boot housing while at it, because the old ones were horrid.

Its eight-hole wheels were sent off for refurbishment. And I figured the tired-looking centre caps would look odd against these freshly painted alloys, so off to the local Mercedes dealer I went to buy a set. It cost more than you would think.  

The author replaced the wooden interior trim and installed a new gearstick and rubber boot housing.
The author replaced the wooden interior trim and installed a new gearstick and rubber boot housing.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

When they ran the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN); it was revealed that my “230 E” was actually the lesser 200 E. This left me a little deflated. But hey, if folks can put “AMG” emblems on a C180, then this retro up-badge was excusable.

So there it was. My W124, fitted with a list of new parts, fully valeted and ready to enjoy. And enjoy I did. Leisurely December cruises with period-correct music playlists, lazy afternoon wash-downs, this was everything I had imagined classic ownership to be. Sometimes I would even let my girlfriend join us. One evening I read the owner’s manual from end to end, including the Afrikaans part just for good measure. I did about 850km in the car, each one a joy.

But the blow that would render our relationship well and truly over was just around the corner. You see, friends, you can inspect a car as closely as you want — pore over the hood, squint at the bodywork from various angles and press down at each corner — but until the car you are inspecting has been put on a lift, chassis in the air, lights underneath, you have no idea what that good-looking exterior might be concealing.

And for my W124, things were not looking good. The DEKRA inspection came back with a list that just about made me cry.

After running the vehicle's VIN the author discovered that his car was in fact a 200E not a 230E.
After running the vehicle's VIN the author discovered that his car was in fact a 200E not a 230E.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

The engine, steering box and gearbox were seeping their respective fluids. Not significantly enough to create a puddle on the floor — but viewed directly from below, the drips were clear. The engine mountings were shot.

New inner and outer tie-rod ends were required, in addition to lower control arms and ball joints. The shock absorbers needed replacing, as well as the rear drag links. Even more worryingly, droplets of fuel were finding a way out of a (perished) breather pipe. Oh and handbrake strength was insufficient.

Despite all that, the DEKRA agent commented on how sturdy the old warhorse seemed during his short test drive. After three decades, any car is bound to need extensive work. I was at a crossroads. Spend even more money trying to get the W124 in top shape, or disinvest altogether. I chose the latter. Earlier this month I listed the car for sale — with the damning DEKRA report fully advertised of course.

The wheels were treated to a full refurbishment.
The wheels were treated to a full refurbishment.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

After several tyre-kickers and low-ballers, a genuine buyer emerged. The gentleman in question was attracted to the colour, because he has a C124 (the coupé) in the same shade and wanted a matching pair.

A few days after he had taken delivery, he sent images of my former beloved car in a state of dismantle, about to receive much-needed work on the suspension, as a start. His plan is to complete a full restoration.

I feel happier knowing that the car will get a second shot at life and that I played some role in its journey. Like the old cliché goes: if you love something ...

*The author plans to buy another old Mercedes, likely a W123, pending financial recovery


subscribe