Wednesday, 9 September 2009


I've been thinking again of looking for a set of wheels for the winter. I know this is deja-vu all over again but there you have it. the usual criteria are involved; a decent ownership proposition, respectable performance, practical and something that will be easy to sell on.

What's different this time is that I have a bit of an old Mercedes itch.

Earlier this week I’d arrange to meet a nearby dealer with a green Benz 280E estate, one of the classic mid-80's to 90's W124 models with the square headlights.

Like many small independent dealers, this chap used to work at a dealers, in his case Mercedes . He has obviously become the guy the local main dealers call when they need a trade-in price on an older model - he reckons he gets offered 3 or 4 W124’s a week and buys 2 a month.

Certainly this one was a peach; clean body work and an interior without a mark on it. Even the drivers seat still had crisp cloth, not worn smooth by a million miles of trouser seat. It was almost as if it had been clocked the other way, and had actually been run for only ½ of the 145k indicated miles. The only sign of age on the interior was a slight old plastic smell, that’s it, even the load bay looked like new.

Closer up, other than a little bubbling around the B pillar (alloy trim corrosion?) I could see very few bodywork faults. There were signs of kerbing on the wheel trims, and the big fat 65% profile rear tyres were on the wear markers. I couldn’t see the discs through the wheels, but the body panels all seemed to be the same colour, the gaps were all consistent and the side of the car was straight. The front screen was a little milky around the lower corners and the radio aerial on the C pillar was also U/S, but the under bonnet was clean, as was the oil (even though I spotted 2008’s stamp was missing from the service book).

The thing started with a rattle-free purr, although it had clearly been run earlier that day – the engine was a little warm – and drive in the 4 speed autobox engaged without a clunk or a thump. The dash structure is a bit dated as you’d expect; but its all there. This one had 2-zone climate, electric front seat, sunroof, electric windows and mirrors, and it all worked except the (original) radio-cassette – probably due to the lack of an aerial.

The first hundred metres also demonstrated the a/c didn’t work either, its surprising how much you miss it on a rare 24 degree day!

It took me a mile or so to figure out the exact location of the pedals; the ‘go’ one was way over to the right and had a strong return spring. And after a half-hearted attempt to use my right foot for both ‘go’ and ‘stop’ I reverted to my favoured 2 footed driving style. The car did that little trick well sorted ones do, shrinking around me as I drove. It certainly didn’t feel as wide or as long as initial impressions, the big steering wheel with its narrow leather rim proved an honest steer, and we wafted down the suburban roads with just the odd thump through the suspension to disturb progress. Certainly there was not the slightest squeak, rattle, clonk, moan or groan from anywhere in the structure. Remarkable.

I fiddled with the seat controls a little more and got a comfy position near the floor with the wheel an easy stretch away. The only ergonomic oddity was the single stalk on the right which controlled indicators, wipers, screen wash and headlight main beam. Its on the ‘wrong’ side and it took a while before I stopped looking for indicators on the left.

We reached the main road and as the limit change from 40 to 70 I squeezed the throttle to the stop. The old girl dropped a gear or two, and with a lovely smooth cultured howl from the engine it picked up its skirts and, if not exactly dashed, certainly hustled for the distant horizon. It has around 190bhp from the ‘new’ 24v motor, and with a relatively lightweight 16o0kgs to haul, it isn’t underpowered even by modern standards. A 70mph cruise was easy peasy, and after a couple of miles I took an exit for the trip back to the dealer’s. There was some rumbling from the brakes as it slowed, and the steering was slightly slow to respond.

Around the 180 degree slip road loop there was some roll, but no wallow. By the return leg along the busy coastal road I felt quite at home, and wafted along happily with the OAP traffic. I even had time to check out the switchable gearbox, the dealer put me right when I asked about the ‘Sport’ mode; its ‘Standard’ with E for economy. In ‘E’ gearchanges were gentler and I actually felt it suited the car better.

Back at the office I checked the paperwork. It had stamps for every year from 1995 to 2007 with a Mercedes dealerships. I’m told parts prices, especially for consumables are reasonable, and that Mercedes main dealers usually have staff experienced in these older cars and offer reduced labour rates, so most stay in the network.

All in all, a lovely old thing that supports those who say that Mercedes have never since been able to reach the quality levels of their 80's range. Certainly, if you were a buyer for a W124 estate, this is exactly the sort of thing you would be looking for.

Thinking about it since, it seems there are two ways to look at this;

Either £3.5 is a simply astounding bargain for a smooth, relaxed family carrier with an image that meant you could happily park outside your Holland Park gaff or weekend at the Quatre Saison, build quality most objects outside a crusader castle could only dream of, and with a similar life expectancy. In fact, you’re all completely mad not to have one.

Alternatively it’s a 15 year old barge with nearly 150k miles up, 20 year old safety standards and a load of potential rusty trouble to come.

Me? I'm going to sleep on it a bit more.

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