By on September 8, 2011

Fabio writes:

Hi Sajeev,

I have been asked by an uncle if I would like to his 91 Mercedes 300E (he has supplied all of his children and is now moving to the extended family). It has 230K km (140K miles) and looks to be in pretty good condition. He’s mentioned that it has been very reliable. The purchase price would be negligible and the insurance is reasonable. One of my concerns is that I would be using the car as my daily driver (it would be replacing my current 99 Grand Am (170K miles) and I wanted to get another take on that – is it reasonable, or is it not a good idea.

I’ve read a bit up on that vehicle and it seems to have a decent reputation for longevity (with the required maintenance). I was hoping if you could provide some insight as to whether this seems like a feasible idea, or would I just be better off sticking with the Grand Am.

Sajeev answers:

Short answer? This is a great car from the good old days of German engineering, but I don’t see you stomaching the occasional $1-3000 repair bill if you use it on a daily basis. Older cars aren’t good daily drivers, especially German ones with somewhat pricey and hard to find replacement parts. Unless you have a lot of faith in the car’s service records and age/brand of replacement parts, you should avoid this vehicle at all costs. That’s my general advice, unless you have something that might sway me otherwise.

Fabio answers back:

Sajeev, I’m fairly certain that the car was well serviced (my uncle was the only owner), however I will have an independent shop take a look to see what the lay of the land is. Now I’ve got to see how I can say, “No, you can keep your free Mercedes.” :-)

Are there any circumstances that you would acquire such a vehicle (see how I’m looking for an answer that I would like to hear, instead of the right one)?

Sajeev:

Damn, son! Why didn’t you say that before? I can do this cake-eat-it-too scenario!

So do you have the room to keep a second car? Collector car insurance is cheap, and yours probably applies. So honestly, having a Grand Am and a 300E for occasional use would be quite fun. And quite awesome.

Fabio:

I currently park on the street, but I also have a private spot behind my house (off of the alley). I’d have to see from my insurance about the classic car insurance.

Sajeev:

Shop around, there are plenty of providers of classic car insurance. And they all have different rules. I use State Farm and my brother uses the National Corvette Museum for it…seriously! Everyone is in this game!

You are on your way to owning two cars, that’s the smarter move than one old car only!

Fabio:

Yeah. What could possibly go wrong? :-) I’ll see if we have the Canadian equivalent of the Corvette museum up here – perhaps the National Bricklin Museum?

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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47 Comments on “Piston Slap: The Spare 300E needs a National Bricklin Museum?...”


  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Good advice. I am continually mentally mapping how I’d be able to keep more vehicles around my place without upsetting the landlord or the neighbors. Rented house, two car garage, currently a Vibe, F150, and 150cc scooter on the property.

    Be careful when shopping for classic car insurance. Several years back my father was trying to get classic car insurance for his 1967 Mustang, the company wanted pictures so my father obliged and sent them. They told him they couldn’t write him a policy because of his Cragar SS mag wheels – the car must be a hot rod and not a collector car. (Rolls eyes.) He went with another more reasonable company.

  • avatar
    Japanese Buick

    The fact that a car is virtually free to acquire can make a couple of those $1-3K repair bills easier to swallow. Just sayin’.

    • 0 avatar

      As long as you are prepared up front for the fact that the “free” car isn’t really going to be anything like free, yes, absolutely. I was offered a free boat recently. It needed probably $10k of work, at which point it would probably be a $20k boat. That’s still a decent deal — a $20k boat for $10k, essentially. But it wasn’t “free”, and as it turned out, it wasn’t a boat I wanted to spend $10k on.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    I bought an ’88 300TE about five years ago, drove it for two years as my daily driver, and sold it to a good friend who still has it as his daily driver. 140K when I bought it, something like 180K now. No major issues, and certainly no $3000 repair bills. I think the most I spent on it was $5-600 in parts to rebuild the suspension when I first got it, and maybe another $500 on maintenance stuff. My friend has spent no more than another $500 or so on sundry stuff over the years, not counting he must have put a set of tires on it by now.

  • avatar
    gasser

    Do you have a reliable MBZ mechanic nearby??? If so, go for it. If not, run.
    I’m been blessed over the years with two different MBZ mechanics. They were knowledgeable about what usually needed to be done at mileage markers, what was the solution to problems (rather than just change parts until something worked) and what was rebuildable. Also used German aftermarket parts, not MBZ OEM to save a bundle.

  • avatar
    slance66

    Can’t he sell the Grand Am and use that as a repair fund? While older cars may not be great daily drivers, he’s using an older car as a daily driver now. Is the 300E in better shape than the Grand Am? I don’ think I’ve seen a late 90′s GA lately that wasn’t a disintegrating piece of junk. I say drive the MB for two years and if maintenance proves a problem, sell it and get something more reliable than either of these cars.

  • avatar
    Dingo

    For what its worth I currently have a W124 as a daily driver, 1994 E320. As others have said a good indie mechanic is essential. Have him go over it before you purchase and look for typical W124 issues such as wiring loom and head gasket. From my experience I say go for it and enjoy the ride. The old Benz’s are tanks.

  • avatar
    rpol35

    Similar scenario, my father-in-law had a ’92 version of this horrid little turd that he wanted to give to my family. I went to south Florida to retrieve it but soon learned it was nothing but a constant, bottomless money-pit. Even during those brief, lucid moments when it actually worked as intended, it performed poorly, braked poorly and rode poorly and it only had about 70,000 miles at this point. To add to the fun, the transmission started to shift with the buttery smoothness of a pea-thrasher.

    The last straw was having the accelerator cable break in the middle of high-speed, high flow traffic on I-4 in Orlando. The near miss of getting rear-ended, on top of every other imaginable problem, was enough to give it back.

    I’d run like hell!

  • avatar
    david42

    Having recently gotten rid of my E320 (w124) daily driver, I have an opinion or two about this…

    It was never a drive-it-and-forget-it car, but it still had plenty of usability and panache. It had a few small annoyances (intermittent wipers were a little too intermittent!) and a couple major ones (climate control was problematic, meaning that the defroster couldn’t keep up with 3+ people in the car). And a few barely-relevant gremlins (speaker failure, panel lights going out, etc.) Nothing that would leave me stranded, though. There were also some initial investments in the front end.

    Oh, this was a car that had about 80k miles on it.

    You should count on two eventual multi-thousand-dollar repairs, if they haven’t recently been done: transmission and climate control system. The rest of the stuff will be an occasional $300-$500 “bite.”

    I would’ve kept it, except it was rusting out around the front suspension–the car was from Alberta, originally. It was right on the cusp of being a great daily driver: almost too obnoxious to keep running, but ultimately worth it because it was so much better than an old Camry/Accord.

  • avatar

    If it was free or close to I’d say take it and then either decide to dump it or repair it when the first big bill comes along. You might get a six months of cheap motoring or perhaps three years.

  • avatar
    evan

    I just got back from South Africa where these cars are in service all over the place as taxis cabs – albeit usually with the diesel engine option and manual transmission. The last one I was in had over 500,000km on the dial and still felt wonderful. And believe me, these cars are NOT having $3,000 repair bills come due – it just simply isn’t part of the plan when you’re eking by driving people to work and taking the occasional tourist into town. (Obviously used parts are scrounged when needed, etc)

    I myself have put 60,000 miles on two older MB’s and after having plenty of people try and argue with me otherwise, they are proving to be incredibly inexpensive to own. Insurance is cheap, they’re good with gas (especially considering the performance available) and aside from a few niggles like burnt out bulbs and a failing serpentine belt ($160, all in) they have been completely reliable. And yeah, depreciation is nil. Oil changes are expensive with synthetic oil, and you really should budget for transmission and rear ‘diff fluid flushes and changes at that mileage, but I have yet to come across anything that is ugly.

    And by the way, my gf has a mid-90’s Pontiac with 150,000 on the clock that now needs wheel bearings, a rebuilt transmission, brakes, steering rack, radio, and assorted trim and body bits, and other junk, all of which adds to way more than $3,000 depending on how driveable she wants it… As we all know, cars can be expensive, no matter the manufacturer.

  • avatar
    swedishiron

    I would look at it from a Safety perspective first, I would rather be in that model/year Mercedes than that model year Grand AM. You can’t put a dollar price on your life or you ability to walk (spinal injuries). The Grand Am will likely just continue to plummet in value relative to the Mercedes. If you live where you see snow/ice on the ground on a regular basis you’d better invest in a set of Winter Tires and wheels (not expensive really) for that Mercedes as the old Multi-Link Independent Rear Suspensions were known to be a bit inconsistent in foul conditions if tires are worn.

    That Mercedes shouldn’t be that hard to work on – learn to do simple maintenance items yourself on it – change your own plugs,coolant,distributor cap, alternator (or voltage regular inside of it) if you don’t know how to already .

    • 0 avatar
      iNeon

      What’s so safe about a 1991 model car with 1 airbag if it lives in Canada and is 20 years old?

      • 0 avatar
        Silvy_nonsense

        “What’s so safe about a 1991 model car with 1 airbag if it lives in Canada and is 20 years old?”

        Assuming the airbag even fires when an accident happens. The airbags in that model year require replacement after 10 years, so this should have been done circa 2001. My estimate is that due to the expense, this swap out has not been done on approximately 99% of the W124′s on the road. On a more positive note, the replacement airbags do not require replacement, so you’ve got that going for you.

      • 0 avatar
        swedishiron

        Airbags aren’t the definition of safety. Volvo’s own internal data showed that when they added airbags to their 2 series/7 series that you gained a 2% better chance of surviving a potentially fatal accident – NOT a big factor. That generation of Grand Am was NOT designed with a strong unibody. The generation Mercedes he may buy has well designed front and rear crumple zones designed for severe offset collisions (both front and rear) and was known as having the strongest unibody in construction at its time making use of high strength steels.

        BTW I walked away from a 50MPH side impact in a 1985 Volvo 740GLE with NO AIRGBAGS. I was t-boned on the driver’s side by a woman who accelerated to run a red light and yes I was in the driver’s seat. Plow a 3300LB+ sedan into the side of that model year Grand AM and see how well it holds up to the impact. I’d rather be in 1985 Volvo 740 again or 1991 Mercedes E-Class sans any airbags; I am sure that model year E-Class has a driver’s side front airbag. Volvo began offering frontal airbags in the 7 series in North America in 1987 as an option.

        Now Side Impact Airbags with Head Protection (generally Side Airbag Curtains today) make a huge difference but I know for a fact you won’t find such technology in a 1999 Grand Am and regardless that unibody is WEAK and won’t maintain its safety cage in a severe collision above speeds that NHTSA test at.

      • 0 avatar
        swedishiron

        http://www.iihs.org/ratings/rating.aspx?id=137&seriesid=337

        What so safe about a 1999-2005 Pontiac Grand AM ? If my link doesn’t make it on here look at the offset frontal collision results from the IIHS crash test. You can keep that tin can. If it can’t perform well in the offset crash you know darn well GM put little to no thought into side impact protection where you only of inches of steel to protect you VS feet in an offset frontal. Mercedes was one of the first manufacturers to take offset frontal and side collision protection seriously.

      • 0 avatar
        Silvy_nonsense

        “What so safe about a 1999-2005 Pontiac Grand AM ?”

        They’re so ugly that other drivers will put extra effort into avoiding you, thus reducing the chances of a collision?

        Is that the right answer? I’m sure you’ll let us all know.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Any old car, but especially German, will get to a point where you’re making monthly payments on maintenance and upkeep rather than financing a new ride. If you can afford to, and you’re okay with that, then I’d say go for it. This one is a well-kept 6-cylinder MB from the good old days, so if you tend to it regularly it will stay that way until the end of time.

  • avatar
    AMC_CJ

    I believe if you’re going to own an older car, you really need to know how to do the basic repairs (with the space and tools for the repairs). More so then oil changes, but you know, not transmission rebuilds. Little stuff can add up fast.

    My daily driver is 33 years old. Chevy though, so parts are plentiful and cheap. Driving a older car a lot, is very doable.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I’ll agree with that. That’s one reason I’m attracted to older cars, back when I had a 1987 Cutlass Supreme I did all the preventative maintenance and small repairs myself. There was something therapeutic about that portion of my obsession with cars.

    • 0 avatar
      86er

      Running an old vehicle, any vehicle, really, daily makes it run that much better.

      That goes double for those carbureted units, isn’t that right 86 Chev half-ton?

  • avatar
    ExPatBrit

    Running two older cars is not a bad thing, just make sure they both are driven regularly and be pro-active on the maintenance.

    Cheaper than a new car in the long run, and since the Benz is also almost free why not?

  • avatar
    iNeon

    Did this one from 2005-2008 in a 1979 w123 240D. Came out of(and eventually kept) a 1998 Dodge neon over the MB.

    At 155k on-the-nose, it developed M.B.S.D.S.*– I’m sure this was a fluke, because everyone else’s w123s last many, many multiples of many, many hundreds of thousands of miles.

    The a/c compressor seized, leaving its bolts in the engine block, the alternator bracket confounded my diesel mechanic Father and could never be adjusted to provide enough current to run the effin lights and wipers on the dang thing, the engine mounts, the vacuum repairs(which affect every facet of these sheisenboxen,) the worn front suspension, the 80-dollar transmission filter– The worst by far: The automatic transmission. It put me back into a manual, it was so bad.

    Get used to thinking: “Just one more repair, and I’ll have it– it’ll be a great little car once I fix this last problem!”

    * Mercedes-Benz Sudden Death Syndrome: A condition in which old Mercedes-Benz vehicles turn into rotting carcasses over ‘easy,’ ‘cheap’ repairs. There’s a reason these w116/w123/w124/w126 cars are in your local pull-a-part in the same numbers as Chevrolet Corsicas. And it isn’t because they’re the best on Earth.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Depends on how you define best on earth. If it’s best on earth at draining your wallet they are certainly in the running.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      $80 for a transmission filter? Never buy from the dealer. Seriously.

      Rusty at BuyMbParts will ship you one for $25 plus shipping, OEM (Febi, in this case).

      (No affiliation, but that’s where I get all significant parts for my W115.)

  • avatar
    ajla

    I say go for it.

  • avatar
    rocketrodeo

    About ten years ago I passed on an ’88 300E with an ultra-rare 5-speed manual. The owner happily provided a ream of service records that showed an incredible appetite for frequent and expensive service. A similar package provided for a similarly priced and equipped Acura Legend was a much thinner file. Went in that direction and never regretted it.

  • avatar
    photog02

    I still regret selling my 1986 300E. They are magical, demonically expensive to own, cars.

  • avatar
    blowfish

    If its a free car why not drive her till issues crop up.
    I bought a 190e 2.6 which got the same engine, with the knowledge of it would not shift. i drove her home in <30mph for 50 miles, it was not exactly fun.
    Then my tranny guy offered to trade a slightly older 2.3, all running except a few small issues. In the end I had to crawl under played gator for 3-4 hrs to change the fuel pump & filter.
    U do need some mechanical aptitude to run any old cars, regardless who make them. Some are notoriously high maint thats all.

    Now I tend to stay with old merc diesels, they're much simpler to fix too, and lots more tougher. U can even feed her filtered old motor oil, ATF, vege oel.
    What price of gas will it goes up to be when Colonel Khadaffi is gone?
    God forbid another Ayatollah seize power!
    We may have to think of a new Cannondale if we all think about going fast.

  • avatar
    BigDuke6

    “Get used to thinking: “Just one more repair, and I’ll have it– it’ll be a great little car once I fix this last problem!”

    * Mercedes-Benz Sudden Death Syndrome: A condition in which old Mercedes-Benz vehicles turn into rotting carcasses over ‘easy,’ ‘cheap’ repairs. There’s a reason these w116/w123/w124/w126 cars are in your local pull-a-part in the same numbers as Chevrolet Corsicas. And it isn’t because they’re the best on Earth.”

    +1 If the car is free, you might be able to convince yourself of that a couple of times. Old Benz require you to get your hands dirty. If you don’t, the love affair will over quickly…..
    My two old 250 s never died suddenly, but they nickle-and-dimed me to the point I gave up and got rid of them.

  • avatar
    cc-rider

    Not a lot of pertinent W124 info in the comment section here. There are no wiring harness issues with a 1991. The things to watch out for are the AC evaporator, transmission (reverse craps out eventually), and the head gasket. It is fairly easy to check all of these items. Check the records and see what has been kept up with. These are some of the last Benzes that can be worked on with hand tools.

    I daily drive a 95 E320 wagon. Over the 4th of July, a friend and I swapped in a C36 engine into the car. It is quite the sleeper now. The W124s are some of the best engineered Mercs ever made

  • avatar
    E30-LS1

    Run from the W124!!!

    My wife drives an ’89 with only 106,000 miles on it. So far:

    * one broken valve spring at 45,000
    * climate control computer failed at 20,000
    * steering box 2″-3″ sloppy at 45,000 – replaced
    * steering box 2″-3″ sloppy at 95,000 – replaced
    * A/C compressor failure at 80,000 – replaced
    * radiator failure at 90,000
    * water pump failure at 90,000
    * power steering pump replaced at 70,000
    * engine mounts failure at 75,000
    * Oil filter on top of engine aft of cylinder 6 is a pain to replace

    I’m a skilled mechanical engineer and mechanic & have always done all of my own maintenance.

    I’ve owned several VW’s Fords, Oldsmobile (65 cutlass; wish I’d kept it) a DS21, several MB’s, an Audi, A Fiat, etc. The W124 I have is the worst car I’ve ever owned. If I die, I hope I don’t come back as an MB mechanic — I’d have to kill myself all over again. MB’s are designed with no regard whatsoever for routine maintenance. The water pump is at least a 4-hour job, with (3) of the four mounting bolts only accessable by feel.

    Take the car and give it to charity & get a tax break.

  • avatar
    cc-rider

    Not to be the devils advocate, but your car is over 30 years old! Are you the original owners? If not, do you know the car’s history. Ask a current BMW 3 or 5 series owner how long their cooling systems have lasted. I am betting a lot less than 90,000 miles

    • 0 avatar
      ExPatBrit

      If you are talking about the car above, it’s only a mere youngster at 22 years old.

      That doesn’t seem that bad for 22 years, a lot of maintenance stuff on cars is age related. Anything with coolant, hydraulics or Freon circulating thru it or any part made of rubber is going to deteriorate.

      Lack of use (5,000 miles a year) will actually accelerate that process.

      • 0 avatar
        mjal

        I always liked the convertible versions of these cars, but after reading these replies I have to wonder if it’s worth looking. I thought these were built during the last years of golden age german engineering? Are today’s Mercedes really any worse in quality that these ’80s and ’90s models, as this site so often points out?

  • avatar
    Dieseldude

    OK, I just gotta say this.
    I am ASHAMED, by how few posts mention working on the thing yourself. I enjoyed my 90 300D 2.5 very much, and no one ever turned a wrench on it but me while I owned it. Was it dependable? After a few years, and with 240k (miles, not that other stuff) the wife drove it from Arizona up the ALCAN and we sold it in Anchorage for twice what we paid for it. Armed only with a CD manual off ebay, and about $40.00 worth of specialty tools (one injector ring socket)I rebuilt the injectors, replaced the vacuum operated wastegate with a pressure actuated (read: real) one, and redid all the rubber lines under the hood. I also was able remove the EGR and throw it just as damn far as I could. BTW we averaged 38 all the way to Alaska. The worst thing I did was replace a couple of the vacuum solenoids under the the dash for the HVAC system. What I am trying to get at is. You can do this stuff if you make up your mind to. If you are really tired of paying repair bills, pony up for a service manual and be a car guy, or go make payments on a civic.

  • avatar
    Crosley

    That era of Mercedes is actually pretty solid, the ones from about the mid nineties onwards is when they really started having issues.

    I would have a good independent shop that specializes in German cars go over it and give you an honest opinion. I can’t really see the maintenance being much more than a Grand Am with nearly 200k miles.

    It’s not going to be a Toyota, but if the car is nearly free or a negligible amount, I think you can run it economically. If something catastrophic happens, sell it and move on.

  • avatar
    Alwaysinthecar

    Reading these comments makes me think maybe I took a wrong turn and ended up in Cuba or something.

    You people are complaining about 20 year old cars with tons of miles on them. This isn’t about collecting vintage cars as future assets, but driving an old used machine that may or may not keep running without upkeep and expense.

    There’s not going to be any free lunch either way. Just a pricier lunch for perhaps some healthier food or a run to McDonalds to at least keep you from starving.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    MY daily drivers are a pair of 88 BMW 528es The maintenance is a fairly constant series of small issues. But I can keep the cars maintained to a level where they dont fail to be reliable. My first 528e , managed 350 kmiles in 12 yrs without a breakdown requiring a tow truck. But to have to pay a “professional” would be a deal breaker.


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