By on September 26, 2011



John writes:

I have a 1989 Mercedes 300CE. Fantastic car, if I’m honest and it has made me fall in love with straight-6’s as well as old school German solidity. Not to mention it is nice having the only seafoam green Mercedes I have ever seen, making it incredibly unique. That being said, in the 6 months that I’ve owned I’ve had to put almost two thousand dollars into it for various wear parts. While it is to be expected with a 22 year old car of any ilk, the added cost of owning a European car have begun to take their toll I’m afraid.

The knowledge that the M103 has a tendency to blow its head gasket around the mileage I have on it now (135k) is also disconcerting. I can work on it on my own, but parts are expensive and there are an inordinate amount of redundancies that accompany that. Recently, a spark plug cap dry rotted and began arcing. Without any of the specialty tools necessary to properly remove it, it took me about an hour to get the plug wire free. Absurd, frankly. Also, several new problems have begun creeping up: The air conditioning does not work well, the driver side window will not go up or down, the insane vacuum powered everything is beginning to go, and the interior has seen better days.

For work, I was unexpectedly thrust into a delivery roll, and as such I put more wear on it then I would prefer. Naturally, this came about with little extra compensation. It hurts as well that I seem to get roughly twenty mpg on premium gas. This hurts when I have to drive as much as I do. My question to you would be: Is it worth buying something newer and more reliable/efficient? Unfortunately, I don’t have a whole lot of money (figure around 4k-4.5k max) to spend, and being what the used car market is, the smart move is probably keeping the 300CE. However, I just wanted an outside opinion.

I have a strange fascination with large cars, yet I like some degree of handling to go along with it. Due to that, a CVPI is near the top of my list. Also, living in the North East a 4WD/AWD car would also be nice. Subaru Foresters and Jeep Cherokees have piqued my interest. Basically, what I want is something reasonable fuel-efficient (I’m ok with 20mpg if it can be done on 87 octane) and something durable and cheap to run. Easy to work on would be a useful bonus as well.

Sajeev answers:

Sometimes you folks make this too easy. It’s as if I told myself:

“Self, you aren’t exactly having a fantastic month. While not as nuts as Jack Baruth trying to get Porsche Public Relations to pull their heads out of their…sandboxes…its kinda like that. Let’s hope and pray that TTAC’s Best and Brightest pitch you a slow meatball, so you can bat one out of the park with little effort.”

You Mister John, are my savior. And my hero: not only do you know of the trials and tribulations of owning a German Engineered vehicle from the “good old days” without being an experienced tech from that era, you described it in vivid detail. Even better, you openly admit to a far more logical replacement: Panther Love.

That’s not to say that a 300CE isn’t worth the effort. Problem is, a daily driver it ain’t. Very few whips that old will pass muster when put to the test of a delivery vehicle. I can think of a handful of American and Japanese motors with a binder full of service receipts, but that’s not the point. You must join me in the land of multiple vehicle ownership. Quite honestly, it’s the only way to fly.

If you like large cars, need a durable commuter and don’t mind under 20 MPG on regular gas, get a late(ish) model Panther. Quite frankly, its one of the best partners for your current ride, and your driving needs and lifestyle. All the best to you as you explore your need for Panther Love.

Send your queries to [email protected]om . Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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55 Comments on “Piston Slap: Daily Driver it Ain’t!...”

  • avatar

    Good advice on the Panther, but in my experience with the big cats, that certainly won’t get him away from windows that don’t go up or down.

  • avatar
    dvp cars

    …..I’ve had the same problem pulling off the plug boots on an I-6 Benz(300sl-24V). Access is easy, but I can’t envision a special tool, so how did you eventually get the job done without breakage?
    I agree on the 2nd car suggestion, virtually any cheap and cheerful 4cyl/4dr/5spd should fill the bill…..pick one that’s had a recent t-belt.

  • avatar

    I get 18 city / 27 highway (Canton OH area to Charleston, WV. Southern Ohio does have hills) in my ’99 Grand Marquis LS. All the goodies except air-ride, (traction control, digital dash with instant mpgs, leather, 6-disc) and came pre-loved with 233k on it. The highway was a trip down to West-by-God for my Grandmother’s funeral. Speed limit all the way. If I were to go 55-60 instead of 65-70 I know I could hit 28.5 or better, but it’s not worth the danger to other drivers or rage points.

  • avatar

    Sajeev, at some please revisit the year-by-year listing of the best, worst and middlin’ of the Panther series.

  • avatar

    A late(ish) CVPI for under $4.5K and under 100K is possible. Found a couple in MI/OH area.

  • avatar

    Panther is a good car however if you want better handling and Rear Wheel drive I would recommend a 1992-1995 Volvo 940 which should be able to find a good example for $2K. Don’t FORGET WAGONS if you need to haul/deliver stuff! I prefer the 940 Turbo but if you have a lead foot like me your mileage will be in the teens and you should run 91 octane min. in the turbo. The normally aspirated ones will run on 87 octane fine. The car has a solid live rear axle that is very predictable if you like to push the tail out and slide around corners at speed – ask me how I know. Plus they all should have Automatic Locking Diffs for these model year and Volvo’s first implementation of their patented SIPS (Side Impact Protection System).

    The engine is an Iron Block Non interference 4 cylinder with robust 13MM connecting rods and piston oil squirters at least for the turbo blocks. If the timing belt breaks just slap a new one on. The engine bay is big enough to house a V8 (Converse Engineering makes/made a Ford 5.0 swap kit) but has PLENTY of room to work on it yourself with the 2.3 liter 4 cylinder – only 4 plugs to change. Plus they are easily modifiable for more power by upping boost and there are some ECU rom kits available for more aggressive timing.

    If you want newer,better safety and mileage buy a 1995-1998 Volvo 960/S90 built on the same platform but with smooth inline six (but it is interference) and a Corvette inspired Composite Leaf Spring Independent Rear Suspension. The big pluses are the 960 has thorax Side Impact Airbags standard and has additional high strength steel inserts in the front end to better manage offset front collisions that 940 didn’t have. The transmission also has winter mode to limit wheel spin on snow/ice.

    All 940/960s have ABS brakes. You won’t find a car much simpler to work on then a 1992-1995 Volvo 940.

  • avatar

    Isn’t the Panther gas mileage a bit crummy for his requirements?


  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Sajeev…at some point you must seek help for this Panther love fetish you have. He wrote: “I have a strange fascination with large cars, yet I like some degree of handling to go along with it.” …and to you that translates to his sharing your deep, pathological affection for all things Panther? I suppose a Panther has “some degree” of handling in that when you haul on the tiller, the vehicle tends to, sooner or later, you know, sort of, change direction…..

    Somewhere, I am sure, there’s a Panther rehab program…or perhaps we can put together a “intervention’-type program about Panther love for the Speed Channel….

  • avatar

    Acura Vigor FTW or some sort of RWD Volvo!

  • avatar

    As someone who’s purchased several 20+ year old vehicles as daily drivers, I can attest that multiple vehicles are a lifesaver. I’ve routinely relied on my motorcycle to get me to work in cases where my old beast just wouldn’t make it.

    I pick old trucks, so the advice here is somewhat limited. American OHV engines – expect to replace valve seals (springs optional) to reduce oil burning. More nuisance than anything else. If it sat up for any length of time, expect the tranny to go within 6 to 12 months of regular driving. Fuel system fouling can sometimes by fixed by fuel additives to the tank, but plan on replacing fuel filter at a minimum. Alternator and battery – gin up and replace ASAP. Water pump – wait till it bails out, but it will sooner or later. A/C – depending on how long it sat, your system o-rings are dried and it’ll leak no matter what you do. Convert to the new freon and refill it yourself as needed, cheapest option.

    Once all the above is done, your new-old truck should be good for many more miles. Suspension, brakes, tires etc. replace as needed. Of course it helps if you can do 90% of the work yourself.

  • avatar

    This has to be an audience ‘plant’ for promoting ‘Panther Love.’

  • avatar

    As someone who successfully drove daily two 16-17 year old W124s (300E-24 and 400E) and a 17-year old SAAB 900T, I’d say it all comes to condition. If you start with a tired runner with a 200 kmiles on it – don’t. Mine were all in 25-40 kmiles range when I got them, so it was no problem.
    To keep costs down try not to delegate repairs and do your homework, getting knowledge and at enthusiasts websites. Also make friends with breakers yard and EBay.

    • 0 avatar

      The motor/tranny is/was great shape. I’m just worried about the head gasket, and the fact that everything non-mechanical is falling apart around it.

      • 0 avatar

        I finally gave up on my 89 300CE a few years ago. Somewhere in the 230,000 mile range. Like yours, and like the 85 300D I had before it, the drivetrain was still wonderful, but functional A/C and windows, any remaining plastic pieces (especially underhood), and any remaining original rubber parts were rapidly becoming distant memories.

        The common head gasket failure merely leaks oil. It usually doesn’t affect coolant.

        If the interior has become that tired, unless you have particular skills at salvage yards, just sell her off, and try to keep a smile on your face when the potential buyers talk about Rolls grills or gold spinners. Remember that the front seats are somewhat unique to the coupes with the vacuum seatback lock system. Similar challenges finding replacement parts for the two-seat rear.

        OTOH, that car was one of the hardest to let go. I looked so good in it.

        Let it go, and get on with life.

  • avatar

    You don’t say where in the northeast you are. If you’re around Boston, take that thing to Marc Feinstein at German Performance Service in Brighton (617-206-4604) if you are leaning at all towards keeping it and have him look at it. He can also probably repair it more reasonably than anyone around.

    As far as replacement cars, I have a ’99 Accord 2.4L which i’ve had since ’04, with a stick shift, which I’ve driven 130,000 miles (it’s got 196 on the clock) and I love it. The handling is nice, the engine is responsive.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the answer Sajeev!

    For what it’s worth, in the time since I wrote the question and now, I did end up buying a V8 ZJ Jeep Grand Cherokee. Gas mileage is, admittedly, well under even my less-than-stellar requirements, but I got it for cheap and it is in pretty good condition. I was looking for a CVPI or Town Car, but the Jeep showed up about 3 minutes from where I live and I couldn’t resist. Also, my boss splurged for once and bought a delivery car, a luxurious Geo Metro. At least I don’t have to pay for gas I suppose.

    The Mercedes is, for the time being, serving as my family’s backup car. I’m now debating either a slow restoration or just selling it.


    • 0 avatar

      Glad to hear you found something you like.

      I do find it interesting, however, how many people seem to be drawn to the old Jeep Grand Cherokees nowadays. It seems to have become one of the used vehicles of choice.

      • 0 avatar

        For me it was the fact that I have always liked ZJs and to have one show up (almost) in my backyard made the decision easy. Also, while there are a few stupid little problems (antenna won’t go up automatically any longer) it is in good condition and I like the option of 4WD when I want it.

    • 0 avatar

      Unless the body is super-straight and clean – forget about resto. If you have time and space – part it out and recoup the costs somewhat. If not – sell it ASAP, while it still runs.

      As for the GC, make sure you properly check the health of that NV249 center diff viscous coupling, as they are well known to die prematurely.

      • 0 avatar

        Merc’s body is pretty straight. There’s three half-dollar sized dents on the driver’s side. Paint is good from 8 feet away as well. It’s the interior that’s a bit of a mess.

        And for the GC, the viscous coupling was just done not long ago

    • 0 avatar
      dvp cars

      ….wow, that must be a TTAC record…in the few hours since the original question you’ve already nailed down a new ride. Steve Lang and dealers everywhere dream about decisive buyers like yourself. Good for you, you’ve got the beginnings of an interesting fleet.

  • avatar


    I hate to disagree with you, but there is a good reason that Subarus, in which our man John has expressed an interest, are so popular here in the Northeast. While I do fine with my Accord and snow tires, Subarus (especially for going forward in a blinding blizzard on the Merritt Parkway, which I did in my former girlfriend’s old Impreza wagon) do even better, really, amazingly so.

  • avatar

    I feel uniquely qualified to answer this question, because I also own W124 coupe.

    PROS: You have an earlier model with the 3.0 SOHC I6, which is the most reliable of the W124 engines. Because it was designed in the early 1980’s, electronics are limited. The car will have no trouble reaching 400,000 miles if you take care of it.

    CONS: “taking care” of an old Mercedes will invariably involve expensive repairs. Indies around my neck of the woods charge $100/hour, and parts are not cheap. Buying a $4k Mercedes is NOT like buying a $4k Toyota; if you are unwilling or unable to pay for the proper maintenance, the car is not for you. Every W124 will eventually require a headgasket job (had mine done at 108k) and probably some transmission work.

    If you cannot budget for this, shine her up and sell her off: a nice Merc coupe with relatively low miles will easily find a taker.

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    How come no one mentions Chargers, 300’s or Magnums when recommending RWD vehicles?

    • 0 avatar

      He mentioned that he has a budget of $4000-4500; I think it would be difficult to find a decent 300, Magnum or Charger (used police interceptor versions aside) for that amount of money.

  • avatar

    Stay away from 4wd/AWD unless your company is re-imbursing you for fuel receipts instead of paying mileage.

    My advice would be to buy the most economical car you can find – it is going to get beat to hell anyways so save your $ for the car you love. If you can stand a smaller car a Cavalier would be a good choice and won’t be nearly as expensive as a similar Japanese compact.

    If not an early 2000s Monte Carlo with the 3.8 wouldn’t be a bad – nearly as big as a panther and has front wheel drive which might be nice in the snow. Throw in a $500 set of snow tires for either and you should be set.

  • avatar

    Mr. John,

    Time to look in the mirror for a reality moment. $2K for the first year of a 25 year old car ownership is *just enough money to button the car up for past problems. You would always expect to spend that at a minimum when buying such an old car. I know I did when I bought a 1987 Volvo 240 with 60K miles.

    But somehow in that routine you didn’t replace the spark plugs, wires and distributor cap. Those are the most basic items you can do yourself to help your engine. And yet you contemplate that you may be able to remove the engine’s top and replace the innards? Dreaming.

    My friend has an E class sedan of your vintage, handed down from his dad. In about 20-50K miles you’ll be looking for a tranny – $5K. Then when that’s working you’d want to review the front suspension – $2K. Those are just the big tickets.

    Then you convince yourself that living in the NE US you need a 4wd car. Why??? I’ve lived here for 20 years. My average speed has been around 21 mph in that time period. On asphalt and some gravel. Including all the camping trips I made to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Catskills, etc. Reality – you don’t need a 4wd in NE because you either drive, or it snows and nobody really drives, because no matter what car you are in, there is always that idiot in an overweight SUV sliding down a slope, having forgotten that what goes up (acceleration) must come down (braking).

    I feel bad telling you to dump the Benz because you only spent 6 months with it but I can tell you it’s not going to get better. Sell it, then see what kind of cash you have. Spend it on a Nissan Sentra stick shift. No, not the SE-R, just Sentra. Then focus on getting a job that is fair enough to pay for your car’s mileage if you end up delivering for them. I used to deliver Dominos pizza in a 1973 BMW 2002.

    • 0 avatar

      Consider it youthful ignorance or naivety if you will. However, after being handed a stack of recent receipts for repairs done on the car when I bought it, I didn’t exactly expect to spend that much so quickly.

      Didn’t need a 4WD, I wanted one, and after the last few winters we’ve had, it isn’t a bad thing either. I spent last winter in the Merc on balding tires. It’s more of a personal desire than one borne out of necessity. Also, I did replace the plugs, etc. I don’t remember saying anything about the head other than me being afraid of it? I wouldn’t plan on doing that myself, I don’t trust myself anywhere near that anyway.

  • avatar

    I think it is time to sell that Mercedes. Buying a car that old was a stupid decision. A Classic is one thing, but the 1980s are NOT classic yet.

    Go to a dealer and buy a brand new Toyota 4Runner.

    • 0 avatar

      If you know where I can find a brand new Toyota 4Runner for 4 grand please tell me!

      Also, I bought the Mercedes because I needed a car and I got it at a very cheap price.


    • 0 avatar

      80s cars not classic yet? Hemmings disagrees…

    • 0 avatar

      “I think it is time to sell that Mercedes. Buying a car that old was a stupid decision. A Classic is one thing, but the 1980s are NOT classic yet.”

      Classic…the most overused word in the automotive world. Especially by peeps that think anything old is a “classic”…..

  • avatar

    Hey, did you guys here the one about the guy who wrote into Piston Slap and asked if he should buy a panther??? :)

    • 0 avatar
      dvp cars

      ….I’m sure Sajeev turned him off that fool notion, I’ve heard Mr. Mehta’s fixated on hi-tech European machinery, the older the better……dollar for dollar, a struggling family man would be hard pressed to beat the bargain basement value of a well maintained grey market Citroen DS21.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Yah , having 2 old cars as DDs is the way to go. Marina’s 528e is on jackstands for transmission lines and a front brake refresh. No trouble, she has my 528e to drive . I’m doing the repairs in my drive way using used parts. Only out of pocket is 15$ for a gallon of storebrand Dex-Merc ATF. I bought the rotors last May .I had the pads.

  • avatar

    It is pretty easy to tell if the head gasket is going on the M103 motors. They will start to leak oil all over the place. Also, check the coolant overflow and look for signs of oil mixing, too. Only use Mercedes approved coolant and distilled water.

    There is a great product that helps out with the AC if you have leaks, it is called Clip Light Super Seal Pro. It is very highly recommended on the benz forums.

    There is a local seller of Benz W124 parts here in Stamford, CT. He parts these cars out and has a ton of stock. His prices are very reasonable and goes by m-b500e on ebay.

    There are tons of these cars around and no need to be pay high prices for parts. You can get solid advice on the W124 section of

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    At the price point you are looking at, the prior owner is going to have a far greater impact on the vehicle’s longevity than the type of car you choose.

    Well, having said that… I will give you a list of cars to consider.

    1) Mid to full sized GM sedans with the 3.8L V6 Engine.

    These are the most frequently used vehicles for road warriors in my line of work. They can get close right around 30 mpg on the highway. Ride very well, and have plenty of cheap and reasonable replacement parts.

    2) Panthers…

    The fuel economy is about 20% worse than the GM sedans… but they do have cheaper parts costs. Overall I would prefer the GM vehicles if you do a lot of driving.

    3) Ford Taurus w/ Vulcan V6.

    Excellent durability. You should be able to get a 2002 to 2003 model… maybe even an 05′.

    4) Volvo 940 & 96 thru 97 Volvo 850

    Don’t bother with the turbos. The normally aspirated versions are perfectly fine. The 850’s in particular have some of the best seats I have ever sat in. Please note that due to age, you should only get this vehicle if you’re serious about doing at least some of your own wrenching.

    5) Nissan models with the 3 liter V6.

    You may have to replace a couple of engine related sensors over the course of time. But these powertrains are among the most durable out there.

    Best of luck in your search…

  • avatar

    Well as a 91 300CE owner what more can I say besides: “Your car seems to be doing better than mine!” I brought mine back from “left on the driveway for 8 years with a head-gasket leak and holes in the exhaust, leaky ac etc. It was to most expensive cheap Mercedes I have ever had so far. Partly, I have kids and little time. I do like to daydream about DIY projects, but I never get to them. So, I gave the job to an indy and after a bunch of repairs that added up to an amount that made my wife say “I hate that car…” Here I am driving it to work. Breathing in the fumes in Lincoln Tunnel with non-working AC (blows hot air so I had to open the windows) made me a little nauseous. I still like driving the car, and although the suspension needs more work and hitting potholes at 50 mph causes the steering wheel and everything else to shake, I am telling my self that I like the car. Such is the painful relationship between owner and old Mercedes. Especially if you do not DIY. For that, I got into a a garage restoration project which resulted in another bunch of money flying out the door, so my wife double hates the car as we got hit by the repairs plus the garage project—which is not done yet. Anyhow, it does not sound like you have anything serious going on yet. But, it does sound like you do not DIY. Spark plug issues etc, are piece of cake on that car vs the newer V6s. Of course, if it is your daily driver, you might not have time to plan out a DIY project. I’d say keep the faith until things start getting leaky. Watch that gasket.

    Panther love is a tempting thing, especially when one can pick one of those up for a few grand at government auction sites. In terms of a used Subaru, a friend picked an 02 up for around 2k in NY area. Then again, another used car can be another pit. Choose wisely. Or lease a Hyundai.

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