“You wouldn’t believe how much money I have put into this thing. It’s incredible when it works, but there is always something wrong with it. And fixing it is always stupid expensive.” This was told to an old friend of mine who was the manager at one of my favorite restaurants in Wilmington, NC. One man’s automotive terror is another man’s opportunity. Maybe.
The sulking, forlorn patron was sitting at the beautifully-lit “Quanta Basta” bar in a state of utter despair, holding his head in his hands on a dark, cold December evening, right before the dinner rush. After quickly equating “broken car” with me, the restaurant manager texted me something along the lines of: “There is a guy who sounds like he’s selling a busted Mercedes at the bar right now if you’re interested – not sure if a Mercedes is your thing.”
This was a fair assessment, since German luxury and S.W. Gossin hadn’t really mixed well, or mixed much, up until that point. If you recall, I find great pleasure in rescuing cheap cars that are generally regarded as garbage, worthless, undesirable and a waste of time. Even my boss David Tracy was quoted as being “…amazed that [I] put so much time and effort into vehicles this crappy.”
Hello fellow Autopians. It’s been a hot minute here in Freelance Land, but I’m glad to be back. I almost didn’t make it out alive after my last article called the GM J-Body “Unwanted.” Members of the “J-Bodies For A Better Tomorrow” paramilitary sect attempted a thankfully-unsuccessful abduction. A huge thanks to David, Beau, and Jason for having me return and especially to David Tracy for taking a chance on a (then) random reader/wrencher like me and providing this continuing opportunity. This is the best car culture site out there, hands down, due to their passion and hard work, everyday.
Out of the 102 vehicles that I’ve rescued in the past 26 years, every experience that I’ve had with attempting to rescue a Mercedes was bad. Wicked bad. Far-more-difficult-than-it-should-be-levels-of-bad. “Definitely not doing that again!” level of bad. Let’s briefly recount the Mercedes badness as an aperitif to the main course of this piece, shall we?
The Mercedes Benzes I’ve Owned Have All Been Nightmares
The 1988 Mercedes 190E
I got this car for dirt cheap from a friend who seemed to really want it gone. It randomly stalled out at the most inopportune times, such as in the middle of a turn, or at highway speeds. It started right back up fine every time. My buddy’s local shop couldn’t pinpoint the failure point. Nobody else would even go near it with a 40-ft pole. “We don’t work on Euro/German electrical” was what I was told a handful of times before getting over it and giving up. Sadly, my electrical diagnostic skills are about as weak-sauce as my welding skills, though these are things that I will rectify in the future. My mama didn’t raise a quitter, but the clock on the wall said it was time to give up after seeing the local German/Euro shop’s labor rate for electrical diagnostics vs my bank account balance. I got rid of it cheaply and quickly.
1980 Mercedes 240D
I picked this one up (and the 560 SEL below in a package deal) from fellow Autopian Trip Murphy, who had a love for a vintage Benz (notice the past-tense). His family and professional life took him elsewhere and these two cars didn’t get nearly the attention and upkeep they required.
This car had such a badass diesel engine. Everything else on the car was an electrical, rusty nightmare. The rear-left window was left cracked during Hurricane Florence in ’18 and just enough water got into the left-side carpeting/insulation to rust out the floorboards.
The driver’s seat fell through the floor pan and onto the ground the first time I sat in it. I welded a metal brace from the transmission tunnel over to the rocker/B-pillar post to hold up the seat and sold it quickly and cheaply.
Fun sidebar: A guy called and asked me if I would just sell him the engine from the 240D for his Jeep. Apparently there is an entire scene of folks out there that place these type of Mercedes diesel engines in off roaders – I had no idea.
1990 560 SEL:
Saddam Hussein was purported to have one of these with flamethrowers installed as an evil defensive measure to keep crowds away from him. He apparently wasn’t a nice guy. The gauge cluster didn’t function (at all). The exhaust was rotted through due to age. Every piece of rubber on the suspension was rotted. The car would also randomly stall out at speed (see ‘88 E-190 above) without any warning and at the most inopportune times.
I unsuccessfully chased that stalling issue for way too long, still having faith and believing that I too could metaphorically torch unruly crowds and my enemies with my dictator sled (it did have an evil flair to it and it was black). Eventually, I took it to the local Euro shop with my head hanging low. They charged me $300 for diagnostics and a fuel filter then said that they couldn’t replicate the issue and to come and get the car. That shop is now out of business (I wonder why). After scouring the interwebs, I found that the most likely cause was a bad fuel relay. I popped a new one in and got rid of it quickly and cheaply.
Fun sidebar: I sold it to a Sri Lankan gentleman in Texas who told me he loved to see military officers in those cars driving to and from bases in his home country in his youth. I certainly didn’t see that coming.
Naturally, I Bought The Benz From The Bar
For these old Benzes, (sp?) one of the marquee things that makes these cars desirable (especially to a non-Autopian) is that they have an exemplary vintage/cool factor. Yet that what makes them beautiful is the same thing that curses them: Age.
Notice the theme? It didn’t matter what class of Benz, which drivetrain, which fuel type, nor which decade each car was from, each experience I had with a Mercedes had the same outcome: Wicked bad. Is this completely anecdotal? Absolutely, but my luck is my own and patterns do exist in the universe; some for good reason and some happenstance.
So in true Autopian fashion I quickly responded to the text from the restaurant manager that I was definitely interested in the broken old Mercedes from the forlorn patron. Because of course I did. We are all cut from the same automotive cloth that keeps us coming back for another punishing challenge and we are extremely hesitant to waive the white flag and admit defeat. Example: I believe my boss David is currently in Australia to wrestle-wrangle a Ute. I’m glad that he brought The Hat as he seems to find a measure of luck while wearing it. Godspeed, good sir.
How Does This Happen?
The car was parked after running over an errant trailer hitch ball, felled from a pin-less receiver in Wilmington traffic. The big steel sphere ripped out some of the vehicle’s hydraulic suspension lines, slamming the car to the ground. The owner first towed the Benz to the local Mercedes dealer, then to his home — heavy with repair estimate, and in dismay.
Its sad previous owner had texted me to meet him the next day in a less-than-great part of town; the locale made the wounded and slammed-to-the-ground SL500 sitting on the street even more strange.
It was sitting in a derelict-state on a side street for months at this point, without being towed or messed with at all. Not side-swiped. The wheels un-stolen. Nothing. This seemed to be a good luck omen that maybe, just maybe, this time would be different. Like all my rescues, the owner was ready to junk it after getting that eye-searing estimate for the suspension repair from Mercedes mentioned above. He told me that the dealer wanted $8,000.00 to replace the “ABC” hydraulic suspension, bleed the lines, install new filters, etc. Needless to say, the condition of the rest of the car did not warrant dropping $8K into it. These cars sell in average condition for about $10K, give or take a few K.
Like I mentioned earlier, it was December, and light was fading by 5 P.M., so I couldn’t really make out many of the external details of the car at first sight except that IT WAS FRICKIN AWESOME. I noticed it had AMG wheels. The driver’s seat was ripped. Who cares. This car was in an entirely different class from anything I’d owned or wrenched on prior and it showed through the darkness of that cold winter evening. My mind was racing with possibilities for this excellent machine.
“Will it start?” I asked, expecting a slew of excuses explaining why it wouldn’t. “It sure will” is what I got back. At this point I knew I was buying it. The owner hopped in it, twisted the key and the most glorious V8 music started playing. He told me that he had been starting it every couple weeks to keep the battery from dying. I asked what he wanted for it and he said that $2K would get it (even though he bought the car for ~$45K – he was that over it). I asked if he’d give me $100 towards the tow, he agreed and I became the 3rd owner of a formerly $90K car for $1,900.
Diagnosing The Chariot That Could Propel Me Into High Society
I towed it back to my place the next night, parked it next to my always-broken Jaguar XK8 and could barely contain myself. Remember all those videos that we’ve watched over the years of David when he accomplishes a huge “Holy Grail”/”Moab Moment”/”General D. Tracy Win”? Well, I felt like that.
No more slumming it out with The Poors on J-body head jobs, or Stratus Coupe head jobs, or beat-to-shit Grand Ams. I was officially moving up in this world to a place with those of higher caliber taste in cars that you see at Cars & Coffee each month. I mean those with their high dollar, wicked-sweet Euro luxury cars that convey that they know a ton of random Euro car info that you have yet to learn. They certainly don’t drive the cars you drive. They may not appreciate the fine cuisine at Golden Corral or the sweet caress of a can of Rolling Rock. They don’t follow you back on Instagram. They are immune to the siren song of possible sweet-ass Stratus Coupe photo content shared there.
I wanted to know what they seem to know. I wanted to move up in the World of Cars and not be forever relegated to broken GM plasti-junk from someone’s backyard. I wanted broken Euro-trash from a dimly-lit side street, dammit! Thinking in this manner motivated me to do whatever I needed to do to get this car resuscitated. It was great motivation. I had a dream and an image of myself in that beautiful Firemist Red SL500 wearing Lacoste sneakers and a popped collar, getting ready to pick up Euro Barbie and take her to the Dreamhouse in my high-dollar Euro-Vette.
Fun camera trick: If you use the right photo filter, you can have a “Firemist Red” Stratus Coupe
The only problem is that I literally knew nothing about a Mercedes from this era, as my previous Benzes were designed/produced in the ’70s and ’80s. They say true wisdom is knowing what you don’t know. I knew that there were “known unknowns,” but being foolhardy and ready for action, I dove in.
Step 1 was to address my weakest point of approach: The fact that I had no working knowledge or background with these cars. Obviously The Great Age of The Internet makes this sort of thing way easier. I applied to join a couple SL500 (R230) Facebook groups and was let in after a few “Are you sure you’re not a mean, cantankerous robot that can’t follow rules?”-type questions.
The next step was figuring out what catastrophically happened to the hydraulic suspension, leaving the car kissing the ground. This turned out to be much more of an analog scenario that I had originally thought: Once you looked under the front-right wheel, you could clearly see a busted-in-half hydraulic hose that was previously routed to the front right strut.
I initially thought I needed to get laptops, software, licenses for that software, cable adapters, a friend who spoke German, a case of Beck’s beer to cope with the sadness and strife to come, a bigger bank account and more in order to even start approaching this issue.
It turns out that all that was needed was a set of ~$1300 coilovers and a little moxie.
How I Fixed The ‘$8,000’ Hydraulic Suspension Problem
This wouldn’t be an Autopian article without a D. Tracy-patented deep dive, so brace yourselves.
This SL500 and many Mercedes of this era employed an “ABC” hydraulic suspension. Just like I said when David asked me to include tech specs on my last piece on the GM J-Body, there’s enough to be written and discussed on the merits, weaknesses and specifics on this topic to fill this site for a week, so we’ll do a high-level fly-by of the Wiki page and leave the rest to the forums, Facebook Groups and Festzelte this Fall.
Here’s ABC in a nutshell:
“In the ABC system, a computer detects body movement from sensors located throughout the vehicle, and controls the action of the active suspension with the use of hydraulic servomechanisms. The hydraulic pressure to the servos is supplied by a high pressure radial piston hydraulic pump, operating at 3,000psi. Accumulators regulate the hydraulic pressure, by means of an enclosed nitrogen bubble separated from the hydraulic fluid by a membrane.
A total of 13 sensors continually monitor body movement and vehicle level and supply the ABC controller with new data every ten milliseconds. Four level sensors, one at each wheel measure the ride level of the vehicle, three accelerometers measure the vertical body acceleration, one acceleration sensor measures the longitudinal and one sensor the transverse body acceleration. As the ABC controller receives and processes data, it operates four hydraulic servos, each mounted on an air and pressurized hydraulic fluid strut, beside each wheel.” -Wiki
Here’s what that means to a shitbox, home garage/driveway hobbyist-mechanic, auto-rescuer like me: Way. Too. Complicated.
Sure, that type of tech does wonders to sell shiny new Benz missiles to the 7%-ers/rich folk at their dealerships, but it is actually a detractor for 3rd or 4th owners like me. Complexity and longevity are inversely proportional with used cars, in my experience. The repair and upkeep on the system can cost more than the car is worth. You’d think Mercedes would factor this into their part pricing, so as to keep more of their legacy models on the roads, but alas, they exist to sell new cars and to make money fixing their broken cars. It isn’t a charitable pursuit. I’m sure the ABC suspension rides and handles very nicely. It had better for all the costs surrounding it. Then again, I’ve never ridden on one because mine went right either into the metal pile or was posted for sale on eBay.
Getting the ABC system out of the car was actually pretty fun. All of the accumulators and assorted ABC wizardry/unholy sorcery bolted right out, leaving only the metal lines that snaked around the transmission tunnel, subframe and wheel wells to be cut out. When cutting the metal hydraulic lines out with a grinder or a Dremel and sparks were flying everywhere, I felt like I was in every garage “sizzler” shot from every car-rebuild reality show. It seems flying sparks are a must to show your reality show video chops. Autopian resident videographer (and my boss and editor) Matt Hardigree may know more about this topic/phenomena. (Git you some of that! Whoooo! -R. Rawlins).
[Ed note: Not just sparks, but sparks in 120 FPS. If you know, you know. – MH]
I easily cut out all the lines except for a small 1-2ft section that was unreachable on the top of the transmission tunnel. Those lines won’t see the light of day until the transmission is removed. Lord knows I’m not doing that just to remove ~16 inches and ~1 lb of steel line. Would it be cleaner? Yes. Was my OCD going berserk by leaving now-unused hydraulic lines attached to the body? Yes. Was that enough to make me pull the trans? Hard Nope.
The coilovers went in just as any set does: A couple nuts on the tops and bolts on the bottoms. Right is tight. It took a little bit of effort to get the stance right (I’m not going to follow that statement with a “yo”, but I wanted to. Also, I seemed to have misplaced my vape pen), but in the end she was sittin’ pretty. A little bit of adjustment to have both axles sitting at the same height and Bob’s-your-uncle.
Pulling out the ABC struts did cause the system’s warning light to illuminate upon the dash. Unbelievably, the direction from the FB Group was “just pull the fuse, dummy!” in a bit of a gatekeeping, can’t-believe-your-dumbass-didn’t-know-that fashion. Snooty R230 guys aside, I was grateful for the knowledge nonetheless and had the ABC warning message gone in 61 seconds.
The last order of business for this rescue was the “tandem” hydraulic pump that powered both the suspension and the assisted steering. It turns out that mine was leaking, as most are known to do. It left a nasty, fluid and dirt-caked mess beneath where it sat.
I only needed a regular power steering pump, so out came the leaking dual pump and in went the standard PS pump for that Mercedes “M113” V8 (which was shockingly cheap at $62 on Amazon). I found a shop on the West Coast that buys them used, rebuilds and resells them online. I think they gave me about $60 for my tandem pump, so it was a wash. The “tandem” hydraulic pump is $1600+tax new from a dealer.
The radiator was also found to have a small crack in the side tank from its brush with the errant trailer hitch ball, so a replacement was found for about $150. Man, that was easy. Too easy.
Fixing this Mercedes seemed to be nothing like the horror stories I’ve heard my entire adult life and nothing like those misfortunes I experienced myself. Perhaps my earlier cars were just unique cases that were flawed due to their age and manufacturing/technological limitations of their day. Maybe these cars built after Y2K are different, I thought to myself while sipping a congratulatory Stanley Tucci Tuscan Negroni.
My car was fixed. It was fixed in a way that made it less complex and more reliable. It was fixed in a way that future-proofed the car’s greatest financial and mechanical liability. I was fixed in a way that meant I could just hop in it, twist the key and go from Alaska down to Tierra del Fuego (minus the Darien Gap and the fact that a Firemist Red Mercedes convertible might not make it past certain “non-state-sanctioned” roadway stops with me still in it). It certainly provided a false-confidence in that I unexpectedly pulled off this repair and rescue for a similar amount of money and effort to what I spent on one of my J-Body rescues. And for so, so much more car.
I was proud. I was probably half drunk. I was patting myself on the back and ready to wholesale and completely unsubscribe from all my prior poor experiences with Mercedes. Until I realized that I had not, up until this point, gone through the receipts in the glovebox.
That’s when I saw it: a receipt for $1700 for hydraulic rams and a new headliner from the previous, sadly unfortunate owner. Apparently, once the hardtop hydraulics let go of their seals, they leak nasty, stank-ass hydraulic fluid into the headliner and cabin. This was all the reminder I needed of this car’s complexity and of just how much I didn’t know about it.
They say that true wisdom is knowing what you don’t know. Well, in that moment I realized that that was about as vast of an ocean of knowledge that I didn’t know about this SL500 as that which I didn’t know of The Great Torchinsky Taillight Texts Of The Old Age, Vol 1-64. For the record, those were before Sauron and The Ring showed up on the scene.
All of the cheap driveline mechanical and suspension parts started bringing back that same hubris that hit me when I destroyed a head on my J-Body Cavalier rescue. I began to think that this car was an easy cakewalk of easily-attainable, inexpensive parts and that all problems I’d encounter would have easy solutions. I barely scratched the surface. I was scared. It had to go.
“The ornaments look pretty but they’re pulling down the branches of the tree” -Cake, Love You Madly
Mark Tucker’s old neighbor Johnny Fever would not drive this car. I’m not sure if it’s up David’s alley (yet to be honest, who can really categorize that dude. His bandwidth is legendary: see Jeep 4×4, Oldsmobile, Nash Metro, LA, Germany, Australia, Turkey, etc). I have 12 cars and the thought of encountering a repair such as the leaking hardtop rams made me think that this car would suck up resources disproportionately to the rest of the fleet. The well-being of the fleet is paramount. Any Autopian knows this.
Why I Ditched The Fancy Benz
I made the decision to sell the car out of fear. I was worried that I was sitting on an expensive time-bomb of a car that was so complex that my shade-tree/driveway mech skills couldn’t justify keeping. Sure, the $1200 Grand Am, the $220 Stratus, the errant J-Body are all (mostly) within the scope of my abilities, but this surely wasn’t and it frightened me, financially.
I ended up selling the car for about $2K under market value due to a busted AC condenser (the front-right corner of this underbody looked like it had experienced The War of 1812) and ripped driver’s seat upholstery to an owner of a local tree service company that was just about over the issues he was having with his early ’90s SL (“This one is way better!” exclaimed the buyer).
Could I have fixed the AC and asked for a little more? Sure, but that is not what this is about. Making it perfect is a task for the next owner. I just wanted to keep it alive. This car was a hulking wreck of a disaster when I found it and now it was screaming down Shipyard Dr on a test drive with the tach bouncing off the redline and the cool coastal Carolina breeze blowing with the top down.
I’m glad that I rescued this SL500. It was the most high-dollar rescue in my 102 rescue-car history. Strangely, I don’t feel like I learned any Mercedes-specific knowledge by saving it. Most of the wrenching was wicked straight forward.
I loved the torque and power of the V8. I loved the color and the drop-top aspect. I hated the fact that I was not a man in control of my machine. I felt like Bob King Mercedes on New Centre Dr In Wilmington knew all the secrets to my car and that they’d only tell me for $130/hr. Maybe Facebook and the forums did, too. The fact was, after 26 years of wrenching, I didn’t have nearly enough of the answers, software or skills to keep this machine rolling under my stewardship for the long-term without being in the poor house. I could probably put the time and effort into learning that knowledge and those skills, but the next disaster backyard rescue is a-callin’ and we all have limited time.
The above is the tale of a regular guy with regular, everyday wrenching skills (and a little bit more than laymen’s working knowledge of cars, due to being a card-carrying Autopian) coming across a complex car in its semi-usual broken down condition and changing that for the best.
I believe I lucked out.
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I’m not an expensive car guy (cheap cars here, please). I’m not a Mercedes guy (see above Mercedes track record). I’m certainly not a great mechanic. But these cars are broken and cheap in every city, town and backyard in America and each one presents an opportunity. Some may just be an opportunity for a scrap metal run, an opportunity to empty your checking account, or for a few more gray hairs. But some also can be an opportunity to learn something new and to save something really cool.
After describing the final outcome, the manager at Quanto Basta was so impressed by the rescue and sale of my SL500, she decided to do her own cheap Mercedes rescue. She found an ’08 C300 with 150K for $2500 that “just needed front brakes,” according to the seller.
After owning the car for about four months, she told me the car would intermittently fail to start and the steering wheel would lock up. Thinking it was the “ESL” (an electric lock/handshake between the steering wheel, transmission shifter, alarm, ignition cylinder, powertrain and body control modules) she spent over $2K for a new trans valve body, conductor plate and programming at the local Euro shop. After the issue remained, another $700 were set aside toward a new ignition lock cylinder. The car is now doing its best brick/paperweight impression at that same shop waiting on additional backordered electronic parts (one year wait) for the same, seemingly-incorrectly-diagnosed, Euro-electrical problem.
Needless to say, buying a cheap used luxury Benz is probably not the best call if you’d like to keep wrenching a joy instead of a nightmare.