Wanna Race? 1985 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 vs 1979 Mazda RX-7

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Good morning, Autopians! Today we’re taking a little detour from the street-legal cars into the realm of cheap race car projects. One seat, no interior, and goofy paint jobs are the order of the day. But first, let’s see how our three-speeders fared:

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And the ute wins! But naturally, that begs the question: what is a “ute”? Dunno. All I know is there’s no way that car could have left those tire marks.

Speaking of tire marks, who wants to go racing? Because we’ve got just the thing. Two, in fact. I was going to feature two other cars today, but on a whim I popped on to Craigslist and set some search terms: $500 to $2,500, manual transmission, within 50 miles of me. And there they were, one ad right after another: Two well-used Lemons veterans, both looking for a new home. It was a sign. So I’ll save whatever those other two cars were for tomorrow, and we’ll check out a couple of beat-up track cars.

1985 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16V – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.3 liter twin-cam inline 4, 5 speed manual, RWD

Location: Vancouver, WA

Odometer reading: 280,000 miles

Runs/drives? Nope, blown head gasket

I’m very surprised to see this car as a cheap race car, to be honest. Out of more than 1.8 million W201-chassis cars built by Mercedes, fewer than 20,000 were 190E 2.3-16Vs, and only about 2,000 of those made it to the US. It’s a rare and sought-after car. So how did it end up as a beat-up amateur race car?

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And from the sounds of it, some folks have been trying to buy the engine and transmission separate. It’s a pretty cool motor, with a twin-cam 16 valve head developed by legendary British firm Cosworth, most famous for working their magic on various Ford engines, but also for helping to create the only Chevy Vega worth a damn. There is some serious racing pedigree going on under that three-pointed-star hood ornament. And a five-speed stick in any Mercedes is a rare and wonderful treat.

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Unfortunately, it also means that there is one fewer 2.3-16V for enthusiasts to fight over, unless you found a nice ordinary 190E and transferred all the go-fast parts over to it. Which I guess is what the vultures wanting to pick this car’s carcass are thinking, as well.

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There’s no title to this car, but you don’t need one for a track-only car. As long as it never moves under its own power on a public street, a bill of sale is all that’s required, and all that’s supplied, to transfer ownership. You don’t even need to set foot in the DMV.

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And if you want to race, it does make sense to buy a car that has already been raced. Someone else has gone to the expense of installing a cage and a harness and stripping out all the unnecessary parts. And, presumably, if this car has already raced in a Lemons event, it should pass tech inspection again without much effort. Of course, that’s only after you replace the blown head gasket and get that wonderful Cosworth engine humming again.


1979 Mazda RX-7 – $1,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.2 liter two-rotor Wankel rotary, 4 or 5 speed manual, RWD

Location: Tigard, OR

Odometer reading: 89,000 miles, but says “broken”

Runs/drives? Runs, but needs a few things

At first I thought this was our first rotary, but I seem to recall an RX-8 a while back. (Good grief, it’s only been three months, and I can’t even remember all the cars we’ve looked at.) I like this car a lot more. I’ve always admired the first-generation RX-7. Light, trim, and sleek, this would be the rotary-powered Mazda I would choose. Yes, even over the twin-turbo third generation RX-7 that everyone else lusts after.

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This particular RX-7 is a bit of a one-trick pony now, of course. It has competed in the 24 Hours of Lemons three times, according to the ad (though they don’t specify whether it actually finished any of them), and passes tech just fine. Again, it’s cheaper to start out with something already race-prepared than to do it yourself, especially at this price.

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The 12A rotary engine runs, but needs a new alternator and (I presume) a clutch master and slave cylinder. No word as to the engine’s compression or overall condition, but the 12A was not as fragile as the later Renesis rotary so notorious for making cheap RX-8s. It’s not a powerhouse, but it’s reasonably reliable, which is what you want for an endurance racer.

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Inside, of course, it’s all bare metal, and I can only imagine what the drone of that rotary sounds like inside this tin can. You’d want to wear a helmet in this, even if you weren’t required to, just to muffle the noise.

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But a running race car for only a grand is filling my head with all kinds of terrible ideas. I don’t have the money or time to go racing, even Lemons, but I can’t deny the want is strong here. I have no place to put it, no time to work on it, and no idea how to even begin anyway. Clearly the only solution is for someone else to buy it, right now, so I can’t.

And there they are: a rare high-performance Mercedes and a rev-happy Mazda sports car, both set up for the cheapest form of racing around. I know which one I want, but how about all of you?


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51 Responses

  1. Owned rx7s back in the day, going to go rotary all the the way every day. Living in kansas all I need is a bill of sale, some functioning lights, a few other odds and ends and I can title this thing and get it back on the street setting off car alarms just like I used to. Good thing it’s too far away for me.

  2. “A ute (/juːt/ YOOT), originally an abbreviation for “utility” or “coupé utility”, is a term used in Australia and New Zealand to describe vehicles with a tonneau behind the passenger compartment, that can be driven with a regular driver’s license.”

  3. I mean…they’re both awful. I’m not going to copout and say “third option for nope plz.” They’re just terrible, excruciatingly so.

    Therefore: the RX7 because at least fixing the engine will be (probably) cheaper, easier, and the thing is a steal at $1,000 compared to $2500 for the German shitbox.

    1. Also, since there’s no edit button.. I’m already surprised by people complaining about the quality of these.. you’re reading a site started by a guy known for buying piles of rust he calls ‘Jeeps’ and another who bought a Chinese electric car and is surprised it’s not that well engineered.

    1. Yeah, but this is Lemons we’re talking about, where the winner of the race isn’t really the winner, it’s the one that does the most with the least in the eyes of the judges. With that in mind, the more uncomfortable and unreliable the better.


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  5. I would buy the Merc, pull the engine and transmission, rebuild/repair as needed and sell at a small profit. (LONGBLOCK: $9,750.00 EXCHANGE (Retail $10,850.00)). Couldn’t find a value for the 5speed but figure at least a grand. Scrap the rest for a bit more in the kitty. Pretty sure I would come out ahead.

  6. Note for anyone seriously thinking about one of these to race in Lemons: I don’t see an externally accessible kill switch in either, so it could well have been a few years since these were on track.
    Kinda glad they’re on the other side of the country from me because I don’t have anywhere to put a non-registered car currently.

  7. These…aren’t too bad. In 2019 I figured I could likely get a car (for a given value of ‘car’) to Lemons tech for around $10k. Now, with materials & labor shortages, a pre-built looks much more attractive. Much as I love the idea of the Rx, I’d go for the 190: I drove/worked on 123s & 126s for almost 20years, so it doesn’t alarm me. Finding the 2.3 16v might get pricey, tho.

    Still pretty much the cheapest seat time measured in hours, tho!

  8. Definitely the Mercedes. Sell the drivetrain, and replace it with either a Mercedes M112 or M113 V6/V8, along with a decent manual transmission. Super reliable/durable, even on track, and replacements can be found anywhere. Of course, that’s assuming the rest of the car is up to 200-350hp, which is quite an assumption based on the pictures.

  9. “And a five-speed stick in any Mercedes is a rare and wonderful treat.”

    Have to say I disagree. I test drove a first gen Mercedes SLK with the 5 speed. It was terrible – rubbery and floppy. The salesman told me that I should just buy the automatic like everyone else.

      1. Oh, no worries there, I agree they’re worth a look. I’ve seen both of these cars in person at the track and I think either one could be put back into street service without too much trouble, depending of course on one’s personal standards regarding, well, most everything.

  10. Running and driving RX7! The Cosworth motor is a draw, but it needs a head gasket and who knows what other, possibly expensive, Mercedes-only parts. Cheap, light, reasonably complete, running Mazda takes it!

    1. Respectfully disagree – I think it’s interesting to see what is out there for less than $2,500. So far nothing I’d actually want to own, but I always learn something from reading the write-up and comments.

      1. It seems like half or more of the entries are non-running, or rust buckets with one foot in the grave, or both. I think all the same knowledge could be gained by comparing decent examples of the same cars.

        1. I respectfully point the Viper-driving gentleman to the sign above the door. (clears throat) Ahem. Showroom Showdown is across the hall, right next door to Serviceable Secondhand Sedan Showdown.

          Here there be Shitboxes.

    2. Desirable varies from person to person though.. like I see the appeal of my in-laws BMW, it’s fast and it’s probably nice to drive but my beat up Mustang brings me just as much joy without having to worry about where I park it. I love seeing what’s out there for ‘why not’ levels of money!

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