Wednesday 28 March 2012

Realworld Rides: 1991 Mercedes-Benz 230 CE (W124)

When a car has a story to tell, it rarely has any effect on its value, unless it had a previous owner who was either famous, or infamous. A rich motorsport heritage will often imbue a car with value for the collector, and cars can sometimes enjoy inflated values due to their being associated with similar machines in films, books or music videos.

Unfortunately, without any of these qualifications your car is likely to have bugger all value, even if it could entertain the rest of the parking lot with countless tales of discovery and adventure. Take the car in these photos; a well worn ’91 Mercedes 230CE. It’s been around; it wears the scars of its harsh urban exsistence with pride. It carries the noble demeanour of a once grand building that has fallen on hard times. It’s down, but not quite out. Playworn, if you will. I absolutely love it.

The car that was dubbed W124 had a long life, from ’85 to ’95, when it was replaced by the W210. But all the way through, there could be little doubt in anybody’s eyes that this was a “proper” Benz, and certainly a leap into the future from the venerable W123 that it succeeded. There was a Saloon and Estate version, of course, and latterly a full convertible model. But my favourite was this one, the Coupe, or CE.

Those streamlined lines just begin the appeal. The canted-over headlamps, raked back as with all W124s, suit the coupe profile perfectly, as do the functional, disciplined ribbed rear light clusters. The proportions are spot-on, the surface quality excellent. But best of all, a feature that very few European coupe’s could muster is present and correct on the CE:- Pillarless glass.

In a CE one can drop all the side glass at the touch of a switch, giving you an uninterrupted vista of the outside world, and a smooth, uncluttered profile. I adore this as a styling feature, possibly even more on the stark, sober CE than on the brutal, power-dressed BMW 8-Series. It’s an unnecessary embellishment but one that adds a whole new dimension to the cars appeal.

The W124 issued from the factory gates wearing as little standard equipment as Mercedes could get away with. Such fripperies as electric windows, central locking, even a radio were firmly on the options list. In the ‘80s Mercedes-Benz were even selling S-Class models with plastic wheel trims. In some ways it’s a shame that this particular car has been fitted with alloys; the cheapo plastic trims have an ironic appeal to them.

It’s a bit of a shame, too, that the poor old machine you see before you has an electric window system that you shouldn’t even attempt to operate unless you’re feeling lucky. Flick the switch for the drivers window and the results vary from the glass simply disappearing into the door, through to hinging half-way along and disappearing into the door at a ninety-degree angle. It’s unpredictable, if we’re honest. I was brave enough to try the remaining window controls and, happily, they didn’t do anything at all.

Nor did the door handles on the driver side, either from the inside or the outside. Access to the driving seat was available only via sliding over from the passenger side, an operation requiring me to thread my six-foot five expanse around all the interior obstacles with as much grace as an obese pole-vaulter. Once finally installed, I sat there in stunned silence.

The lucky chap who originally ordered this car neglected to tick the option for leather trim, and so the seats are trimmed in a heartstopping beige tweed-derived material that could only have come from Germany. It’s perhaps unfair to criticise a twenty-year old car for being dated, but there’s simply no disguising how far things have come on, nor how the W124 now seems ferociously dated even compared to some of the cars you could have bought in the mid-nineties.

But then, despite the brown plastic and general feeling that this dashboard would seem more at home in a lorry than in a car, it still feels expensive. It’s inert to the touch; it feels like it’s been constructed rather than just made. It’s been there for two decades and doesn’t look like disintegrating any time soon. Nor does the seat fabric; sun-scorched, worn in places but not threadbare. It feels like the interior of a once-expensive car. Which it is.

It’s a shame that the exterior shows rather more evidence of its dotage, from the battle-scrapes of urban life through to the kerbed and pock-marked wheels and customary W124 wheelarch rust.  That said, while unsightly, these imperfections certainly add character to the machine.

This character continues when I turned the key. The old-fashioned implement slots into its hole on the vertical surface of the dashboard in the fashion of Mercs of yore; largely because this is a Merc of yore. The starter grinds away as if being awoken by its parents at 11AM on a Sunday morning, then catches and rattles gruffly into life. Then comes the reminder that this isn’t a car with a particularly evocative engine. The four-cylinder lump is simple in design and technology and every example made was destined for a long and reliable service life without providing anything in the way of excitement or romance.

It’s both a good and a bad thing. Obviously, a swooping, glamorous coupe ought to have an exciting, exotic engine. A straight-six would doubtless lend a more lust-worthy exhaust note and a better turn of speed, together with greater refinement for all that long-distance high-speed cruising. I’ve never driven a 300-24 CE and would love to have a go, if just to confirm my suspicions. But on the other hand there’s something to be said for a car with film-star looks but lumberjack practicality. The four-banger is seemingly unburstable; the century-and-three-quarters on the odometer seems to have been dispatched with nary an effort. It still responds willingly, if not quickly, and the automatic box still shifts up and down obediently, if jerkily. And, though the silkiness of a six would be nice, I actually enjoyed the workmanlike character of the smaller engine.

The handling is woolly, that's fair to say. Having covered several circuits of the equator any sporting edge this car might have had was chiselled off many moons ago; there's pitch and wallow, roll and lean; and inputs to the steering have to be exaggerated a little, you have to speak up if you want the somewhat deaf mechanism to hear what you want it to do for you. And none of this matters a single jot.

It's tired. It's reached a more relaxed stage of its life. Without any shadow of a doubt, with a few new panels, new dampers, bushes and balljoints and a little detail fettling, the CE could be returned to some semblance of its former self. Or you could just do the necessary to keep it alive and legal, and just leave it as it is. 

There's something extremely cool about shabby cars. Something slightly anti-establishment. Something a little bit "I don't care", and in a good way. If this car was mine, I'd sort the rust out, fix the windows and door locks and then just leave it alone. I'd revel in the tyre-squeal as I flop it through the corners, enjoying that flatulent woofle through the narrow-diameter exhaust pipe.

Regrettably, that won't happen. Immediately after taking these photos a man came and took it away to the auctions, where it had a reserve price of £100. I have no idea how much it actually made, but you can guarantee that it either sold as a project or as scrap. If there's any goodwill left in this world, my heart pleads for it to be the former. 

(UPDATE: A look on the Gov.UK Vehicle Enquiry service confirms that neither the MOT or Tax were renewed after May 2012, so I really was one of the last people to enjoy the 220 CE's modest charms)