What happens when the dog catches the car?

The Hunt is done once again.

I had mentioned on September 14th that I was looking for another Mercedes 300D (a diesel car from the early 1980s), to replace the one that I sold two years ago.  After I’d sold it in a moment of weakness to a buyer from Connecticut who wanted a rust-free southern car, that black Mercedes stuck in my memory. I began to miss the way it elegantly glided over the cracked urban roads of Tucson.  I missed the reassuring soft clatter of the engine (which is not loud when the car is properly tuned and the sound-dampening hood pad is intact).  I missed the simplicity of it.  And so I started a quest, a hunt, to find a fine example that—this time—I would keep.

It’s hard to explain why this particular car appeals to me.  I think that if you are the sort of person who is inclined to be interested in old cars, you naturally gravitate to something you remember from childhood.  I know I get a lot of letters from people who tell me that their interest in Airstreams started when they saw one on a family roadtrip.  I know a friend’s family had one of these when I was a teenager, but it was blue inside (my least favorite interior color) and decaying with Vermont rust, so it wasn’t a particularly attractive memory.

It’s a car that defies contemporary values.  It’s not fast and it’s not powerful. The turbo engine produced a mere 120 horsepower when it was new, and worn ones undoubtedly produce quite a lot less.  It was well equipped for the time, with power windows, automatic transmission, automatic climate control, central locking, cruise control, and many other features for the US market, but by today’s standards it is virtually gadget-free.  Our economy car, a 2007 Honda Fit, has almost all the same features and nobody thinks that’s any great accomplishment.  Where’s the 220-watt stereo with MP3 input?  Where’s the trip computer?  Where’s the sleek tapered nose?

I don’t care about any of that stuff.  The upright and sturdy look of the old Mercedes W123 chassis has an indefinable appeal, for me and a few other fans.  The lines are clean without being the same boring aero shape of virtually every modern car today.  The interior is comfortable without being plush, and the appointments are restrained and dignified without being pretentious or Spartan.  And the body, despite lacking airbags and anti-lock brakes, is safer than many cars that came after it.

This car comes from an era where engineers ruled Mercedes.  Everything about it yields a sense of mechanical durability, thoughtfulness, and quality.  Even a little thing like the sound of the door closing: a muted, brief, THUNK.  I’ve seen guys at car shows demonstrate the door sound to their friends.  Nobody ever does that with a Porsche or Jaguar.  You might say that nobody buys a car because of the way the door sounds, and that’s probably true, but it’s just an audible hint of the level of detail that a bunch of German engineers thought about, in every tiny aspect.

I think the big “aha” moment for me was a day when I was replacing a burned-out turn signal bulb.  I’ve done this job on two other (modern) cars I’ve owned, and it usually involves a socket or two, or a Torx driver, and a lot of fishing around inside tiny cavities.  On this car, you reach inside the engine compartment, unscrew a knurled plastic knob with your fingers, and the entire lamp assembly slides out for easy access.   Another time I needed to access the fuel sender. It was easily removed with only two tools, and when I got it apart I was amazed to find it was constructed of stainless steel with delicate gold wires, still accurate after nearly three decades. (The tank level monitors on my Airstream have never been accurate.)  Everything in these old Mercs is like that; finely engineered, built to last, and yet repairable when necessary.

In 1984, this car would cost you $31,940.  For comparison, I was still in college in 1984, and my landlord offered to sell me the condo I was renting for $32,000.  The year after that my greatest aspiration was to buy a Nissan Sentra with optional air conditioning that cost about $7,000.  It was a mighty sum to me, something that required signing my first finance contract.  The price of a Mercedes 300D was unfathomable, and the car was intimidating in its vast superiority to the econobox I hoped to drive.  It tickles me to ride in one today, finally getting my chance at the sweet and soft ride that somebody with eager anticipation plunked down a small ransom to get in 1984.

My hunt this time took a bit over two weeks, since I started before I mentioned it on the blog.  The process is occasionally tedious and requires diligence in searching online sources like Craigslist, Autotrader, Cars.com, eBay; in other words, it’s absorbing.  Blink for a moment and you may miss out on the car you’ve been looking for, after all hundreds of other people are likely looking for it too.  I drove to every local European car repair shop and put in a word about what I was seeking, I told my friends, I studied reviews and forums, and I stayed up late browsing.  The rest is just a matter of perseverance.

After a couple of weeks I was tired of looking at the junk cars that comprise 95% of the market, but I also didn’t want to end the search too early.  The problem, as I told Eleanor, is that it’s like a dog chasing a car. What happens when the dog catches one?

There were a few near-misses.  I spotted a car in California that looked great, but upon digging into it I discovered that it had failed emissions four times in recent years, and that the seller had repainted it and bought a lot of used parts to make it look like new.  Those are all red flags.  Many others featured things like “good A/C but needs a charge” (which means bad A/C), and “fresh repaint” (which means cheezy repaint), and “no visible rust” (which means rust in inaccessible spots), and my personal favorite: problems excused with the explanation that “all these cars do that.”  No, I found myself mumbling to myself after a long evening of browsing online ads, only the neglected ones do that.

My ideal prize would be as unmolested as I could get, original paint, unrestored, just as it was was left by a loving owner who regretfully was letting it go after many years of gentle use.  This might seem to be a fantasy, but if you are willing to pay market rates and be patient, there are a lot of such cars coming up for sale.  The owners who bought them in the mid-1980s and never drove them in the winter are now reaching an age where owning an old Mercedes no longer makes sense.  One by one, these cars are coming out of storage barns and garages all over the US.  That’s what I was waiting for.

I finally found it, or something close enough.  It’s a 1984 Mercedes 300D, in Thistle Green Metallic paint with a Palomino interior.  Two owners, 101,000 miles (anything under 150k is considered low mileage for a car of that age), everything works, everything original except the radio, and no rust.  That’s just 3,600 miles per year, a good indication that the owner stored it in the winter.  The car was in Maryland, so I had some long conversations with the seller, studied his photos carefully, checked his references, and ordered a pre-purchase inspection at the local European car specialist. Everything checked out.

The ultimate would have been to fly out there to get the car.  This is always a great adventure and an opportunity to bond (and learn the car’s quirks), but the trip would be at least 2,300 miles and my schedule didn’t allow the time.  So I’m having it shipped to home base.

I have something to savor while I’m waiting: the seller sent the car’s documents ahead via FedEx.  Getting this package was like Christmas in July.  Typically, the owners of these cars save all the crucial historic documents, and this one was no exception.  I have the original window sticker, the dealer’s pre-purchase inspection sheet, the owner’s manual, maintenance booklet, warranty documents, and receipts for services.  From this the low mileage on the odometer can be confirmed as actual mileage, and I know what maintenance services have been left undone.

Even a pristine-appearing specimen has issues.  There are no perfect cars from 1984.  You have to expect some amount of “sorting out” to be done in the first year.  It’s process in which the car gradually gets brought up to spec until it works as it did when it rolled off the showroom floor.  Of course you want to start with a car that’s worth the investment and doesn’t have too many expensive problems.  For this car, the sorting-out process will begin right after it comes off the truck next week, starting with safety-related items and replacement of all the old fluids.

I guess that’s what happens when the dog catches the car.  He sits down and begins to gnaw on it like a bone.  Or else maybe the dog gets a driver’s license and starts enjoying his new ride.  Either way, the game may have only just begun.

 

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine