Wednesday, June 22, 2011

moving up to an S-class

The story of my 1985 Mercedes 300SD is linked closely to that of my 240D. Shortly after I moved to Boston I had some problems with the 240D that snowballed, due to a couple of lying, cheating, incompetent mechanics. Four months after the move, I made the very difficult decision to sell the 240D. I was spending a lot of money getting it fixed, only to have it leave each mechanic in worse shape. Very reluctantly, I went car shopping.

Truth be told, I didn't need a daily driver at the time. I had the Vanagon, which although quirky (as always) has been, at its core, reliable for as long as I've owned it. At the time, I was commuting primarily by bike (8 miles each way) and wasn't driving much anyway. But, I still decided the best thing to do was get a better car.

For the first time, I started browsing Craigslist for cars. I was fairly well dead set on getting another diesel Mercedes, but was open to other (German) options. Several candidates popped up, and I went to check them out. The fist car I went to look at was another 1982 240D like mine, but with a metallic green paint job and green interior and a manual transmission. The photos in the ad made it look like a nice car, and the ad stated that the car's only real issue was some minor surface rust. The car was located a mile from my office, so I went down there on my lunch break the next day to see it.

Unfortunately, the seller was kind of clueless. I saw countless hard-to-identify leaks under the hood, and the car ran poorly. Worse yet, "minor surface rust" translated into baseball-sized holes in the front fenders, rotted out rocker panels, and seats falling through the floor. Needless to say, I took a pass on that car.

The next candidate was a 1983 300TD station wagon. There were no photos in the ad, and the car had high miles, but I decided to take a look at it. I got there to see a genuinely rust-free car (recently in from the west coast), but with mismatched hood and fender. To top it off, the interior was all torn up. The seller's wife wasted no time letting me know that the $2500 price tag was non-negotiable, based on all the money they'd spent on repairs. I was a bit turned off by the experience, but decided to test drive the car anyway. There was a good amount of slop in the gear selector, but to my surprise, the car drove excellently. The test drive had changed my mind. There was only one test left - a quick highway run. With the seller riding shotgun, I took the car out onto Route 128 northbound in Waltham. Very quickly, I noticed a problem. The temperature needle started to rise... and rise... and rise... I pulled off the highway, into a gas station, and shut the car off, as a courtesy to the seller not to toast his engine. We waited for it to cool down and limped it back to his house. He promised he'd have his mechanic check it out, but I was no longer interested.

At this point, I was out of Mercedes diesels to see, and went to look at a 1996 Volkswagen Cabrio. The car needed exhaust work and the check engine light was on. Worse yet, the seller (a car dealer) refused to let me test drive it. I left.

The next candidate was a 1996 VW Jetta at a local Saab dealership. The car was a trade-in with a few small issues (which the salesman told me they would take care of). It was a low-mileage car, and looked clean. I took it out for a test drive and noticed within a couple of blocks that the clutch was almost completely shot. The salesman promised to take care of it. I gave him my number and asked him to call me when the car was fixed, as I was still interested. He never called.

A few days later, I was getting tired of the whole situation. I had an ailing car, and there wasn't any suitable replacement in my price range. I was about to give up when I spotted another Craigslist ad for a 1985 Mercedes 300SD. Up to this point, I hadn't really considered the larger S-class cars, but after a quick phone call with the seller, I was off to see it.

Seeing as how I didn't know how to navigate Boston by car and I didn't want to drive the 240D a long distance, I opted to drive it into Cambridge, park it, and head downtown on the Red Line downtown to see the 300SD. As luck would have it, that June day in 2005, there were some serious utility problems which led to long T delays. The 15 minute ride downtown turned into over an hour.

I left the subway and found myself in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood, waiting for the seller, who was coming by to pick me up in the 300SD. A few minutes later, I spotted the car, but couldn't believe my eyes. The 300SD (champagne metallic paint over palomino interior) looked brand new. I identified myself and the seller drove us back to her apartment, where her husband was waiting. It was already dark, so I was forced to look the car over under a street lamp. Still, all indications showed that this car had been absolutely babied.

The seller told me that she'd inherited the car from her recently deceased grandfather, a classically-trained pianist, but that she and her husband didn't need a second car in the city. Apparently, the original owner (her grandfather) had spent tens of thousands of dollars over 20 years he owned it, having the car dealership maintained.

After a quick test drive, I was ready to make an offer. The seller told me she'd just been offered a number by a construction worker earlier in the day, but that he needed to go to the bank. I offered $100 over that number (still way below book value on the car), cash, and would take the car immediately. The seller drew me a map out of the city, and I left there in my 20-year-old, but looking-and-feeling-like-new 300SD.

The car needed nothing in order to be driven immediately. The next week I sold the 240D, due to lack of parking at my apartment.

I ended up using the 300SD as my primary form of transportation for the next year, until my move from Waltham to Worcester. Not wanting the still nearly showroom-perfect 300SD to get destroyed on my commute into the city, I sold it a year after the move (don't worry - it's still in the family, and is garaged and babied to this day).
(days after purchase - I hadn't even washed it yet)

(a few weeks later, after a mild detailing)

(a short, but unfortunately poor-quality video I did of the 300SD, back in 2005)


  1. I like the color of this Mercedes the best. I want my mom to get a Bronze outback wagon when her lease is up next month, but unfortunately I don't think she's going to go for that.

  2. Hello, great stories. do offer advice on mechanical questions? My 300TD wagons battry went dead, out of no where. got a jump had it tested at walmart, the print out said the battery and alternator were good, I drove for 30 or so miles backed it in the garage just in case and the next morning iput in the key and noticed no glow light indicator so I thought heat of compression maybe it will luck, just drained the battery. my neighbor gave me a jump no glow plug indicator light cranking like hell, won't start. Any ideas? thanks,Rex.

    1. Hello, Rex
      I can certainly try. I'm not sure why the battery went dead to begin with, especially if the alternator tested OK. But, if you're getting no glow indicator, that strongly suggests a bad glow plug relay. If your car is 1980 or later, it's the black box on the inner fender behind the driver's side headlight. Pull off the plastic cover and see if the strip fuse is intact. Also might be burned out glow plugs, but I'm not sure the glow light would be out for that.