Living with a Mercedes-Benz 190E

The author recalls his experience of Stuttgart’s first compact executive model.

Not mine, but almost identical (c) rjhcars.co.uk

The 1970’s was a dismal era for the UK as the economy struggled with economic shocks such as the 1974 Middle-East oil crisis, stubbornly high inflation, a bloated and inefficient public sector, declining industrial base and a restive, militant workforce. This culminated in a balance of payments and Sterling crisis in 1976 that forced the Labour government of Prime Minister James Callaghan to seek an emergency $3.9bn loan from the International Monetary Fund.

The UK public finances were in such dissarray that income tax rates remained at very high levels throughout the decade, with a top rate of 83% on all income over £20,000 in 1979. The punitive levels of income tax encouraged employers to look instead for non-cash inducements to attract and retain staff.  This precipitated a huge expansion in the demand for perk(1) company cars, a series of which would eventually come my way.

In late 1987 after eighteen months working in London, I was headhunted to join the Foreign Exchange dealing operation of a leading American bank in the City. The new job came with a decent salary increase and, of course, the now customary offer of a company car(2).

My own car at the time was a charming but impractical and slightly decrepit 1978 MG Midget 1500, so the opportunity to drive around in a shiny new car was rather appealing. As I lived in central London with no off-street parking, the prospect of not having to insure and worry unduly about a company car added further to its attraction.

The bank’s company car scheme was managed by a leasing company. There was little restriction placed on the make and model one could choose. My new job came with a monthly lease allowance, which I could top up from my salary if I wished to do so. A number of my new colleagues did so enthusiastically, so even junior members of staff were driving around in very upmarket BMWs and Jaguars, somewhat to the annoyance of their bosses!

A list of cars with their monthly leasing charges was sent to me with my new contract of employment. I passed happy hours while on a month’s gardening leave(3) between jobs perusing the list and considering all the possibilities. In the end, however, common sense won the day. With a substantial mortgage and ambitions to move up the property ladder, I had no interest in topping up the allowance. That brought me to a shortlist of the Mk2 Golf GTI, the Toyota Celica Mk4 (T160) liftback…and the Mercedes-Benz 190E.

Most single and unattached 26 year-olds would have chosen either the Golf or the Celica, but there was something about the 190E that fascinated me. I loved its styling, which was highly disciplined in the best Bruno Sacco tradition and subtly tuned for aerodynamic efficiency. Likewise, its engineering integrity and feeling of ‘machined from solid’ heft. Some of its details were delightful, like the mechanism that pushed the single windscreen wiper upwards to clear the corners of the screen, and the door mirrors, differently sized and shaped on either side to afford the driver the optimum view rearward.

I also have to confess to a certain amount of badge snobbery too. There was something about driving (if not actually owning) a Mercedes-Benz that quietly said you were getting somewhere in the world.

1988 Mercedes-Benz 190E saloon (c) rjhcars.co.uk

My decision was sealed when I visited a south London Mercedes-Benz dealership in December 1987. Sitting on the showroom floor was a brand new 190E automatic, standard apart from a factory fitted electric sunroof. The car was a cancelled order and available for immediate delivery. The dealership was well acquainted with the leasing company so, after a couple of phone calls, all was signed and sealed.

The leasing company would not register the car before the New Year, so I took a day off in early January 1988 and waited excitedly for delivery. The car duly arrived, resplendent in its bright red paintwork. It is not a colour I would have chosen for a saloon, but it looked good in the wintery sunshine.

First impressions were once again of the quality and heft of the car, and its rather austere interior. The mainly black check upholstery looked dull but felt very durable. The minor controls, including the unique single multi-function column stalk, had a lovely mechanical precision to them. The only jarring note in the interior was the sole piece of highly polished wood around the automatic transmission selector, which looked incongruous when surrounded by all that (admittedly, high quality) black plastic elsewhere.

I headed out on my first drive through heavy London traffic before finally being able to open the car up on the A3 dual carriageway. It was my first experience of driving an automatic and, once I trained myself not to use my left foot, it quickly became familiar and very relaxing. Its colour apart, the 190E was quite anonymous and attracted little attention, which suited me fine.

Identical interior to mine, apart from the obvious (c) czasnaklasyka.pl

One issue that had arisen before delivery concerned the choice of radio-cassette player. The dealership, under instructions from Mercedes-Benz (or so I was told) would only install Blaupunkt equipment, and that supplier did not offer a removable unit. I explained my circumstances regarding on-street parking, but they were unmoved. With dismal predictability, after just a week I got up one morning to find the rear quarter light smashed and the stereo missing. Fortunately, the theft had been executed professionally (I use that word advisedly.) and no collateral damage had been done. A removable Kenwood unit, of rather better quality than the Blaupunkt original, was the replacement, courtesy of the bank(4).

The car spent most of its two years and four months(5) in my custody driving around London and the Home Counties, although it did take the long trip to Ireland for the wedding of my sister in the summer of 1988. It was in Dublin that it threatened to let me down for the first and only time: parked outside University Church in St. Stephens Green, the boot, containing my suit jacket and the bridesmaids’ bouquets, refused to open! Five increasingly frenzied minutes later, I finally managed to get it unlocked, thankfully without taking a crowbar to it.

As the 190E was parked on the congested streets of South London, it inevitably picked up some parking dents and scratches and, on one occasion, the rear nearside door panel was stoved in by (I assume) an errant driver. All were repaired efficiently by the franchised dealership which also serviced the car. The service department was based in Southwark, which was handy for dropping in and collecting the car, being close to the City, but the reception area had all the charm of a police station custody suite and the service advisors were rather perfunctory in their manner.

1988 Mercedes-Benz 190E saloon (c) rjhcars.co.uk

One standard fitment that proved singularly unsuited to kerbside parking was the large silver ‘dustbin lid’ wheel covers. The outer edges of these stood proud of the wheel rims and quickly became badly scuffed, so much so that I felt compelled to replace all four (at my own expense) before I returned the car.

It was during my 190E custodianship that I met my partner, Murray. He had learnt to drive while working in the United States but had not bothered to obtain a UK licence upon his return. Adorned with ‘L’ plates, the 190E was pressed into service as his (re)learner car under my tuition (with a few professional lessons as well) and he went on to pass his test first time.

The 190E served us very well. If I were to think of a single adjective that best described it, I would suggest unobtrusive. That sounds like damning it with faint praise, but it is not. The 190E was utterly reliable, comfortable, a relaxing pleasure to drive, without any sporting pretentions. It was replaced by a BMW E30 generation 320i convertible, but that is another story!

 

(1) A perk company car is one that the employee does not normally need to use in the course of his employment

(2) As my clients were almost all based either in London or overseas, I had no need for a car in the course of my work.

(3) An enforced absence from the markets in the (usually  futile) hope that this would prevent the employee taking their clients with them to their new firm.

(4) Interestingly, the bank, which owned the cars, chose to insure them on a third-party only basis, having carried out a study indicating that this would be more cost-effective than fully comprehensive cover, given the size of the fleet.

(5) Another study, this time by the leasing company, indicated that this was the optimum period after which leased cars should be moved on.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

55 thoughts on “Living with a Mercedes-Benz 190E”

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience of having the 190 as a company car. Your experience reminds me of the time when I was about to purchase my first car. I narrowed it down to a second hand 190E 1.8 automatic and a second hand E30 318i Touring. The Benz was nearly twice as expensive as the Bimmer. I vaguely knew the owners of the BMW. Elderly people who used the E30 as the second car in a two car household (the other was an E32 750i) and the car came with a full service history at the local BMW dealer. I knew nothing of the Benz and decided to purchase the BMW, which I kept for 9 years. It never let me down apart from a dead battery. It’s still on the road today.

    I can’t help but wonder what happend to the 190E and how my ownership would have been with it. Wishing everyone a great Sunday.

  2. A 190D lived with my family for a few years: beige, basic spec and awful from top to bottom. The noise, the huge steering wheel, inadequate seats all stand out twenty five years later. I suppose there were nicer ones out. Mercedes forgot to make the basic elements of the car agreeable.

    1. Mercedes-Benz or not, I don’t think we’re going to win Richard round on the merits of W201!

  3. Good morning Daniel. Thanks for the interesting read. I wonder what Mercedes’ justification for the single overloaded column stalk was? They must have had some reason to only have one.

    1. I wondered about that too. Mercedes seem to have a preference for this as you find it in any model of the era. In a W202 you will find the ignition key would clearly be in the way of the absent stalk, but they could have designed that differently.

    2. Good morning all. Might the single stalk have had anything to do with Mercedes-Benz traditionally having a column-mounted gear change? Just a thought…

    3. Freerk raises another Mercedes oddity: the ignition slot that faces you along the plane of the dashboard rather than along the axis of the steering column. They used to be almost as quirky as Citroën in their own way!

  4. thanks Daniel for your clear writing about your 190E,
    it gives a real sense of your experience of ownership.
    and don’t they look surprisingly pleasing in red?
    still one of the best three box shapes out there.
    the vagaries of onstreet parking in London remind me
    of living in Albert Park in Melbourne in the late 70s and
    having a 300 SL Coupé living out on a street nearby.

    1. Agreed – it is a nice pen picture of the car and the peculiar time of the late 80s. I was still in school but I walked home past the various manifestations of the 80s boom since the route took me through deepest Dublin 2 (part of which was adland and accountancy central). The 190E was there along with 320, Saab 900s and the odd CX. It was a very distinct population of cars.

  5. How nice to read these reminiscences of your time with a 190E Daniel, a car that I never thought much about (though vaguely aware of its significance in Mercedes history) until reading about it in these pages and seeing it compared to old Lancia in terms of its engineering integrity. I have a sneaking suspicion I might agree with Richard Herriot’s commentary if I actually drove one but am unlikely to ever find out.

    A Mercedes saloon isn’t exactly what I would think of as a learner car… luckily your partner could already drive and just needed a licence.

    1. Hi Chris, likewise, I might be horribly disappointed if I were to drive a 190E today, given that it’s a forty year-old design, albeit a great one in its day.

    2. I recall driving a W123 circa-1988/89 and being entirely underwhelmed by the car. Apart from its build integrity of course, which was mightily impressive. It was however, quite charmless. One assumes the car’s qualities would reveal themselves to the owner over a lengthy period of ownership.

  6. Whatever about the single column stalk, does anyone know why the W201 was the only Mercedes (that I’m aware of, anyway) graced with a conventional handbrake? They reverted to the pedal arrangement for the W202, I think, and of course the W124 et. seq. retained it until the advert of electronic handbrake switches.
    It’s not as though the regular Merc handbrake were particularly effective, anyway – it could be that my W204 requires adjustment, but a look at the NCT (Irish MOT) results indicates less brake force than any other car in the family…

    1. As far as I know the conventional handbrake was chosen for the W201 to free up space in the footwell area. There just wasn’t enough space for the pedal. You’re right, the W202 had a pedal arrangement. I don’t mind the pedal arrangement, but in combination with a manual gearbox it’s not ideal.

    2. The XM has a foot-operated parking brake. I am not the most physically well-coordinated of people (I can´t really play tennis and I have a slight Mr Bean propensity to drop things) but I have had no difficulty with the foot operated parking brake.
      On a uphill start you go into first and gently release the clutch until it bites. Then use your non-gear shifting arm to release the brake (clonk!); both hands now on the wheel; rev and let the clutch engage and up you go. If I can do it anyone can.

    3. Th DS had such a parking brake, too and that’s where Mercedes got the idea of how to replace their umbrella handle parking brakes.

    4. Richard, I know about the XM and also DS with similar brake arrangements. I used the same technique as you do, back in the days when I drove a W202 with a manual on a regular basis. I can do it, it’s not challenging in any respect but it’s just a very annoying experience in my book. I wouldn’t have the same issue if it had been an automatic.

  7. A nice story – thank you, Daniel. I’m surprised that you went for a convertible after the break-in. I was going to ask whether you heard the 190’s alarm, but I guess it might not have had one.

    Did Murray learn to drive a manual transmission, or did he just stay with automatics? I must say that I’d be tempted by the latter, if I already drove.

    1. Hi Charles, Murray learnt to drive on an automatic (Ford Mustang) in Los Angeles in 1981 and has never had any interest in driving a manual car, as he can’t see the point!

      Amazingly, we had two E30 convertibles (a 320i followed by a 325i) over six years in London (Blackheath, then Chelsea) both parked on street and neither suffered any damage whatsoever.

      You’re right about the 190E: it didn’t have an alarm.

  8. Good afternoon Daniel. By spooky, as Dame Edna might say, coincidence, my first encounter with a Mercedes occurred as you were awaiting delivery of your 190, on a dark, very wet late Friday afternoon just before Christmas. In my case, the car was the group chairman’s 500SEC (W126 I believe?) which was in for its first service at a Mercedes dealer in central Sheffield. Said gentleman (and I use the term advisedly) was at a meeting at one of our companies based out at Hellaby – where the head of sales suddenly realised he had forgotten that the GC needed his car and he’d left it too late to get to the dealership in time. As I was based in Sheffield, I found myself in sudden, urgent demand.

    Wading through the reception shag-pile, I discovered that the GC’s name was unknown to the girl at the desk. Realising that the car was probably leased to one of the companies, I casually tried naming them all – without success. By now withering under the radiating disdain, I suddenly remembered an obscure property company someone had mentioned. It worked and I was given some keys and told “it’s in the yard”.

    The yard was unlit and the 500SEC was wedged in a corner. I managed to get in and even fired it up. Engage Drive. Where’s the sodding handbrake? Dim memory of reading somewhere that Mercs have ones that work off the footbrake. Poke about with feet at random. Car moves. Where are the lights? Found ’em. Shunt about and gain the exit. Join Friday rush hour traffic and creep towards The Parkway while surreptitiously trying out every switch I can find.

    Eventually the traffic on The Parkway opened up and I could put my foot down. Up rose that three pointed star, a mighty shove in the back and I began to enjoy myself. Definitely a car for a hooligan – and entirely appropriate for the GC…. It rather coloured my perception of Mercedes, though – as, even more so, did the attitude of the staff at the dealership. Not at all like my local Saab dealer….

    1. JTC – that reminds me of a story about the MD of a company I used to work for. He was late for a meeting (as usual) and as he huffed in to reception, he threw the keys of his car at my colleague and said “It’s just outside, park it”.

      The colleague never re-emerged / joined the meeting, as the MD’s car was a SAAB, and they didn’t know you had to put it in to reverse to extract the ignition key.

    2. That’s a great story, John. My only experience of the W126 was as a rear seat passenger when I accompanied my boss’s boss to meet some of my top clients on a few occasions. I was too busy being on my best behaviour to pay much attention to the car!

  9. Daniel, apropos badge snobbery, I wonder if the cachet of owning certain Mercedes models nowadays might be diminished if the owner realises that they have the same engine as a Dacia Duster.

    On the other hand, the driver of a Duster might be chuffed when he/she finds out that they have the same engine as Mercedes.

    1. Hi Dale. In similar vein, the 1998 Tata Lodabeta pick-up had an unusual dog-leg gearbox that was, allegedly, a Mercedes-Benz design. That wasn’t the only element of Stuttgart influence the Lodabeta contained:

      I can’t imagine Mercedes-Benz was too pleased at the blatant rip-off of the W201 front end!

  10. Good story about your 190 ownership. I remember driving a 1984 example, his owner was a friend that inherited from his father. Very basic, everything manual, even with a 4-speed gearbox, but fitted with factory air conditioning (there are priorities). At the time I had a Primera GT P11 and it felt like a BTCC racer compared with the Merc.
    Surely I´m in the minority here but seeing the red 190 pictures I think the restyling´s lower body cladding gives a more modern and “complete” look to the W201, I prefer it this way. Same with the W124.

    1. Hi b234r. The lower body cladding certainly gave the W201 and W124 a smoother and more modern look. However, Mercedes-Benz hadn’t perfected colour matching the plastic to the car’s paintwork, so instead chose complementary colours, with variable results. On red cars, UV light caused the (darker red) cladding to change perceptibly to a plum colour, which I thought looked slightly odd:

  11. Thanks for that interesting trip back to the late ´80s. I suppose a lot of things affect one´s view of certain models. I can´t claim the Mercedes 190E has any romantic associations for me but I can understand why you´d be better inclined towards the car than the ghastly example that the Herriott household acquired. I did get to drive a diesel 190 around the Black Forest in 1997 and for that reason – my first proper acquaintance with lovely Germany – I ought to perhaps moderate my disdain for the 190. I had not driven a diesel so the low RPMs and the need to gun the engine to get it to move was unsettling. The car was as new though not new – the property of my brother´s father-in-law who was retired and had all the time in the universe to ensure it was utterly immaculate. I recall the odd sensation that one felt the world turned around the car and not the other way around. Another point is that in 1987 the 190E really did stand clear of a lot of other cars for the same money and Benzes were a lot rarer. These days it seems as if every 10th car is a Mercedes. It´s the Ford Mondeos and Insignias I notice because they are now unusual. How the world has changed.

    1. Hi Richard. I have to agree that the sheer ubiquity of Mercedes-Benz (and BMW and Audi) makes them no longer ‘special’ these days. Whatever their technical and dynamic attributes, the German premium trio are far too ‘shouty’ in design terms to appeal to me anymore. If I was in the market for that sort of vehicle, I’d buy a Volvo.

    2. Despite their ubiquity (MB, BMW, Audi) in today’s streets, they continue to sell ever more.
      One would expect that with them being everywhere, people wouldn’t find them so special anymore, but…
      Guess it has to do with the historic appeal of the brands, their “innate” german-ness, and resale values of course.
      I think there’s also a misconception from the general public that a german product implies reliability, although their record is not a shining example of that.

    3. Came back to this thread to read the new comments and this exchange reminded me of something that has always perplexed me: How did MB escape the consequences (in terms of market-share and reputation) of the truly shocking build quality of their cars in the late 1990s? The rust problems of every E-class I’ve seen from the period would have been enough to sink most marques but Mercedes seemed somehow to retain a reputation for quality that was, by that point, surely unearned and unjustified.

    4. My W204’s self-closing tailgate was forever going out of whack meaning many miles of “door open” warnings between dealer visits every time you pulled away.
      I also thought it most un-Mercedes-like when the torque converter failed at 60,000 miles and destroyed the transmission.
      I did 100k in the car and agree it was a handsome thing and lovely to drive. Luckily I wasnt paying the bills

    5. Hi Chris. That’s a good question. I think Mercedes-Benz survived the crisis, albeit with significant reputational damage, because the vast majority of affected cars had been sold on to subsequent owners before the premature corrosion and unreliability issues really began to bite. Hence, owners of new cars were largely uaware these issues, unless they were car enthusiasts (and the vast majority were not).

      I noticed a distinct change of attitude from the Mercedes-Benz franchised dealer when our 1997 SLK reached its third birthday and went out of warranty. When they realised that we weren’t immediately going to trade it in for a new one, they seemed to lose interest, both in the car and in us as customers. I took our business to a reputable independent specialist instead, who warned me about the problems they were seeing with higher mileage cars than ours (which was always garaged and lightly used). Luckily, we traded in in before the rust appeared.

    6. That kind of treatment from dealers make me cross. If you treat the customer well the customer comes back sooner or later. And if the customer feels that maintaining the car is paying dividends it´ll sell for a higher price. That increases demand as well. Essentially there is no downside to treating customers well. A small loss in the margins for servicing pays back in terms of higher transaction prices and more units shifted. Also, it´s just good manners.

  12. I think that’s a win for Team 190; just…

    An excellent report, Daniel, certainly worthy of airing and sharing, thank you. Normally a blue fan, the red suits this particular model rather well. Today’s German stuff screams aggression be they in white or grey. As to the stalk situation, was it simply a case of one stalk does all? German efficiency at the highest economic level?

    JTC: Was the dealer from your excellent story Lancaster Europa by any chance? If so, they still exist or did over two years since I last traversed that neck o’ the woods. And The Parkway for those not of this locale is the ribbon of broken tarmac that, mostly a racetrack outside commuting hours links my home city of Sheffield to the M1 motorway. “Rush hour” has never been such a misnomer, here.

    And a big YES to Volvo over anything wearing a current Germanic title. My S90 is an exclusive club member of the non-shouty brigade. Underbar, as they (according to Google translate) say in Swedish

    1. The dealership was on Hanover Way then and Lancaster’s certainly rings a bell. In 1987 The Parkway at rush hour un-clogged by the time you got to Handsworth – it’s not improved since then….

  13. Fantastic set of articles thanks so much.
    My one outstanding memory of the 190E was a black H registered automatic that was owned by a more senior member of my team, the rest of us estate agents driving around in leased Fords. I had a brand new Mondeo so this would have been around 1999.
    Borrowed his 190E just once to go on a viewing for the client to greet me with “You must be doing alright!”
    The upshot of the story is that, back when Mercs were Mercs, you could turn up in a brand new Ford and no one batted an eyelid, but turn up in a ten year old Mercedes and people thought you were doing rather well for yourself.
    Oh that it were still so but, after owning four post-190 Mercedes, it was becoming obvious that the bean counters were winning the battle against the engineers

    1. Thanks, Andrew and James, for your kind words. Glad you enjoyed the W201 pieces.

      James, you’re right about the impression that Mercedes-Benz used to convey. Even my mother, not someone accustomed to dishing out compliments freely, seemed to be impressed when she first saw the 190E.

  14. Incredibly, the three-pointed star does still impress some people a bit, even now. Not necessarily people actually interested in cars, mind you. I found the reaction among some of my friends and family when I got the W204 rather bemusing. In some ways I rather preferred the nods of approval my saying I drove a Mondeo used garner among the cognoscenti – the implication being that if I’d chosen an unfathomably non-enthusiast car, I’d at least picked a good one… Is this a form of inverted snobbery on my part?
    Getting back to the W201, I remember a colleague of mine inheriting his father’s immaculate 1985 one sometime in the early noughties. Even at that age he was very pleased with it- though not so much with the fuel consumption after the Golf he had been driving!

  15. ” three-pointed star does still impress some people a bit, even now. Not necessarily people actually interested in cars, ”

    Indeed, this seems the main reason they’re bought now, no matter that they’ve become so common no one cares about them. Much the same with Audis too.

    Skoda avoids all that, so is bought by people who actually driving.

    1. That does seem to be the case! Having said that, I do enjoy driving, and, yes, I can report the W204 is actually good to drive, if less engaging than a Mondeo. I bought it with my eyes open and don’t regret it. To borrow a phrase* from an infamously contrarian Irish sports journalist and pundit, it’s a good car, Bill, not a great car…

      * Most memorably applied to Michel Platini in the ’84 Euros…

    2. Hi Michael, the W204 is, in my humble opinion, a rather handsome car, certainly the best looking to carry the C-Class name:

      Glad to hear you’re satisfied with yours.

  16. A lovely story, Daniel, thank you.

    I remember my first experience of a rental car was in England in the mid-80s. My fiancé-to-be and I were on a short vacation and we treated ourselves to a black 190. We felt like “the bee’s knees” in our Benz and thoroughly enjoyed pretending we owned it. It was a pleasure to drive.

    I wonder what was going on with your car’s boot refusing to open at the worst possible moment? Thankfully it relented. Rather than being a bad omen before a wedding, I can gladly report 33 years later that the happy couple are still just that. (;-))

    1. Hello vwmeister. I think you’ve just ‘outed’ yourself as the bride in that little anecdote! I’m glad you weren’t aware of the unfolding crisis…😲

  17. Good morning Daniel. Thanks for sharing your experience with a W201; a lovely read. Your partner got introduced to UK/Euro driving on a Mercedes-Benz. Not bad! I think the name Mercedes-Benz carried more gravitas and prestige back then than it does today.

  18. Dear Daniel

    Thank you for this enjoyable and very to the point portrait of the almost legendary Mercedes-Benz W201. From my humble point of view, this is one of the most remarkable vehicles Mercedes Benz has brought to market in the last 40 years.

    In fact, at the time of the W201’s release, the company was probably at the zenith of an era in which vehicles were designed with unparalleled discipline and consistency for quality, comfort and durability, thus giving the brand the foundation from which it can still flourish today (in retrospect, I have the impression that in the mid-1980s Mercedes-Benz had the most superior overall portfolio in its history with the W201, W124 and W126 series).

    Even from today’s perspective, the W201’s recipe sounds quite convincing: it combines the essential qualities that at the time gave the W123 and the W126 that superiority in their respective segments that still distinguishes these vehicles today. And I will go to the extent of saying in my remarks that none of its successors even came close to this attitude.

    But the W201 was not only a kind of pioneer within the brand portfolio as a Mercedes-Benz. In my opinion, it played a decisive role in shaping today’s business executive car segment and gave it the momentum that has today transformed it into one of the most popular segments of the automotive industry.

    In this context, one could come to the conclusion that the appearance of the W201 was also instrumental in providing the BMW 3 Series, the only serious player in this segment to date, with the development programmes from which the range of derivatives in the form of the Touring and Convertible could emerge that allowed this model series to really zoom ahead.

    One more observation I would like to share at this point: I can’t shake off the impression that the W201 was the first Mercedes-Benz that managed to generate significant numbers of units as a basis for customisers and tuners. It was probably the breeding ground that put Brabus and AMG on the road to success and laid the foundation for the latter to become a highly prosperous division and sub-brand within Daimler-Benz AG.

    1. You already could take your W108, W114 or W123 to AMG and have them do what tuners did at that time: modify the engine and suspension. A W114 280E AMG was frighteningly expensive and not that much faster than the standard car and therefore sold in tiny numbers. Mercedes sold a million W114/115 and two and a half million W123 so the numbers should have been there.
      In the Eighties tuners generally shifted from working on engines to sticking on plastic accessories like ironing boards to bootlids or planks to sills to everything with wheels. Fo and inconceivable reason the first Benz generation that was severely affected by this fashion were the W201/124/126 models. The result were atrocities like Styling Garage Hamburg SGS Royale

      or Koenig Special

      No wonder these guys weren’t allowed to fit the three pointed star to their cars.

  19. Good morning Cesar and Mark. I agree with you both, that Mercedes-Benz had a distinctive gravitas and ‘specialness’ back in the 1980’s it no longer posesses, and the W201, W124 and W126 marked the zenith of this era.

    One W201 derivative that should have made production was the convertible, seen here in prototype form:


    The W201’s lines transfer well into a two-door convertible and, presumably, a coupé. I guess Mercedes-Benz didn’t want to risk cannibalizing sales of its W124 derivatives, in the same way that BMW never produced coupé and convertible variants of the 5 Series. Had there been a 190E convertible, that would have made the choice of successor to my 190E rather tricky!

  20. That 190 convertible looks really nice, except the rear is a bit too high. Maybe it needs the same treatment as BMW made with the E36 Coupe/Cabrio, which had lower rear bodywork than their 4-door sibling. This is especially noticeable by looking at the distance from top of tail lights to rear deck.


  21. It is certainly a purely academic question to what extent it was a missed opportunity that Mercedes-Benz did not include any bodywork derivatives in the form of coupes and cabrio in their model range for the W201 at its time. And yet I find it quite intriguing – even from today’s perspective – to spare a few thoughts on this matter.

    Essentially, I fully share Daniel’s opinion in that I am likewise convinced that Mercedes-Benz wanted to prevent the cannibalisation of the W124 Coupé here at the time. After all, this was a fine little niche with almost outrageous margins due to the comparatively high surcharge compared to the saloon. Moreover, this segment was almost unrivalled, and it was already happening in the third generation after the W114 Coupé and the W123 Coupé.

    There were no plans for a convertible either (in 1990 Mercedes-Benz built a prototype, presumably with BMW in mind, but it came too late for the W 201, which ended in 1993). Those who wanted to drive an open-top Mercedes had to make do with the SL in R 107 form, accepting that it was purely a two-seater (the supposed rear bench seat was more a pretty storage).

    Those who still wanted a Mercedes-Benz W201 as a coupé or even as a convertible had to look outside. Such wishes were fulfilled, among others, by the companies AKH Caro from northern Germany and Schulz Tuning from Neuss.

    At the same time, BMW started to really fly high with the 3 Series Convertible and was able to successfully challenge its new competitor in Stuttgart. As Daniel already mentioned, the decision to build this variant was certainly favoured by the fact that BMW did not produce any 5- or 6-series coupés or convertibles at the time (remarkably, BMW did produce a prototype convertible based on the 5-series, which suffered the same fate as the W201 convertible prototype).

    What I find really interesting now is how both companies reacted in the further course. The BMW 3 Series Convertible has now become the 4 Series Convertible and still serves basically the same segment. And it now has an honest-to-goodness fabric roof again, but instead with a new nose (which we are certainly not talking about at this point).

    And meanwhile, the 5 Series is also available as a coupé and a convertible, and that already in its third generation. Yes, you actually read that right. Oh, perhaps you are irritated at this point by these shenanigans with the nomenklatura, which previously introduced the 5 Series as a coupé and convertible under the name of the 6 Series (this has a certain tradition at BMW since the E24 model of 1976) and is now actually trying (with tiresome success) to whip them through the markets as the BMW 8 Series (this however has no tradition yet at BMW, since the first 8 Series as the E31 model actually had its genes from the BMW 7 Series in the E32 model coupled with additional technical upgrades).

    Even more difficult, in my opinion, is the subsequent behaviour of Mercedes-Benz. After the W201 came disillusionment in the form of the W202, which was much less consistently trimmed for quality. But it was finally available as a coupé and a cabrio. You are puzzled? Well, in this case Stuttgart was also guilty of a real cheat. The coupe and convertible versions of the comparatively banal W202 were given the four-eyed face of the W210 and visually positioned as its derivative.

    Perhaps it filled the accountants in Stuttgart with joy. And given one or two managers the much longed-for career boost. However, after the W114 Coupé, W123 Coupé and W124 Coupé, it put an end to the fine coupé tradition of Mercedes-Benz in the upper middle class.

    1. Hi Mark, I’m sure that margins were indeed fatter on the C124 coupé and convertible than they might have been on W201-based equivalents. However, they lost at least one potential customer: it was certainly a fine car, but the C124 convertible always had a whiff of ‘retired Miami dentist’ which ruled it out for me.

      A bit of model number inflation is always helpful in fattening up margins, of course, as BMW and Mercedes-Benz know all too well!

  22. What funny coincidence that I just returned from taking my boyfriend to get his U.S. drivers’ permit! He’ll likely be learning on my dog-eared old V50 2.4i auto, configured rather similarly to your 190E and rather similar in character, too. Say what you will about the P1 platform, but Volvo’s post-Mitsubishi compacts were a polished and elegant act despite being a little anodyne when it comes to the driving experience.

    The 190E! I know this is an anecdotal piece and there are other articles here detailing its history in greater depth, but it’s ironic that Mercedes has been trying to make the ‘baby-Benz’ happen for ages now (190E, C-Classe, A-Class, B-Class, CLA/GLA, et. al.) yet with each one there’s still backlash from brand ‘traditionalists’ who see it as diluting the brand. To be fair, some of the last few efforts were pretty lackluster and represent little in the way of being a ‘true Mercedes’, but the 190E was very much not that—no doubt this first compact Benz model had the highest hurdle to clear for acceptance in the market, giving way to all the rest of the aforementioned, and thus it was built to the same spec and mentality of every other Sacco-era brick-Benz.

    1. Hi Amoore. Yes, the 190E was every inch a Mercedes-Benz, just in a smaller package. I don’t recall it receiving much criticism from diehard Benz aficionados, unlike every A-Class, past and present.

      Hope the driving lessons go well!

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