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