1998 Mercedes-Benz C180 Classic - Our Shed

By: Dr John Wright, Guy Allen

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In praise of over-engineering

I don’t remember the detail but I remember the gist of the silliest speech I ever heard in my life as a motoring journalist. The earnest Mercedes bloke said the company was going to cut x-per cent (was it 20? 40?) out of the engineering budget for its cars but that quality would not suffer. (Rather like Fairfax saying it was sacking a heap of journalists but the papers’ quality would be unchanged. Right.)

This was in 1993, not so long after the launch of the over-the-top W140 ‘Swine-Class’. Ms Mercedes, the Lady, was clearly for turning. No more double-glazed windows. Doubtless the marketing dudes had won the day by saying ‘BMW doesn’t spend as much on engineering as we do and its cars are pretty good (and more desirable to many enthusiasts than ours!)’. But I’d like to have heard what the engineers said.

Mercedes -benz -rearAn appealing touch of nose-down/tail-up – but for its Bavarian origins you could call it a subtle ‘California rake’

The last model launched under the outgoing profligate ‘Engineered like no other car approach’ was the W202 C-Class, successor to the W201 190E. The W202 appeared internationally in 1993 and arrived in Australia the following March.

| Related: Mercedes-Benz C43 AMG

I owned one of the stripper 180Es, a cut-price 1.8-litre 190E. It had no ABS, no tachometer. But it did have window winders. Initial acceleration was embarrassingly slow. It was a wonderful car, solid in feel like no other of its size, beautifully built, rather stylish. I like over-engineering.

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This entry level C180 Classic is more of the same but at least with a tacho. My 1998 example also has Zebrano wood trim, leather upholstery (an expensive option) and fast glass. I ditched the nasty plastic wheel trims for more of the Bauhaus look and also because I remember the days when you took off the Premier’s hubcaps and painted the wheels black. All I need is Go Domes. Bauhaus or Bogan? You decide.

Despite an extra gearbox ratio, the C180 is still absurdly slow off the mark, but because I live in the sticks I’m not concerned. On the highway, it purrs along and uses about seven litres per 100.

Mercedes -benz -engine -2Beneath the covers resides the trusty variable valve-timing 1799cc four

When the 180E arrived in 1992 I reckoned it would be the car you’d buy as your last car. That doesn’t seem so funny now that I have its successor and retirement age is nigh. But, seriously, wouldn’t you prefer a C180 to any Hyundai? This is a helluva lot of car for $5K and I would always trust it more than, say, a Maserati Quattroporte!

If I were to get silly with this car, I’d go for lowered Eibach springs all round and a Whiteline sway bar because, believe me, in a C180 you want to keep as much momentum as you can.

- Guy Allen

Seriously, some days our driveway looked like a 1990s junior Mafia convention, with a string of dark-coloured Benzes lined up down the length of it. I swear it happened by mistake. Okay, Uncle Phil was involved, too.

For years, when someone went to him asking what would make a good second-hand buy as a runabout, his standard response was W202 Benz. And he had a point. They’re built like tanks, are cheap, and are generally fuss-free.

The rot started when daughter number one, pictured, decided she wanted a decent car. This was about seven years ago and her C240, with the V6, cost about $11k at the time. It had 90,000km on it, was in perfect shape and had cost the first owner closer to $90k on the road. It’s still going and holding together, with nothing more than the usual servicing done by aftermarket shops. Easy.

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Then came daughter number two’s C190, a then recently-restored example bought from the same place, for about $5k. Her story is much the same – no big dramas, even though she’s been less watchful of the servicing. I nag her about it, she threatens me with some unimaginable fate, and the car keeps going.

Last came my C280 bought from a mate for about $4500, It needed a fresh cat thrown in, which cost around $600 for an aftermarket unit.

That too was bulletproof so long as it was given the usual TLC. So when someone tells me they avoid old Euro cars because of the running costs, I suspect they don’t have much experience of them.

Okay there was one horror story which contradicts this. I sold the C280 to a mate after I’d had a lot of use out of it and moments later the ignition switch went to lunch. No big drama? Huge bloody problem. The engine’s ECU, plus the ignition barrel and the keys are all code-matched, which makes them near as dammit to theft proof. There’s no aftermarket work-around. That means it can cost an easy $1600-plus to get a replacement from Benz. Bastards. Still, it was worth doing in this case as I’d sold it on at a greatly reduced rate and it’s still a fabulous car to drive.

What should you look for? The best one you can afford with the lowest miles and some evidence of servicing. Easy. They’re getting a little long in the tooth but the odd gem pops up.

A hot tip: make sure you get the owner manual, with the radio codes. It’s essential any time you swap over a battery.


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