A Nice Set of Wheels
Henry Jeffreys takes us for a spin in his 1991 Mercedes 190
By Henry Jeffreys
July 6 2023
My car obsession started when I was about six. I would doodle pictures of Lotus Esprits on my schoolwork and memorised the statistics of every model available in Britain in the 1980s. Sadly my father did not share my passion. He worked as an accountant and one of his clients was a Ford dealership, so he usually had a Sierra estate and my mother a Fiesta, hardly cars to get the pulses racing. We lived in leafy Buckinghamshire, stockbroker belt, and how I longed for my father to buy a sleek Mercedes 190, a Rover V8, or even an Aston Martin D5 Volante like one friend’s mother drove. I knew that when I grew up I wouldn’t be like my dad; I would have a desirable set of wheels.
My interest, however, rapidly declined the closer I got to being able to drive. Perhaps it was discovering girls or the growing awareness that anything I drove would be disappointingly prosaic. And indeed my first car, bought by my parents for my 21st birthday, was a Ford Escort Eclipse. It had a spoiler on the back and go-faster stripes, but nothing could disguise that it was slow, noisy and unreliable. Later I sold it for £400, moved to London, took up cycling, and thought no more about cars.
Then in 2009, out of the blue, I was invited by a friend on a classic car rally in Sicily. I spent one of the most enjoyable weeks of my life as a passenger and occasional driver in a series of exotic cars. There was a Marcos, a 1970 Cadillac Eldorado, various 1960s Alfa Romeos and a stately Lancia Flaminia. Even more memorably, on that trip I met a glamorous American actress who would become my wife.
On my return, I scoured the small ads for old cars. I was particularly taken with the idea of a Volvo P1800 like Roger Moore drove in The Saint. My wife, however, had other ideas; soon we had our first child and I inherited my mother’s old Ford Focus. Still not the car of my dreams, but with its powerful 16 valve engine and excellent build quality it was a world away from my tinny Escort.
Sadly, it came a cropper when someone, inevitably in an Audi, drove into the back at a junction. There was an upside, however, in that his insurance paid out far more than the car was worth. Suddenly I had a few grand to spend... I wanted a classic, but it would have to be both cheap and reliable enough to use everyday.
Quickly it became apparent that there was only one choice, the Mercedes 190 or the W201, as it’s referred to by aficionados after its model number. This was the little Mercedes that I had coveted as a boy. At the time when it was developed in the late 1970s, the company was struggling selling only high-end cars. The W201 was the company’s pitch for the common man. They spent millions developing it and the result was something as well engineered as their previous cars but at a more affordable price. Even then I remember the motoring press at the time complaining that it was too pricey considering that everything like a sun roof, stereo, or electric windows was extra.
Fast forward 30 years and while most of its rivals have rusted away, there are dozens of W201s going strong. I’ve spotted at least five in our town, which means they are not expensive. Oddly, that crappy Escort I had in my 20s is probably worth more as there are so few left. I found a 1991 2-litre automatic 190E from Edward Hall Classic Mercedes for three grand. It had done 121,000 miles, barely broken in by vintage-Merc standards. To keep it in tip-top condition, I found an ex-Mercedes mechanic near me who specialises in cars from that era. He won’t touch the modern ones (“horrible things”, he said). According to him, Mercedes went downhill in 1996 when the firm merged with Chrysler and the accountants usurped the engineers. The build quality really is incredible, far better than any modern car. In some ways it’s the apotheosis of the analogue automotive era – fast, safe and solid, but there’s nothing beeping at you. Driving it always feels like an occasion.
Other people love it too. When I wash it or fill up with petrol, someone will often come over for a chat. In fact, if you want to attract middle-aged men – for whatever reason, I won’t pry – get an old Merc. Small British towns are full of similar low-rent classics. In our age of increased awareness about the environment, you’d think that the authorities would approve of such automotive recycling but instead drivers of oldish cars are increasingly penalised. There’s the Ultra Low Emissions Zone, or ULEZ, which I can’t say without paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher: ULEZ if you want to, the lady’s not for lezzing. It costs me £12.50 every time I want to drive to London and other cities are planning their own. Now the government wants to phase out petrol cars by 2030. It doesn’t make any sense when the electric equivalents use so much energy to produce and most people replace theirs every three years. As Rowan Atkinson wrote recently in The Guardian, “An environmentalist once said to me, If you really need a car, buy an old one and use it as little as possible.” Exactly. Apart from the last bit.
Henry Jeffreys’ latest book, “Vines in a Cold Climate: The People Behind the English Wine Revolution” is published on 3 August, 2023 by Atlantic Books.