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Project Car Diaries: I Can’t Decide What To Do With My 25-Year-Old Mercedes

Project cars are fun, but they can also be exhausting, as we discuss here.
Lewin Day

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Any long-term relationship will eventually fall on hard times. When this happens, we have a choice to make. We can invest the effort to deal with the problems and come out stronger for it, or we can cut and run. I find myself at just such a crossroads when it comes to my 1998 Mercedes E240 sedan.

I purchased the vehicle for a decently low price almost two years ago. I spent the following months sprucing up the interior and changing out the tired differential, netting myself a sleek and comfortable sedan. Since then I’ve put around 12,000 miles on the clock and taken it on many adventures. I’ve enjoyed its smooth ride while lamenting its underwhelming V6 engine. Despite my wishes, though, my Mercedes has continued to age and it’s now racking up a list of problems that are growing difficult to ignore. 

Lewin Day

An Ominous Prognosis

This E240 has slowly become less of a pleasure to drive over the last six months or so. The once-sure steering has become a trifle vaguer, and there’s now a hint of vibration through the steering wheel at 55 mph. I purchased the Mercedes for its steady ride, and these two problems combined are enough to shake that impression loose.

I did the reasonable thing and checked the car in for a once-over at the local alignment shop. In the end, I didn’t get an alignment. Instead, I just got a report full of news I didn’t want to hear. 

A check over on the lift revealed worn ball joints up front, with the driver’s side item heavily so. Bonus issues include a worn front sway bar link on the passenger side and front shocks nearing their end of life. The front wheel bearings are also in need of adjustment. All that summed up nicely to a less-than-satisfying feeling behind the wheel. Repairs are possible, at a cost of $750 or so.

I could always do the work myself, for roughly half the cost. I’m a vaguely capable shadetree mechanic, after all. Doing the ball joints would mean giving up a weekend or two, depending on how well the job went and if anything else needed replacement along the way. In the meantime, I’d be down a car. Worse, I don’t have a good spot to work on my car at home. I’d have to hunker down at a friend’s place with a decent driveway and hope I got the job done quickly. It’s a lot of hassle. Plus, I don’t really have the tools to handle the wheel bearing adjustment anyway, so I’d still have to take it into a shop eventually. 

Other ugly problems started rearing their heads, too. A recent jaunt to a country pub was delayed by a concerning flapping sound from the front end. That shortly had me on my back in a gravel layby, trying to lash up the plastic undertray with an old USB cable serving as a rope. The years have taken their toll on the various plastic panels underneath the car leaving them brittle, cracked, and broken. 

I’ve since removed both plastic undertrays entirely. With crumbling mounting points they were left hanging by only a handful of screws, dragging on the ground or flapping away wildly. I’m pretty good at repairing plastics, and that would be my normal path of action. These parts are truly trashed, though. They’ve suffered from years of sun and heat, and simply handling them has them flaking apart further. They’re good for little more than landfill at this point. 

Replacement options aren’t attractive, either. I could source panels from a wrecking yard relatively cheaply. These parts have similarly been exposed to the elements for decades, though, and would likely also fail in short order. Alternatively, I could source new parts, albeit at the cost of well over $500. Given the undertrays aren’t critical on the W210, though, I’ve simply left them off the car for now. 

A final annoyance is the curious electrical issues that continue to come and go. The power window modules keep dropping out now and then, leaving them stuck in the up position. It has me fussing with fuses in the KFC drive-thru lanes on the regular and I’m honestly over it. Even worse, the keyless entry system dropped out for a few days. This is excruciating in a car that isn’t designed to be opened manually with a key. The process involves extracting the metal emergency entry key from within the keyfob every time you want to get in the car.

These electrical problems could potentially be solved with a new battery according to the forums I’ve browsed. The general theory is that excess voltage drop during starting can futz with the modules. I’m not convinced, though, as the six-year-old battery continues to start the car without issue. I’m reluctant to spend $250 on a new battery to find it’s solved nothing.

All up, I’d estimate that service and repairs would cost me the best part of $1,500 to get the car into a nicer state. Maybe even a little more if I shelled out for a fresh set of tires. That’s not a huge sum of money, but I’m not sure the car deserves it. 

Lewin Day

Decisions, Decisions

My first hangup is that I’m simply not that in love with the car. Not $1,500 in love at least. As it stands, the E240 is not a particularly desirable example of the W210 Mercedes E-Class. Its 2.4-liter V6 claimed just 167 horsepower when it was brand new, and the early drive-by-wire throttle has more lag than dodgy hotel WiFi.

Ultimately though, my real concern is the Sword of Damocles hanging above this car. Late last year, the car developed a mysterious coolant leak. It appears to be very slowly losing fluid through a mildly corroded core plug in the block. Hilariously, the issue is very inconsistent. Once, when the coolant level got low enough to trigger a warning, the car got hot and puked out liters of fluid. However, since I topped the car up with fresh fluid, I’ve barely noticed it lose a drop since. I suspect it’s a very slow leak, but one that nonetheless isn’t going away.

It did this precisely twice, but I’m reticent to trust it since then. Lewin Day

I could try and replace the core plug, but I’d have to remove an exhaust manifold to even have a shot at it. In the process, there’s a fair chance I’d snap some exhaust studs or do other damage along the way. Worst case, it’s an engine out job. Alternatively, I can keep ignoring the problem. As long as I know that it’s there, though, I’m reticent to spend any real money on the car. That core plug could fail tomorrow or in six months. It’s almost certainly going to get worse within the next three years. With that on the table, how can I possibly drop $1,500 on repairs?

Beyond that, it’s also killed my enthusiasm to do any mods to the car. I’d love to wrap it in purple, slam it, and give it a sweet set of bronze wheels. Maybe throw on some underglow, get real silly about it. I’ve long fancied building something approximating what a small-time drug dealer might drive. But it seems foolish to throw parts on a car that might not be running in six months.

Lewin Day

But of course, there’s a counterargument to be made! More often than not, the cheapest car is the one you already own. Interest rates are high, so it’s an awful time to take out an auto loan. Plus, my local used classifieds aren’t showing too many gems at low prices. Plus, fundamentally, the car still runs. It’s getting alright gas mileage, too. It’s yet to leave me stranded, even on the day it threw up all its coolant. It’s not really fun to drive, but it is a safe and reliable (enough) drive. In this current climate, I feel like it might be better to stick with the devil I know.

Plus, I kinda fell in love with how it looks all over again when I was shooting for this piece. The gravel and the pointy steel gates really work with the simple German lines of the W210.

Ultimately, I have to ask the question: should I keep the car, and repair it? Or should I let it go? If more problems come to a head, that question may be easier to answer. For now though, I’m on the fence as to whether this humble German sedan is worth the further investment. So what do you say, am I mad to keep it, or mad to let it go?