Words by John McLeod.
Steve Jobs once said “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking”
Growing up in New Zealand, where it was at that time both illegal to be gay and socially non acceptable, and with Christian fundamentalism which was a part of my upbringing and life at that time being always quick to condemn, along with a judgemental family.
I was very aware of being ‘different’ from an early age, and found solace in my first great passion – music – whence I learnt Piano, Trumpet, and then singing – all in the classical domain, and have since played in an amateur Orchestra, a Brass Band, and sang in two professional shows in Australia.
I have also had strong interests in the outdoors, including ice skating, skiing, snorkelling, camping, travelling, and also reading and writing, and have become something of a gay activist in encouraging and mentoring gay people suffering religious and social persecution in third world countries, along with others who try to help those who suffer in ways that many of us may well know from our own past life experiences.
My musical passions started when I was 6 or so years of age, when I could play my grandmothers piano at first by ear, with the tunes I heard my mother singing around the house; later, when we managed to get a piano, they continued with the commencement of formal study at 12 years of age.
As my musical interests grew, they further extended into Hi-Fi and audio at around 15 years of age, then film and photography, and as a young man in my early twenties resulted in an effective working holiday, through being transferred to Australia for a 2 year stint, working as a professional photographer, travelling extensively around Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland.
It was here that I “came out” and very much fell in love with Australia, with its relative social and political freedoms, returning after my initial work-related trip to settle and eventually take out Citizenship in this wonderful country I call home.
My early working experience in New Zealand saw me pursuing an engineering career, as a boilermaker welder/fitter turner, followed by sales and photography. Since settling in Australia, I have worked in photographic related industries; in retail sales and as a Sales representative for a wholesale company; undertaken various study courses supported by part time work in diverse fields from waiting to hire car and taxi driving, and am now involved in the I.T. field currently assisting a small business in the music industry, where my role includes system administration, office administration, marketing, social media and website management, customer service and sales.
My other great passion in those formative years, which also continues to the present day, is a love of things automotive – both automobiles and motorbikes, and it was in the purchase of my present car that I discovered and joined Motafrenz – a car club for gay automotive enthusiasts seemed like a great way to socialise and make friends with other like-minded people sharing similar interests and passions.
Two years ago I was voted on to the committee as Privacy Officer – a role which entails ensuring the club abides by the privacy guidelines found in its constitution, but also as a registered entity, that it complies with the Victorian Privacy Act 1988, and the further National Privacy Act 2014, which pertains to the collection, holding and dissemination of information held about members.
It’s a role which I’ve enjoyed, and an entrance to the ‘world’ of committees, with the oft robust discussions at committee meetings something to behold. Given that I also hold certificates in security (which includes handcuffs, baton and firearms training) and am also a certified trainer and assessor, it’s a role I feel quite well suited for and enjoy.
Of course, being a member now of two car clubs (Motafrenz and Mercedes-Benz Car Club Victoria) there is plenty of opportunity to indulge my passions of motor vehicles, and despite common sense and wisdom saying no, I still entertain thoughts of another motorcycle – a lap of Australia beckons, as does taking part in adventure style motorcycle rallies in parts of the country otherwise only accessible to 4WD vehicles.
I was lucky to be able to begin my motoring career and obtain a “P” plate licence for a car at 15, and for a motorcycle at 16, and hence my motoring career started early. It was something I always took seriously, having followed through with a defensive driving course and an advanced driving course, and I was also a member of a car club in New Zealand, being involved in amateur rallying, and some club racing of motorcycles.
I obtained my car licence in a 1939 Austin 14/6 which my mother bought from a work colleague for the princely sum of five pounds.
It was a lovely vehicle; quiet, docile and comfortable, although with rusted bodywork, and a non-synchromesh 1st gear that was almost missing in action, it had seen better days. It had solid axles front and rear with semi elliptic springs; independent suspension had yet to make an appearance, and the 1.7 litre side valve six was not exactly endowed with lots of power, top speed being not much more than 100 km/hr. and the fuel consumption was abysmal.
Yet, for a young teenager it was an ideal vehicle that was easy to drive as long as you learnt to double de-clutch into first gear as needed; spacious, and comfortable, and in the back seat featured fold down footrests and a small, pop up skylight. As my best friend of similar age at the time had an equally ancient Vauxhall DX, with the infamous ‘knee action’ front suspension, we had great fun together learning to maintain and service the cars ourselves – in my case assisted with tools and education by my uncle.
Once I was able to financially manage it though, along came an 1950’s Ambassador motorcycle, powered by a 2 stroke 197cc Villiers engine, which I used mainly for economical commuting to work, but also packed it up to absurd levels to go camping with it on two occasions. It was small, noisy, low powered and pretty unreliable; the longest trip I did on it was a return 320km trip for a job interview in another city, wearing a collar and tie under a riding jacket – those were the days when one didn’t think twice about such things!
After my senior year I drove the car to Melbourne and back to see my dad and to stay in a caravan in the Given the big 14/6 Austin’s thirst for fuel, and the amount of money needed to restore it, I decided to leave it for another day, and purchased another vehicle instead; a 1952 Austin A40 Devon in Dark Green. And within 12 months I also purchased my second motorcycle – a 500cc 1964 Triumph Tiger 100 SS. In combination with the Triumph Tiger 100 SS and the little Ambassador motorcycle, which I kept and used for occasional trail bike riding, the three vehicles were my mode of transport and interest for many years.
The A40 Devon was a good foil to the Triumph, having the obvious advantage of a roof and four doors, but it was its quiet and gentle progress versus the raw and naked motorcycle, that both complimented and contrasted the two. Indeed, I still feel that a complimentary combination of car and motorbike is the best personal transport solution that I’ve yet to experience.
Given the lack of CAD/CAM design/manufacturing and undoubtedly the metallurgy of the day, as well as best working practice quality control, both vehicles were somewhat unreliable. The Austin A40 went through exhaust valves like it was eating lunch, cracked the head once, and generally required a lot of fettling to keep it running.
The Triumph motorcycle was hardly better; in my time of ownership it featured a complete engine rebuild, and replacement of every working part bar the frame, wheels and wiring harness. Indeed, it brought about it’s own demise re my ownership, by deciding to develop an oil pump fault not long after the complete engine rebuild, which resulted in the engine wet sumping, pressuring and breaking the oil control rings on the pistons, and requiring another strip down to repair. In a fit of pique, considering I was going on holiday within the week and had bookings made for the trip, I took it to the dealer I had brought it from and traded it in on a near new (6,000 miles) 1970 650cc BSA Lightning in metallic Royal Blue.
The combination of Austin A40 Devon, BSA and Ambassador motorcycles continued for another year or so. The BSA was a stunning bike to look at, very comfortable and enjoyable, with many camping/touring trips undertaken to various destinations on both Islands of NZ. But it was also very much a touring bike to ride and had horrendous vibration issues. Whilst otherwise reliable and causing no trouble, on one trip the speedo literally destroyed itself internally due the vibration of the 360 degree parallel twin (no balance shafts in those days) and whilst I enjoyed my time and the many trips I did with it, both solo and with friends, the siren call of the then new Norton Commando came along, and after a test ride with a friend on the back, I was hooked.
And so, the BSA was sold and along came a brand new 1971, 750cc Norton Commando.
The Norton was ‘the’ bike to have in the day, having handling that was without peer for the time, and featured a then revolutionary method of mounting the engine, gearbox and swinging arm rear suspension/rear wheel and chain drive, in a modular unit that was suspended in the frame at three strategic points, mounted in rubber, and simply called Isolastic. No relation to Alex Moulton’s hydrolastic suspension used on BMC minis though.
Shimmed and precisely set up, engine vibration from the Parallel 750cc twin above 2,000 rpm was non – existent and the handling did not suffer from the rubber mounting to any deleterious degree. Weighing around 194kg and with 60 bhp to play with, its performance was only a little more than a LAMs bike of today; nonetheless a standing quarter mile time of 12.39 seconds as tested by US cycle magazine in 1970 was not to be sniffed at, and I indulged in some club racing with it, and on at least one occasion had it on the pegs at circa 100 mph (160 km/hr.) Those were the days of living somewhat dangerously!
Needless to say, the almost inevitable happened, and being hit by a car that turned in front of me (didn’t see you mate was the timeless excuse) the bike was written off, and that was the effective end to my motorcycling period, as I considered myself very lucky to have not been seriously injured or killed, and didn’t fancy giving fate a second chance in a hurry.
By this time the A40 had done the best part of 70,000 miles (110,000 km’s) and the engine was in need of a rebore and full rebuild.
Feeling the need for change, I sold it for parts, and bought a 1961 Hillman Minx.
It was a delightful thing – much more reliable than the Austin and gave me little issue beyond regular maintenance over the years I owned it. It was two tone white and blue in factory colours, with a blue and grey interior. I toured, camped and holidayed in it, and it had that ‘soft’ nature of cars that I had come to enjoy, vs. the hard, sporting nature of pukka sports cars and motorbikes.
However, in missing the performance of the motorcycles, fate and fortune played in my direction, when a close friend decided to head off to the UK with his girlfriend on an 2 year working holiday, and as I had a spare garage and hopefully could be trusted, he left his car in my care for the duration – a 1966 Series 1, 4.2 litre E-Type Jaguar coupé in red with a black interior and chrome wire wheels.
I have to say, this was very much my type of car – much more of an elegant GT and wonderful touring car, than an out and out, point and squirt hard riding and noisy sports car, or motorbike for that matter.
The fully independent suspension front and rear (with the rear suspension featuring inboard disk brakes to lower unsprung weight) resulted in an exceptionally comfortable ride, and being the last of the series 1, it had the all synchromesh gearbox, and the 4.2 litre, rather than the earlier 3.8 litre engine, resulting in the same brake horsepower output at 265 bhp, but at lower revs (5,000 rpm v’s 5,500 rpm for the 3.8) and with more torque across the rev band.
Given the four speed gearbox and 3.07 to 1 final drive ratio, the five hundred lower permissible engine revs, and early generation radial ply tyres which did not ‘grow’ at speed as did crossplys, it was slightly slower in top speed than the earlier 3.8s – which would touch a genuine 150 mph, – but would still top out at around 140 or so mph (225 km/hr.)
Being such an beautiful and elegant car, once described by Enzi Ferrari as “the most beautiful car in the world” and belonging to a close friend who had put it in my trust, I was quite obsessive in my care and maintenance of it, once spending circa 6 hours per wheel to clean the 73 triple spoke chrome wire wheels, aided by a tooth brush to get into all the nooks and crannies around the spoke nipples. And to finish, blackening the tyre sidewalls and hand painting a fine white line around a circumferential raised edge on the tyre to give the visual effect of a slim whitewall.
Given that the fuel and ignition systems were relatively basic compared to today’s computerised efforts, it was easy to tune and maintain with fairly basic tools; triple SU carburettors could be tuned and synchronised using vacuum gauges, and the timing adjusted with a basic timing light etc. Camshaft clearances were all shimmed, but I did not do enough miles in it during my tenure, for it to require adjustment of clearances.
(160 km/hr.) at 3,700 rpm, it was always a relaxed, refined, and exceptionally capable and delightful touring/GT coupe´.
As such, it was much more amenable to fast open sweepers in its driving manners, as against point, shoot and brake ad nauseum in tight twisty going, where the dominant handling characteristic was understeer.
I still remember on one drive, with my friend and owner sitting alongside me at the time, braking, whist simultaneously heeling and toeing down to third gear at high speed, to then accelerate and drift through a fast bend on the limit – such was its composure and balance at speed. Or perhaps my wanton youthful sense of immortality…
My only single regret about the Jaguar was that I never owned it sadly, for upon his return 2 years later, the friend and owner kept it for many more years, before selling to part finance buying a house.
Missing the Jaguar, fortune smiled upon me once again, as another friend on a work trip lasting several months, asked me to look after his Austin Healey 3000 Mk11 – my first introduction to open top motoring.
In terms of outright performance, both straight line and in handling, the big Healey wasn’t in the class of the E Type, but open top motoring was a lot of fun, and perhaps as a passionate enthusiast of both cars and bikes, a very workable compromise between the strengths and weaknesses of both.
Scuttle shake was a feature of the handling, in fairly large amounts, and the big pushrod 3 litre six, did not like to rev like the Jaguar unit, and with a solid rear axle, handling was more of the hop, skip and jump variety over indifferent surfaces. Still, a lovely car to look at in terms of its lines, but ultimately it could not approach the finesse and overall appeal of the Jaguar for me.
However, fate was to cause me to take a different path in my life, with the opportunity as previously mentioned to come to Australia to work for circa two years as a professional photographer working behind a medium format Mamiya RB67 studio camera.
Given the intended time to be spent in Australia with the work transfer, I sold the Hillman Minx privately, and the Ambassador motorcycle to friends – hence I was now no longer a car or motorcycle owner, other than having the care of company supplied vehicles
The company vehicle of the time supplied to me in Melbourne where I was initially based was an HJ Kingswood wagon, which took all the photographic gear, and proved very reliable for my travels around Victoria, NSW and Queensland.
Featuring the then RTS, or radial tuned suspension, it was a reliable, if somewhat unrefined workhorse, being capable of touring at up to circa 130 kph, being a bit stretched and coarse sounding to be happy doing anything more than that. And really, being new to Australia, it was simply more pleasant to cruise along and enjoy the scenery and views, stopping to take photographs as desired, than to explore the upper performance reaches of a vehicle which was simply not designed for such, despite the usually deserted outback roads often encountered.
Upon my return to New Zealand at the end of the work transfer, I decided that Australia was where my future lay, and within 18 months returned to settle permanently in my new home, and once working for a retail camera store, I decided to buy a car again; given the uncertainly of fuel prices at the time, I played it safe and bought a medium sized four cylinder car rather than an Aussie big six.
So, along came a Ford TC Cortina – 2.0 Litre four, automatic, and in excellent condition, complete with mag wheels! – A first!
The Cortina was reliable in the main, although breaking the overhead camshaft drive belt at the intersection of Warrigal Road and Monash Freeway in peak hour at the lights was not an endearing move. I would have to say, that particular Ford Cortina is probably the car I’ve owned that I liked the least. Everything seemed built down to a price and budget, where quality of materials, fit and finish was not the major design brief. Exhaust and engine resonance were a highlighted feature when touring/cruising, such that anything more than a little over the speed limit made it feel and sound as if it was about to break mechanically. Everything had a tinny, lightweight feel about it, and it reminded me in many ways of a kerosene tin, with four wheels, doors and an engine.
I apologise if my remarks seem a little harsh if there are lovers of TC Cortina’s reading this, but I must be honest, it was the car that I’ve owned that I liked the least, despite that it was generally reliable if uninspiring transport. Perhaps if it had been a Ghia model with the better soundproofing, and nicer seating comfort and features, I might’ve formed a different opinion. In the event, it sold 18 months later, to the first people who came along to view it, for three hundred dollars more than I paid for it, so I could scarcely complain, especially as I was about to receive another company car courtesy of a new job as a sales rep.
And so, along came a VH Holden Commodore – a company car supplied new to my care.
I liked the Commodore a lot – it was a comfortable and pleasant driving machine without being outstanding in any special way, albeit a much nicer and more engaging drive than a Kingswood. However, reliability and quality control was its Achilles heel.
At the 1,500 km first service, I commented how it had this ‘knock’ in the engine when cold. Upon my return to pick up the vehicle I was informed it would have to be in the shop for a week, as it had gudgeon pin knock, and would require the engine to be stripped and rebuilt. Given that I had been fastidious and careful in running in procedures this was a bit of a blow and disappointment to say the least.
In manufacturing and engineering tolerances, parts will have a specified size, or dimension, with a plus or minus figure as to manufacturing tolerances. Given that my car had over sized gudgeon pin holes in the pistons, and undersized gudgeon pins (both within allowable tolerances mind) the engine was partly worn out before being used, as a new build. Such was quality control in the day.
And so it went. For the entire period of the warranty I was back and forth to the dealership with ‘issues’.
When the vehicle was returned with the rebuilt engine, all the gas from the A/C was lost and the underside of the new bonnet heavily scratched. Then it was the drivers’ side window winder that would not fully wind the window up. And the leak from the front window in the rain. The fan that would blow fuses when put to the high speed. Upon return from that repair, it did not blow fuses on the high speed, but the fan blade was now hitting the housing with a clattering rattle. The unfixable clinking rattle in the back going over bumps; the dealer, having taken the spare, jack and so forth out of the boot, commented it was probably a bolt or even a screwdriver left in a cavity somewhere during manufacture, and as it wasn’t structural, I shouldn’t worry about it. And so on and so forth.
Perhaps it was a Monday or Friday car, but despite being a pleasant and otherwise reliable workhorse, quality control was exceedingly poor unfortunately. However, of course that was back then, and thankfully quality control standards in mass marketed cars have improved dramatically since that time. When my job changed, the Holden Commodore went with it; I missed it as a vehicle to drive, being pleasant and reasonably engaging, albeit the reliability issues took the shine off the experience somewhat, and one I would be loathe to repeat.
With the passing of time, and now established in a relationship where my partner had a car, there seemed little need to spend funds on another vehicle. However In between that period and owning my present car, I found myself single again, and, living in an inner suburb, it was easier, and arguably more practical to hire a vehicle as required than to buy, and generally with the option of hiring a nice vehicle of interest.
My favourites were the Peugeot 505, Toyota MR 2, Peugeot 205 GTI, BMW 318i Baur convertible, and the little BMW 320i convertible with the 2.0 litre inline six, all of which I often hired out regularly for various weekends away with a friend.
In summary, the 505 Peugeot was a wonderfully comfortable touring car with a typically sumptuous and compliant ride, only being marred by engine and exhaust resonance at the speed limit; going faster fixed that, but of course then one was speeding, and by this time micro wave speed cameras had started to appear on the roads, which served as a prudent reminder to observe the speed limit.
The MR 2 Toyota was a wonderful sports car; light, lithe, highly manoeuvrable, a rifle bolt manual gear change; pedals perfectly set up for heel and toe gear changes, excellent steering, and a rev happy engine.
Only the handling in extremis left anything to desire, as if you came in to a corner a bit hot, you would find understeer, which, upon lifting off to correct, would quickly turn into bite you in the bum oversteer as it would flick the tail out dangerously. The secret was slow in, and fast out, just like a good motorbike in fact.
The Peugeot 250 GTI was an absolute roller skate. Torquey, if slightly coarse 2 litre four, perfect gear ratios, and a top speed of circa 190kph which it gave the impression of being able to zoom up to with seemingly little effort. Handling was more predictable than the MR 2, and probably the better overall vehicle if viewed from both a sporting and practicality point of view, being a two door/four-seater, and with space for luggage.
The BMW’s featured Germanic efficiency, Teutonic styling and apparent perceived build quality; however, neither the 318i Baur or the 320i convertible could quite match the Toyota MR 2 (surprise, surprise) as regards an ‘Ultimate driving machine’ for ergonomics and an enthusiast focused driving experience.
The brake pedal was too over assisted to act easily as a pivot point and fulcrum, along with the organ accelerator pedal set at an odd angle, to allow seamless and faultless heel and toe gear changes. The steering was light, but lacking feel. With the simple trailing arm rear suspension, initial understeer could quickly turn to tail happy oversteer, particularly noticeable on loose gravel roads or road works which are an oft encountered feature when touring Australia.
Along with a rather vague manual gearshift and a high clutch take-up point, they were fast sporty saloons, lacking the outright finesse of the MR 2 when it came to total control in fast driving situations. However, of course, these were the ‘cooking’ 3 series – an M3 would and is a totally different vehicle in its setup and to drive, and the MR 2 by comparison to the more touring orientated standard BMW’s was setup to be an outright sports car.
Nonetheless, the BMW 318i Baur and the BMW 320i convertible were completely in their element as fast, sporty, touring cars. They were lovely – very well featured, responsive and engaging to drive, and the inline six is utterly superb in its vibration, resonance and general aural characteristics; arguably the stand out feature of BMW’s in my experience, as both on reputation and experience, they build some of the best inline sixes in the world.
Over the years, I’ve had lots of different cars come my way – mostly company cars, some friends cars that I’ve looked after on loan for extended periods of time, and other friends cars that I’ve had the good luck to get to drive, and some that I’ve hired on a regular basis, and of course the ones that I’ve owned.
The standouts really would be the E-Type Jaguar, and on about the same level of exotic and expensive automotive excellence (albeit only for a brief Sunday afternoon drive) a friends Aston Martin DB4 Zagato. The Aston really was hand built, and the level of detail engineering would easily shade a Rolls Royce of the day.
Today, I think one would be looking at something like a hand built Pagani Zonda to get that level of detail engineering – I cannot see any mass-produced cars getting near it.
Which segues me to my final car discussion – my current vehicle, and my deep interest in Mercedes-Benz automobiles and their engineering, design and racing history.
I first drove a Mercedes Benz when I was 17 years old – a mid sixties 220 SE.
It was a gorgeous egg shell cream, with a deep and vibrant red interior, white steering wheel and controls; four speed automatic, with a simple fluid coupling, the gearbox being built in house by MB, as they are to this day. Compared to the Jaguar S Type, Daimler 420 (rebadged Jaguar), Rover 3500, the big and rare Daimler Majestic Majors of the day, which all featured burr walnut and wall to wall carpet and leather, the Mercedes was nothing but Teutonic in it’s interior presentation. High quality painted surfaces, chrome plated minor controls, plush carpet and leather; almost Bauhaus in its presentation compared to the pipe and slippers boardroom appeal of the English offerings.
Perhaps the most outstanding feature was the ride and the sense of balance and poise – it felt like one was riding in an incredibly rigid, but somehow light vehicle, where the wheels seemingly subsumed every bump and crest in the road. By contrast, the English offerings with their soft, arguably floaty rides, often felt as if they would drop into every pothole and crevice that could be found on a roads indifferent surface.
And of course, perhaps expectation bias had a part to play, as Mercedes reputation in those days was that of the “German Rolls Royce”, and they were priced accordingly, and almost equally rare.
For some decades, I never drove another Benz, and in fact, have driven many other marques much more than Mercedes, but that first drive was something that remained deeply impressive and very memorable over the ensuing years. Fate again took a hand, and some years back a good friend of mine who has had numerous top shelf marques over the years, Audi, BMW etc., and has seemingly settled on Mercedes, called me up to say he was heading to China for a couple of months, and would I like to look after his car.
Well, being carless, and a Mercedes, how could I say no…
During the time I had the loan of the vehicle, I had the opportunity to clean and detail it, peruse it in great depth, and take it with his kind permission on the world’s longest test drive to Adelaide and return via the longer and more scenic coastal route.
In cleaning, washing, and maintaining the vehicle, I could see little evidence of the bean counters cost cutting; no extraneous and annoying lowest common denominator ‘bling’ such as chimes telling you the doors are open etc.; just faultless ergonomics and evidence of the art of the thinking and fastidious engineer to be found everywhere in terms of attention to design detail and execution.
Memories of that first Benz drive came flooding back, and 18 months later when he decided to sell and upgrade to a later model, he offered it to me, and I proudly bought it.
In Mercedes speak; they identify their model series by the first three letters of the Chassis no; this being a W210 series that ran from 1996 to 2002 when the next W211 series was introduced. The W210 E Class was offered in three versions; Classic, Elegance and Avant-garde; Classic being the basic specification; Elegance the luxury specification, and Avant-garde the more sporty specification that was offered for sale.
My example is a face lifted 2000 Model, Elegance Pack, in totally original condition, finished in Bright Silver, with Orion Grey Leather interior. I have an original brochure for it, complete with price list and as delivered in Australia, the cost for my model and particular specification when new in 2000 was A$111,000.00 + On road costs – so not a cheap vehicle new by any means.
Apart from Specification packs, all of which had slightly different trims, wheel and tyre sizes, interior glass colours (Green for the Elegance and Blue for the Avant-garde) and suspension tuning, they were offered in various engine configurations including diesel, inline four cylinders (naturally aspirated and supercharged), 90º V6’s and 90º cross plane V8’s. The most common engine variants that came to Australia were either the 2.0 litre inline fours, or the V6’s – offered in 2.4 and 3.2 litre form, – with the V8’s being somewhat rare, and the AMG versions rarer still.
Today, in the pursuit of ever more power and fuel efficiency and the need to comply with ever more stringent Euro 5 & 6 regulations, turbo charging has become de rigueur amongst Mercedes smaller capacity inline engines, and of course the AMG line to gain the most power. Much of this is accompanied by state of the art internal combustion engine development, with aluminium blocks, nikasil chemically etched cylinder bores to allow aluminium pistons to run in an aluminium cylinder bore, and on demand electrically driven fuel, oil and water pumps, power steering and A/C systems, in pursuit of power, efficiency and emissions regulation.
By contrast to the current W213 series E Class and their state of the art twin turbo charged petrol engines, electronics and electrically driven engine subsystems, the W210 series are much more modest and prosaic in their specifications. However the same engineering lead pursuit of efficiency and power from small cubic capacity engines can still be seen by virtue of supercharging, which is a rare and standout feature of the in-line four that Mercedes used across various models in its range before finally giving way to turbocharging decades later, in pursuit of ever more efficiency, power and meeting ever more stringent emissions targets.
The engine itself is an 2 litre in-line four cylinder, with an cast iron block, and alloy head, boasting four valves per cylinder, driven by double overhead camshafts, with variable valve timing on the intake camshaft – both camshafts being driven by the ever reliable duplex chain – no toothed rubber camshaft drive belts to possibly fail, and potentially cause catastrophic engine failure.
Fuel injection is single point, handled by a Bosch Fuel injection system. Ignition is handled by the ECU in combination with crankshaft sensors and individual ignition coil on sparkplug technology. The vehicle has a Mercedes-Benz specified Eaton supercharger and intercooler factory fitted as standard equipment, hence the nomenclature E200 K for Kompressor. The Kompressor (or Compressor in English) itself is a very rare feature in standard production cars; In this case it is of twin scroll design, driven constantly via belt drive from the crankshaft pulley, and boost is controlled via the combination of a manifold vacuum and electric solenoid actuated, bypass valve.
The benefits of either supercharging or turbocharging are of course to boost power and efficiency; in the case of my vehicle a modest 120kw at 5,300 rpm, but the big benefit is torque – (230 Nm), the curve of which is effectively flat from 2,500 to 4,800 rpm. Peak power is at 6,000 rpm and fuel cut-off at 6,200 rpm.
As a result, and In driving, the near flat torque curve gives it a very lazy, almost long stroke large four cylinder engine feel; relaxed, quiet, purposeful, refined. And yet; the engine is oversquare in its design, and very happy to rev – apply the power and once it reaches circa 5,000 rpm and the valve timing changes and comes on cam, it will pull ever more strongly to the red line – no asthmatic, unhappy to rev, linear power delivery here. And accompanied by a very purposeful and sporty sounding four cylinder growl.
The engine only makes its presence known under hard acceleration at low speeds, or from standstill; once cruising it’s very hard to identify it as a ‘mere’ four – such is the level of refinement. There are no periods whatsoever throughout the entire rev range that generate engine, exhaust or body resonances. Under hard acceleration it slips effortlessly into top gear at high speeds, with only the movement of the tachometer betraying the change of gear, any engine noise being unnoticeable relevant to wind and road noise.
And speaking of wind noise, with double door seals all around and a drag co-efficient of 0.26 Cd, it’s an impressively quiet and exceptionally efficient aerodynamic design, even 20 years on. This also pays dividends in fuel consumption on a run – 6.4 litres per 100k is the best I’ve had out of it, cruising at 110 kph, which is getting near that of a Toyota Camry hybrid, which experience shows returns circa 5.5 litres per 100k at 100 kph.
Of course all this engine refinement would be lost if the rest of the vehicle didn’t deliver something over and above. After all, lots of cars have impressive drivetrains and can travel quickly and effortlessly.
As a young man, power, performance, sporty handling and fast cars and motorbikes were the elixir of youth.
However, it was also a very different and arguably safer environment, with much less traffic on the roads, generally better road conditions as regards surface maintenance, greater tolerance and leniency in terms of inadvertent speeding transgressions, and the ability to drive out in the country and have the road to yourself.
I love sportiness in a motor vehicle, but these days on the public roads, its something one might use 10% or perhaps 20% of the time in a nice manual, whereas comfort, luxury, quality, ergonomics, seating quality (all leather, horsehair and spring unit) silence and ride quality, along with passive and active safety and bank vault like build quality, count 100% of the time, both in motoring enjoyment, satisfaction and pride of ownership.
The late L.J.K Setright, who wrote extensively for the UK ‘CAR’ magazine, noted that when Benz developed the five link, steel rear suspension for the original 190 saloon model, that Mercedes spent more on the development of that suspension than Jaguar cars did for the entire production budget of the then newly released XJ6.
That suspension system is not only patented, but continues to this day in all Mercedes-Benz steel suspended cars. Whether it is for that, or for the overall suspension tuning, but ride comfort, alongside the powertrain, is probably the stand out feature of the car, and resonates deeply with my experience of the first Benz I ever drove with it’s sublime ride, and sense of balance and poise, all those years ago.
It’s not up to an Mercedes-Benz airmatic, or self levelling hydraulic system (hello Citroen), but is otherwise amongst the very best steel suspension systems both in engineering specifications and ride and handling quality results, that I’ve yet to encounter in a motor vehicle.
Putting the ride and overall comfort, together with the powertrain characteristics, and the result is a truly lovely, and eminently satisfying fast touring car – certainly one of the finest I’ve had the pleasure of driving.
So is it sporty I hear you ask?
After all, sportiness is still nice to have and a good touring car can also be uninvolving and uninspiring to drive re its handling and general dynamics.
Well, it all depends. Mercedes have always had a design and philosophical ethos to relieve the driver of as much stress as possible to enhance safety, hence their cars, certainly of this era, are not overtly sporty as regards their luxury saloons. As such, the seating lacks strong lateral support being built for the luxury inclined owner; the accelerator pedal is first generation drive by wire, with a long travel; and the steering, whilst rack and pinion, is somewhat low geared, yet a little heavy by modern standards and lacking relative feel.
Hence, whilst you can take it by the scruff of the neck and throw it around tight twisty country roads in a sporty manner, and use the manual holds on the 5 speed automatic gearbox to good effect, those sorts of roads and driving are not really it’s forte. It will most certainly do it, and hang on with a very surprisingly stable and balanced chassis, albeit understeer is the terminal condition as you approach the limit. But it doesn’t cry out or overtly encourage you to drive it that way.
Instead, where it revels, is on fast, open, sweeping country, where the balance, poise and control, coupled with the powertrain characteristics, make for a most satisfying, enjoyable and exhilarating drive, that in may ways reminds me of the E – Type Jaguar, as a real touring GT, but this time in a four-door saloon body.
So is it reliable I hear you ask?
Well, yes it is. I’ve had it 8 years this year. It’s still got the original battery it came with in it. I’ve replaced a fuel pump that developed a leaking internal seal, and a catalytic convertor. The A/C compressor has failed and is in need of replacement. As far as faults outside of regular maintenance and expected wear and tear, that’s been it. At 146,000 genuine kilometres there’s life in it yet – I’m told the engines are good for 300 – 400,000 k’s. It’s in need of a new set of tyres, and doubtless there’ll be brake pads and rotors and steering/suspension ball joint wear to address; but that’s general motoring wear and tear and associated costs. In every other respect it’s easily been the most trouble free and reliable car I’ve ever owned or had in my care.
So is it safe I hear you ask?
After all, surely a car that’s 20 years old is going to be considerably less safe than a late model new car from a mainstream manufacturer.
Or is it? Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo, arguably wrote the book on passive and active safety systems in automobiles between them – both marques having many safety patents to their names. Mercedes-Benz invented the passenger safety cell, with deformable crush zones front and rear, and introduced it to their range of vehicles in 1959 – a safety feature that was unknown and unheard of at the time.
Naturally my vehicle has this, along with 8 airbags (driver and front seat passenger; side bags for front and rear passengers; full length curtain airbags) and also features ESC (Electronic Stability Control), ETC (Electronic Traction Control), ABS (Anti Lock Braking) and BAS (Brake Assist System). Here, the electronics recognise the speed with which you take your foot of the accelerator and apply the brakes; if you fail to apply full braking pressure, the system will override and do it for you via the four wheel disc brakes with separate circuits front and rear.
Whilst these and many other features are even more developed in Mercedes latest models, it can be argued that the main safety features on a Mercedes vehicle of this age are largely similar to mainstream vehicles of today, lacking only in the areas of modern electronics and cameras supporting driver aids, such as lane keeping assist, pedestrian avoidance systems etc.
So are there any drawbacks then, I hear you ask?
Well yes, there are. Servicing costs are at 2020 labour and parts prices if you go through an official franchised Mercedes-Benz dealership; last time I checked the labour charge out rate from a dealership was A$200.00 per hour including GST. Instead, I opt for specialist Mercedes-Benz only, independent dealerships, where the charge out labour rates at A$118 per hour are much more palatable for an older car, whence the cost of repairs can quickly equal or exceed the value of the vehicle on the marketplace.
There is also the issue of image. Quite why I do not know, but of all the cars I’ve either owned, or had in my care, or had as company cars, this one attracts the most criticism, both in person and online. From “boring old mans car”, to “over rated, unreliable Euro Trash” I’ve been taken aback at the vitriol some motoring enthusiasts feel compelled to offer, unsolicited. Then again, like many passionate hobbyists in all sorts of areas of interest, motoring enthusiasts can have very fixed views and opinions, and lots of bias, and the advent of social media and the internet gives people a platform to air those opinions for better or worse.
Whilst I’m very passionate about Mercedes-Benz Automobiles, were funds and space permitting, there are a lot of different marques I’d love to own. But, given I have only space for one car, Benzes are overall, everything considered, and given my previous motoring experience with many different marques, my favourite. And my second favourite for an “I can only afford one car” scenario would be Citroen, nearly having bought a GS 1220 Pallas once after a test drive that blew me away. But then, had I bought the Citroen, I would never have immigrated to Australia, so that’s another story.
I’m also a huge fan of BMW motorcycles, being as they are a company with a deep history in aeronautical engine design and manufacture, and motorcycle design and manufacture along with their later business ventures with automobiles, and I would relish the chance to own one.
So to sum up, in the real world and all things considered, as a Mercedes-Benz owner the caveats are few, and the rewards many.
I do not envisage parting with it, unless good fortune smiles and I find myself in a position to entertain another later model E Class, such as an W212 series E400 with the twin turbo 60º V6 or the W212 series E500 V8 with airmatic suspension. And perhaps in an E Class coupe´ configuration – whilst not as practical as the saloons they are oh so pretty in their lines, and appeal greatly.
In part, perhaps my allegiance to the marque is because every time I get inside my Mercedes-Benz E Class and close the door to that ever so solid sounding bank vault like thunk, and eye the outstanding sight lines and ergonomics, it never fails to satisfy and remind me that it has been some of the best money I’ve ever spent on a motoring conveyance – and one really cannot ask for much more than that if you have an interest in automotive art, and the pleasure of driving.
PS: Thanks for reading; I hope I haven’t bored you with my lengthy diatribe, or inadvertently offended anyone by my remarks about various marques – they are literally just my experience and opinion from the time pertaining to certain individual vehicles, and are not meant to dismiss or insult anyone’s pride and joy and/or favourite marque either by accident or design. I’d also add that as many of the original photos I have for the vehicles I’ve discussed are in analogue form – i.e. 35mm slides and prints, the only digital photos I have are for my present vehicle. As such I’ve used photos researched online to show examples of the vehicles discussed, and have made every attempt to comply with copyright where found; I acknowledge and thank Wikicommons for the use of photos from their site.
If you’d like to comment or ask a question, feel free to drop me a line – please remember that at this time especially, the committee is working overtime to do the very best for the cub and it’s members under difficult circumstances; if you’d like to contribute in some way, it’s a truism that you get out of something what you put into it, so please feel free to try your hand at writing some articles, or anecdotal tales about your various cars and/or motoring history for the club magazine.
Hopefully we will soon be able to resume our more usual social activities, and look forwards to seeing you there, but it is the membership that makes the club, not just what we do, so please look after and be kind to each other especially at this time.
Best Wishes and yours in Motoring and supporting the LGBQT community!