Our Big Old Benz Gives Us a Scare and Then Makes Good
In our last piece about Project Oldtimer, our 1970 Mercedes 280se, we gave you a bit of history on the chassis and we talked about our experience with purchasing the our car and we alluded to some trouble with our oil cooler hose. That’s as good a place as any to pick our story back up.
Our oil cooler hose blowout couldn’t have come at a less opportune time. My parents had just made a thousand mile road trip in their MINI Cooper to visit my wife and I and we’d been spending the week at a beach house on Balboa Island in Orange County, CA. On the drive back from Disneyland to the beach house on the 55 freeway, I started to notice an oil smell, nothing terribly strong though and the pressure gauge (a real, honest to god gauge that isn’t damped) was reading 45 psi. We get back to the beach house, it’s dark and go to bed. When I go out to poke around the car in the morning I notice that there is a veritable lake of oil under the car.
Upon seeing this, I immediately check the dipstick and the level isn’t registering. I had planned on taking the car in to our mechanic that Friday after my family left for its big check-up and general maintenance but it didn’t seem prudent to wait that long. I had the car flatbedded to Johnson Motorcars in Orange, CA and crossed my fingers in hope that my big beautiful Mercedes wasn’t now in need of an engine.
Fast forward a few days and I get a call from my mechanic.
“Good news,” he says.
“Good news?” I say.
“It looks like the leak came from an oil cooler hose and hit the fan which is why it’s all over the engine bay. I’m tracking down new hoses for the engine oil cooler and the transmission cooler but it should be a cinch to fix.”
I breathe a sigh of relief but then I remember that this is a nearly 50 year old German car and that these hoses would likely cost a fortune. I get a call the next day. It’s the mechanic again.
“The hoses are available from the Classic Center. I should have them tomorrow. All together they should cost around $300.”
“That’s great news. Thanks for your help,” I say.
“Well, I found some other stuff that needs to be addressed.”
Someone has dropped a kettle bell from my throat into my stomach.
“The turn front left turn signal keeps shorting out and it looks like it will need to be rewired. Whomever took the car apart when they painted it was kind of an idiot when it came to putting it back together.”
“Also, there’s a few other rubber parts under the hood and its probably in need of a valve adjustment.”
I give him the ok to proceed and hope for the best. Two weeks later I catch a train from Los Angeles to Anaheim and then proceed to walk the mile and a half to the shop with a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. How bad was this going to be? Was the love affair with this big, beautiful old car about to end? I’ve had this happen before with Audis and BMWs, even Volvos. It was time to bite the bullet.
I arrive at Johnson Motorcars and the owner Gary hands me a bill for a little less than $1500. I’m shocked. In addition to the work he’d mentioned previously, he’d changed the oil and added zinc to it. He changed the air and fuel filters too. He greased the entire chassis (this is an old car and there are A LOT of grease points) and inspected the car all over. I could live with $1500. Had this been a BMW, the bill would likely have been twice that. The car and I were still in love.
In the time since picking it up from the mechanic, the big focus has been to nibble away at small things on the car that I feel comfortable doing myself and then just putting miles on it. The mileage would help to reveal what adverse effects nearly 15 years of not being driven might have had on the car. So far, I’m happy to report its mostly been good news. My wife and I spent several days completely detailing the car, including using waterless wash on it since all of the car’s clean California living has killed all the rubber door and window seals. The paint finish needs a good compound and polish but it responded beautifully to being clayed and waxed. The interior is in great shape and we’re working on sourcing a good original Becker radio to replace the awful looking Sony Xplod unit thats in there now.
We’ve been dealing with the Classic Center as well, ordering small parts. Their prices are incredibly reasonable, particularly if you’re a Mercedes Benz Club member. We’ve ordered tail light seals and screws for the wood trim that goes around the windows. We got new cabin filters (on a 46 year old car!) and we’ve been working our way through the bizarrely designed windshield washer system trying to get it working. We’ll need to do the windshield and rear window seals before the fall/winter and hopefully that doesn’t reveal anything nasty as far as rust etc. Up next for the car mechanically will be a full work through of the throttle linkages (of which there are many), replacing some vacuum lines and a brand new fully programmable electronic distributor to replace the ancient Bosch unit with points that is in the car now.
Overall the ownership experience continues to be amazing. The car is a pleasure to drive and many of the quirks associated with old cars are simply not an issue with the big Benz. People on the street smile and wave and compliment the car. I regularly get offers from strangers to buy it – I think I’m up to 4 now – and apart from the initial oil cooler incident, it’s been 100 percent reliable in the Southern California heat and traffic.
The 280se is truly one of the last affordable classic Mercedes and if you are smart when you’re shopping for one, it’s really a classic that you can live with every day.
Stay tuned for more from Project Oldtimer.