Commentary – When you buy an old Mercedes diesel, make sure you like the color…

…because you may end up owning it longer than you expect.  It’s not hard to do, because 4- and 5-cylinder Benz diesel models built through the end of 1985 are put together extremely well and require a lower-than-average amount of maintenance.  Many of the older body styles designed when less was known about rustproofing have in fact returned to the Earth.  However if you find a survivor and keep it away from corrosive winter road salt, it will continue to age well and go 200 to 300 thousand miles without any major mechanical rebuilds.

I bought this ’85 Mercedes 300D on December 30, 1992 and twenty years later today I still own it.  How does one properly celebrate a 20 year anniversary with a car?  No longer a daily driver, I still take it out of the garage and take it to work often on clear days.

(Larger pictures are at the end of this article)

Today I reached a 20-year anniversary of owning an ’85 300 Diesel, and felt it important to celebrate in some way.  When I bought the car, it was seven years old.  That seemed pretty not-new to me at the time, but it was almost nothing in relative terms compared to its age now.  I never imagined I would own it twenty years later, and I never imagined a car’s positive attributes could remain virtually undiminished without restoration or major mechanical rebuilds along the way.  The 300D has proven that a well-made car can, in fact, do these things.

Celebrating this two-decade milestone quietly without fanfare would be fine, because both myself and the noble old Mercedes-Benz are more suited to understatement rather than flash.  Allow me to explain.

I think at any given moment, most automotive enthusiasts have a list in their mind of what cars they dream of owning.  While that list is always changing, one thing that’s constant is there are multiple tiers of fantasy versus reality – ranging from cars one would purchase after winning the lottery down to the grim reality of what could be purchased with one’s actual means.  Today during a particular drive down memory lane, I reflected on cars that remained fantasies, and one that I was able to make a reality.

At the time, I was considering either a new Ford Escort GT, Volkswagen Jetta GLI, or Saturn SL2 – all entry-level performance cars with about 123 horsepower. For the same money, I ended up purchasing this seven-year-old diesel with 50,000 miles on it. Although the 300D’s 5-cylinder turbodiesel engine also makes 123 horses, it is not as fast.

Graduating college in December 1990, I had my own list of reachable and unreachable dream cars but no money.  I was, however, fortunate enough to find a job right away processing orders and trades for Prudential stock brokers.  During that time, I became aware of how low Chrysler Corporation stock was at the time after a rough year of slow sales brought on by a recession.  Being an avid reader of automotive news publications, it was easy to see that some promising “LH” platform models were in the works from Chrysler Corporation – due for release in mid-1992.

The LH platform styling was impressive and the technology was state-of-the-art, more advanced than anything Chrysler had done up to that point.  I believed they would be popular among buyers and followed old stockbroker wisdom to buy stock one actually knows something about. With each paycheck, every penny that could be spared went to purchase Chrysler Corporation stock.  Lee Iacocca had saved Chrysler from bankruptcy in the early 1980s, and I firmly believed he would pull it off again ten years later with top engineering talent he had recruited to the company.


Fast forward two years later and sure enough the Chrysler LHS, Concorde and Dodge Intrepid models were instant sales successes in the marketplace upon their release, and by the first of December 1992, company stock had gone up 350% from two years earlier in December 1990.  Looking back, that investment still ranks as the best return I have ever received on anything in two years.  No Warren Buffett, I have lost money equally well more than once.

When I bought the 300D in late 1992, I received one of the last sets of blue license plates my state issued before switching over to the current yellow-over-white reflective style. I always enjoyed the vintage look of the blue plates and left them on the car until this year. This year, I finally removed the plates I’ve had all this time in lieu of Historic registration tags.

Realizing a profit had been made, it didn’t take long to think about making ownership of a higher-tier car a reality. My daily driver was 12 years old and a hand-me-down that was no longer practical to use every day.  I needed a new (or newer) car, and being able to shop in the $15,000 range allowed a number of choices at that time.  For that sum, one could buy a new Ford Escort GT, Volkswagen Jetta GLI, or Saturn SL2 – all of which were respectable entry-level performance cars.

Each promised approximately 123 horsepower, an enjoyable driving experience, and the ability to hold my head up around peers.  I came close to purchasing the Escort GT sedan, but the desire to own something that had actually been on my automotive fantasy list proved stronger.

$15,000 also happened to put me in the price range to purchase a favorite car I always respected and admired growing up – Mercedes diesels in the 1977-85 “123-body” midsize design.  Sure the newest one I’d be able to find at this point would already be seven years old, but these were the last Benzes with the 5-cylinder turbo diesel engine that the company had perfected after ten years of manufacturing.  Unlike newer offerings, the older power plants were simple, ran forever with few problems, and simply sounded cooler in their own contrary fashion.  I decided I would find the best 123-body I could in lieu of a new car.

After looking through the month of December, I finally found a one-owner ’85 Mercedes 300D in perfect condition with approximately 50,000 miles on it.  1985 was the last model year 300D of this design, and the “anthracite” dark gray/brown metallic color was one I always preferred.  After having worked as a mechanic in college, it was clear this particular ’85 sedan was the one after inspecting it.  I bought my reachable dream car on the spot the day before New Year’s eve in 1992.  Having a Mercedes at 24 was a real luxury and many mistook me for a wealthier version of myself.  Not a problem.

It seemed right to find the car a proper name.  Although that involved figuring out which gender the 300D should be, not much thought had ever been given to the subject.  Was the car tough and masculine, or alluring and feminine?  The utmost careful consideration was required here because this detail was not one that should be gotten wrong.  A friend pointed out since diesels exhibited an almost military-like gritty toughness while generating loud noise and smoke as well, this car seemed more on the masculine side.  That made perfect sense, and shortly thereafter the name “Bruno” was selected to honor the car’s chief designer Bruno Sacco, and because it provided the right dose of German-sounding male toughness.

Here, on the morning of my wedding day in October 1995, the 300D transports myself and three groomsmen in tuxes while doing last minute planning of the best man’s speech on the way.

At first, the plan was to keep Bruno only a few years but the 300D soon became a friend that I kept putting off the thought of parting with.  We commuted to every job I’ve had since then together.  Traveled each and every highway.  Attended shows and rock concerts in it.  Shuttled too many folks to mention during three years I worked as a real estate agent in the mid-1990s.  Friends had all ridden in it or driven it on occasions.  One got sick in the 300D, another one on it.  The morning of my wedding day, three groomsmen and I rode in it wearing our tuxes doing last minute planning of the best man’s speech on the way.  Driving in it with the radio on, I remember being pleased to hear the news of the Eagles reuniting in 1994, and felt personal dismay to hear of Jerry Garcia’s death a year later.

Over the years, friends have all ridden in the 300D or driven it on many occasions. Here, a photo from 1996 was taken after a friend was courteous enough to become sick outside of the window on an elevated bridge where there was no shoulder to pull over.

I racked up the miles with Bruno giving it the best care possible at all times.  By 1999, I was able to retire the 300D from full-time duty in bad weather and winter salt driving after my wife got a new car and passed her old one to me.  These days Bruno resides inside the garage, but often continues to take me on my 90-mile round trip commute to work.  But only on clear days when the roads are absolutely dry.

Fuel economy of 32 miles per gallon achieved in the 300D saves a great deal of money compared to the 16-mpg sport utility vehicle parked in the driveway.  But mainly, I still love driving this car and hearing the diesel engine – warm nostalgia for anyone who remembers the 1970s and ’80s.

Bruno is now old enough to be considered a classic and is beginning to be noticed more again because of the rarity of this body style which increases with each passing year.  Sell Bruno now?  No chance.

So how does one celebrate a 20-year anniversary with a car?  Smash a cupcake against the windshield. Stack champagne glasses on the hood?  Throw a party?  Guests might think me certifiable.  What I did remember was a saying that yesterday is back the road that you came, down memory lane.  Perfect!  So after some plotting on Google maps, today Bruno and I proceeded to take a drive around to all the places we used to commute to and frequent most often, all stops conglomerated into one giant lap of New Jersey.

An old Mercedes advertisement once described owning one as a “deep-seated, satisfying experience”.  As we made our way around the state, I thought about how true that claim really was.  Sure they were mere words created by a copywriter, but I also considered myself very fortunate to have enjoyed so much of that very satisfaction for so long.

As a driver in a newer E350 passed me, I could not help comparing my ownership experience with what I imagine his to be.  Could I afford to trade up to a newer model? Yes. Do I feel the need to?  No.  Sure I don’t have the nicest, most expensive Mercedes compared to that guy, but I honestly believe I’m having more fun.  And while the eggshell white color of his E-class that was four generations newer than mine did nothing for me, I can also honestly say I still really like the color of mine.

Hold on to what you cherish, my friends.


December 30, 2012

About Sean

Welcome to Classic Cars Today Online! We seek to explore the subject of classic vehicles from the 1950s through today. It is our belief that a car needn't be old to be respected and admired for graceful design, historical significance, and future value. As founder and Editor-In-Chief, I welcome contributions from you about your own car-related interests and ownership experiences. As far as myself, I've worked in the automotive service field and have been a contributor to Autoweek Magazine, The Star, Mercedes Enthusiast Magazine, and more. Currently, I'm a copywriter and own several foreign and domestic classic cars. In my spare time, you'll find me serving as Technical Editor and officer of several car clubs, being a concours car show judge, and meeting some great folks around the tri-state NY / NJ / Pennsylvania area at car shows. - Sean Connor
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