As the old saying goes, there's no accounting for non-viral pathogens. I got the call from Merc specialist Autoclass in Milton Keynes to say my 190E was ready to be collected back in March, just as COVID was kicking off. You know what happened next.
In the list of lockdown woes 'continued separation from a long-missed and expensively mended car' isn't a big one, especially as I didn't need the Merc for daily transportation. But knowing it was finished and I couldn't drive it was still a serious niggle. So instead I built a lookalike Evo 2 in Forza 7 and started to put in some serious work on my Early Sports Tourer times on the Nordschliefe.
The big relief was that I was getting the car back at all. What had started off as a limited body restoration escalated expensively when the engine started to misfire under load. The diagnosis was delivered slowly as potential problems were ruled out one by one, eventually resulting in the 2.5-litre 16-valve engine reduced to its component form, and the discovery of deep scoring in cylinders three and four.
At least this meant it wasn't a fault with the Cosworth cylinder head itself - they don't exactly grow on trees - but the strip down also discovered the motor had been given a 0.5mm overbore at some point in the past. And to get another rebore cylinder four would need to have a new 'sleeve' fitted. With all that done, new pistons and crank bearings plus replacement for the front of the exhaust the final reckoning came to £4500.
That obviously stung a fair bit, especially on top of the £1500 I'd already spent on bodywork. I once bought a fully functional 190E 2.0-litre auto for £450 and put 10,000 miles on it without paying for more than fuel and an indicator bulb. But when I complained to a friend who formerly owned a twin-turbo S600 that tried to floss its teeth with its own valvegear he described it as being a "shandy bill." It's also true that in my first five years with the 2.5 I didn't pay for anything more than oil changes and brake pads. On the plus side, the steady increase in 16 Valve values means I'm probably still ahead on the deal given I paid £5700 for it originally.
Anyway, the big day finally arrived this week, a generous mate agreeing to give me a lift to MK and spare me from Google's recommendation of a four-hour bus-train-bus-bus odyssey. But before that long anticipated first drive a delay while number plates were swapped to a private reg I bought for the car several years ago, and which only the geekiest Cosworth geeks are likely to get. I also grabbed a picture of it next to a silver 2.5-16 which Autoclass is set to bring out of another long hibernation - a one-in, one-out.
With that done I was driving my own Merc properly for the first time in five years. The first embarrassing revelation was that dog-leg gearboxes aren't like riding a bike, you do forget. The muscle memory of conventional H-patterns had long since overwritten the reversed layout that starts with left and back for first. It took several of MK's many roundabouts to relearn the knack of being in an intended gear rather than just a gear. Autoclass had recommended giving the new pistons a gentle start, and even at a cautious pace the engine felt obviously tight, although started to free up after a few miles.
But some choice Buckinghamshire A-roads were soon reminding me why I fell for the 2.5-16 in the first place. Behind the huge steering wheel there's proper feel, throttle response is searing and the rorty exhaust note is strongly reminiscent of that made by a twin-cam Escort, unsurprising given their shared Cosworth origins. But there's also a sense of lightness and finesse completely missing from hefty modern performance saloons. Ludicrously, the 2.5-16's 1300kg kerbweight was often criticized in period for being on the pudgy side of segment standards. These days it is within 50kg of a three-cylinder Fiesta ST, and has a similarly close power to weight ratio.
The 16 Valve is still impressively civilized. It's a turned-up homologation special, but it's also an 'eighties Merc, with the pliant ride that the brand's buyers expected in those days - even on the lowered Eibach springs and Bilstein dampers my car sits on. Cruising refinement is excellent; at 70mph I don't think many modern cars would be significantly quieter. The Kumho Ecsta tyres that were fitted last year were also a pleasant revelation. The set of four only cost £292 - an advantage of their modest 205/55R15 size - but they seem able to deliver both better grip and a toothier front end than the aged Dunlop SPs they replaced.
It wasn't all plain sailing, of course. The car's LCD stopwatch and digital temperature gauge have both turned mostly black over time as their elements have leaked and the heated rear window switch has fallen into the dashboard. The power operated aerial has checked out, too - limiting in-car entertainment to the Best of the Eighties tape that's been in the radio-cassette for the entire time I've owned the car. Can you think of a more appropriate soundtrack?
Car: 1990 Mercedes 190E 2.5-16
Run by: Mike Duff
Bought: May 2012
Mileage at purchase: 157,000
Mileage now: 161,050
Last month at a glance: After a five-year lay up the Merc is finally back on the road
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