Dead Reliable: Lee Purvis' 1974 Mercedes 240D
The mythos of the infinitely reliable automobile is a common trope in the automotive world. An exclusive club, every old-timer has an anecdote about that one car in their mind that sits untouchable to the passing of time, or the negligence of in-attuned owners. Toyota 4x4s, boxy Volvos, Lexus’ LS400, and vintage Mercedes diesels are among the most commonly mentioned, so overly engineered that it would seem that they are largely unstoppable, and thus will always be a safe choice. Dead reliable.
This 1974 green-on-green-on-green 240D is actually Lee’s second of Mercedes-Benz’s entry-level sedan. His first example was a $500 impulse buy from a local car owner that got in a little over his head and needed something less European. It was in fair shape, to be generous, but ran almost flawlessly for the six months of ownership, with only basic, straight-forward repairs that were mostly caused by quick fixes from well-intended (but broke) previous owners. The car ultimately made its way to one of the last SOWO events in Helen, where it was sold for a healthy profit and successfully driven back to Texas, where it currently resides. The rusty German was a paradigm for its model’s reputation.
When Lee purchased this avocado-colored 1974, he intended this to be a lifetime car. It had everything he wanted: cool color, manual transmission, and even a period-correct aftermarket turbo that took the car from painfully slow to not-quite-as-painfully slow, a marked improvement. The car was up for auction on Bring a Trailer, so it had been “vetted” by the experts, as online tire-kickers dressed down the owner for all of the car’s secrets for the seven days of bidding. Ultimately, Lee won the car for a good price, but this wasn’t a $500 impulse buy, this was “doing it right”. After a long drive to Missouri to pick it up, and a rain-soaked drive back, he had a well-sorted, dead-reliable Mercedes 240D in his driveway.
And then reality kicked in.
The problems started almost immediately. Power steering issues, a worn out giubo, and cooling issues began to consume weekends. Nearly every drive warranted a new repair. If parts were available, they were expensive, and if they weren’t in America, it took calls to specialized shops run by guys names Häns to track them down. A single motor mount had to be imported from Australia. Things don’t come cheap from Australia.
Today, the 240D still runs hot at idle. Every trip involves a little bit of hope. There’s a lot that needs doing. But when Lee takes it to a car meet, or drives it through a crowded downtown Macon night, it absolutely steals the show. Lee is still as excited about this car as the day he won it. True, ownership hasn’t been what he thought it’d be. They say to never meet your idols, and perhaps there’s some solid advice in that old cliche. But realizing that idols have flaws is what makes them real and tangible. This old German sedan may not be the bastion of reliability that Lee expected, but he’ll tell you that the experience is worth the hassle. Perhaps driving a 45 year old time-machine with 62 hp is the reward after all, and doing it reliably is just a bonus that some get to enjoy, and some don’t.
After all there’s more to a car than reliability. When one lists out the hall-of-fame of dead reliable cars, you’ll notice that a 2001 RAV4 never makes the cut, despite the fact that taking one to 200,000 miles is a child’s play. A dead reliable car needs soul; a reason that someone is still driving it at 300,000 miles and wants to talk about it. An old Land Cruiser, with its go-anywhere, function-over-form purpose makes the cut. A square Volvo with its tank-like construction and quirky aesthetic makes the cut. And an old German coal-roller with Avocado Green everything that still starts ever crank, definitely makes the cut. Even with it’s hood propped open every Saturday morning. Easy ownership and cool, old car are rarely bedfellows. Expect the worst, but don’t miss it. It’ll all be worth it in the end.