It was the hiring of a C180 Classic estate to haul my stuff to University that led to dad buying our 280. The previous trip in his aging and underpowered Granada 2.0i Ghia had been on long journey from Kent to Lampeter in West Wales. It coped well enough on the M4 but could barely cope with the windy, undulating road from Carmarthen up to the Little Market town with the UKs third oldest university institution. Following in my little Fiat Uno I could see the venerable old Pinto engine blowing out clouds of blue smoke on the inclines and dad bouncing in the driver’s seat willing it on. The Mercedes had come as a revelation. It was beautifully screwed together and, though not desperately powerful, coped with lugging a 19 year old student’s detritus without gasping and smoking, purring smoothly through its five gears. Dad loved it and was sorry when he had to hand the keys back.
That summer holiday I worked hard on him persuading him that the Granada was past its sell by date and that he really should treat himself to a C Class. Not a new one of course dad, that would be too much of an extravagance but Kent Mercedes dealers often had a used car fair at the Kent County Show ground at Detling. I managed to drag him out there and we wandered around the fields looking at the cars with dad shaking his head and tutting over how expensive the cars were when we came across our beloved C280 Elegance.
It was sitting in the corner of the field looking understated amongst all the bigger and flasher motors that surrounded it but it was a gem. White was not in fashion then and the car was not getting much attention but 19000 miles, one elderly owner and £19K screen price, though expensive, was not beyond the realms of possibility. I remember that it was the salesman who drove (don’t ask me why now) and that he immediately took the chance to bury the throttle hammering us up Detling Hill with a muted wail from the 2.8 192 bhp straight six.
Sixteen years later the C280 is still with us and a much loved part of the family. The car has worn its years well, though there are rust bubbles appearing around the wheel arches and door bottoms despite our very best efforts to counter them. This is nothing that cannot be remedied but at the same time, the car lacks the tungsten like durability of the previous Mercedes 190 in the body department. Another fault that has developed is a rear electronic window that now refuses to open but this is surely something that can be fixed as and when. Engine reliability has been faultless save for one incident several years ago when the engine proved difficult to start when warm and kept cutting out. Our (then) local Mercedes dealer declared that the car needed a new ECU (at a cost of over £1000) but the problem was finally traced to a faulty lamda engine sensor. In terms of performance the car still performs as it always has with the engine feeling barely run in at 121,000 miles. The engine fires with a muted hum, rising to 1500 rpm for a few seconds before gradually winding down to a 900 rpm idle as the engine warms itself up. It is best to sit through this as the initial high engine speed together with a very heavy throttle action means that moving off can result in a hare like lurch and chirrup of tires until one gets used to feather the pedal in a delicate manner.
Once one has managed to find equilibrium with the accelerator, progress becomes effortless. Most of the time it’s best to leave the four speed auto in Economy mode and use the ample torque of the engine (206 lb ft at 4500rpm) to waft about with the engine changing up at the earliest opportunity at around 2000rpm. Driving like this is extremely relaxing with the engine humming contentedly around town or smoothly building up to speed on a main road. Selecting S mode on the box will hold on to the engine revs longer and gives more urgent progress. You need to firmly plant your foot to the floor both modes to get the box to kick down, but in this mode the engine is more willing to change up at 3500-4000 revs on say half throttle. The engine takes on a new character over 4000 rpm , no doubt due to its variable inlet valve timing, with the engine note changing from laid back baritone to a more urgent soprano as it closes in on the 6750 redline. Bury the throttle from standstill and the transmission will change up at the redline with the same smoothness as at part throttle and the acceleration still feels as progressive and smooth as when we first experienced the car sixteen years ago. The four speed automatic gearbox, like the engine, has been a paragon of reliability which is not something that can be said of the five speed, fully computerised box that replaced it. Handling wise the car is fairly softly sprung and the steering, a re-circulating ball set up is not really the last word in feel or directness. Yes the car can be pushed along if need be but it is not really behaviour that the car encourages. A far better approach is to take it easy in the corners and use the power of the straight six to make short work of the straights. In any case the car is far more effective as a “bahnstormer” than a B road blaster.
To sum up then our C280 is still soldiering on as strongly as ever at nearly 20 years of age and feels as though it could easily cope with another 20 too. Sure the build quality of this generation of car is not up to the peerless over engineering that prevailed at Mercedes in the 1980s but is still solid. It is also quite a rare car and also something of a Q car with its understated looks combined with a turn of speed that still has the ability to surprise. If you see a nice one out there don’t hesitate to buy it. Ours however is staying right where it is.