25 years ago I did an owner’s survey for the 600 members of the Gull Wing Group. One question asked: What other Mercedes-Benz do you own? Frequent in the replies were 190SLs, 6.3s and 280 SE 3.5 Coupes and Convertibles. Not a surprising mix. This past month for the first time in nearly a decade my bride and I drove a non-SL to the Gull Wing Group’s annual gathering. Destination: New Orleans. I’d been looking for a good road trip experience with the Mercedes E320 Cabriolet we bought earlier this year.
It was the first 4 passenger MB convertible since 1971 and the last MB straight six, the double overhead cam M104.99, with 4 valves per cylinder. One after another, club members in New Orleans told me they had one in these cars at home and loved it! As 25 years ago some spoken in the past tense and wished now they’d never sold. Returned home, my latest issue of Kienle News arrived (60 pages no less) from the prominent German restoration house. What three cars did this issue feature? A 1956 300 Sc, a 1962 300 SL and a 1994 E320 Convertible. Quoting Klaus Kienle:
“The four-seaters of the MB W124 series stands for elegance of the 1990s – modern but not modish. With very respectible performance and only a small number of electronic components, they are genuine classic cars.”
Today’s E 320 Convertible marketplace is also sending clues — by appearing confused: Current prices range from under $10,000 to over $30,000. Identical condition examples often vary over $6K! It’s not confusion we’re seeing but a conspicuous market adjustment not unlike the 1990s rise for 280 SE 3.5 Convertibles (that hasn’t stopped yet). Add to all this, E 320 Convertibles are much rarer than SLs of the same years and practical, user-friendly, automobiles.
Planning our E 320 trip the first step was having the car checked over. Any mechanic worth their diplomas can fault any car. I gave local “Oldtimer” specialist Chris Huber at Hubers Imported Car Service in Golden Valley, MN, this chance and it did prove time to change the engine’s important serpentine belt. Age or heat cracks were scary. Check yours! Otherwise, a clean report. A healthy 20 year old!
Then came packing. As a relatively compact convertible I quickly realized the trunk was not made for …ah, trunks. Or even suitcases of much size. The trunk is tall but short; left-over space after the soft top compartment, a CD unit, tire, jack and tools. It does look like two golf bags would fit.
Fortunately only two of us were traveling and we don’t golf. It would have been a non-starter for even three, or with two youngsters. Strapped our two main suit cases into the rear seat safety belts took the pressure off. Then it dawned on me that we were not likely to put the top down until arriving. Opening the power soft-top just far enough to access its compartment I discovered the rest of the trunk! It is large for a fat garment bag and other loose items best kept out of the back seat. I admit to “traveling heavy”… never comfortable without my expanded tool kit, a few spare parts, jumper cables and tow rope (to help the other guy!). Brought some SL Experience books to autograph, binoculars, a soft-side cooler and too many shoes (counting Solveig’s). Once on the road I was curious just how heavy our expedition had become. While casting a modest silhouette along-side many other cars the convertible is heavier than 1990s E 320 sedans at 3,900 lbs. before packing. A stocky firm little auto. We found a truck stop scale in Missouri that documented 4,560lbs, loaded, including us. 53% on the rear wheels. MB factory specs show it slightly nose-heavy before packing.
Once cruising we had trouble staying under 80, a problem in any Mercedes! You know your car is well tuned if it wants to go faster at any speed at the slightest touch of the accelerator. At 70,000 miles this buggy’s just broken in. Wind noise is higher than a fixed top car but lower than any other rag top we’ve owned. Handling is way above average. Way. While traveling about 70 MPH a car in front of us swerved to another lane revealing a box four or five car lengths ahead of us. I had just enough time to move half of a lane to the right and back again soon enough to avoid the box and a car approaching on my right. It was really the only choice. Stopping suddenly would have invited a chain collision. Hitting a box of unknown contents wasn’t an attractive option. The car’s response was better than expected; body-roll especially with our “payload” was clearly within the suspension’s capabilities. No time to use the brakes. Steering ratio was also fast enough that it was all done without even shifting my hands on the steering wheel. A quick quarter-turn to the right and half-turn left in hardly a second.
These 3.2 liter sixes, a mere 200 cu. in, have a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde personality. When you tromp on it there is a mean sound above 3,800 RPM not unlike the sport cam in a 300 SL. Between 4000 and 6,000 RPM it acts downright Italian…like a supercharger though none is there! I suspect over half of American owners ease these cars around town at under 3,500 RPM, never discovering the wild-card lurking in their engine bays.
With every decade, engine electronics adapt more to driver habits, from changeable shifting points to continuously changing compression ratios and timing. This improves miles per gallon as well as power. By the mid-1990s even V8s and V12s begin exceeding 20 MPG on cruise control. Rolling smoothly with the traffic on the Interstate our 2¼ ton E 320’s best was 24.82. This compared to 26.82 with no luggage on an earlier trip to Duluth during September. Driven hard, 17MPG was our lowest. Weight has its price but keep in mind that most 1990s cars with better MPG are 1,000 to 1,500 lbs. dare I say, flimsier? Is there another convertible you could be safer in during an accident? These cars also have “pop-up” roll-bars behind each rear seat that automatically rise when a) the car tips more than 20 degrees, or b) the wheels leave the ground.
Testimonial for Grand Touring National car club meets over the last 30 years have led my bride and I to tour in every contiguous US state, plus Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Europe. We hadn’t been in New Orleans for 25 years and then only by air. As “Northerners” our visions of Mississippi and Louisiana couldn’t have been more outdated. For starters southern legislators (state & federal) have done their states proud delivering modern, well maintained high-ways. We intentionally picked state and county roads every day of our trip to appreciate as much of each state as time would permit.
We sought locally owned restaurants and small, restored towns. Along the Mississippi are magnificent architectural testimonies to the river’s 1800s importance.
Driving to car meets we inevitably meet others en route. In Mississippi our 1,200 mile trip was humbled by Siegfried Link completing the last day of his 3,000 mile “jaunt” from Seattle, WA in his 57 year old 300SL (which coincidentally he purchased 10 years ago in an SLML Bid Sale). We ran together through most of Mississippi and Louisiana, all pleasantly surprised by the beautiful forests that could have been in northern Wisconsin or Oregon. Also more frequent than anticipated were elegant rural residences rivaling any state you could mention. Our visions of the South were steadily reformed as we drove.
New Orleans was closer to expectations. An easy walk from the “official” Hilton Riverside Convention Center to the incomparable French Quarter found it in good form. As the highest ground in town it wasn’t flooded during Katrina. Club members drove or flew from all over the world to attend. With an average length of ownership now over 25 years (some 50 yrs.) and the club itself 52 years old, friendships go far beyond the cars. All of Mercedes single model owner’s clubs, 190SL Group, Pagoda Group, and M-100 Group foster uncommon friendships and “soft adventure travel.”