The Classic Mercedes of San Francisco: I can’t figure out if it’s this city specifically, the entire state of California with its hot, dry weather, or something else about less flashy, more intellectual parts of the country, that makes people preserve their cars, drive them year after year, or purchase vintage rather than new model vehicles.
The phenomena certainly isn’t present in places like Miami or Texas, where no one drives cars older than ten years. You’re more likely to observe friends leasing a new vehicle every two or three years.
Since moving to San Francisco, I’ve happened upon far more top notch restored (or carefully maintained) old Mercedes than I ever did in Florida, and it makes me so happy. If for no other reason than, I want one myself, and it gives me hope that the inventory is strong.
As a gay, eccentric, quality-obsessed adolescent and teenager, all I ever looked at were German cars, and Mercedes-Benzes especially. There was something about their angular lines, imposing heft, and no-nonsense ergonomics that spoke to me.
Culturally, they were sewn into so many iconic movies and characters. They were regarded as costly, high-powered automobiles for doctors, lawyers, and housewives, with an occasional measured dose of Germanic flair, like this 1995 red convertible E320. Even the “frivolous” models were pretty damn serious.
All this changed when Mercedes began adding model lines. In the mid 1990s it had just four (C, E, S, and SL). Today, it has thirteen (C, CLA, CLS, E, G, GLA, GLC, GLE, GLS, S, SL, SLC, AMG-GT). The marque began competing in every category, all at once trying to be sporty, rugged, and everything in between, serving many masters rather than doing what they’d always done: make over-engineered, ultra high quality vehicles.
And, the corporate leadership explored a series of odd missteps, like partnering with Chrysler and introducing strange models like the R-class minivan and C-class hatchback. Not that it equates to bad quality, but many of the range’s models are now made outside of Germany…in the U.S., South Africa, and China.
Today, the brand still makes very elegant, solid, dynamically superior vehicles (of which I wouldn’t say no to owning), but they’ve lost the specialness of their predecessors. Many brands now feel largely interchangeable, none really doing anything better than the others, all offering luxury, sport, and utility. These things, wrapped in similar packages, in similar colors, with similar finishes.
And thus, as I age and pine for years past (perhaps this happens to everyone?), I ache for the analog. I desire something that smells divine, that clicks with meticulous craftsmanship, includes some specific quirks, and requires two firm hands to operate.
Within a week of arriving, I also happened into a conversation with an automotive journalist who drives, among other things, a rare Mercedes W201 1985 190E 2.3-16 performance sedan with a 5-speed manual and a storied history. We geeked out like I haven’t (over cars, anyway) in a while.
Some of the other heart-fluttering examples I’ve spotted around town so far:
- a W113 (1963-1971) Pagoda SL
- a W108 (1965-1973) 280SE
- a W124 (1986-1995) 500E -> sports sedan developed with Porsche
- a W124 (1986-1995) E320 -> bread and butter midsize Mercedes with classic inline 6-cylinder engine
The W124 is my top preference, while the R129 (1989-2002) SL is a close second. Both were huge successes for the marque, integrating vast improvements in aerodynamics and safety from their predecessors. Perhaps that’s why they both lasted for ~ten years, vs. the standard life cycle of six to seven years.
Things I haven’t photographed, but noticed too, are models like the W202 C-class (1994-2000), W210 E-class (1996-2002), and variants therein. Up until the turn of the century, many Mercedes models were built very carefully, and last well past age 30 because of that level of care. Of course, maintenance makes a huge difference too, so some older models are in pretty sad shape.
But others, like the ones shown here, are simply unreal for their age. Someday soon, I hope to also be a proud owner of a classic Mercedes of San Francisco.