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    Stancing with the Stars MERCEDES 190 ON AIR

    They’re a great staple of any Retro Cars diet, and when they look as good as this it’s pretty obvious why that is. James Brown fell for the ‘Baby Benz’ at a tender age. And you know what they say about your first love… Words: Dan Bevis. Photos: Chris Frosin.

    Massively over-engineered’. That’s a phrase you can always rely on. When the chips are down, you’re nervously eyeing your temperature gauge, or you can hear a suspicious clonking noise that you just can’t put your finger on, that handy and reassuring motif will always be there to make everything all right. Not that any of those issues should surface in a Mercedes-Benz-190E , of course.

    This is, in fact, a phrase employed by Mercedes-Benz themselves to describe the model when it emerged blinking into the motorscape way back in late 1982. This car represented the dawn of a new era for #Mercedes , the so-called ‘Baby Benz’ being the marque’s first foray into the compact-executive sector. They poured over £600m into the model’s R&D, patenting a natty new five-link rear and throwing in all sorts of über-modern accoutrements: seatbelt pretensioners, airbags, #ABS … with BMW dominating the sector with the ubiquitous 3 Series, M-B had to go in hard. They needed to over-engineer the thing, it was the only way to muscle in.

    This sort of developmental extravagance has, unsurprisingly, given the car quite a strong following. You tend to find pretty fervent brand evangelists in the retro car world – Mini fans who’ll drive nothing but Minis, Mk1 Golf owners who won’t shut up about Wolfsburg – but it’s interesting to note that Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts are more effusive than most. Once that three-pointed star is emblazoned upon the subconscious, it’s there for keeps.

    Take James Brown, for example. Hailing from the Essex town of Tiptree (a place variously famous for jams and jellies, and the ‘Tiptree Sneeze’ – look it up), he combines his hometown’s trademark mix of saccharine fruitiness and loud noises with a lifelong love of Mercs. His first car was a 190E, he’s had a few of ’em since, and now he’s built this. He’s pretty much incurable. Sure, there have been a few deviations from the path, but true love always shines through.

    “My first car was a red 190E, back when I was sixteen,” he grins. “I lowered it, and put a spoiler on it, and a set of seventeens… but then I couldn’t afford to insure it!

    So I had to sell it and get a Honda Civic.” Thereafter followed a protracted series of modifying experimentations, the Civic receiving the same treatment that the 190E had, before James reverted to geographical type and got into Fords. But when his hot XR2i ended up unceremoniously planted up an elderly gent’s backside (not literally, but almost), our protagonist found himself in a #Mercedes-Benz once more. Well, it was always inevitable really, wasn’t it? Written in the stars.

    “My second 190E was special,” he reminisces, a sparkle of whimsy in his twinkling eyes. “I got it from my good friend John, and to this day I still blame this guy for getting my Mercedes love to flow! He sold me one in the same colour as the current one – it was on some cool seventeens, and on the floor, and I loved that car so much. But then the need for more power came back in my life.” And he was off again, like an easily distracted whippet, finding himself in a heavily modded 106 GTI (a car that dove so deep down the rabbit hole it ended up being featured in Max Power), before reverting back to the Fatherland: an Audi A3 followed, belittling passers-by with its nineteen’s, then a BMW E46 Compact on, ahem, 20in chrome spinners. Hey, if you always make good decisions then you’ve got nothing to learn from, right?

    But it was no use. This multi-marque dabbling was just a distraction from James’s true Mercedes calling. He did the right thing. He bought himself another 190E. It ended up on the cover of Retro Cars in July 2011. And lo, his work was good.

    …but then he started working on an Audi TT project, which was a very involved build, and… wait. No. Stop. This is all but a fleeting distraction from the wholesome pursuit of 190Es. Come back into the light, James. It’s warm in here. You’re safe. Come.

    Oh, and he did. And how. “It was my first love,” he explains, matter-of-factly. “I’ve always been a Mercedes guy, I always will be. I can’t shake it.” And so the endless procession of a long, long line of projects has culminated in this, a straight-as-an-arrow 2.6.

    “After looking at several cars with Jag of Jags Bodyshop, we just kept finding bodged-up, expensive cars that claimed to be immaculate,” sighs James. This is an unfortunate quirk of the 190E, as theoretically they should be borderline bulletproof; when the nuclear winter comes, it’ll just be cockroaches, Twinkies and well-maintained 190Es left on the face of the Earth. Unfortunately, these once-expensive premium-compacts have fallen into the realm of sub-minicab cheapness, so they become disposable. There’s a lot of crap out there, cars that haven’t been looked after. “We ended up settling on an honest car at a reasonable price that needed a bit of paint and tidying,” he says pragmatically. “I was always planning on getting Jag to paint it anyway, so that wasn’t an issue, and a bit of servicing and loving was all it really needed.”

    Of course, this was never going to be a concours resto. You’ve read the guy’s car history, you know what he’s like. The car you see here was pretty much the vision he had in mind at the time, although it wasn’t always a clear path from vision to reality. As you can no doubt hear Samuel L. Jackson booming in his best scary Pulp Fiction voice, “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men”. But whatever – challenges are character-building, aren’t they?

    So, without further ado, Jag set about painting James’s new ride. “Jag’s always painted my cars, and I’m always able to trust him to get my ideas perfect – although I do totally blame him for my OCD-esque cleaning habit,” he says. The car’s been repainted in its original shade, but as you can see that’s really all it needs – an overblown or ostentatious colour would have ruined the simplicity of the thing. You see, there are a lot of people that decry the ‘stop, drop and roll’ approach to modifying – the idea that a reduction in altitude and some well-chosen wheels are all that’s required to allow the car’s aesthetic to speak for itself – but James’s 190E is the ultimate proof that the formula works. And this is due, in large part, to his rather wonderful choice of wheels.

    “Brian at Rotiform was great,” he smiles. “I showed him a picture of the original Mercedes 8-hole wheels and said ‘I want the biggest dishes we can get away with’! The finished product has really become the talking point of the car.” You can see why; the genius of the design is that it pays respectful homage to the car’s original factory alloys, but they are in fact all-new wheels custombuilt by Rotiform to offer something that no other 190E has. This makes James the king of the double-take – his ride-height and the cleanliness of the thing draw you in, then as you turn away your brain says ‘Hang on a minute, what’s up with those rims?’… and the answer is that they’re a head-spinning, bespoke set of two-piece wheels with hidden hardware and the valve caps cunningly slipped around the back. It really is a bunch of effort and expense for something that a lot of people wouldn’t even notice. Such is the modern wheels arms race.

    When it came to the suspension, James had Merc’s original Baby Benz ethos firmly in mind. There would be no half-measures here, it had to be ‘massively over-engineered’ or nothing at all. “I wanted the best,” he explains. “When it came to air-ride, I always said I wanted this car to be 100% – no leaks, no issues, no nothing. So it went to Luke at Plush Automotive, as I knew he’d get the job done. Not many people had used these BMW AirLift struts at that time, and it’s fair to say it was a little more involved than just bolting the things on!” The system is governed by AirLift’s world-class V2 management, and to help things along Jag had already tickled the arches out a little, by 10mm at the front and 15mm out back, in order to ensure the perfect clearance and fitment.

    Plush’s work wasn’t done there either – check out the sublime boot build housing the Viair treats and hardlines along with a full-house Vibe Black Air audio setup in the shelf. The crispness of the install looks almost factory, provided that you can set aside the fact that James has stuffed a load of choice modern hardware into the Merc’s nooks and crannies.

    A bona fi de, über-polished showpiece, then? A pampered trailer queen? No, not a bit of it. James barely needed encouraging to pull a cheeky burnout for our shoot, and if there’s one thing he really loves, it’s driving around in his meisterwerk and showing it to the world as what it is: a massively over-engineered cruiser. “I use it mainly for summer evenings and weekends, and I did some of the shows last year,” he says, “but I love just going for random drives in it. Hopefully this year I’ll be taking it all over Europe – possibly not even for shows, but just for the sake of enjoying road trips with other Merc enthusiasts.” And that really is the crux of the build. At its very essence, it’s a driver’s machine; James has simply enhanced every element that he felt required enhancement, to make the best even better. Because even if something’s overengineered, there’s nothing to stop you taking it further.

    SPECIFICATION / #Rotiform-MBZ / #Rotiform / #Mercedes-Benz-190E / #Mercedes-Benz-190E-W201 / #Mercedes-Benz-W201 / #Mercedes-Benz / #Mercedes-190E / #Mercedes-Benz-190E-2.6 / #Mercedes-Benz-190E-2.6-W201

    ENGINE: #M103.940 2.6-litre straight-six / #M103 / #Mercedes-Benz-M103
    TRANSMISSION: #Mercedes-Benz-722-400 automatic gearbox
    SUSPENSION: BMW E36 #AirLift front struts, custom rear mounts and universal airbags, #Viair-444C compressors, #AirLift-V2-management / #Air-Lift-V2
    BRAKES: Stock 190E
    WHEELS & TYRES: 8x17in (front) and 9.5x17in (rear) #Rotiform MBZ 2-piece with 195/40 (f) and 215/40 (r) tyres
    INTERIOR: Momo Prototipo steering wheel, flushed #AirLift V2 controller, Vibe Black Air audio system inc. front and rear components running twin amps plus 2x 12in subwoofers

    EXTERIOR: Full respray in original colour, arches extended 10mm (front) and 15mm (rear)

    THANKS: “Jag - Jags Bodyshop 07976 830145, Luke - Plush Automotive, Carl Taylor, Brian - Rotiform Wheels, Tommy Teapot - Meguiars UK, Mark- Vibe Audio, Luke, Viv, Jaylos & John Russell. And Becky for putting up with me constantly cleaning it.”


    Damn that sits well on the custom-made 17in Rotiforms!

    This 190E epitomises the ‘stop, drop and roll’ approach to modifying.

    Bulbous Mercedes airbag steering wheel has been eschewed in favour of this natty little Momo number.

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