A MATTER OF A PINION: Reliability Favours the Brave

by Sam Skelton
20 November 2017 3 min read
A MATTER OF A PINION: Reliability Favours the Brave

I bought an old Mercedes the other week. Having just sold my Rover 75 because I didn’t use it, I needed a sensible, practical everyday car. As I’ve just been appointed editor of Mercedes Driver magazine, a Merc made sense – and my 280TE is quick enough, comfy enough, and has more than enough space for people and tip runs.

Except that it’s currently off the road, broken.

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My mate Peter and I are an unstoppable team when it comes to playing with old cars and mending them. So, faced with the knowledge that a rear wheel bearing on a W124 is £500 at a specialist, I decided it was a job we’d do ourselves. Ha. Ha. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. I’ve more than learned my lesson. Four hours to get the hub carrier off the car, and two days into the job, it still wasn’t together. Somehow we’d bent the hub carrier, and the caliper wouldn’t go back on. I’ve given up on it, and dispatched it to my local garage to repair once I find a hub assembly.

Before it came off the road, I noted that it felt like my old SAAB 9000, which regular readers will recall bled me dry over the course of 2 years, and spent 10 months of that ‘resting’. I just hope that the Merc won’t assume the SAAB’s mantle of unreliability. Instead, I’d like it to be like my Fiat Tipo was, or my old Jag, or my XM.

I’ve had a few cars. Many have been infamous examples of unreliability – Rover 800s, old Fiats and Citroens, a Triumph Stag, and a couple of XJs to name a few. Cars that armchair pundits and bar room experts would advise you to avoid unless you like expensive bills. And yet mine have been flawless, with any issues caused by user error instead of any inherent fragility to their being. My problem children have been cars that ‘the knowledge’ reckons are bulletproof – my SAAB, my Volvo V70, and my supposedly trusty W124 Mercedes.

I think I’ve worked out why. It’s because the cars with a good reputation often end up neglected in some way. There is a pervasive attitude among those new to premium brands with reputations for strength of, for instance, “Old Mercs are bombproof, therefore I don’t need to look after it because it will survive regardless.” This is not correct. All this means is that you’re passing your problems onto the next owner through neglect, and so what many perceive as reliable – and what is reliable at one point – descends into a litany of trouble by the time the years have caught up with it. At 25 years old, my Mercedes will have had its fair share of laissez-faire owners, and it shouldn’t surprise me that in some ways it’s less reliable than when it was new.

On the other hand, my Stag and my XM will have been subject, almost from day 1, to the sort of specialist love and attention typically lavished on cars worth far more. Because they are known for being trouble prone, conscientious owners will have cared for them well. For a car of this calibre to make it to middle age suggests that – at some point – it has been cherished. To have done so and remained in good condition means it will have been cherished for some time. My XM hasn’t put a foot wrong – as you would expect from a car that’s had everything done on time.

I’ve taken the Merc off everyday duty – not just for now, but when it’s back on the road it’ll be a second car. I’ve followed my gut and bought a Citroen CX Safari for when reliability really matters.

They’re fickle. So naturally, I can rely on it.

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  • Midlands says:

    My W124 diesel was a superb daily. I bought it at 14 years old, sold it at 20, put 100k on it in between and never failed to proceed. Sold it for a profit after sorting a few rust patches too. That said, I never needed to change rear wheel bearings on it and was vaguely aware it was a sod of a job.

  • Cambridge says:

    Interesting. Like you, I’ve had a number of cars over the years that carry reputations. In the ‘old’ category are currently an Alfa GT Junior and a Citroen SM. The SM has wafted us to southern France and Belgium and Germany on several occasions with no problems (fate tempted there and then), whereas the ‘bulletproof’ E39 530d that was my daily cost fortunes, turbo, gearbox, the infamous 530 wobble.

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