1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan

After we had the minor collision with the Chevette, in Naples, Italy, we decided to sell the Chevette and get a car that was a bit “heftier.” We also were looking at doing more serious traveling around the Italian countryside and wanted a car both reliable, and when it did break, possible to get parts for. The Chevette was neither reliable for long-distance traveling, and as proved by the collision, not easy to locate parts.

My wife was into expensive cars with big names like “Volvo” and “Mercedes.” Even though she had no intention of ever driving in Italy we would be selling “her” Chevette, so I decided to humor her and get a car of her choice.

I looked around a found a neighbor selling a nice 1978 Mercedes 200D (diesel) yellow four door sedan. The neighbor had purchased it in Germany several years before so it was an AFI plated car. It was nice and roomy, economical to drive, and looked to be in excellent condition. It was a manual transmission, but since my wife didn’t want to dive anyway, she agreed that would not be a problem. After a few test drives, we bought it.

The car was built solid; all we needed to do was add a roof-mounted gun, paint it olive drab and it would have passed for your basic tank. The diesel had a nice chug to it, and once I got used to the sound rather enjoyed it. The engine did burn oil, so I learned to keep a stock of engine oil handy and top it off on a regular basis. It also had German-spec lights, which included “snow-lights.” In Germany, cars parked alongside roadways in the winter were required to keep their parking lights lit on the roadway-side, so snowplows could spot the cars. I could select which side of the car to turn the running lights on.

We did drive this car all over Italy during the next two-plus years we were there. My wife and I made a habit of picking some small town to explore on a given weekend, getting the local USO-run travel agency to make hotel reservations, loaded up the car and went exploring.

For as heavy a car as this was, it got good mileage at about 34 MPG on the Autostrada. On the flip side, the 2.0 Liter diesel was actually a little too small for the car. On a few occasions I was not able to get it up a steep back-road hill. The car was also a little large for Italian driving. Many of the roads through smaller villages wove between closely spaced buildings, and often made passing though exciting.

I actually did get stuck between buildings once. We were exploring some side roads in Sorrento (Amalfi Coast) and I followed a road into a clump of buildings. The road made several right-angles turns and started getting narrower. After the fifth turn, I could tell I wasn’t going to get any further going forward without serious damage to my car, the buildings, or both. By now I had at least three (smaller) cars behind me, just to add to the fun.

I started slowly backing up and the cars behind us took the hint. I backed up through the five turns, out of the narrow alleyways, and then another quarter mile past the buildings before I could find a place to turn off and let the cars behind me pass. The other cars backed right along with me. Once I could let them pass I saw that a few of the drivers were red-faced and making gestures at me.

The Mercedes also lacked power steering. This wasn’t much of a problem on the open road, but it did make parallel parking a serious workout. Not only were most downtown parking areas parallel-parking only, there was usually a stone wall right along the curb that never appeared car-friendly. I did indeed learn how to parallel park.

After nearly a year owning this car, the engine began to make non-diesel engine noises. Over a period of weeks the noises got louder and more worrisome. On the day I decided to take the car to my friendly neighborhood mechanic, a Thursday, it died on the road. I found a friend with a heavy truck to tow me to a mechanic he recommended which happily was also close to where my car died. The mechanic took one look and explained in his less-than-perfect-English that I had been using the wrong type of oil and now the engine was ruined. I told the mechanic to go ahead and replace the engine, and expected to be hitching to work for several weeks.

Saturday morning my friend contacted me to let me know the car was ready to be picked up. In less than 24 hours the mechanic had located a newer 2.4 liter diesel engine in a junked car (or so he claimed – I didn’t ask the source), pulled the bad engine and had the new one popped it. He had to change the engine mounts, linkages, electrical controls, and modify the choke. I paid about one third what I would have expected for a U.S. shop for the same work.

After this I made sure I always used the correct engine oil and had no more serious problems with the car. The larger engine gave the car just enough power to get up formerly insurmountable hills. The difference in mileage was barely noticeable, especially as I spent so much time sitting in traffic jams anyway. I also now had an automatic choke which made morning starts pain-free. However, the car still had no power steering.

The following year we started getting ready to transfer back to the U.S. My wife and I thought hard and long about bringing the car back with us. It still had a near-perfect interior and no rust on the body. However, we learned there were strict import laws on bringing European-made cars back to the U.S., with many makes/models banned outright due to not meeting U.S. standards. The Mercedes was one car that was allowed to be imported back to the States, except for California.

We learned that California had passed strict smog controls for diesel-powered cars just a year earlier. As we expected to be stationed back in San Diego, bringing the car back would have meant problems with registration. Had I known we would end up in Mississippi instead of California, I may have just kept that car after all. We didn’t know, so a few weeks before we were due to leave I reluctantly put the car up for sale.

An Air Force officer, newly arrived, contacted me within a few days. He test drove it, looked over the repairs I had done and expressed interest. I told him what I was asking for it. He countered with a lowball offer that just flat angered me, stating that since I was leaving I needed to sell it anyway. My response was that I would haul the car out into a field and burn it before letting it go for what he offered. We eventually settled on a price I would accept but still a lot lower that I should have gotten.

Part of the deal was that I got to keep the car until my last day prior to flying out. By our final few days in Naples our house was packed out and we were back living in the transit hotel awaiting our flight. The buyer was on travel during my last week in Naples so I gave him the extra key before he left and arranged to leave the car in a specific location on the base.

On my last full day in Italy I parked the car in our arranged spot, put the key inside and locked the door and took one last look at the car I had driven all over Italy. I walked away to the shuttle bus stop and rode back to our hotel. We flew back to the U.S. the next morning.

Ron Charest

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