If you buy your gran some trainers and a tracksuit and take her
on a triathlon don’t be surprised if she has a fatal heart attack…
Mercitus, 2005 AD
Late 2003. Having travelled far and wide in the Sahara on trail bikes and in 4x4s, there isn’t much more to prove with these types of vehicles; not surprisingly, they work. With my Land Cruiser and Honda XRL sold I had plans to get a normal car, but could not resist something that, with a minimum of expense, would also make a functional desert car. I like things that do it all.
Two-wheel drive exploration in the Sahara dates from the British WWI Light Car Patrols and as we know, the LRDG roamed all over the Libyan Desert in Chevrolet trucks. Fast forward and these days the likes of the Plymouth Dakar Rally shows that 85% of old bangers can make it across the desert so, with a bit of work, a robust two-wheeler should do well in all but the sand seas.
I was looking for a well-known and plentiful, reliable, economical, tough, basic, big diesel for around £500. I started with Citroen ZXs and lingered over Peugeot 405s and 205s but was not convinced by FWD. Although I couldn’t recognise one in the street, I considered Toyota sedans too but, with their great reputation for reliability, they’re expensive for a boring old car. I then discovered how cheap and prolific Mercedes 190s were; a Poor Man’s Merc from the mid-1980s. The usual web resources produced promising reports: high mileages were common with no rust problems and great reliability.
Most diesel 190s seem to be up north where I eventually picked up a five-cylinder 2.5D with 228,000 miles for £800. Problems added up to only small oil leaks (common and not worth worrying about) and… that’s it. Everything worked, the inside was amazing for the mileage, it had had a recent cheap respray and there was no rust (or so I thought…). Engine oil pressure was good too, though the machine was much plainer than I imagined for a car from a classy marque; inside it sure looked like a basic entry-level Merc. I did however like the sunroof – what a great feature!
On the way home the well-known chronic gear change manifested itself, and also an annoying fore-aft wobble on slow changes as if the engine mounts were shagged. And… what a slug (after a torquey HJ61). I’m sure glad I didn’t go for the 2-litre four. Still, it sits on 80+, brakes and corners with no slack in the steering or worrying noises. First mpg was 46 – pretty damn good for a quarter-million mile diesel.
First thing was to do a few long runs to try and find some more faults, but nothing except that wobble cropped up. So after a month, I decided it was safe to take the plunge.
With a Morocco research trip lined up for February 2004, I set about fixing the 190 up for a bit of stony off-roading. For the moment this added up to:
• Bigger tyres
• Taller suspension
• New clutch
While I was in the Gilf over Christmas I left the car with Andy at Allisport in Gloucestershire with instructions to replace the oil-soaked plastic ‘bashplate‘ with something with more of a clang to it. A month later AlliAndy had done a great job. How rare it is that you ask someone to make a custom fabrication and get exactly what you asked for. The plate was 1.5m long, covering the sump and gearbox, with a special cowling going up around the front to protect the bottom of the radiator, a weak point when road cars nosedive off dunes which they have to attack faster than a 4×4.
With the bash fitted, the car still refused to blow up in my face so I set about sourcing some tyres. I didn’t want off-road tyres, as long as it’s dry, normal road tyres work fine in the desert at low pressures. But I wanted something a tad taller than the normal 185/70 15s. Only a few tyre websites offer full details of dimensions, but Continental was one of them (or at least they replied to the enquiry fast): Their reinforced Vancos were 655mm tall over the standard 625mm (left). Once the suspension was raised they’d fit in – probably – and the width was only 20mm greater so hopefully would not foul the shocks or body. My Tyres did five Conti Vanco Contact 195/70 R15 97T RF (reinforced) for 40 quid each, mail order.
Mercedian Desert Dealer Gerbert advised me that jacking up a 190 was easy; you just replaced the spring pads on top of the coil springs; they are available in various thicknesses. He usually gets it done on the way out in Morocco or Tunisia as its a tricky job. I wasn’t so sure about stressing the original springs with thicker pads as I had a few trips in mind and one spring had recently been replaced. So I ordered a set of new springs from Coil Springs in Sheffield, recommended by Matt. My request was an educated guess: 20% heavier duty and about half an inch longer. I wasn’t after a radical lift as I didn’t want to stress the steering or final drive joints, and didn’t really know what I was doing. And anyway, the 20% HD would keep it high. (FYI, 190s are more typically lowered; apparently, it looks mean and sparks nicely off speed humps…) With independent suspension, an inch at the spring mounted halfway along the wishbone adds up to double that at the wheel (basic geometry) so Coil Springs asked me for loaded and unloaded measurements and got on with it.
Fitting them was a nasty job, especially on the back where Coil’s version was way too long and caused much aggro until I finally worked this out. They chopped them down a bit and sent them back quick. But even with spring compressors, it took a few African solutions to ‘explode’ them into place, and not without some blood and bruises. At the same time, I slapped on standard new shocks. With the car jacked up I went around the block waiting for something to snap and then nipped off up the road to Derbyshire.
I‘d booked in for some surgery at Matt’s with the help from his old mate, Barry. Various bits were ordered off Eurocar Parts or GSF, including a clutch kit (who knows how old the current one was) a spare water pump, belts, hoses and filters. And, a bit of extravagance: a 5L tin of ‘NATO Sand’ paint from Anchor.
By a stroke of luck a guy in the barn next to Matt’s was scraping his 190 and invited Matt and myself to pick it clean and dump it for him. An hour later we’d grabbed the top front shock bushes, rad, blower fan (it was an auto), lights, wheels and ashtray. After just four days Barry emerged from his shed with all boxes ticked: new clutch, respray, new upper shock bushes, fuel/brake line protection plate and an extra fan at a great price. It would have taken me weeks to make a mess of the same job.
A week later I picked up the 190. The height looked just as I’d envisaged it: a couple of inches at the front and double that at the back where the weight will go. Driving it with all the old wheels and other junk in the boot was just right, a bit firmer and higher but nothing weird. And, praise the Lord, that infernal for-aft wobbling was all but gone. Was it the new clutch or prop grease. Who knows; we reckon it’s the anti-radar paint.
April 2004 – Morocco
[in brackets] refers to Morocco Overland routes
I had to cook up some new Moroccan routes for Sahara Overland II and the test run with the Merc was a chance to kill two birds with one radiator fan. Heading out across France in late February with an unknown car, I fought off the ingrained paranoia born from years of running cheap cars and bikes. In the end, the worst thing was a dodgy indicator; fuel consumption at 70mph was in the low 40s (15kpl), it wasn’t devouring oil and ran smoothly and quietly. I picked up the geef at Malaga airport and after a night in a posh Malaga hotel and a walk through the fabulous Atarazanas covered market, we drove to the port and bought a single to Melilla.
I hadn’t been here since staggering back from my very first Sahara trip in 1982, and with a tank full of duty-free fuel we rolled through Nador border crossing and south into the hills of Rekkam.
Our first piste was across the Rekkam plateau, an easy-looking track to see how the car would cope. After a few kilometres we tried out a thinner piste heading south, but once over an escarpment came across a oued crossing that looked a bit of a gamble at this early stage. So we backtracked up the hill, inched over shallow creeks and continued on the eastbound plateau track.
We spent a freezing night in an abandoned building, the gale whistling through the empty windows, and next morning fuelled up over breakfast at Ain Benimathar. The 190 had managed its first piste without complaint.
Encouraged, we headed south down the highway to Bouarfa, a spacious desert town in the clear spring sunshine, and stocked up with fruit and veg for the night’s camp. South of town, near the Algerian border, we headed out on a very stony piste to Beni Tajite [ME4]. This one was a bit more challenging with the odd CLANG!! from the bashplate or floor. There were many more wash-outs and oueds to cross too, but the raised angles got the car through with barely a scrap. Berbers were camped alongside the track; the young girls dressed in colourful tasselled outfits like gypsies.
A couple of big oueds had washed-out concrete fords which we had to drive around, then halfway along the track petered out in a very stony oued. Reluctant to carry on and probably get stuck, we took another track south [ME5], hoping to get to the N10 Desert Highway we’d left that morning. Soon that petered out too – the usual Saharan scenario – and we were driving cross country over gnarly washed-out mud banks and steep-sided oueds which needed to be approached at an angle to get over. Just a couple of kms from the road we were trying to work around a mini canyon, probing here and there when my early over-confidence got the car well and truly bellied out.
With a wheel or two sticking in the air and unable to go forward or back, I airjacked the car to get some rocks under the wheels. A few tries of this proved useless; they just got spun out (an LSD might have helped here). We weren’t getting far so I jacked up again, dug away at the side of the ditch on which the car rested and tried reversing out on the sand plates. Hey presto! the car was freed. By now though, I was covered in dust, soaked in sweat and worn out, so we decided to camp right there and work out tomorrow, back-tracking all the way to Bouarfa if need be.
As dusk settled, I climbed up a hill and has a good look around. There was no way anything was going to cross the sandy 20-foot high banks of the oued which lay between us and the road, but maybe we could get around it a few kms upstream where it wasn’t so deep.
It’s never comforting to spend the night stuck or lost, but with the road so near we knew we’d make it somehow, even if we had to leave the car there.
Sure enough next morning we came across a nearby mine from where a track led back to the Desert Highway [MS11]. The car still steered straight and ran smoothly after yesterday’s beating so at the Guir Bridge we headed onto a lovely piste up the Oued Guir to Gourrama [now sealed] passing the lovely old ruins of Tazouguerte and the old Legionnaires fort at Atchana (above) alongside the river. This was more like it.
Backtracking east to Boudenib via the amazing Ziz Gorges and Rissani, we were ready next day for a run across the desert to Erfoud [ME2]. However, the wind had come up overnight and with no one at the fuel station and an unfixed puncture, it looked like our short cut to Erfoud would have to wait. In Boudenib we got the tyre plugged and followed the regular route down to Zagora along the Oases du Ziz. Erfoud looked dreary in the haze so we set off for Erg Chebbi along the rubble road and then got on the sands.
Like many before us, we got mixed up on the way to the Erg and in the poor visibility ended up running cross-country to correct our mistake. At one point I descended a small dune too timidly and got stuck pointing up a v-slope: time to learn 2WD sand recovery.
In the end, it took the whole deal with lowered pressures and air jacking onto the sandplates to get the car out, two metres at a time. After that, I drove with a bit more panache and we recovered the Merzouga track (now a road). By now the car and our clothes were full of sand and visibility was getting much worse with the car getting hot in the stiff tailwind.
I wasn’t looking for new routes down here, just a chance to film a 2WD supplement to my Desert Driving dvd against the backdrop of the Erg (the only decent deserty location I knew of). Clearly this was not filming weather or even much fun, so we turned round to head for Erfoud. The guidebook spoke of Chez Michel, a plush auberge up the track, and within two hours of kicking sand in each other’s faces we were spreading out in a lovely big room at the auberge. Never mind the expense, you’d never get this sort of place in the central Sahara so we lapped it up. The food that evening added to the experience and the patron introduced himself and told us about his early days exploring the area in an old Renault 12.
190s have the steering lock of a London taxi, but the last day or two the left wheel had been scraping and bottoming against something and the steering wheel was off true. Time to bend down and take a look. Turned out the rusty old wishbone had curled up (left) under the beating of recent days. A rock had kneed the box section in the guts and it had lost its rigidity. Oh well, I was in the right country to find used Merc spares; in some towns more than half the cars are old Mercs and it’s not unusual to be driving along with Merc in front, Merc behind and two Mercs passing the other way.
We took a road west which ended up in Rissani which seemed much livelier than Erfoud. Asking at the first garage we got on the usual African run around town with a guy on a moped; to one shop, then another and finally some dude’s lock-up where a few 190-looking arms lay on the floor. Negotiations commenced. In the meantime I’d called Matt on the bat phone to see what a 190 wishbone costs in the UK to give me a clue what I was bargaining for. I was happy to drive to a dealer up country and get a new one, but in the end, with all parties playing the usual games, we settled for a price with fitting.
We headed east for Tazzarine where we hoped to cut a track down to Zagora [MS2].
Recent rain had some huge bugs on the wing, swarms of locusts were splattering against the screen. Tazzarine had a huge auberge-hotel (the Bougafer resort) clearly set up for overnighting tours with karaoke and other tawdry allurements. Not our sort of place but after Michel’s, we weren’t counting.
South along the track to Zagora grading and sealing was in progress [to Tarhbalt on MS3], but beyond that we got mixed up around some village with a maze of half-finished tracks and the same intimidating kids you get north of the Todra Gorge. Bollocks to that and bollocks to them; if a road was on the way there would be no piste for the book so we headed back and took a long way round to Zagora. We spent the night in the Hotel de Palmerie, same as five years ago; one of the original hotels in town with great food and much cheaper than the flashier places down over the oued.
We weren’t having much luck logging new pistes, but from Zagora we were determined to take a route north of Jebel Bani to Foum Zguid [MS5; now a road]. How hard could that be to find? In the end it turned out the turnoff was right by our hotel and so we fumbled out around the back of town on our way west. Passing plenty of agriculture and palmeries, the piste started off busily and route finding was pretty easy as all we had to do was drive west with the jebel to our south.
By halfway the gardens were behind us with only the odd Berber tent in the distance. Around mid-afternoon we made it to Foum Zguid, having given the bash plate and suspension a full work out. Foum is a lovely quiet town, at the very foot of the ranges with the Sahara unrolling before it: next stop Timbuktu. We parked up in the town square under a big tree for fresh orange juices and decided to head for Tata that night along the Desert Highway [MS11]. On the way the bugs were now out in full flight, splattering continuously against the front of the car; by the time we got to Tata the rad was plastered in mashed yellow insectiods. After a night in the Rendezvous in a room just a bit bigger than the bed (but with a good meal in the Relais hotel down the road), we were heading for the big one: [MW6] 400kms across the desert to Smara in the Western Sahara.
But before any big piste one weigh things up and I thought the gearbox was making some odd noises. It’s hard to tell as a 190 gear change feels like stirring chopped-up tennis balls in porridge. I’d never got round to changing the gear oil before I left; now was the time to do so before we headed on what might be a tough two-day piste. I pulled off the road and lifted the car onto a jerry, unscrewed the bash plate but found I couldn’t undo the filler plug without a big hex drive (the sort of thing that should be checked at home. Have I not read Sahara Overland?).
No worries, we tied the bashplate onto the roof through the doors and headed for the next town, someone would know how to fix it. In the back street of Akka we came across Aboullah and his hole-in-the-wall repair shop. He drained out the black ATF and showed me the result, swimming with bronze grit.
“Le zinc roue”, was the problem, he said.
“Cinq roue?”, I said (zinc wheel, fifth gear?).
It was only a couple of months later I realised he was saying synchro (‘san-kro’) with an Afro-French accent. He showed me one off another gearbox; looked like a gear wheel to me – is that a synchro, who knows? I knew gearboxes pack up gradually and a year later it was still running fine – but I thought pushing on to Smara alone was a risk, so we decided to head for some place called Marrakech. But on the way we could not resist one more piste. And it turned out to be a beauty, [MA2; now also sealed] a lovely drive not on any map up a long gorge from Aït Herbil via Igmir and through the western Anti Atlas to Tafraoute.
The bash plate was clanking away merrily and at times the 190 was a handful, spitting up rounded stones along some river beds, but it was a perfect finale. Out of Igmir gorge the engine was well and truly cooking. Running with heaters and fan on max, we stopped halfway to cool off and them again on top. I’ve since realised that the rad cap has a habit of somehow undoing itself or blowing off, which can’t help matters.
So, after a fun couple of days exploring the tourist souks of Marrakech, we bombed back up to Ceuta, Spain and home. Mission accomplished.
Test run summary
- The Allisport bashplate clearly was a winner; without it we would have got sumped in the first few days.
- Departure angles were amazingly good too; the rear tow arm spares the bumper and incredibly the exhaust survived. But from the state of the bashplate I think the front could be a bit higher; full thickness spring pads would give another 20mm in height.
- The airbag was great, but does underline the need for an exhaust pipe. A couple of brackets cracked but overall I’m amazed it made it unscathed when you see the state of the floor pan either side.
- Tyres. Well, one puncture right on the tread edge was par for the course. I never really got to experiment with them much at sand pressures. On rocks anything black and round works as along as it lasts.
- Other problems, minor electrics like interior lights not coming on/going off, and since then, other sand/dust related gremlins.
- The overheating on steep hills is a pain. The second fan was not wired in but will clearly be useful.
- And the gearbox? Well, I’ve got used to it now; I was probably just panicking; it could be 236,236 miles old like the rest of the car. For road driving it’ll last a few more years.
- Some sort of drive axle brakes or LSD may be worth investigating…
- Other than that, engine still rattles along as fast, quietly and efficiently as you like.
Apart from the inconvenience and expense, I did not regret dumping the 190 a few weeks ago in Croatia and now, with the luxury of hindsight I can make some preternaturally wise observations on Project One Niner Zero.
The plan was at least, interesting: to try something different. The whole 2WD v 4×4 motivation was worthwhile, and the car scrapped through its task in collecting both routes and first-hand 2WD experiences in the Sahara. But, assuming mine was normal, I would not buy another 190 2.5D: too slow, that fore-aft wobble, dodgy electrics (like wipers coming on with the lights), doesn’t steer that nicely (even before springs), and actually 800 quid was a lot for an 18-year-old car with 230,000 miles.
I still feel all my mods were in the ballpark, though they may appear excessive as I had plans for a few more Sahara trips, not one and a half. Preventative maintenance? Well I could have done more, but where do you start with an old car? The whole point is to run it till it drops and that box has been ticked. Nevertheless, for a single trip with less expense:
• Bashplate: essential – and the fuel line protection was useful too
• Bigger tyres: not really necessary (but of course good/new tyres are)
• Suspension: I would just fit the thickest spring pad, and maybe new springs and not bother with shocks or longer/harder springs. Let the bash do its work.
That said, the firm springs and bigger tyres did all add up to great angles on the dirt. The gearbox was still going OK 15,000 miles later (but maybe could not hack another Sahara trip). As for the steep hill overheating, I was a bit lazy and didn’t really look into it apart from the obvious things.
When we took the Merc to Croatia with our two kayaks I had an idea it might not make it, but I usually think that with my cars. Sure enough, it started overheating up steep hills and the bigger alpine passes took a few cooling stops to get over. At the top of one, we packed the rad with snow (above) and refilled the spare bottles from a stream. Pulling away for the downhill stretch I thought the steering was a bit stiff; maybe just low revs with the steering pump? But half an hour later, having whizzed through a stack of hairy hairpins, the front wheel half broke off…
Turned out the worn steering knuckle had had popped out. We deliberated over dumping it, but that would cost dearly in tidy Switz, so the new part arrived at the village next day and we carried on. Now running the engine on new gearbox oil (the mechanic had to be restrained at the very idea! He thought the car was a rusty abomination), the passes where crawled over in one go, though still inching into the red and with heater fans on stun. Then in Italy the alternator went, the fan could not blow, the windows or indicators would not work. Mulling it over on the autostrada and through Slovenia, unsure what would break next, we decided to try and flog it or just dump it the next time the engine stopped.
Conclusion: As is often the case with old cars, components do not wear evenly as the mileage piles up; engines typically last longest of all and so you think: ‘I’ll fix it as there’s still a bit of life in it’. Now it is clear that the heavy duty and longer springs plus the Morocco trip exacerbated the wear on the aged wishbone knuckle ball joint thing. It may have been a Merc before Mercs lost their build quality in the late 1990s, but it was still a tinny old car with a very high mileage.
As the great bodger-philosopher Mercitus observed: If you buy your gran some trainers and a tracksuit and take her on a triathlon – don’t be surprised if she has a fatal heart attack.
March 2009. After the 190 went I ran an Audi 80 tdi for a couple of years; a much better-built machine for a similar price. Now, if I go back in a desert 2WD I’d get a French hatchback like a Twingo or an airey C15-D, or a Micra or an Audi Allrad if I’m having a good year.