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20 Years of Deferred Maintenance: 1997 C36 AMG


Consider what you would expect out of a two owner 1997 C36 AMG showing eighty-five thousand miles and no accidents. What if this C36 had spent its 23-year life span moving between garages in Florida and Georgia? What if you knew for a fact there wasn’t a single spot of rust plaguing this car and to top it off you discovered this surviving C36 AMG hiding on Craigslist listed for a fraction of its true value? Any reasonable enthusiast would jump at the chance to buy this car and that’s exactly what I did when I found the listing for this seemingly perfect C36 AMG.

Call and I will tell you everything”- that was the entirety of the Craigslist post. Accompanied by 15 photos (including a photo of the odometer displaying just over 85k miles), the listing was just thorough enough to give a VIN and phone number to call and attempt to get a full story on this perfect C36. After a fairly long-winded conversation, I learned several interesting facts about the car. First, it was originally sold in Palm Beach to a woman from Atlanta where it lived for more than 15 years. (There was something alluring about bringing this car full circle back to Atlanta.) Next and less alluring, the car barely had any maintenance history, including a 10 year gap on oil changes alone. Finally, after nearly an hour of questions and stories leading me to discover a total absence of records since 2001, I learned I was second in line if I still wanted the car; arguably this made me want it more. The caller first in line was pulling into the driveway to take a look at it as we spoke and of course I’d get a phone call back if they ended up leaving without it. While waiting on anyb news, good or bad, I had time to run a carfax, VIN breakdown, and address check (I always do my homework on the seller if I’m buying sight-unseen.) I quickly organized all the information I had gathered into lists. The owner told me he suspected the AC compressor would need replacing and the car could use a good detail; easy enough for me. Maybe an hour passed and sure enough, I got the call back. The first caller hesitated after hearing the noise of a failing compressor under the hood. It was on me to make a quick decision knowing there must have been another 10 callers behind me. Within an hour I was at the bank sending a wire and arranging transport. 

Four days later, on a foggy Sunday morning, the C36 was backed out of a trailer in front of my condo in Atlanta. I met the driver as he opened the trailer doors and I hoped to see a babied C36 AMG ready for its first cars and coffee.

I climbed into the driver's seat and instead of the two-tone AMG steering wheel all I could look at was the disheartening glow of orange lights across the gauge cluster. A check engine light, an ASR light, and a bulb-out light. I immediately recommitted my morning to examining every square inch of this C36 that was supposedly in great shape save for two paint chips and a close-to-death AC compressor. Within an hour, the list of items needing addressed grew exponentially and included more than a dozen small dings and dents across the body making the car look like it lost a boxing match. Every part under the hood and body seemed to be original, indicating the bare minimum of required maintenance was performed to keep this car on the road. The saving grace was the remarkably well preserved condition of the interior; the leather, wood, carpet, and trim. All of this reassured me the C36 could still be saved for it’s low mileage and encouraged me to push through and bring the car back to life.

The first round of service was to ensure the C36 would be roadworthy- no reason in fixing the cosmetics if the car can’t make it out of the garage. I went into this round with open eyes and a cautious check book expecting a thorough list of parts at the brink of failure. What I didn’t expect was just how many parts had already failed. Once under the car we discovered a full suspension overhaul was overdue. Shocks(of course), followed by ball joints, tie rod assembly and center link, lower control arm bushings, and idler arm bushing- ok that explained why the car felt more like a wandering house boat.

Next up on the list was the cooling system. The C36 couldn’t stay cool to save its life, even on a 50 degree day. Of course there was a simple enough explanation, the water pump and thermostat needed replaced-straightforward enough but quickly added to the bottom line. The list went on to include coil packs, plug wires, shocks, major seals, and miscellaneous rubber bits throughout the car that had hardened and cracked over twenty years. Last but not least a full transmission service was included in this round along with engine and transmission mounts. On the drive home, I was contemplating whether or not spending more money on parts than I had on the car was a good idea until I planted my foot on the accelerator. With a little help from the wound-out 276 horsepower M104, I knew I was on the right track. 

Despite having the car back from the first round of maintenance for less than two weeks, I was anxious to start the second round on cosmetic repairs. Predictably it was easy finding most of the miscellaneous pieces on various classifieds sites and online auctions, almost two million W202’s were produced from 1993 to 2000 and many parts were shared across models and variants. A few bits proved to be much more difficult and were considered "unobtanium" on forums. The pieces included the small one-piece AMG badge for the bottom of the bumper, the AMG specific bumper inserts (some refer to them as tow hook covers), and although I had the original floor mats, they were very worn and frayed in places, I decided to see if I could find a preserved set. The first part in question was the elusive AMG bumper badge. I tried reaching out to parts collectors and dealers across North America and Europe. The dealers said they showed Mercedes inventory had dried up long ago. Parts resellers wanted hundreds of dollars for bent or scuffed badges.

Through the help of a good friend in Atlanta, I learned a secret I wish I had known years prior. Mercedes-Benz still keeps a lot of these rare parts in stock but the right channels have to be taken to see and access this inventory. Within a week we had a new badge from Mercedes and a couple spares all wrapped in OEM parts bags. This method proved to work a second time with the AMG bumper inserts as well, another week passed and we had an unpainted insert directly from Mercedes. Unfortunately the third try isn’t always the charm but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. A friend in Canada was able to locate and ship a full set of new-in-box floor mats with the C36 AMG logo embroidered. 

Finally, with the light at the end of the tunnel visible, wheels and tires completed my list. With most AMG’s from this era, the AMG Monoblock II wheel completes the look of the car and often these wheels need refinished or replaced after a decade or more of use. My factory 17" Monoblocks were no exception, showing flaking clear coat and light scuffs across the machined lips. While many shops claim to do this correctly, many will paint the lips of the wheels in place of turning them to expose a fresh layer of aluminum. Although this may look acceptable to the untrained eye, there’s a big difference when comparing back to back. Also make sure to ask about preparation before starting the process. The exposed aluminum on the lips takes a little more prep to ensure clear coat will adhere to the exposed metal but it’s well worth the effort and the potential headache to ensure a showroom finish. The tires were the easiest choice, I always choose Pilot Sports for GT use like this car will see, they're great in town but really shine on highways and back roads.

Altogether I'm glad I was able to find a 1997 C36, this year model was at the top of my list for the updates and 5-speed transmission. Although I’ve owned my C36 for three months, I’ve logged only a few hundred miles on the road and spent more than twice the purchase price on parts and maintenance. In exchange my patience has afforded me the opportunity to ensure my 1997 C36 is one of the nicest examples on the road and will remain so for years to come. I’m looking forward to enjoying the car thoroughly through the coming Summer and Fall months on winding mountain roads in the Appalachians.

-Ben Everest, The MB Market



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