One of the most handsome homologation specials is now also one of the priciest
By Mike Duff / Tuesday, December 8, 2020
Those of you with long memories or the ability to use Google are likely to realise quickly that we've been here before. We gave a 190E Evo 2 the honour of becoming a PH Hero when the format still smelled of fresh paint back in 2011. Yet enough has changed in the intervening nine years to justify a second go, especially one that involves the chance to drive it on track.
The big difference between Dan's story and this is one is the bit that starts with £. Back in 2011 it was possible to an acceptable example of one of the 502 factory built Evo IIs for under £40,000, and a really good one for around £70,000. That seemed fairly ridiculous at the time: an E30 M3 was around £25,000 and a regular 2.5-16 Merc less than half that. Yet hindsight has proved the Evo II was just sitting on the launch pad.
By 2015 Evo IIs had broken into six figures – with one selling at that year's Silverstone Classic auction for £100,600. The rise continued, and although the few dealer adverts out there are now mostly POA we can see that auction values still haven't peaked. At this year's Silverstone Classic sale in August somebody paid £180,000 for one. Which looks cheap compared to the $434,000 a 7000km ex-Japanese car made at Scottsdale back in January – that was the equivalent £333,500. A third of a million quid, for the ultra version of car that Mercedes built over 1.8 million of.
So the most significant change between now and then is the Evo II's ascent to the unobtanium stratosphere. In 2011 it was a car that at least some owners were likely to still use regularly and enthusiastically. Now it's become one of the geegaws that collectors and speculators fight over and sell to each other. Actual use risks damaging condition and provenance. So fewer and fewer are likely to be driven at more than the modest speeds necessary to capture crisp auction brochure images.
Which is where Mercedes Benz Classic steps in. Daimler has long taken its history more seriously than any other manufacturer, with its 1,300 car Classic collection containing at least one example of nearly everything it has produced, and multiples of the more desirable or interesting cars. Many of these are kept in deep storage, some are exhibited in the corporate museum or elsewhere. And a few are kept driveable for special events.
One of these was organised at the company's vast Immengdingen test track in September. The idea was a condensed history lesson, with lucky attendees getting to experience everything from an exact replica of the original Benz Patent Motor Wagen up to some cars still in production, intermediate highlights including SL Gullwing and Roadster, a C111 prototype, a 300E "Hammer" saloon and even a 600 Pullman limousine. But the stand-out star for me was the Evo II you see here, with the chance to press it pretty hard around Immendingen's twisty handling track.
I've got some skin in the game here, being the owner of a considerably less pristine (and much less valuable) regular 2.5-16. I've also been lucky enough to drive Evo IIs on road before, including this very car. But this is the first time I've got to experience one on a circuit, although with a mechanic riding as chaperone to make sure I don't get too frisky in what must now be one of the most valuable cars in the MB Classic collection.
The 16 Valve 190E become a hugely successful race car, but the project got off to an inauspicious start. Mercedes had commissioned Cosworth to engineer and build a twin cam cylinder head with rallying in mind, something the arrival of the Audi Quattro and the WRC's all-wheel drive era effectively stymied. So the 16-Valve was sent racing instead.
The baby Benz was soon thrown into the early days of DTM, which turned out to be a seriously hot crucible. Big budgets and technical development meant manufacturers required deep pockets to get near the front, with the regulations allowing for evolved cars to be built from an original to homologate spicier set-ups.
The road-going 16-Valve moved onto the later 2.5-litre engine, yet this wasn't enough to get to the sharp end. So in 1989 an Evolution road car was created with 16 inch wheels, a bigger rear wing and upgraded brakes. Results improved, but not enough, so Merc pulled out the remaining stops and set to build a more aggressive Evo II the following year. This got 17 inch wheels, an even bigger rear spoiler and a factory applied bodykit to cover a track extension. Klaus Ludwig was runner-up in the 1991 DTM in one, and then dominated the following season. Overall the 190E won 16 out of 24 races and took 1-2-3-5-6 in the driver's championship, Ludwig leading home the pack. (And also sporting what must have been one of the finest mullets in motorsport.)
The man who finished third in 1992, Bernd Schneider, is also at Immendingen to guide people around the track in the quicker stuff. And in a brief gap in the relentless schedule I grab him to ask some questions about the all-conquering 190E. They turn out to be those of mild disappointment.
"I'd come from Formula 1 and then I'd been a Porsche factory driver in the 962 – which had 700hp in the races and up to 1000hp in qualifying," he remembers, "when I joined DTM in 1991 and replaced Michael Schumacher I was used to much more horsepower. The car was not as fast as I was expecting, and it was really hard to be competitive – to be honest I was really looking forward to the C-Class and more power."
Which is a useful reminder that the cars history looks back most fondly on weren't always loved in period. Yet it's not hard to see why the road-going Evo II eventually turned into such an icon; the regular 16-Valver is a handsome car, but the combination of the vast rear wing and pumped-up bodykit add to the sense of theatre without bringing any the stuck-on try hardness that normally comes with big bodykits. The immaculate blue-black paintwork – the only factory order colour – looks amazing in the German sunshine, too.
Once inside, pretty much everything is the same as the regular 2.5-16. I'm looking at the same instruments, with supplementary oil temperature and battery condition dials tucked below the period Becker audio system along with a digital lap timer. The Evo II uses chequered cloth seats and manual adjustment – my car has the posher combination of leather and electric operation – but barring the subtle 222/500 number on the gearlever and the fact the rev counter doesn't start to turn red until 7600rpm, it feels identical.
Firing the Evo II up reveals the difference. Despite being carefully warmed through it has the same rattly top-end as its lesser siblings at idle, but revs turn it good and then make it much better. Pretty much everything else that Mercedes made during this period was designed for low-effort big-torque progress, but the 16 Valve remains a proper screamer. Despite being used to a slightly less top-endy version of the same car it's one I find I have to build up to, instinctively changing up a fair bit below the redline. It's soon clear that my passenger seat partner has no objections to me using all the revs.
It sounds great, but it's not very fast. The Evos got a shorter-stroke, bigger bore engine that maintained capacity but which was meant to be more tunable in race-going guise; there was also an optional power pack which swapped the camshafts and brought a bigger throttle body. But even ticking that box only took the output to 231hp, in a car that weighs 1340kg – so not a fair bit adrift of the power-to-weight of even a fairly tepid modern hot hatch.
Does this matter? In isolation, no – the rest of the driving experience is involving enough there's rarely any sense that the modest straights of the 2.9 mile handling circuit are taking a bit longer to get down than they would in something more potent and there's definitely enough urge to wake the chassis up in slower turns. Steering doesn't have the crisp feedback of contemporaries like the E30 M3, but you actually get used to the more muted messages that come through the recirculating ball box quickly.
The responsive throttle and a nicely balanced levels of adhesion front and rear – there's definitely more grip overall than in my car – make it easy to trim and widen the cornering line without pushing into hoonery, although after my first lap the light to show activation of the ASD auto-locking differential is coming on in most of the tighter bends. It's only after a couple of biggish stops and start to feel the middle pedal softening I discover why I'm carrying the chaperone, whose job is to police cautious braking points to help preserve the pads. Brakes are definitely where 'eighties and 'nineties stuff feels oldest on a track.
There are only really two other noticeable issues. The first is with the need to readjust to a dog-leg gearchange while driving on the left; strangely the back-for-first thing doesn't seem to translate when changing hands and I have to recommit the whole thing to muscle memory. The second is with the poor lateral grip offered by the gently bolstered seats and the inability to move the steering wheel closer. Even braced against the footwell I'm soon discovering that a surprising amount of physical effort is required to stop from sliding under cornering loads.
Later on I got to drive the CLK DTM, SLS Black Series and AMG GT R around the same track. All were much faster and lairier, much better at spiking heartrate and triggering adrenaline. But none were more memorable than the Evo II was. The ultimate 190E wasn't an outstanding performance car in its own right. Even when it was new it was possible to buy quicker saloons. The line that connects it and its hugely successful motorsport sister is about as short as it can be in the realm of homologation specials. That's what makes it truly great. Would I buy one for £180,000? Of course not. But I wish I'd nabbed one in the recent past when they were a fifth of that.
SPECIFICATION | MERCEDES 190E 2.5-16 EVO II
Engine: 2.5-litre inline four
Transmission: Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power: 231hp at 7200rpm
Torque: 181lb ft at 5000rpm
Top speed: 155mph
On sale: 1990
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