Thirty years ago, Merc took three identical 190 E 2.3-16s to the small Italian town of Nardo, set up shop on the 12.6km circular test track - yes, the one visible from space - and proceeded to take man, moustache and Merc into unknown territory. It was the greatest endurance run in history.
For 201 hours, 39 minutes and 43 seconds, the cars - virtually standard production 190 E 2.3-16s barring a few modifications - covered a distance of 50,000km non-stop, pausing only for small maintenance stops and, we imagine, the occasional moustache comb. For 201 hours these hardy Germans averaged an astonishing top speed of 155mph (250km/h), and broke twelve records in total: three world records for distances of 25,000km, 25,000 miles and 50,000km, and nine more records in its class.
And these records remain intact to this day, proving beyond doubt that Merc’s little 2.3-litre four-pot engine in the 190 E so beloved of James May (remember the budget sports saloon episode?) was a trusty, hardy unit.
Don’t forget, this was actually a very important little car. It was the first time the brand renowned for its Big Luxury Cars had entered the small saloon segment in the modern era, plunging MB into direct competition with arch-rival BMW and its uber-cool E21 3-Series.
So at the 190 they threw lots of technology and innovation, and crossed their German fingers for the best. This being a Mercedes, though, meant while it was the smallest car they’d produced for a long, long time (there were a couple of compact concepts in the ‘50s and the 1894 Benz ‘Velo’), it still had to feel like a Benz; safe, reliable, brimmed with tech and good to punt around in.
The 190 got a new patented multilink rear suspension setup - in which each wheel is supported by five independent links - that later underpinned a lot of Merc’s bigger cars too. Safe to say they were happy with that one. It was also as safe as the S-Class of its day, too, thanks to the forked-beam structure in the front section of the car that met some rather strict passive safety regulations.
And here’s why it matters. The 190 kick-started the C-Class story: its successor, 1993’s ‘W202’ saloon, was the first to get the C-badge. And seeing as we’ve driven the new Mercedes C-Class, we thought we’d offer you a brief history of compact Benzes. Warning: contains much AMG…