A Mercedes-Benz Odyssey Spanning Continents And Decades Led To This 190E Evolution
Photography by The Charis Culture
To many enthusiasts these modest sedans have yet to earn historic status, while the rest of the population is likely to look at one and call it “old.” The Mercedes-Benz 190E is one of those aging cars that used to be everywhere and still kind of is; you can find them parallel parked in the damp alleys of Berlin, shedding clear coat under the Florida sun, or in parts-car form in the corner of just about any European indy mechanic shop.
Coming across an original Baby Benz in the wild in 2018 is easy, but the ones that present themselves often leave much to be desired and a lot of plastic panels to be realigned. The typical example of a W201 chassis is in stark need of paint, missing at least one piece of body moulding, packing a few hundred thousand miles on original internals, and just looks tired sitting there on its sagging multilink suspension, but a 190E in such a state only looks like a piece of junk because it isn’t. The timeline of useful life is stretched out for these cars, and they’re cheaper to own and repair than the Mercedes stereotype gives them credit for, so they tend to stick around, accumulating signs of use and age. Yes, these signs are blemishes—surely some cars wear patina better than others, and those from the 1980s rank low on that totem—but they’re also evidence of the robust engineering that’s allowed the odometer to turn over so many times.
Mario Puente’s 190E has no such scars though (the plastic and metal have equivalent shine) and you aren’t likely to line up with this particular model at the stoplight, seeing as Mercedes-Benz only sold 502 of them to the public. A bonafide homologation special that was built to defeat its Bavarian rivals during the most competitive period ever seen in the DTM, the 190E Evolution is a significant piece of Mercedes-Benz motorsport lore. In Mario’s case it’s also the culmination of decades of personal history with the marque.
This Evolution is a more recent addition to Mario’s collection in Florida, but he was just an eight-year-old boy living in Ecuador when he fell in love with the 190E. First contact came by way of a humble 2.0 model—nothing special—but the narrow profile and the aerodynamically intriguing shape of the trunk caught his attention and “kept him up at night.” Most youngsters build an affinity for big wings and low-slung coupe shapes when they discover their budding interest in cars, but Mario was infatuated by the backend of an objectively un-flashy car with room for four—a Mercedes man in the making.
Skip ahead a few years and we find Mario in front of his parents’ TV with eyes glued to a flurry of colorful racing cars banging doors and hopping curbs. It was the 1980s, and the curved screen of the TV was showing a DTM race weekend in Germany. Seeing the 190E in full racing specification with its flared fenders barely containing their slick rubber tenants was a galvanizing moment: the 2.3-16v race cars were the coolest damned things he’d ever seen. His adolescent mind was made up.
To really get a grasp on Mario’s relationship with Mercedes-Benz though we need to go back further. Mom worked at the local dealership in Quito and Dad was dating her at the time by way of a frequently “borrowed” Fintail. It was in that car that the young couple was cut off by, and then squeezed underneath, a dump truck. The car was totaled, mangled, but its occupants were able to walk away from the accident and the baby boy remained safe and sound in his pregnant mother. Mario says he practically owes his life to a Mercedes-Benz: first for the means to bring his parents together, and then for keeping them around long enough to bring him into this world.
That’s a pretty good argument for being brand loyal, and Mario’s tally of eighteen three-pointed stars in his ownership history speaks to the notion. The pre-merger AMG 560SEC widebody that he recently passed on to a new owner is one of the more memorable as of late, but none have received the attention that his first did. It was a 1981 W123, a China Blue 200 model that his parents bought for the family and then passed down to Mario when he began studying for his civil engineering degree. He loved it, washed it every day before class, and woke up at five in the morning to do so. It might have been given to him by his parents, but he wasn’t about to take it for granted.
He received the car in 1995, enjoyed it thoroughly while he studied, took excellent care of it, but then had to reassess his situation when the country’s economy took a severe slide a few years later and prompted a bank-run level of urgency among its populace. Mario’s parents urged him to leave the country and pursue brighter prospects for an educated person in America, so with a plane ticket to Miami and $4,000 in his pocket he went to the airport. The W123, affectionately referred to as Baby Blue, was the last thing Mario saw as he left his home behind—his parents had parked it at the end of the runway.
His father was forced to sell Baby Blue to provide for his family in Ecuador, but years later Mario tracked it down and bought it back, spending tens of thousands in the process of transportation and restoration. That’s a different story though, and the car we’re focussing on has its own context. Nearly 30 years after watching that formative DTM race, Mario was able to purchase a Cosworth Benz of his own. That 2.3-16v was one of many 190Es that would follow, but before going down Mario’s road to the Evolution it makes sense to summarize how it came to be at all.
Though hundreds of millions of Deutsch Marks went into its development program in the 1970s, the basic W201 platform on which the Evolution was based was never purposely designed for competition. It was engineered and then re-engineered and the over-engineered however, resulting in a exotic-for-a-car-of-this-shape suspension geometry that the company later figured it could leverage for its new rally cars. So the big R107 coupes being flung around dirt and tarmac stages from New Zealand to the Ivory Coast were set to be replaced by the 190E soon after the sedan’s market debut in 1982, and Cosworth was tapped to transform the M102 inline-four into a 300-plus-horsepower shrieker.
The formula looked good on paper, but then Audi showed up with two more drive wheels and cars like the 190E were quickly antiquated and inadequate. The rally project was abandoned, but a touring car series called the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft started becoming popular at the time, and in it Mercedes saw an opportunity to compete with their new car in front of a massive German and international audience against countrymen from BMW and other factory-backed efforts. The Evolution and later Evolution II models were produced in pursuit of this championship, and in order to homologate the special equipment for the racing versions the road cars came with some pretty trick kit too. The first Evolution got wider arches, a deeper front air dam, a larger rear wing, cockpit-adjustable suspension, a reworked engine (output was just about identical to the 2.5-16v, but the Evolution’s had a different bore and stroke to optimize power delivery in competitive environments), larger wheels, better brakes, and that was just compared to range-topping 2.5-16v it was based on. Line one of these up to a bare-bones diesel 190D and you’ll find only the basic shape is shared.
Only 502 Evolutions and 502 Evolution IIs were built, so it goes without saying they aren’t easy to find. Mario started his 190E Cosworth journey with an earlier and still relatively rare 2.3-16v model, a car which he says was very instructive regarding the restoration process. He set about bringing that car back to its stock configuration with the correct parts before he sold it, moved onto another one, sold that one, bought a third, then a fourth… You get the idea. Mario now runs his own business as a curator of rare cars with his father (his family now lives with him in the United States), and the experience gained in reviving all those Cosworths was the foundation for it in a lot of ways. And while all that was going on, an ever-watchful eye was scanning for the right Evolution to buy before the prices started to become really prohibitive.
This car, the 297th Evolution built, was sold to a gentleman in 1989 who drove it daily in Germany before he packed up and moved to British Colombia. The car came with him, and racked up 84,000 miles before it was sold to its second owner, a man named Brian who set about restoring the car with his father. The low sedan had sustained some curb marks and other signs of spirited driving, and its mechanical side was getting a bit tired and in-need as well, but the father-son team dove in and started sorting it out again to the tune of many thousands of dollars spent on parts and labor. Before they could get through all of it though, Brian moved to Australia for work and left the car in Canada with his father who would occasionally exercise it around the block before a dead battery relegated the Evolution to seven years of immobility. At this point it sounds like the car could have easily been lost to the world, unintentionally forgotten and left to rot as other parts of life took precedence, but that’s obviously not what happened.
Trawling the classifieds for Evolutions like always, Mario found the ad for #297, an ad devoid of photos and a vague “needs some work.” Not the most promising place to start, and compounded on top of this was the fact that the seller lived in Australia while the Evolution was on the other side of the world in B.C. Much too far for a road trip, and with air travel between Mario’s home in Florida and the warehouse in B.C. requiring at least three transfers, he wasn’t facing the most auspicious situation in the world of car-buying. But, this was the car he’d been in love with since his childhood in Ecuador, and so after months of Skype conversations, much hand-wringing, a sizable wire transfer to Australia, and a few prayers to Baby Jesus, Mario was the proud owner of a 190E Evolution. He just hadn’t seen it yet.
When Mario and his father unloaded it off the truck after patiently waiting for so long they were met with a car that presented just as they expected; mechanically strong but in need of some freshening up. Before the ramps even touched the ground Mario was inside the transporter and all over his new car, broken headlight and all. The fender arches were cracked, the bumper had some nasty plastic damage, the SLS (self-leveling suspension) system needed addressing, and it would overheat a little bit, but otherwise it was a very stout and healthy machine. Early test drives around the block revealed a level of performance separate from and above any Cosworth 190Es he’d owned before, and overall it was a moment of excitement couched in relief. It was no show car, but it was sound.
After exacting and laborious work was carried out on repairing the NLA plastics on the arches and bumper, the paint was given a correction (a few dings were sustained over its life, but no repaint was required which is rare for this color), the rare plaid interior (most were full leather) was treated to a deep cleaning, and it was all buttoned up and ready for shows and track days alike before March. Mario’s only problem then was convincing himself that the beautiful Evolution in the garage was really his.
He’s put the work in to bring the car back to its 1989 glory, but that doesn’t mean it’s been relegated to a life indoors. Mario drives his Evolution. To work, to shows, to and on the track (where he and the perky Cosworth recently deflated a few egos powered by modern V8s), or just to get ice cream with his three-year-old daughter. She doesn’t quite understand the significance of a dogleg shift pattern or appreciate how flat the M102’s torque curve is, but her smile is wide and genuine as she claps her hands and giggles in anticipation of another ride with Dad.
Tuoi, Mario’s wife, prefers cars with a bit more (or any) air-conditioning, cars that are a bit more neutral when it comes to the smell of internal combustion in the fibers of your clothes. Mercedes, Mario’s daughter, is all about the Evo.