“Every time get into the car it gives me an emotion that’ hard to articulate,” says Dean, the owner of the ex-Senna car. “I look at it as the greatgrandfather of the modern-day C63 and try to drive it as much as can. It’ reliable and easy to maintain. bought it from the UK in 2004 and part of the entry requirement was the removal of the air-conditioning. Back in the day, the gas in these cars wasn’ very environmentally friendly.”
Going into the Nurburgring-spec race, Senna’ fledgling F1 career gave little hint as to what was to come. He’ retired the Toleman in Brazil, come sixth at Kyalami and Spa and then hadn’ qualified for Imola. But after the 190E 2.3-16 race in Germany, he believed. After the podium, Senna said of his victory: “Now I know can do it.”
self-levelling suspension, an aerodynamically stable body and a Getrag 265 five-speed ‘box (much the same unit as found in the E30 M3) backed up with a 32-percent limited-slip differential. Despite its relatively short gearing, refinement was excellent, especially for a car that weighed just 1260kg, 70-litre homologation fuel tank notwithstanding. Anti-roll bars and bushes were beefed up, control arms reinforced, and springs, dampers, steering knuckles and wheel hubs all uprated. The recirculating ball steering system was also quickened to three turns lock-to-lock.
Ride quality was firmish for the time, but would be described as languid today. The suspension system coped with a full load of passengers extremely well, although the standard Pirelli 205/55 VR15 tyres were somewhat noisy and hardly the last word in lateral adhesion. Peak power arrived at 6200rpm and the fuel cut appeared at 7100rpm, but that gives little indication to the remarkable character of this engine. You’re probably used to a torque plateau. The 190E 2.3-16 has a power plateau that hardly deviates from the horizontal all the way from 5500rpm to the redline. That’s what makes it so easy to keep on the boil and why the 2.3-16 carries speed so fluidly on a cross-country route.
It’s not concussively quick off the line, Wheels’ test seeing it stop the clock to 100km/h at 8.2sec versus 6.6sec for the M5, 6.7sec for the Sierra RS Cosworth and 7.8sec for the lazy Calais. The factory claimed a 7.5sec figure. The engine’s top-end malleability and the well-telegraphed transitions from understeer through neutrality to mild oversteer nevertheless endow enormous confidence. It’s both lighter and less spiky than an early E30 M3 and – even to this unashamed M car enthusiast – probably makes a more satisfying road car.
The cabin still feels beautifully overengineered and generally well packaged, although the Zebrano wood and massive non-adjustable steering wheel speak of a certain mid-’80s zeitgeist. The trim is hardwearing and the quality of the thing is impressive. Beneath the floor mats is thick carpet held by snaps to a false floor that’s drilled for lightness. Beneath that is a network of intricate conduits that house the hoses, wiring and, below that, the asphalt-coated steel floorpan. Ironically, it’s this outdated overcommitment to build integrity that makes the 190E feel so modern. Unlike most 1980s cars, the doors thunk shut and there are few squeaks and rattles.
Rust can be an issue under the rear seats, interior plastics can fade and crack with UV exposure, tired rubber seals and bushings can be costly to replace and repairing niggly electrics can be hellishly expensive. The chaindriven engine is a tough unit, although fuel pumps soon fail if the car is left dry. The wiper arm needs frequent regreasing, the air-con can be flaky, OE distributor rotor arms are fragile, and the simplex cam chain is a 70,000 mile (112,000km) replacement which will be costly. You’ll also need to check that the car isn’t a US market edition, as these featured a lower compression ratio and only 125kW as a result.
Values are only going one way, even though Mercedes built a lot of 190E 2.3-16s. Despite being overshadowed by the lairier E30 M3 back in the day, hindsight and a couple of decades’ worth of reflection allows us to appreciate the 2.3-16’s merits a little more clearly. This particular car is especially poignant. It’s 25 years since Ayrton Senna’s fatal crash at Imola, and while we may well go back and forth on the Brazilian’s place in F1’s canon, we’re not about to fault his choice in cars. Never meet your heroes, they say. Rubbish. They’re heroes for very good reasons.