Seeing a Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16V Cosworth is a rare sight in the US. This one is even more special as it was the first-ever imported to the States.
To clarify, we don’t mean this is just one of the first examples of W201 190E Cosworth chassis imported to the USA. We mean this is number one of what was sent here from Germany - the very first car on American soil. According to owner Arman Mariano, his 1986 190E 2.3-16V Cosworth comes with some additional pedigree. “My 190E Cosworth is actually the first 190E Cosworth to be imported into the US from Germany, and was the very first test car they used in Chicago for Car and Driver Magazine,” Arman said while showing us the March of 1986 copy of Car and Driver. In it, we see images of Arman’s W201 being used as the official test car and a glimpse of what they thought about it when it was new.
What makes this car special, besides the Cosworth attachment? This car was developed far before AMG started working officially with Mercedes-Benz and was still a private tuning house. In fact, the only work AMG even did back then was customization and tuning on private customer-owned Mercedes-Benz vehicles. AMG didn’t have any say in the development of the 190E in racing until much later. Instead, Mercedes-Benz looked towards another brand for engine development – the legendary Cosworth in England. They would develop the engine to be used in the W201 alongside Mercedes.
At the time, Mercedes was looking to go rally racing and were going to use the 190E as their rally car. The car’s chassis and Cosworth-built engine were fully developed, and they were about to enter until a certain make with four rings entered the scene. When Audi came out with the turbocharged and all-wheel-drive Quattro competition car, Mercedes decided to change their plans for the W201. Mercedes still wanted to race the 190E, so the car was slated to run in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft Series, with production variants created to satisfy the homologation rules of the German DTM touring car series.
Despite being a racing special, the 190E 2.3-16V Cosworth wasn’t spartan as it had a nicely optioned interior. Arman, being a Mercedes-Benz technician that works for the Mercedes West Coast corporate headquarters, knows the importance of this car and its history. “It was important for me to keep the car as original as possible and upgrade or maintain parts along the way,” he explained. So, the only change to the interior has been the Momo steering wheel and a Sony head unit.
You can also spot another rarity in that this 190E Cosworth also has a Getrag dogleg manual transmission car. Most of the ones you do find in the US are automatics.
The front seats are a set of the original leather Recaro seats, which have been painstakingly taken care of. It’s not unusual to find these seats torn at the seat bottom and back where the driver slides into and out of them, but Arman’s seats were well taken care of, and look wonderful as a result. Used and visibly aged, but an aging that only good leather can show.
For the rear passengers, they are not treated to a bench seat like the standard 190E. The W201 Cosworth has true rear buckets that are designed to hold the rear passengers tight on corners just like the front passengers.
The wheels, tires, and ride height have all been changed to parts that are period-correct. The drop is modest but keeps its racing heritage in mind by using Bilstein shocks front and rear. The wheels are a set of BBS RS 098 wrapped in Falken tires. The only other addition has been a pair of E320 front calipers and cross drilled rotors to this W201, but again is a performance upgrade as well as a period-correct one.
If you look closely at the headlights, you'll notice they aren’t the US versions either. At the time when the 190E Cosworth came to the US, US DOT regulations had still been very far behind Europe’s in terms of headlight technology. We still required the use of sealed-beam halogen lights. Europe, however, allowed the use of more aerodynamic housings and H4 bulbs.
So, if you have a US 190E – even a standard one and not just the Cosworth – a Bosch Euro housing is a drastic step forward in forward lighting. The options available with an H4 bulb size give you far brighter bulb choices than the sealed beam light, as well as having better lens optics and diffraction pattern. They also look so much better than the US light setup.
In the rear, the taillights have also been changed out to match their front Euro headlights. Again, a case of US DOT regulations - the US taillights look similar, except they have red reflectors in the outside corners. In Europe, a separate amber signal is used, which you can see on the extreme ends of these Euro 190E taillights.
Under the hood, you get to see what makes this 190E different from all the other W201 chassis out there. This is the M102.983, a 2.3-liter, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine that Mercedes-Benz developed in conjunction with Cosworth. It starts as an M102.985, the standard engine attached to the 190E and most of the rotating assembly remains the same. The changes come from pistons and rings that were swapped out in favor of lighter versions that could withstand high-RPM. Despite the new pistons, it retained the same displacement but had a very different head topping the block.
The head was specifically designed and cast by Cosworth using their Coscast casting process for the super-lightweight alloy. It was also changed from the M102.985’s eight-valve design to a 16-valve. The four valves per cylinder were the largest the bore could accept without major changes to the block according to an engineer who spoke with Autocar Magazine in August of 1985.
This engine was actually a detune of the full racing engine in Europe. However, the US engine was further depowered by a drop in compression. So, instead of the nearly 200-horsepower, 10.5:1 compression ratio engines that Euro versions of the 190E Cosworth got, ours were only about 170-horsepower thanks to using a 9.7:1 ratio. Other than the K&N drop-in filter, Arman’s engine hasn’t been changed. That awesome tubular exhaust manifold is actually stock for the Cosworth M102.983, in case you were curious.
Out of the header, the spent exhaust gas exits out of a Sebring dual-tip exhaust system perched tightly under the rear bumper. While it gains a tiny bit in performance, it excels more at creating a better sound - one that is worthy of the Cosworth name.
“One of the high points of having this car is the memories and friends I’ve made through the years,” says Arman, “I meet people who understand and appreciate the rarity of this vehicle and the people in the 190E community who are willing to give advice and help locate rare parts for these cars.”
“Like I said, this car is rare and there are only a handful of individuals who know how to work with it. Most younger car enthusiasts don’t know about this car,” Arman added. This being said, he’s always willing to talk to anyone who wants to know more about this special 190E Cosworth, its ties to DTM, and the history of the car.
The typical idea of a racing Mercedes will usually bring images of big displacement engines or AMG-badged vehicles. However, the 190E 2.3-16V Cosworth was the car that brought many into the fold of Mercedes or even the DTM series. This 2.3-liter, four-cylinder W201 set the bar for fans and racers alike. This is a bar that many would say hasn’t been equaled since this car originally hit our shores in 1986.
If you’ve never known Mercedes’ racing history in the DTM in the late 1980s and early 1990s, find yourself a 190E 2.3-16V Cosworth or someone like Arman who owns one. You’ll be kicking yourself for not doing it sooner but you’ll quickly learn why this era was more special than it’s given credit for.
Story by Justin Banner
Photos by Antonio Alvendia
If you like this Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16V Cosworth, you can find additional Mercedes-Benz content at mercedes.fcpeuro.com, as well as more build features like this one here. If there's anything specific you would like to see, or if you have any questions/comments, leave them in the comments section below.
Antonio Alvendia is an aficionado of cameras, rare wheels, hip hop, and obscure aftermarket car accessories. He bought his first E39 Touring after seeing M5 Estates on photo trips to Europe, and now has sights set on restoring a classic Mercedes. Antonio was a principal photographer on the limited edition hardcover book on Singer Vehicle Design's Porsche 911 builds, entitled One More Than Ten. Future goals include returning to the Nurburgring to shoot the N24 race and driving the Nordschleife again. ••• Instagram : @MOTORMAVENS