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How I turned an old, dumb Mercedes into a smarter car on a budget

Older cars might have more personality than today's shiny, modern vehicles, but they tend to lack the tech we know and love. Here's how to bridge the gap without breaking the bank.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

Being in my early 30s, I don't mind admitting I'm a bit late to the car ownership party. 

In the US, it can be imperative in some locations for teenagers to learn how to drive a car, whether it is to cart themselves to school, work, or to socialize. It's the same in the UK, too, although in some cities, the lack of parking and the abundance of public transport may mean owning your own car is unnecessary. 

Also: I tested this Insta360 car camera mount on a Jaguar XJS, and the results were glorious

According to the UK's Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), the average learner takes 45 hours of professional instruction to learn how to drive. At £35 p/h ($44 p/h), this equates to several thousands of dollars -- and let's not even mention the six-month-long wait for a driving test, of which 57% of applicants fail the first time around. 

It's no wonder that securing a full driving license is a mission and a half in my home country, which many people have labeled a "terrifying" prospect.

In my case, I live in a city still surrounded by defensive walls erected in the Roman era, so parking is at a premium, and the waiting list for a permit is at least a year. As I work from home and everything is within walking distance, there hasn't really been a need for a car.

Also: Driving fast or braking hard? Your connected car may be telling your insurance company

Still, a lack of personal transport has been extremely frustrating. So, I bit the bullet and bought myself a 2007 Mercedes-Benz C class, which despite its age, I have already begun to form a (probably) unhealthy attachment to.

car mercedes benz c class 2007

The Merc is elderly, for sure, but suited my budget and allowed me to avoid financing. However, there's a major problem: I'm a technology journalist who needs gadgets to be happy.

When I first took her out for a spin, an archaic satellite navigation system and a very strange and robotic voice system greeted me. I'm used to Spotify, so the radio system -- despite having grown up with one as a kid in my parents' car backseat -- now seems poor with awful reception. And what even was this handheld console by the driver's seat?

handset console
Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

After examining the manual and spotting a picture of an old Nokia handset, it clicked that you could connect your phone to this handheld to make calls while driving. (As a millennial, I accept being teased over the fact I mulled over possible explanations for days -- and I only came up with that it might be an old Bluetooth receiver.) Unfortunately, I don't think my Samsung Galaxy S23 smartphone fits the bill.

I'm grateful to join the fold of personal vehicle owners, but this won't do. So, I decided to turn my dumb car into something more in tune with 2024 while keeping affordability in mind. I also picked up a few items for convenience and improved safety. Here's how I did it, with links provided to the products I used (or comparable options in the US).

1. Blindspot mirrors

reverse blindspot mirrors
Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

The first thing I purchased after my car, not least in part due to my long-suffering instructor's patience when it came to parallel parking, was this pair of blindspot mirrors

They cost less than $10 for a pair and I can honestly say they are one of my best purchases. They are invaluable if you struggle with reverse maneuvers and can improve your safety by giving you a better field of vision and opening up your blind spot.

However, if you have small mirrors, the size of the blindspot additions can make night driving difficult. If your blindspot mirrors are too large and take up a third or more of the space available, headlight reflections can be tough to handle. 

In other words, they are excellent for day driving and maneuvers, but unless your mirror is large enough, they can be problematic at night. The fact I accidentally dropped and smashed one before setting out on the night drive meant that I could complete the trip -- if they had both been installed, I probably would have had to abandon the drive to the airport because of safety concerns due to headlight dazzle. 

You could consider clip-ons, instead, as I currently am.

2. Satellite navigation 

garmin 55 sat nav
Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

I'll admit -- this came with issues even before my partner and I turned it on. 

In the midst of last-minute packing for a short break away, we decided to take the Garmin DriveSmart 55 satellite navigation system out for a spin. I'd spent a lot of time researching the best sat nav options on the market and I'd selected this one, principally because it has excellent lane change and speed warnings. 

Also: I hiked with Garmin's 'unlimited battery' GPS tracker and it made life so much easier

My lane work could do with some...assistance on unfamiliar roads. And some that are familiar, at that.

However, there was a weakness within the stand, and before we'd even put the sat nav on the dashboard, the holder snapped. We used Waze as a backup and I did pick up a replacement once I'd managed to ping out the faulty part of the ball mount.

That issue aside, this is an excellent sat nav. The directions are clear and concise, the screen is clear and bright, and the driver alerts are really helpful, especially in congested areas with many potential meeting points. Furthermore, the size of the screen makes it a perfect option for smaller dashboards. I'm not sure how many users take advantage of the historical and landmark features, but I suppose they are nice to have on casual drives.

As part of my project to turn my old car into a smarter vehicle, however, there is a downside -- I only have enough dashboard real estate for this or an Android Auto display. Read on to see what I picked. 

3. Expanding the 12v port 

12v car extender
Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Before sat nav systems entered widespread circulation, motorists often ignored the cigarette lighter socket. Now, these sockets -- typically 12v -- can be a valuable and convenient source of power while you're on the road.

You can buy adapters to expand and split them, providing you with additional outlets alongside USB device charging ports. For example, the model I purchased provides me with an extra socket and two USB-C ports for keeping my phone charged while on the road -- although I could also use them for other devices. 

Before you make your own purchase, consider the space at hand and where you want to place the device. To this end, I recommend either this 231W Car Cigarette Lighter Splitter or this LED Car Charging Station.

4. A digital speedometer 

digital speedometer heads up display
Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Given this is a Mercedes, and an older one at that, my car's speed is displayed in kilometers rather than miles per hour. Yes, my car does have a traditional analog speedometer, which shows my speed based on a mechanical magnet and dial, but I prefer digital formats.

Despite the help of a manual, YouTube, and a dealership owner, my car still refuses to move away from km/h, and so I decided to try out a head-mounted digital display. 

As you can see in the image below, taken before mounting, it's an excellent size for smaller dashboards (coming in at around 2.2 inches) in older vehicles. With this particular GPS-based model, you plug it into a 12v port, mount it using the included slip mat, and you're away. There are different settings to try, including km/mph, brake checking, and automatic display light adjustment. 

Regarding accuracy, I would say it works best at city-appropriate speeds but has marginal accuracy issues while you're on high-speed roads. Still, this is one of my favorite purchases so far. It's small, convenient, and will stop me from ending up with speeding tickets until I can fix my main speedometer. 

I recommend this HUD GPS Digital Speed Meter or this Digital OBD2 GPS Speedometer.

5. Easy access to your smartphone

In-car charger attached to a windshield
Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

I elected not to purchase a smartphone holder as I knew I would be trying out smartphone-connected displays instead, but they can be a budget-friendly way to enjoy modern convenience -- even in an old car. 

There are countless smartphone holders on the market -- some are dashboard mounted, others can be affixed to your windshield, and others, such as the Amazon basics universal smartphone holder, can be clipped onto a vent.

Also: This is the ultimate iPhone car charger, and I just fixed its biggest problem

They tend to cost around $15 and attach with clip blades and tightening nuts. Consider one like the ESR HaloLock Dashboard Phone Mount if you want handy access to maps, hands-free calling, music, and more. 

6. Bypass old car stereos

android auto display
Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Eventually, I would like to replace my elderly car stereo with an Android Auto or Apple CarPlay-compatible unit. For now though, I wanted a cheaper alternative. 

There are dongles and adapters that you can pick up cheaply, for well under $50, that provide Android Auto or Apple CarPlay wireless compatibility -- but I was stuck with an old stereo released long before infotainment systems were a thing. 

For now, I've bypassed my stereo unit entirely and I am using a 9-inch Essgoo display. The display is compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Once you've connected it via Bluetooth to your phone, the display leverages your cellular connection and can be used to access apps including Spotify, Google Maps, Apple Maps, calling, and more. 

Also: How Android Auto will use AI to summarize incoming text conversations

It was a coin toss between the Garmin sat nav and a larger Android display, and in the end, I chose the Android display for day-to-day driving. The easy access to my phone's functions was too difficult to resist, and the setup was quick and pain-free. My Garmin sat nav, however, will be coming out for distance driving and as a backup.

I will note, however, that the audio speakers leave something to be desired and the stand included with the display was useless -- the laws of physics ensured there was no way the relatively heavy display would stay in place. So, I did have to opt for the windshield option which has, so far, held on. 

It's still worth it, despite these teething problems.

7. A dash cam

nextbase iq
Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

A dash cam is a handy gadget to have these days, especially when it comes to insurance claims. However, some dash cams offer more features than others.

Also: The best dash cams of 2024: Expert tested

I am currently trying out the Nextbase iQ dashcam, a relatively new entrant to the market. The subscription-based service provides app connectivity, alerts, high-quality streaming, and can connect the dashcam to either a fuse box or an OBD port. I had no idea what an OBD port was before this journey, but with the help of Google, I was able to install it quickly. I like the fact that the kit comes with every form of connector you could want, plus some handy alcohol wipes to prepare your windshield prior to installation.

There's a feature I also like, dubbed witness mode, which you can activate through your voice and the device will start live streaming. Emails can also be sent to emergency contacts.

Also: This is the best car diagnostic tool I've ever used

I will update you once I have completed my review. In the meantime, you can also consider models from Garmin, Nexar, and Vantrue.

8. DIY reverse camera 

autovox solar reverse camera

While this was not a successful venture, as of yet, I think it is worth mentioning should any of our readers want to explore the idea of wireless reverse parking aids.

I purchased an AUTO-VOX reversing camera kit. It's wireless, and while you might need to charge it on occasion, most of the time it relies on solar power. A camera, installed on or near your license plate, connects wirelessly to a small dashboard-mounted display.

I'm currently awaiting the arrival of a magnetic mount to try and solve the installation issue, which has to ship from China. In the meantime, I'm hopeful, considering its positive customer reviews. I will update this guide once I am able to give the installation another shot.

 9. Safe tires

tire tread gauge

For $6, you can easily keep your tires in a safe state -- which is especially important in cold and wet conditions, where balding tires could lead to higher braking distances and give you less control over your vehicle. You can use the tiny, handheld tire tread gauge to measure tire tread and ensure that your measurement is still within safe parameters. I always have one of these stashed in my glovebox.

10. Keeping sunglasses in easy reach

vehicle magnetic sunglasses clip
Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

When I first learned how to drive, the sun was my enemy -- especially in winter, as it took me a while to adjust to the low, bright light. A small, cheap accessory that can make your life easier on the road in these conditions is a sunglasses holder or clip, which can be secured to your front visor. That way, you don't have to fumble around in different compartments.

For less than $10, this sort of accessory can be a valuable addition to your car.

11. Keeping things tidy

car coat bag clips
Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Another small addition to my car, and certainly a useful one in a two-seater, is a set of car seat hooks. You can simply pop them under a headrest to have somewhere to hang your coat, purse, or a rubbish bag. It's such a small accessory -- and costs less than $10 -- but can really help you keep your vehicle tidy, as well as give any long-suffering front passengers extra legroom.

12. An electric lunchbox

ErayLife Electric Lunch Box

While I haven't purchased one for my car, I did buy one as a Christmas present for my partner who is constantly on the road for work.

Electric lunch boxes such as the ErayLife Lunch Box into your vehicle via two different plugs (12V/24V and 110V) and will slowly warm up your food, which can help you avoid the trap of stopping off at service stations while traveling -- saving you money and giving you the chance to have a hot, home-cooked meal on the road. Plug it in for around 20 to 25 minutes before lunch.

Other useful accessories

Here's a selection of other useful accessories that could make your older car smarter -- and driving safer.

What are the most important accessories to make your dumb car smart?

While the answer to this question will depend on your particular wants and needs, I would say that most of us should consider gadgets that make our drive a more enjoyable and convenient experience. 

If you have trouble parking, blindspot mirrors are cheap and can really help you make that parallel park in one attempt. If you're happy to spend a little more, consider a DIY reverse camera setup. 

A sat nav is essential If you -- like me -- are terrible at directions and lane choices. 

Or, if you want a sat nav combined with the online apps we all enjoy, including music streaming and hands-free calling, either a smartphone mount or an accessory that provides Android Auto or Apple CarPlay is a must. 

Overall, you don't need to spend a fortune to bring your elderly car into the modern era.

Can you install Apple CarPlay or Android Auto on an older vehicle?

Yes, and thankfully, it's no longer necessary to send your car to the shop for a revamp. While it may be possible to have a new, fully integrated unit installed in your older car by professionals, this can leave you with a costly bill.

Alternatively, as I did, consider a unit able to connect to your mobile phone instead. Once mounted on your car's dashboard or affixed to the windscreen, you will be able to connect it to your device either wirelessly and via Bluetooth or through a cable (depending on the model) and you can enjoy all of the modern benefits of CarPlay or Android Auto without much effort.

Is there a way to add Bluetooth to an older car?

There are numerous ways to add Bluetooth capabilities to an older car, the first of which is swapping out older stereo systems for modern alternatives. However, the cheapest way is to purchase a standalone transmitter or Bluetooth module that can be plugged into an AUX connector. 

Is it bad to leave tech in a hot car?

You shouldn't leave tech in a hot car. Rising temperatures (and we all know how hot vehicles can become after they've been parked for a while in the sun) can damage electrical components, crack displays, and cause battery swelling. In addition, your tech shouldn't be on display anyway if you are leaving your vehicle unattended. 

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