Saturday, June 02, 2012

Mercedes W126 300SE buyers guide/ owner interview

TT: You chose a 300SE. Of all the W126s, why that one? Why that engine? Why not the long wheelbased version?

TB: The 300SE model was the least expensive W126 offered for the years 1988-1991. They started at about $50K or so at the time (that's still quite a bit for late 1980s dollars!). However, interior trimmings were the same as offered on the longer wheelbased and bigger engine cars (maybe except
for heated seats, fanfare horns, and a few other small details).

I've always been not too fond of the biggest-engined nor most powerful variants. Rather, I tend to go for powerplants that are efficient and mostly bulletproof in design. The 3.0 liter inline six motor (M103 designation) gets the job done nicely for me since I mostly am a "cruising" type of guy. I don't need a big V8 engine and the thirst associated with it. Of all the W126 iterations, I have always enjoyed the styling of the short wheelbase sedans and coupes the most. Their stylist, Bruno Sacco, conceived of a timeless design for me. You see elements of the W126 design in the Japanese luxury segment cars of the late 1980s (i.e. Lexus LS400). The long wheelbase sedan is nice if you carry passengers in the back seat, but since I mostly drove my 300SE alone, I did not see a need to buy a car with six inch longer back doors.

TT: How did you find this example? Tell us about your buying experience.

TB: I had been looking casually on all the popular internet car sites for months but never found a 300SE that suited my criteria (low mileage, documented ownership, superior condition in and out). While visiting a friend in Los Angeles, I happened to be using his computer and saw a listing on eBay Motors for a 1989 300SE. It was for sale from a used car dealership in Murrieta, CA. After the car did not sell through that listing, I contacted the dealer and a salesman promptly emailed me dozens of pictures.

I liked what I saw, so I called the salesman back and asked him to "hold" the car for me. He told me he would keep the car in the back lot until I could come and take a peek at it. Several days later, I flew down to LA and drove to Murrieta. Surprising to me, the salesman had the car waiting for me in the back lot just like he said he would do. For a twenty year old car when I bought it, you would be hard pressed to tell that the car was driven much at all nor kept outside that long. I drove the car, looked over everything, and handed over the money. Although it needed a minor tuneup, I drove it back to San Jose with no problems.

TT: What issues should a prospective W126 buyer look for?

TB: If you are interested in W126 Mercedes-Benz models, you should be aware of a few things to be on the lookout for when inspecting them. Engine mechanicals for the six and eight cylinder motors are durable, but the M103 six cylinder tends to develop head gasket leaks in a certain top corner of the block. Eventually, the head gasket will have to be replaced. The eight cylinder motors should have their timing chains and tensioners replaced at certain intervals, so make sure it has been done and documented. Suspension and subframe bushings tend to wear out on these cars causing creaks, vibrations, and other kinds of sloppiness when driving the car. So be aware if any of this type of work has been done or needs attention. Another area to be aware of is the AC system. The W126 had an automatic climate control unit with vacuum pods mounted in the dashboard to actuate the myriad of flaps that send cooled or heated air around the cabin. If the AC system is not working on a car you're interested in, either have it checked out (and the whole car, too) before you make a big mistake. Problems could be any number of parts in the dash or under the hood.

Here is a great site if you are interested in W126s. If you are not mechanically inclined, get a PPI done on any possible purchase.

For other parts of the USA, body corrosion is a possible problem (this was not the case for my car, however).

TT: What's up with the shiny chrome wheels? Did they come as a factory option? Why don't I see these around anymore?

TB: The factory 15 spoke chrome wheels on my car were not a factory option. These chromed alloy wheels were installed by the dealership or owners in the USA. You typically never see European W126s with these chrome alloys - not only did the factory not like this but I have been informed that the car will not pass its TUV (inspection) in Germany with chromed alloys wheels.
Namely, the plating process weakens the alloy wheel and after years of weathering and brake dust, the chrome finish starts to flake off and allow air pressure to escape around the bead. Even with my car in great cosmetic shape, the chrome wheels did have a little flaking here and there.
The reason you hardly see these chrome wheels around anymore is due to corrosion and flaking of the plating. You can still buy these chromed alloy wheels online, but I've also been told that once chrome plated, the alloy wheels can not be rechromed a second time. So, if you really want these then look forward to spending about $1K or more for a set (and be careful about which company did the plating!).

TT: How is the maintenance? The cost of parts and labor?

TB: Maintenance can go both ways on these cars: you get a car that constantly needs work because something failed or broke (because the car was neglected) or you get a car that was always maintained by a conscientious owner/garage and needs minimal work/parts/upkeep.

The nice part of looking out for W126 models is that they were mainly purchased by people who could afford to maintain them properly. Lots of W126s have been buggered up by sloppy owners and mechanics through the years, but there is still a significant number of these cars still owned by their original owners who appreciate them for their good engineering and high build quality - and they keep these examples in beautiful condition. These are the cars to buy when the owners "give up" driving due to age or they pass away and leave their estate to be sold off. My 300SE fell into this category...

But, parts cost are not too expensive and there are many parts shops online that sell a vast array of OEM or aftermarket spares for these cars. and are good resources. It helps to talk to some owners to get a good idea of the "preferred" quality part (if you can't get OEM or it's too $$$ for your budget).

I had my W126 maintained and repaired at a small independent shop (MB Garage) in Redwood City, CA. The labor charge per hour was not cheap, but the techs knew their trade and did not recommend any unnecessary work. I generally knew what kind of attention or service my car needed, so when I brought it in there were no surprises. The nice thing about this place was that I was always given a W123 300D (they have a fleet of W123s as loaner cars) to drive around while my car received service work. It rode nicely, but talk about a noisy car!

TT: You're a big Citroen guy. What about the W126 attracted you?

TB: I've always been a car guy. By now, you know my first love is the Citroen DS. I've always admired the W126 series Mercedes as well as most MB series from the 1950s. It is the engineering that I am drawn toward. I could spend hours looking over all the little details on the car - closing the doors just so I can enjoy the firm noise they make when closing, looking under the hood at the double firewall, or sitting inside on the firm yet "springy" seats.

I like how you can tell the car was designed to MB engineering principles of its time as opposed to accounting principles.

TT: When did Mercedes lose its ways?

TB: The Mercedes-Benz that I remember as what an MB should be changed around the early 1990s. Mercedes spent upwards of $1 billion to design and engineer the W140 model (the replacement for the W126). I have heard that there was much consternation in the company to sell this model to a price point after spending that much to develop it. Consequently, after the model introduced, Mercedes started to decontent as the years went by.

I still feel that after the W124 and early W140 models that Mercedes lost some of its respect from me.

TT: What did you like the most about your 300SE? The least?

TB: What I enjoyed most about my W126 300SE is that no one (myself included) could mistake it for anything other than a big German luxury sedan. And for my car in particular, it was one of the best specimens of the W126 that I could find. I originally bought it so that it could be my "work" vehicle several days a week, but eventually I used it maybe once a week and kept it under a cover the rest of the time. One thing that I really liked about my 300SE was the color combination: it was Smoke Silver with a Palomino (in Germany it's called "dattel" or date) colored leather interior. These are two colors that I immediately associate with Mercedes and no other car maker.

What I least liked about my 300SE: it kinda lacked soul as well as it had kind of a "cold" driving experience. Driving this well made sedan was neat, but it was not quite the experience for stirring my emotions.

TT: Tell us about your other cars, past and present.

TB: Well, my daily driver is a white 2007 VW Passat 2.0T that I bought new in Arizona and drove back to the Bay Area. It was one of only a few on the West Coast  I could find at that time with both a manual transmission and sport package. It's been a fabulous and economical car for me.

I also used to have a 2003 VW Passat and two pearl white metallic Toyotas that I bought secondhand but in great condition: a 1988 Cressida with a maroon leather interior and a 1987 Supra Turbo with a navy leather interior and five speed manual transmission.

Then of course, I've had some Citroens. I've previously owned eight DS's (not all at once but sometimes up to three at one time) and a 1963 Ami6 sedan. I now have a 1969 DS21 Pallas at Hanzel's Auto Body Works in Oakland, CA getting a restoration at the moment - hopefully it will be finished before next summer arrives.

TT: Why do you love cars?

TB: Ever since my teens I've been into cars - I love taking them apart, looking at all the bits, cleaning them up, and putting it back together again. It's neat to see cars, looking at how they are made and engineered, and understand a little bit about the people and cultures from where these cars were manufactured.

Thank you, Tim, for enlightening us.

Tim and I are working on a series of posts that will comprehensively cover his Citroen DS's ground-up restoration.


Alan said...

The condition of that car is nearly unbelievable. Makes my LS look like an old beater.

Super-excited to read about the Citroens!

Unknown said...

I got a 1990 W126 I6 and it looks like rubbish compared to this one... nicely done taking care of it...

Anonymous said...

Absolutely beautiful.

I have the same model/year, also in great shape @ 65K, but your example is the cleanest I've ever seen.


Anonymous said...

I have a W126 with only 15K Miles on it - in pretty much the same condition. Has been garage kept its whole life except for routine maintenance. Has NO problems. What would one of you think its value is?
I have had a wide array of guesses...

Maxichamp said...

@Anon: Nice! Probably at least $8,500. If it's a long wheelbase and/or a V8, probably a lot more. If you ever end up selling it, check with Bring A Trailer. It's a great site. Cheers!

RickELake said...

Just sold a 1990 560SEL with 61k miles and purchased an 1989 300SE with 83k miles; Although the 560SEL was absolutely gorgeous with unlimited power, the size of the car was not enjoyable to drive; I prefer to put
Bilstein HD Shocks in all my special interest cars, and the 560SEL has a rear self-leveling system that voids that option.

The 300SE on the otherhand is a blast to drive. Yes it has less pickup from a standing start, but once you're a cruising speed their is little difference. The shorter wheelbase and 6 cyl makes the car feel more nimble - if driving something the weight of a building can ever be so considered.

For me, the W126 - along with other Mercedes already in production prior to 1991 - is the rand's true Golden Age: Mercedes made cars they THEY felt they should be made. After 1991, volume production and fashion began to enter into the equation - and both quality and design suffered for it.

Highly recommend both the 190e W201 and W126 from this era. Low mileage is the crucial element that determines price. Examples with $150k plus are plentiful under $5k, but find one under 100k and you should expect to pay $10k and up...and it's a bargain.

Tallahassee Auto Detailing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

hi,just bought a MB 300se with a 159k mils on,is a 91 and i would like to se if you guys can gime some tips to start taking care about what i need to do before take to the ssmog shop here on Sac,Calif.

Unknown said...

I have a 90 in pristine condition, Black with creme beige interior. It is an awesome car. and for sale! I would like to know where the rear foot rests came from.

Anonymous said...

That is a beautiful example of the W126, I'm currently doing a restoration on a 380SE and I am VERY jealous of the condition your car is in.

Anonymous said...

The rear foot rests came with the SEL

Anonymous said...

I would like to know how all of you guys gas mileage is on the 300se or sel and how you drive to get it.I have a 85'500sel (now 134K)and average 15 to 16 miles a gallon.I follow traffic in the city and go 70 to 75 mls on highway.I hardly ever floor it unless I have to.I did adjusted the transmission shifting so it wouldn't go too fast into 4th.Before I couldn't even get 15 mls/gal.
I know a 300sel for sale first owner with around 150k in nice shape.I've been thinking of getting it to get better gas mileage.IF it makes sense.
I had a 560sel before and also got around 15-16 a gallon although EPA shows 13 average for both.

Outsiderartz said...

Hey all- really enjoyed this discussion. I have a 1988 300SE and a 1986 300E. Love them both! And they are great for any Australian condition too- from motorways to bush tracks.

Anonymous said...

hi there everyone
my name is salman
im from london uk
i have a lovely 380se i try keeping it in good condition with the fast life here?
anyhow ive had it over 25years i think?
changed shocks all springs rear and front,stearing stabliser,gearbox mounting ,rear (shelf that goes rusty )after 20 odd years cut it out bought a old rear section ebassy car (there normally well looked after)but anyway welded with hard welled,came out great but you need to replace the entire rear window rubber,stripped it down to bear metal resprayed to a mixed high q blue matalic looks great its the best car for long journeys drove to europe done over 2000 miles and came back put it on my friends garage ramp little leak from gear tray seal opened replaced rubber seal and filter fantastic car best car to work on ,now its part of me looks like lol ,
now working on a 220s old w111 1960 fintail trying but work and refurb a bit tuff if i coul send the car over so someone gould renovate it i can pay you as the work is carried on anyway thats part of the story ,if it breaks down i can fix it easy and get home all the new one are a pain elctronics does not go with mechanics thats what i say ,buy all my email
regards to all salman

Scott said...

That's really a beautiful car! I've reluctantly decided to sell my 300SE, I just don't use it like I should.

I linked to your page because its an excellent resource for people looking to buy one, or just to learn more about it.

Anonymous said...

this Mercedes is extremely neat, I myself down in cape town south Africa have a beautiful 1989 300SE w126 and its noticed and admired by everyone especially with the 17 inch wheels on. but this 300SE is really something I would not mind next to my one. continue to preserve and enjoy these cars there is nothing in the world that I would trade it for.

Anonymous said...

Hi, from Germany

Great report on your car.

Have the 300 SEL (1990, 72'721 miles).

Take care for your fantastic "Lady" ...

Ernesto, Munich

George said...

Hello, I have been offered a MB 300SE that is a fairly good condition. I will have to do some body works though. Because I live in the Caribbean, I woul like to order and stock some parts. Which parts and accessories would you recommend me to order from the USA? And do you recommend a particular supplier?

One problem I have is the stainless steel portions (3 pieces) of the front and rear bumpers. They have rusted and need to be replaced. Any suggestions?


Archer Hunt said...

What an interview man! It will make a car owner completely out of mind. These are the minimum info that a owner must know about his beloved Mercedes but not all know these things. I'm sure most of owner even doesn’t know about the common car issue types and their symptoms and proper maintenance for them. Is not it foolish? Anyways, thanks a lot.

Chicagobro said...

The wheels are not chrome plated, they're the standard aluminum wheels polished to a mirror finish and then clear coated, that's what you see flaking off of the wheels. The German TUV is not necessarily the best measure of automotive safety, some of their rules are arbitrary and draconian. Automatically failing cars with these issues seems a little silly to me as I can't imagine it significantly reduces the strength of the wheel.

I too have a fondness for the Short Wheelbase w126 and this particular example is very nice. I have a decent 560SEL and can confirm that when it's running, it's very pleasurable to drive and be in.

Tim BH said...

I bought a nice 300Se about 6 months ago. The exterior paint is very nice (charcoal) but it has some small dings here and there. The interior, on the other hand, is that peanut butter color and is in flawless condition. Seeing that pretty much sold me. Super comfortable car. These particular cars a pretty reasonable priced. Mine had 108,000 miles on it when I got it and the engine is butter smooth. As many have mentioned, not high powered but it'll go when you step on the gas and I've been averaging about 20-21 MPG so I figure for a big sedan like this, that's pretty good. Problems I've encountered: The AC works but not well, I had the A/C pressures checked and it is right on spot so I'm not sure what's going on. I've replaced the heater control valve (actually a small part inside it) as my mechanic said the problem may be I'm getting a mix of heat/cool but I'm not sure I buy that. I may have all the freon extracted and try new freon and see if that helps. Secondly, it likes to eat up oil. No real leaks but it goes through about a quart of oil about every 1,000 miles. I'm told this is a trait of the older cars and, at some point, it will start to foul plugs. The only option if that happens is to have the motor rebuilt. Would probably cost more than the car is worth in that case. Recently, one of slides on one of my read window regulators broke, I found a replacement on and have ordered that and am waiting and hope I won't have to get a new regulator for a cheap plastic part.

turbo Pawlik said...

Fantastic blog! Congratulations :))

Unknown said...

That is absolutely a beautiful classic Mercedes...any chance you might be selling it?

Maxichamp said...

@Jason Lee: Car is long gone! Sorry.

Unknown said...

Just purchased a 1987 W126 300 SE and it is in concours condition. Beautiful midnight blue with champagne trim 108000 is with full service history. Garages all of its life.I now have a classic chrome vehicle and with the 300 ,now have a classic plastic.

Maxichamp said...

@Unknown: Congratulations!

Anonymous said...

Great looking S-Klasse you have there. I too miss the solid CHUNK while closing the doors of the W123 we had growing up. I like how enormous (relatively) the old Mercedes steering wheels were too. Also the fact that there was almost NO on-center feel, lol.

One day I'd like to get a W124 but it's tough to find just the right one that hasn't been driven into a tired, ronky ponky heap. One can dream!

Robin Kirke said...

I have a 300se and DS 23 too. Pleasant combination!.

Unknown said...

Thinking of getting an s 300 as an addition to a busy garage. Re the citroens. In the70s my parents took me as a small boy on a holiday to the uk France and Italy. My dad bought a new green Citroen ds the 1.9 d super . And had it shipped back to south africa. Many years later I learned to drive in that car. Dad subsequently owned 2 more a pallas and I am not sure which model the last one was. But it's the old green d super I wish we had kept.lovely old things. Dealt with the crap cape town roads well too. Cheers. Nick

Dr Evil said...

My next door neighbor has one but it has silver trim/chrome around the wheel wells .
It has 200,000 miles but it’s in Beautiful shape and has a really nice Aqua color .
He want $4500 not sure if that’s a good price and the year I am not sure of .

Dr Evil said...

My next door neighbor has one but it has silver trim/chrome around the wheel wells .
It has 200,000 miles but it’s in Beautiful shape and has a really nice Aqua color .
He want $4500 not sure if that’s a good price and the year I am not sure of .