1980 Mercedes-Benz S-Class 500 SEL 5.0 litre V8 M117 from Australia and New Zealand
Magnificent, dignified automobile
Rear brakes were completely shot when I got the car; replaced the pads, rotors and handbrake shoes within the first three days of ownership. When taking one of the rear wheels off, two of the stud threads stripped, they were re-threaded in place and new studs fitted - no problem with the wheel loosening (I checked it regularly after this!)
The spark plug leads appeared to have been damaged in a minor engine fire, new Bosch replacements are $1600 (no kidding!) so I bought a second hand set for $125 and this cured the slight misfire.
The fuel pump and filter assembly is a convoluted mess of banjo bolts, copper washers and hoses. Mine leaked the whole time I owned the car, though after much fiddling, tightening, swearing and fumbling I managed to get it down to a very slow release of moisture. Didn't worry about it too much after that, and it didn't get any worse.
The transmission made a distinct whine when out of gear, and made a pretty hard clunk when going into fourth (top) gear. I've heard that these are prone to giving trouble and always felt a little bit nervous about it, but there was no slipping or rapid discoloration of the fluid, and neither the whine nor the clunking got worse during my ownership.
The driver's window had come off its rail and I fixed it with a certain degree of bending. Two of the other windows were slow but still worked; the plastic clips holding them to the regulators are known failure points (a very rare weak point of these cars).
The sunroof was slow to operate; on the advice of a mechanic I removed the dashboard switch, sprayed it with CRC contact cleaner and it worked perfectly again. Now THAT is quality!
There were a few rust spots on my one, though no corrosion in structural areas and it was never a WoF problem. There was a hole in the boot floor, and a slight bit around the bottom of the rear window and various spots where the plastic trim moldings meet the doors and front guards.
Major engine oil leak was fixed with new valve cover gaskets; there was a lot of blow-by, so I attached a catch can so it wouldn't keep clogging the air filter.
This was a truly magnificent automobile!
These cost around $250,000 adjusted when new, and back then that kind of money bought genuine quality of materials and workmanship. Modern Mercs and other luxury cars might be loaded with gadgets that were science fiction in 1980, but these W126s were properly built to last and I doubt we will ever see their like again.
Nearly everything on these cars is designed to be at least five times better than it needs to be. That's not hyperbole, honest. I pulled a wiring loom from a junked 300SE for my perpetual project car (which I'll be reviewing soon) and was amazed at how well it was put together. Huge sheaths of plastic insulation everywhere, electrical connectors which make the $80 industrial grade Hella ones look flimsy, and an abundance of relays and ceramic fuses for even the most basic, low-power circuits. No matter where you look on these cars, there is evidence of the amazing quality which went into their design and construction; little wonder Mercedes-Benz enjoyed such an enviable reputation back in their heyday.
Alright, now back to my particular W126: The amount of torque from the 5 liter V8 is astounding! While not the fastest car on the road by a long stretch, its delivery is so beautifully satisfying. On the highway it cruises in almost absolute silence at around 1900 RPM, and taking off from a standstill makes you feel like you're piloting the Concorde.
The interior is fantastic, with a rational layout of controls and relaxed driving position which makes you feel like a head of state. Mine was the long wheelbase model and had a huge amount of room in the back, I often insisted friends drove us around on cruise nights because of this!
The styling of these cars is downright lovely. They look expensive and dignified, yet strangely understated and make no effort to be showy (in standard configuration). This is one of my favorite takes on the "aero" styling theme which came about in the late 70s, long before cars traded subtle curves and sweeps for bloated, nondescript anonymity.
This was a rich man's car when new, and you certainly need your finances in order to run one as a daily driver! Mine was more of a weekend car, which is probably the sensible way to own one of these. Although it didn't cost much to maintain, and performed very reliably indeed, fuel consumption - even for its age - was pretty atrocious. 10 MPG around town, and 18 MPG on a long trip. I've read these aren't too far off the original specifications, and American tanks with even bigger engines were known to score in the low 20s at least! Oh well, that's the price of true quality I suppose. Just make sure you find a well maintained example!
Would you buy another car from this manufacturer? Yes
Review Date: 5th July, 2015