1981 Mercedes-Benz S-Class 280SE 2.8 litre petrol from Australia and New Zealand


Elegant, slow, maintenance is guesswork, and the costs will break your heart


When I bought the car, it had the following wrong with it:

Needed new rear wheel bearings, old ones were fused on and the garage struggled to get them off.

Had to recondition power steering box and pump (there was free movement in the steering wheel).

A new diff from the wreckers (I was told normally the diffs last the life of this sort of car, but not in this case).

Brake rotors, hoses, pads.

Muffler was in poor condition and had a hole.

New timing and fan belts.

New upper ball joint, driver's side (old one was cracked).

Rear window switches would not work.

Oil leaks from several places.

Cracked dash.

Missing wheel studs, and these were well nigh impossible to source.

One corner of the boot had a small hole where rust had eaten through, signs of rust in other parts as well.

A few months later the car would rev excessively going from 2nd into 3rd gear. Turns out it needed a new gearbox, so one was sourced from the wreckers. A few months later, the second gearbox started to play up (even though it was serviced not long before, see below).

The car would always start first thing cold, but if driven in the last 4 hours or less, it would take about 3 attempts.

General Comments:

First of all this is not an indictment on Mercedes Benz per se (other than the 2.8 litre engine being too underpowered for the car, as for the gearing). This review is of my experiences owning a (somewhat worn out) '81 280SE W126, in 2009-10, and if you are thinking of doing the same, this is what you might come up against.

Here are the pros I believe apply to this car:

Roomy inside, large boot.

Leather seats.

Elegant styling, in my mind the most recognisable and iconic luxury car chassis ever built.

Solid build quality.

Good for highway cruising.

And the cons:

Takes a long time to build speed, and this makes it not very suitable for 'stop start' traffic, or making a quick lane change from a standing start.

The way it is geared makes the slow acceleration even worse, meaning if you have to pull away anywhere fast, you need to floor it.

The cost of maintenance and parts.

Perhaps TOO elegant to take to the grocery shop or use as a daily driver. Styling also more appealing to older drivers than young.

And finally, the last straw: getting fixes done, but the issue still persisting, which makes fixing the car like guesswork rather than science. This is all very well, but I don't have access to infinite funds.

Here are some examples:

After getting the power steering pump reconditioned, it kept leaking. I took it back to the garage after a few months, they made some adjustments, but the problem didn't go away. The power steering box also had a minor leak and it was reconditioned also.

The automatic transmission (original) was serviced by a specialist, yet only a few months later it was worn out and needed replacing.

The second transmission (from the wreckers) was serviced 3 months after it was installed. In a matter of weeks after that, while at 60-70 kms/hour the car would occasionally rev up with my foot only a small way down on the accelerator, as though I had pressed it all the way down. My only interpretation of this is that it was dropping into 1st gear. On one occasion I recall having difficulty getting a gear going slightly uphill at around 40, and thinking I might have to pull over to the side of the road.

I got the mechanic to try to fix the starting problem (see above), but there was no improvement.

The mechanic tried to fix the rear window switches but they still wouldn't work.

So, if you are a mechanic with access to all the tools and parts you need (not to mention patience), as well as a hoist in your garage, then by all means go for it. But these reviews should be for car driver's, not car mechanics, and I cannot possibly recommend this vehicle as such, especially not for a young person getting their first car and being enticed by a Mercedes going cheap (this mistake I myself made).

So I recently made the call for it to go to car heaven, recouping a tiny fraction of my investment. No point keeping it on charm factor alone.

Would you buy another car from this manufacturer? Don't Know

Review Date: 12th November, 2010

26th May 2013, 02:49

Moral of the story, there is no such thing as a cheap Mercedes, especially when in Australia you can find ones with no rust, low Km and service history for a reasonable price.

I have an '82 280SE W126 with 106k Km and an '85 280CE C123 with 166k Km in my drive, together purchased for less than a 10 year old Japanese buzz box.

These cars could well out live me if maintained, and I'm only in my mid 40's!!

1981 Mercedes-Benz S-Class 300SD from North America


Great car, worth the 35000 price in 1981


The alternator needed replacement at 197000. Also replaced all the belts at that time.

General Comments:

Just completed a 3400 mile trip. Most people think I am crazy doing so with a 200k car. I have found this car completely reliable, it runs smooth at 80 mph, handles well, the car is comfortable, and the more I drive, I see and feel the quality that is a part of the 300SD.

Paid 3000 for the car, and wish I could another for that price ---- thank you Mercedes Benz.

Would you buy another car from this manufacturer? Yes

Review Date: 7th October, 2010