I’ve had a thing for old Mercedes-Benz S-Classes for as long as I can remember. Whether it was seeing my fellow grade school students being dropped off at one curbside or seeing them on the big screen — specifically, Chinese Triads chasing Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in a late-1980s 420SEL in Lethal Weapon 4) — I’ve always wanted a Mercedes-Benz W126. I recall my 15-year-old self, circa 2005, sifting through the plethora of used examples on AutoTrader in search of one as my first car.
However, when I expressed my desire to own any old Mercedes-Benz, let alone a W126, I was met with a barrage of criticism.
“You’ll go bankrupt,” they predicted. They described it as a “money pit.” “They’re complicated and not worth repairing,” they explained. Nothing they said could stop me from living my late-1980s yuppie fantasies, especially since I could do so for a fraction of the price they were when new. I mean, how difficult and costly could it be?
I didn’t find my dream Mercedes-Benz W126 right away
Due to high gas prices at the time, I had to settle for an exceptionally clean, one-owner late-model W124 coupe as my first car, which I still swear is the best car I’ve ever owned. It taught me that keeping a pre-Daimler Chrysler Mercedes on the road didn’t have to be difficult or expensive — even for a cash-strapped high-school student flipping burgers all summer.
My passion for vintage Three-Pointed Stars eventually led me to a ’75 W116 280S, which I kept running on a shoestring college budget, and later to a ’74 W116 450SEL with its V8 engine. (It is still in my possession.)
However, in February 2020, just before the end of the world, I found myself towing home a well-kept one-owner 143,000-mile 1987 560SEL that I’d gotten for $1,500.
Rumor has it old Benzes are expensive to fix. Not always
“Nothing is more expensive than a cheap Mercedes,” they claim. That saying has some truth to it, but as we see in the rest of life, not everything regurgitated into an echo chamber about old Benzes is always true. I’ve yet to spend as much money on maintenance on my 560SEL as I have on my 2011 Honda Accord V6 Coupe, which I bought brand new in college after totaling my W124.
Some repairs on an old Mercedes can be costly, but the situation isn’t that different or more expensive than any other car of similar vintage. And it’s far less expensive than attempting to repair a newer vehicle. Rebuilding the fuel pump assembly costs around $400 in Mercedes-Benz Genuine Parts and can be done at home on a Sunday afternoon with basic tools. With my Honda, the pump alone costs about the same. When servicing a late V8 W126’s dreaded timing chain — a known 100,000-mile wear item — the situation is similar. The water pump and timing belt service on my Honda cost me twice as much to repair.
Rebuilding nearly the entire front end, replacing rear springs, spark plugs, ignition wires and coil, the idle vacuum system, the air conditioning, the fuel injectors and related system items, and even servicing the “loathed” hydropneumatic self-leveling suspension were all similar affairs and expenses.
I’ve only had to call a tow truck once, when the 560 left me stranded at my father’s house due to a blown transmission pump seal. That bill came to a hefty but not unreasonable $2,600 — my largest old Mercedes tax to date. But, because I’d already budgeted a similar amount for my mechanic to replace all of the rubber gaskets on my transmission — something I’m not prepared to tackle at home — it didn’t completely catch me off guard.
My Mercedes S-Class has been cheaper than leasing something less rewarding
I’m probably going to buy my car for around $14,000 total, including tires, registration, and sales tax. That’s a price that most people would consider a “money pit” for a car, but everything is relative. I paid $1,500 for it outright, with it running and driving. Because I got it so cheap, I had no qualms about spending the money I did today to get it in turnkey condition. Divided by nearly 42,000 miles driven since purchase, the math comes out to about 33 cents per mile, not including the gas bill.
With today’s rates, these figures aren’t far off from leasing a new and reasonably equipped Toyota Camry for 36 months at 15,000 miles per year. I know which one I’d prefer, and at the end of the day, I own my car outright. Also, keep in mind. The W126 had a sticker price of around $72,000 in 1987, which translates to $183,238 in today’s money after inflation.