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For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had an affinity for old Mercedes-Benz S-Classes. Whether it’s seeing my classmates being dropped off in a curb or watching them on the big screen – especially , the Chinese Triads chasing Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in a late 1980s 420SEL at Lethal Weapon 4) – I have still I knew I wanted a Mercedes-Benz W126. I remember my 15-year-old self, circa 2005, sifting through the bountiful selection of used examples on Auto Trader for one as my first car.

But after expressing my desire to own any old Mercedes-Benz – let alone a W126 – I was greeted with plenty of criticism.

“You will go bankrupt,” they said. “It’s a money pit,” they said. “They’re complicated and not worth fixing,” they said. But nothing they or they said might keep me from wanting to live out my late 1980s yuppie fantasies – especially since these days I could live with them at a fraction of the cost when they were new. I mean, how difficult and expensive could it be?

chris chin

I didn’t find the Mercedes-Benz W126 of my dreams right away

High gas prices at the time forced me to settle for an extraordinarily clean one-owner late-model W124 coupe for my first car – which, to this day, I swear is the best car I’ve ever had. ever owned. It taught me that keeping a pre-Daimler Chrysler Mercedes on the road doesn’t have to be difficult or wallet-busting—even for a cash-strapped high school kid flipping burgers overtime every summer.

My love for vintage three-pointed stars eventually led me to a ’75 W116 280S – which I continued on a mediocre college budget – and later another ’74 W116 in 450SEL form, with its V8 engine . (I still own it today.)

In February 2020, however—just before the end of the world—I finally found myself driving home a well-maintained, 143,000-mile 1987 560SEL that I had managed to score for just $1,500.

mercedes w126 estate

chris chin

Rumor has it that old Benzes are expensive to repair. Not always

“There’s nothing more expensive than a cheap Mercedes,” they say. There are some truth to that saying, but as we see in the rest of life, not everything regurgitated in an echo chamber is always true about old Benzes. I haven’t yet spent as much on servicing my 560SEL as I did on my 2011 Honda Accord V6 Coupe in total, which I got brand new in college after totaling my W124.

Some things on an old Mercedes can be expensive when it comes time to fix them, but the situation isn’t all that different or more expensive than any other car of a similar vintage. And it’s nowhere near as expensive as trying to fix a newer car. Rebuilding the fuel pump assembly costs around $400 in genuine Mercedes-Benz parts‚ and is a procedure that could be done at home on a Sunday afternoon with basic tools. The cost is about the same for the pump only with my Honda. The situation is similar when servicing the dreaded timing chain of a late W126 V8 – a known wear item of 100,000 miles. Servicing my Honda’s water pump and timing belt cost me twice as much to fix.

mercedes w126 estate

chris chin

mercedes w126 estate

chris chin

mercedes w126 estate

chris chin

Make up for all other wear and age related items – rebuild almost the entire front, replace rear springs, spark plugs, ignition wires and coil, idle vacuum system, air conditioning, fuel injectors and related system items, and even servicing the “hated” self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension were all similar business and expense.

I only had to call a tow truck once, after the 560 stranded me at my dad’s because of a faulty transmission pump seal. That bill was $2,600, but not unreasonable — my biggest old Mercedes tax so far. But I had already budgeted a similar amount for my mechanic to replace all the rubber seals on my transmission – something I’m not ready to tackle at home – so it didn’t completely catch me off guard.

My Mercedes S-Class was cheaper than renting something less rewarding

All in all, I’m probably in my car for about $14,000 total including tires, license, and sales taxes. That’s a number most would consider a “money pit” for a car, but it’s all relative. I bought it outright, running and driving, for $1500 of that total. Because I acquired it for so cheap, I had no objection to spending the money I did to sort it into its turnkey condition today. Divided by the fact that I’ve driven almost 42,000 miles since purchase, the math comes down to about 33 cents per mile, not including the gas bill.

Those numbers aren’t far off from leasing a new, reasonably equipped Toyota Camry for 36 months at 15,000 miles per year, especially with today’s rates. I know which one I’d rather have, and I own my car at the end of the day. And remember. The W126 is a car that cost around $72,000 in 1987, which converts to $183,238 in today’s money when adjusting for inflation.

mercedes w126 estate

chris chin

Knowing Key Saves You A Ton Of Money With An Old Mercedes

Working on my cars at home has contributed significantly to lowering my cost of ownership. When it comes to owning a vehicle, it’s usually the labor that drives up the bills, not the parts. I am not an experienced Mercedes-Benz technician or professional mechanic by trade. But I was able to learn all about these cars from the wealth of information available through online communities, YouTube, and the factory manual I found on the internet.

If you know your way around a toolbox and can follow instruction manuals, read torque specs, and use torque wrenches, you can work on an old Mercedes-Benz. And running one reliably can be livable and affordable. Cars like the W126 were designed and built not only for mechanical excellence, but also for ease of maintenance. And parts are still very plentiful, considering these are mass-produced vehicles around the world, many of which are still on the road today.

Once repaired properly, an old Mercedes like the W126 should last as long as it already exists. (Of course, if you buy that old Mercedes and immediately turn the keys over to a mechanic, specialist or dealer if something goes wrong, the car will live up to its expensive reputation.)

mercedes w126 estate

chris chin

Do some research before buying an old Mercedes

As with any older vehicle, research is essential to ensure you get the best example. There are rare occasions like mine where you score a diamond in the rough for very cheap. But unless you know what you’re getting into, the wisest approach is to buy the best example you can find within your budget.

It also depends on the model you are looking for. Mercedes diesels, renowned for their longevity, durability and low running costs, are among the easiest cars to own. But the petrol versions are no less reliable when kept to specification.

But even then, if you buy an old Mercedes-Benz and expect it to be as reliable and trouble-free as a new one under warranty, you’re setting yourself up for a bad time. These cars are 30 to 40 years old, and while they’re known to stand the test of time, age and wear and tear are always inevitable.

mercedes w126 estate

chris chin

But despite those extra hassles, the W126 is still incredibly rewarding to drive and stay on the road. Not a day goes by that makes me want to be behind the wheel of anything else. On a recent trip from northern New Jersey to Virginia Beach — a one-way trip of nearly 400 miles — I arrived at my destination feeling like I had only traveled 40 miles. And it’s still an absolute pleasure to ride on long, winding country roads as much as on the Autobahn, where they’ve been calibrated to Autobahn standards.

Mercedes-Benzes of the 1980s were hailed for their build quality, durability and exquisite driving dynamics, a testament to the brand’s quest to make the best cars in the world. And it’s the reason why, despite the advancements made over the following decades, cars like my W126 still have dedicated owners like me all over the world, the odometer counts well into the six figures.

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