By on August 30, 2011

$100,000 can buy you an awful lot of cars these days. This morning I could have bought a 2011 Lotus Elise with 1100 miles ($42k), a 2003 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 with 16,000 miles ($24k), a 2003 BMW 745Li in mint condition with 80k (18K), and enough left over to take my family on a two month cruise.

But back in 1989 I could not have bought this car brand new for $100K. Not even close. A Mercedes 420 SEL would have set you back $111,000 in inflation adjusted terms before adding options, taxes and bogus fees.

I ended up buying the one pictured a few weeks ago for $1300 (and $115 auction fee). Should I…

Rent: Hell no!

Finance: Double hell no!

Sell: An awful lot of these cars are doing time in junkyards and inop sales throughout the country. Why? Because they are hellaciously expensive to fix. Little issues require constant attention in 80’s Benzes. A/C systems. Electrics. Powertrain issues. Paint. When a Mercedes gets to be 22 years old and 201,000 miles it becomes a rolling money pit.

But this one is different.

It has over 70 maintenance records. We’re not talking about Jiffy Lube and Wal-Mart maintenance records either. Try $5000 for a rebuilt Mercedes factory transmission that was installed only 20,000 miles ago. $2000 for a completely remade interior less than 10,000 miles ago.. $3400 for an engine rebuild about 50,000 miles ago. Not to mention near $100 oil changes and brake jobs that were firmly in the four figures.

This car is a rolling testament to blind love… and maybe even a bad marriage.

So where you can find buyers who love a car beyond all logic and reason? Ebay. When it comes to old non-collectible cars, Ebay can provide a price premium that goes far beyond the realm of reason.

I sold it for $2850. Not a lot of money. But more profit than I can likely get anywhere else.

Keep: There is one thing you can’t avoid if you sell cars on Ebay. Clueless people buying cars they know nothing about. Despite verbose warnings about my desire to sell it to a Mercedes enthusiast, I ended up meeting a nice older lady who was clearly out of her element.

“Thanks Mr. Lang for getting back to me so quickly. Does the car come with a warranty?”

“No maam. My policy has always been if you don’t like it, you don’t have to take it. It’s as simple as that.”

“I got the car for my daughter who is a single mom with kids. Do you think this will be a good car for her? I do like Mercedes.”

“Oh, hell no!”

I went on to explain to her ‘why’ a car like this needs so much maintenance. She hightailed it back to North Carolina and now I get the pleasure of relisting it.

Hopefully it will go to a better place. Perhaps some enthusiast who can match their blind love with a big fat wallet.

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47 Comments on “Rent, Lease, Sell or Keep: 1989 Mercedes-Benz 420 SEL...”

  • avatar

    The interior looks incredible, possibly better than new. Must wonder what led someone to sink so much money into the car, then sell it? Get out before the next expensive problem pops up?

    • 0 avatar

      There’s only one plausible explanation that comes to mind. The previous owner – doctor, lawyer, accountant – bought this car right before retirement to let the world know that s/he had “arrived.” Fast forward 22 years, and that owner is now no longer with us, or has hung up his/her keys for the last time.

      • 0 avatar

        That’s what I was thinking: either an estate sale, or a catastophic drop in income levels.

        Either way, I’d have loved to have the means and the justification for this kind of car. I have a local mechanic who specializes in this bodystyle (and has two of his own, one of which is permanently on the hoist, as far as I can tell) and might have been able to swing it had I not spent thousands keeping my old Saab alive while the Sienna that replaced it has been flawless.

      • 0 avatar
        Educator(of teachers)Dan

        @wagonsonly – Not a bad guess. An older person who saw a ton of sentimental value in the car would make logical sense.

    • 0 avatar

      There is no way this car looks better than new. I remember what these cars were like as delivered, and the finish and materials made a new Maybach’s interior look like a Tijuana tuck-n-roll job.

      • 0 avatar

        Your memory of 1980s Mercedes is much different than mine. The way I recall it, Mercedes seriously upgraded its interior materials in the early 1990s. Earlier they looked and felt like engineers had outfitted them.

      • 0 avatar

        They used materials that were chosen for durability and then they finished them with a perfection that removed any connection with nature, but these were the Mercedes that had the reputation that you could pick them up by their turn signal levers and that had wood so perfect that it looked less real than the plastic wood in a Buick. They kept at it into the early ’90s, but rapidly cheaped out a couple years later. Keep in mind that an S-class was not a taxicab. There was more of an emphasis on leather, wood, and metal in one of these than there was in a W123 or W124.

      • 0 avatar

        My mom’s 1982 300SD is just like this car. Bought new, and since then my father has lavished care and maintenance on it to keep it looking brand new – easy when you start with high quality materials. On my last visit, with near 200,000 miles, there were a few flaws in the paint, due to the car sitting outside while the garage was worked on, but aside from that you could eat from almost every surface.

        My father occasionally talks about buying her something new, but given that my mom is in her 80s, I think it’s her last car. I’ve already put in my claim for it in the will (sorry, Mr. Lang).

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    It’s dangerous to argue with a pro, but I like living dangerously. The typical buyer of the typical new car “pays” several thousand dollars a year in depreciation, even if she doesn’t pay a penny for repairs.

    With a car like this, depreciation is close to zero. So, even if you spend $1,000 a year on repairs, aren’t you money ahead? And, if, as it appears, someone has spent a lot of the “big money” on this car (engine rebuild, new tranny), wouldn’t that make it a fairly reasonable proposition, in economic terms?

    Not to mention that, for my money, the S-class Benzes from this era are the best the company has ever made. The only thing this particular example lacks that would keep me from salivating is the 3-liter 6 cylinder turbodiesel motor. The gassers, like this one, are pretty thirsty.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Dang it, Lang, consume conspicuously for once. Live a little. Keep it and drive it to the office a couple of times a week to keep it going and then use it as a family road trip car. Or finally give up your eBay merchant name so we can start following your auctions instead of keeping it a secret.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, eBay does have a good search tool…

      • 0 avatar

        Here’s a hint Dan – search for the ‘1989 Mercedes Benz 420 SEL’ in ‘completed listings’ and you’ll only find two. Easy enough to figure out which one is Steve’s. Incidentally – seems like you made some good money on that Intrepid Mr Lang!

    • 0 avatar

      If money grew on trees…

      Then I would park this car in a glass box and drive it lightly on weekends. When it inevitably fails in a horrible fashion, I’d jack it up, and use the amazing interior as a home office / entertainment den. The cows who died to make those seats deserve at least that much.

      … but only if money grew on trees

  • avatar

    Ah, wipers on the headlights. Someday…

  • avatar

    I find it humorous when folks buying old(er) cars like this ask for warranties. The car is 20+ years old! And the “is it going to be safe for my (insert family member here) to drive coast to coast” question? If that concerned, why are you considering a $2800 20+ year old car (much less a $2800, 20+ year old Mercedes!). It’s probably a good thing the lady who first bid didn’t get it, as she’d be sorely disappointed the first time that Panzer went into the shop.
    Now then…if a true aficionado of the breed happens to come along, then this is automotive nirvana for him/her. For $2800, they’ll more than likely be able to subsidize the rather hefty upkeep and still feel like they came out ahead of the game. Opinions being what they are, I think that after this era in Benz history, the Grosser lost their stature and statesman-like poise. I’d be hard pressed to sell, if nothing else than to bring it out on a beautiful day like today and enjoy it in moderation.

  • avatar

    Its a nice car, but its also a rolling testament to why the Lexus LS took off.

    • 0 avatar

      This is the reason MB decided to build cars like the A class.

      Head of MB realized that the car had become a lifestyle choice, and was beginning to compete against 2nd homes and boats, etc. Also realized that as japanese competitors entered traditional MB segments, MB’s response had been to move more upscale, until they reached this point, and then realized that they couldn’t compete against things that didn’t roll.

      So the MB head realized that if MB was going to remain relevant as an auto maker, then MB was going to have to be a full-line maker, and competitive from bottom to top.

      Hence Smart, A- and B- class… How did that work out??

  • avatar

    I do realize that everything looks better in pictures, and maybe the condition isn’t THAT good but my instinct looking at these pics. KEEP. Wait hear me out. Keep, keep it stored lovinging, waxed, and take it to the occasional car show for others to enjoy. This looks to be in amazing condition, and I suspect a car with a “history” or story to tell that you could research. Shoot even finding it for $1,300 becomes part of the story.

    Very limited miles keeps the money pit issue somewhat at bay. Just looks like this has garage queen written all over it, and the 25 year old mark is just around the corner.

  • avatar

    If Steve held onto every car that was worth keeping, he’d have quite a fleet.

    Best owner for a car like this is someone who does their own work.

    • 0 avatar

      These are good cars to work on, simple and straight-forward.
      Any classic Benz buff who likes to spanner his cars himself will take it.
      The multidigit repair bills are a testament to the dealership greed and the owner’s naivete, rather than the inferiority of the machine itself.

      • 0 avatar

        The multidigit repair bills are a testament to the dealership greed and the owner’s naivete, rather than the inferiority of the machine itself

        No. Fans of older European cars like to say this, but it isn’t true.

        There is a difference between “reliable” in the “can drive a million miles without a new engine (but still requires thousands in repairs)” which this car, the W124, or the Volvo 240 can do, and reliable in the “starts every day and doesn’t cost a fortune” like the Toyota Corolla does.

        Even if you wrench it yourself, you really ought not to have to. Toyota, via Lexus, showed that you can build a car that’s almost as good as this but doesn’t cost all that much to keep up (Honda did the same with the NSX vis a vis Ferrari or Porsche).

        Steve is right in that the reliability of this class of car is seriously overstated by enthusiasts.

  • avatar

    Keep it and drive it yourself and enjoy! If not, lease it and get a few bucks out of it for the “discerning” customer!

  • avatar

    I’ve found that the people I meet that own these are pretty fanatical about them. Usually throwing down quotes like “the best car Mercedes has ever built”..

    I probably wouldn’t say “the best”(The McSLR holds that spot in my heart) but if I didn’t just buy a car I’d probably have the high bid on this one right now..

  • avatar

    These are nice cars that can very easily become horrifying disasters. At least it isn’t a W140… Assuming it’s a southern car – you’ll find the right owner in one of the northern states where the tinworm makes short work of W126’s. I once worked on an 85 500SEL that looked as though it rolled out of the showroom – had 26k miles on it – original tires and all last year. I dunno, but it seems that there is a pretty decent population of well preserved examples with insane prices with a bigger selection of ratty ones. Try a benz forum or ebay again. You’ll get a w126 lover from up north guaranteed.

  • avatar

    Sounds like a lot of money on repairs at first glance but it’s still cheaper than buying a new Mercedes every few years.

    That is a magnificent car. I’d drive it until someone makes an offer you can’t refuse.

  • avatar

    These were the last generation of real Mercedes, built not to a price point, but around a specific and rigid set of points of excellence, and with a bank vault solidity no cars, with possibly the circa 2003 Lexus LS400, possessing since.

    It should indeed go to a Mercedes enthusiast. I could see a complete restoration in this car’s future.

  • avatar

    This appears to be the ultimate teen age ‘high school’ car. I’d buy this for my kids in a heartbeat.

    Built like a tank so it’s the very definition of ‘safe….

    Built like a tank so the kids will learn about budgeting and maintenance reserves and incidental costs….

    • 0 avatar

      I would never give this car to a teenager unless he/she showed serious mechanical aptitude and maturity well beyond his/her years.

      Built like a tank so it’s the very definition of ‘safe….

      Probably not so much as you’d expect. This was designed well before modern crash standards and doesn’t benefit from all we’ve learned in the past twenty years. A newish Camry is probably, holistically, safer, especially if you get something with ESC that helps keep them from smacking up in the first place.

      Built like a tank so the kids will learn about budgeting and maintenance reserves and incidental costs….

      You’d have to be one really rich kid (or one with rich parents) as these cars can chew cash. The basic structure might be tank-like, but the wear items are very expensive and a lot of the secondary components are biodegradable. It’s not at Saab or Jaguar levels, but the wiring harness in this car is a travesty waiting to happen.

      The first non oil/lube/brakes repair would ground this thing.

    • 0 avatar

      Three best safety features in a car this old:
      1. 3-point harnesses,
      2. strong brakes,
      3. weak engine.

      Big, relatively powerful, vehicles are not really all that safe once a teen is behind the wheel.

      Now this particular car would become a safety feature as soon as the kids had to pay for the gas, and a life-saver as soon as something expensive had to be done to it.

    • 0 avatar

      As a high school student with a W124 (300CE) it is fun while I’m not paying for premium gas or repairs. I got 23mpg on my best tank ever, and remember that’s still on premium. And that is a smaller, more efficient car. Not so good when I’m only making ~200 per week at my crappy job. Also, for a part that would cost (rough estimate here) about $100 to put in a Chevy truck cost me $500. And that was the cheaper price I could find.

      If the parents of the given high school student were well off (mine aren’t) these would be great. But for your average kid, I’d pass. Which is also why I’m looking for something new, incidentally.

  • avatar

    With that particular specimen, $1300 is cheap money to put it into your garage and just keep it there, on pegs, of course, for those times when the life gets to you and your wife is nagging you, to just get away, crawl into those seats, pull out portable DVD player and uncork a bottle of nice wine. Compare to 10 spa treatments – Mercedes wins.


  • avatar

    I’ve owned a few of the 1980’s era MBs. They were all built like the Maginot Line including vulnerabilities. The problem nowadays is the high cost of repairs and parts. I’d junk this one or sell it to the old lady. Buyer beware!

  • avatar

    I think it was mean’t for preservation? Somebody else’s babe they had to pass, like a beloved pooch. Can’t be too fussy on a 22 year old car but I think she’d look awesome in an MB silver-blue respray.

  • avatar

    I have found that “smart” Mercedes buyers (and BMW buyers) will lease the car, then turn it back in at the end of the lease: lots of status, but the car is gone, right about the time it starts costing big bucks… ever wonder why there are so many 5 year old 3-series for sale? Blame it on “Four Year 50,000 mile free maintenance”… my son bought a “bargain” used Beemer… after $4500 in repairs the first year, it’s time to trade it for a Toyota!

  • avatar

    This post is giving me PTSD. About a month ago, I liquidated my 1989 300SE (also a w124), with only about 95k miles. It was a money pit. If these are the best cars MB ever built, it’s no wonder Lexus ate their lunch.

    Steve’s vehicle really feels like my old car: religiously maintained with nothing but the best, never denied any repair or expense… and yet there was never a day when everything worked right.

    It was gorgeous though–it looked like it was 2 years old, not 22. I’m a sucker for big, chromed cars with classic proportions. The fact that I never miss mine tells you something.

    SELL, and never look back. For the time/money these require, you should be driving an actual classic.

  • avatar

    My MB mechanic has this exact same car (1989 420SEL) and is nearly to 300,000 miles.

    With all the recent work, and fresh interior – WOW! – this is a keeper. It would be horrible if this went to someone who didn’t appreciate it or treat the car with the respect it deserves. Unfortunately, for that pricepoint, you’ll generally just find people that will run it into the ground. So sad.

  • avatar

    To assume to be able to maintain a luxury car because it is cheap to buy after 20+ years simply is stupid. Luxury cars are not made for everyone, whether they are old or new.
    But if you compare the Mercedes W126 420 SE(L) with the competition you will soon find out that you are better off with this car than, say, a contemporary Jaguar, Audi, or BMW.
    I’d buy this specific 420 SEL with the option to buy it cheap and run it down without having to expect any costly issues.

  • avatar

    If it was an SEC, I would buy it from you.

  • avatar

    Wow, that really takes me back. A girl I knew in high school was well off, thus her parents each had their own 560SEL, one black, one in dark blue. We took one for a spin one day (this is 1988 or ’89) when the ‘rents were out of town. It drove like the humongous beast that it was, but had crazy amounts of torque, luxury, and presence from behind the wheel. I remember understeering with plenty of float through some twisty bits, and later I called one of my friends from the car. He was suitably incredulous that I was A) driving a car worth more than our houses, and B) making a phone call from a moving automobile. I literally could not stop grinning.

    Anyway, I agree that it’s a real beauty, and I would keep it for at least a year. Or, I would trade my wife’s CX-7 for it, straight up.

  • avatar

    Keep it! What could go wrong?

  • avatar

    I spent 1.5 times what I paid for my motorcycle to restore it so I can understand someone spending money on their baby.

    I don’t even consider selling my bike, it will be sold when I’m cold.

  • avatar

    I would love to trash this car while off roading in a pineapple plantation in my area.

  • avatar

    Sell, Sell, Sell! and make some budding African dictator wanna be very happy!

  • avatar

    Sell pieces, parts and components.

  • avatar

    drive it until something really expensive gives out – such as a dome light or a wiper blade.

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