Junkyard Find: 1978 Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

The W116 was the first Mercedes-Benz to get the S-Class designation from the factory, and it was sold in North America from the 1973 through 1980 model years. During the darkest days of the Malaise Era, the W116 was a rare bright spot of performance and build quality, and I still see quite a few of these cars during my junkyard travels (because they took this long to wear out). Here's a late-production W116 sedan, found in a self-service Colorado yard last summer.

I'd say that the 450 SEL was the king of Mercedes-Benz sedans in 1978, but that honor goes to the 450 SEL 6.9, a version with a monstrous V8 optimized for high-speed Autobahn trips.

The MSRP on the 6.9 was $39,377 in 1978, however, and that comes to around $187,565 in 2022 dollars. The regular 450 SEL cost a more reasonable $27,090, or about $129,040 today.

For that kind of money in 1978, you could have bought a pair of new Cadillac Sedan de Villes and had enough left over for a new Oldsmobile Delta 88 sedan.

The de Ville had more power than this car (190 versus 180 horsepower), but the W116 had the advantage in the build-quality and depreciation departments.

This jolting metallic green color was known as Cypress Green Metallic (if I'm reading the data plate on the radiator support correctly).

The only transmission available on the US-market '78 450 SEL was a three-speed automatic.

The leather seats have suffered greatly in the High Plains Colorado climate.

Likewise, the paint has faded and cracked, revealing old body-filler repairs.

These HVAC controls were futuristic stuff in 1978.

There's rust, not too bad but enough to render this car economically undesirable for restoration (though the rough interior had that department handled already).

I wish I could tell you how many miles were on this one at the end, but a junkyard customer bought the instrument cluster before I got here. Most of the W116 odometers I find show at least 200,000 miles.

[Images by the author]

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Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

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2 of 12 comments
  • RHD RHD on Jan 03, 2023

    I remember the early '80s Mercedes... they felt like they were carved from one single piece of steel. Nothing at the time was its equal for both safety and quality.

  • MaintenanceCosts MaintenanceCosts on Jan 04, 2023

    Just noticed "This was the first big Benz to get the S-Class designation from the factory." I don't think that's right, and Wikipedia's claim of it is based on a throwaway line in the source. The S designation stood for the very beginning for "Sonderklasse," just meaning "special class." Mercedes first used the designation on the facelift of the Ponton cars in the mid-50s, and continued using it without a pause on the Fintails (with the odd exception of the very base 220) and the W108s. I'd consider the Ponton 220S to be the first S-Class car.

  • 28-Cars-Later "The unions" need to not be the UAW and maybe there's a shot. Maybe.
  • 2manyvettes I had a Cougar of similar vintage that I bought from my late mother in law. It did not suffer the issues mentioned in this article, but being a Minnesota car it did have some weird issues, like a rusted brake line.(!) I do not remember the mileage of the vehicle, but it left my driveway when the transmission started making unwelcome noises. I traded it for a much newer Ford Fusion that served my daughter well until she finished college.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Couple of questions: 1) who will be the service partner for these when Rivian goes Tits Up? 2) What happens with software/operating system support when Rivia goes Tits Up? 3) What happens to the lease when Rivian goes Tits up?
  • Richard I loved these cars, I was blessed to own three. My first a red beauty 86. My second was an 87, 2+2, with digital everything. My third an 87, it had been ridden pretty hard when I got it but it served me well for several years. The first two I loved so much. Unfortunately they had fuel injection issue causing them to basically burst into flames. My son was with me at 10 years old when first one went up. I'm holding no grudges. Nissan gave me 1600$ for first one after jumping thru hoops for 3 years. I didn't bother trying with the second. Just wondering if anyone else had similar experience. I still love those cars.
  • TheEndlessEnigma A '95 in Iowa, I'm thinking significant frame and underbody rust issues.