Mercedes-Benz W126 - Future Classics

By: Guy Allen, Photography by: Mercedes-Benz, Unique Cars Archives

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Huge and hugely expensive in its day, the W126 series Benz aimed to be the best in the world when launched in 1979


Mercedes-Benz W126

While we all get wrapped in the excitement surrounding established gold-plated classics, there is a host of ‘sleepers’ out there that might present an opportunity. We reckon the Mercedes-Benz W126 series is one of them.

Before we get too far into this, let me declare an interest – I’ve recently bought one of these things, which I’ll tell you about shortly.

Mercedes-Benz W126

Right, so this was the second-generation of the S-class and a significant rework on its predecessor the W116 (1972-1980). This iteration of Benz’s top-shelf range was aimed at the wealthy, the ambitious and maybe even the pretentious. Pricing back then was even more sobering than it is now. As the range neared the end of its run in 1989, a 300SEL (long wheelbase six) would set you back $135,000, while the range-topping 560 SEL (V8 long wheelbase) was closer to $205,000. Back then, that upper number would have bought you a pretty nice house in any capital city in the country. In some places it would have got you a mansion.

| Our Shed: Mercedes-Benz 300SEL W126

Built 1979 through to 1991 in most places (with a significant update from 1986), and up to 1994 in South Africa, it’s sometimes described by enthusiasts as the last of the ‘good’ Benzes, in that they were as solid as the proverbial brick outhouse and particularly well-assembled. That said, owners of several generations of these cars (and others) will claim exactly the same thing!

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However the claim may have some validity, since one or two former Benz staffers have added their voices to that view, via Hagerty online.

While the prices may have been staggering, so were the sales – over 818,000 sedans (we’ll deal with the coupes another day), which meant it was the biggest S-class production of all time.

There were two main body variants, in short (2935mm) and long (3075) wheelbase form. By ‘short’, don’t think we’re talking compact – the standard S-class was a full-size sedan by most standards, while the long version is more on the scale of a land yacht. Sure, the difference in wheelbase doesn’t seem huge, and they were only around 150mm longer overall. However they are also a little taller and the difference in rear legroom seems huge. You can literally fit four six-footers in it with plenty of space.

Mercedes-Benz W126

As a package, Benz aimed at making the car more efficient, looking for a 10 per cent fuel saving over its predecessors, with a more aerodynamic shape and some weight-saving measures such as the use of what was described as a high-strength low-alloy steel in many of the panels, and more extensive use of aluminium in its engines. Despite all that, my experience is they still like a drink. Perhaps most scandalous from a traditionalist point of view was the dropping of steel bumpers for more crash-friendly plastic units, which still sported a chrome strip.

Styling was lead by Bruno Sacco, who was a long-term design chief for the company, serving from 1975 through to 1999. That puts him across four generations of S-class: W116, W126, W140 and W220.

Mercedes-Benz W126

Powering these monsters was a wide range of petrol and diesel sixes, from 2.6lt through to for petrol and up to 3.5lt for diesel. In addition, there was a five-cylinder 3.0lt diesel, and four petrol V8s ranging from 3.8lt through to 5.6.

As for transmissions, four-speed manuals were standard on some of the lower order cars, while a four-speed auto was by far the most popular option. A five-speed manual could also be ordered in some models.

Mercedes-Benz W126

The company used this series to introduce a wealth of safety gear over time, with seatbelt pretensioners being one of the few standard items across the range. Over years it also introduced ABS, traction control and airbags. However what car got which gear, and when, varied from one market to another.

While the thought of used European car ownership scares a lot of people, because of the real or imagined cost of servicing and repairs, this generation has some appeal simply because its engineering is relatively straight-forward and there is far less dependence on electronics (particularly in base models) than in later generations.

Mercedes-Benz W126

Perhaps the best example is the key is an old-fashioned metal unit with no electronics or codes attached. There is nevertheless some carry-over weirdness, such as the vacuum-operated central locking.

Prices, I suspect, have gone pretty close to hitting rock bottom. For example, my 300SEL cost $8000 which is a huge amount of metal for the money. Nevertheless, you can get one for half that. The reason I paid more was because it had a known history with a recent engine and transmission freshen-up and was overall in great condition.

Mercedes-Benz W126

Properly maintained – and I really don’t think there are any special tricks to this – a good one should last well and be reasonably easy on the wallet. Get a bad one, and it may reach a point where it’s cheaper to walk away.

Our long wheelbase version is a supreme long distance car, but on the other hand it’s a bit of a yacht through corners. Entirely predictable and stable, but nevertheless boat-like. The general belief is the SEL versions are the ones to go for if comfort is a priority, as the ride is noticeably different. However an SE will provide a more normal driving experience.

Mercedes-Benz W126

Will they ever be collectible? Probably, as all older upmarket Benzes eventually seem to develop an enthusiast following. Don’t buy one as part of your superannuation plan, but a good example that’s well cared-for should do okay over time.

Mercedes-Benz W126


Lots of car for the money Supremely comfortable


A bad one will eat your wallet


From Unique Cars #440, May 2020

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