Formerly Nice Cars That Aren’t Sensible At All: Mercedes 450SEL vs BMW 750iL

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Hey everyone, it’s Thursday! One more day to go. For our last matchup of the week, I decided it was time to be a bit less sensible, and look at two cars that used to be nice, and maybe could be again, if you have infinite patience and a large bank account. Before we look at them, let’s settle yesterday’s score:

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No AC in a black car. Hey, who doesn’t love a good Korean BBQ?

Now, today we’re going to check out two of Germany’s finest offerings from their respective eras, a pair of top-of-the-line long-wheelbase sedans. These cars were the ultimate in status symbols (well, almost; we’ll get to that) when they were new, but now they’re not likely to impress anybody without some work. Let’s take a look.

1976 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL – $1,650

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Engine/drivetrain: 4.5 liter V8, 3 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Gardena, CA

Odometer reading: 150,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yes, but “needs a major tuneup”

First off: No, this is not a 6.9. I doubt it would be under $2000 in running condition if it were. But the 4.5 liter V8 in the “normal” W116 is no slouch, and it’ll certainly move better than the turbodiesel version will. It’s just not quite the velvet sledgehammer that its big sister was. Still, even without the extra displacement and the magic hydropneumatic suspension system, the 450SEL badge means something special.

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This one is apparently owned by a cinematographer, and one who is proud of the meager mise en scene that a parking lot in Gardena has to offer. This ad has the strangest attempts at artsy photos that I think I’ve ever seen. I mean, isn’t it customary to actually photograph the car you’re trying to sell?

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It’s too bad, too, because it’s a handsome car. Granted, W116s (and most ’70s European cars) look a lot better without the gigantic 5 mph bumpers, but if they really bother you, European-style bumpers can be found. The rest of the exterior looks really damn nice, actually, especially for the price. And I don’t know why I’m stuck on unusual reds this week, but this is another great one. See? You can choose a bold color for a luxury car and have it still look classy.

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The interior is said to be in “not good” condition, but it’s hard to assess with the seat covers on the front and blankets and towels over the back seat. The dash and door panels sure look fine. But honestly, even if the seats are trashed under those covers, who cares? If this thing runs half as nice as it looks, it could be a steal.

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Of course, it’s still a vintage high-end Mercedes, so maintenance is not going to be cheap, especially if you can’t do it yourself. But if you don’t mind tinkering, then you only have to worry about the exorbitant cost of parts.

1995 BMW 750iL – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 5.4 liter V12, 5 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Bonney Lake, WA

Odometer reading: 195,000 miles

Runs/drives? Not so much

I have to be honest: I assumed our first twelve-cylinder car on here would be a Jaguar. But a photo of a flagship BMW with a 2×4 for a hood prop is like catnip to someone who writes about crappy broken cars. I just couldn’t resist.

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And this thing is a hot mess. The ignition switch is broken, the DME (BMW-speak for engine control module) is toast, and there are markings on the windows that look suspiciously like impound lot scribbles. I get the feeling that this car was stolen, impounded, and then auctioned, which would account for the rebuilt title. Clearly there’s some work to be done before you go living out any James Bond fantasies, but it sounds like most of what you need to get it running is included.

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It’s also, for some reason, missing the exhaust system past the headers. Maybe whoever stole it absconded with the catalytic converters before they ditched it. I have no desire to own this car, but I sure would love to be around when whoever buys it fires it up for the first time. I’m curious to hear what a BMW V12 with open headers sounds like.

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The biggest problem with it that I can see is that one mid-’90s BMW sedan looks pretty much like any other, especially in scruffy beat-up shape like this. You might know it has a twelve-cylinder engine, and you might impress a few people at Cars & Coffee, but otherwise it’s just an expensive, thirsty pain in the ass.

So there they are, two grand old German luxury sedans well past their prime. Which one is more worthy of a spot in your theoretical driveway?

Quiz maker

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88 Responses

  1. I work on BMW for a living, so if not given a third option that lets me nope the hell out on ancient German garbage…

    The BMW. At least I know I can get parts for it and have whatever special tools it needs at my fingertips.

    1. You don’t even need to go get it yourself at that price.
      Paid shipping cross-country won’t even double the price of the Mercedes.
      You could fly out and look at it if you want, or you could hire a third party inspector to do that.

      I think this might be the way I get my next project car. Online shopping, a third party inspector, and a shipping company pick up and drop off service.

      You won’t find many rust free 40+ year old body shells in the salt belt.

      1. I’m not sure why, but it never occurred to me to look for a project car out west. It is a great point that a 3rd party inspection and shipping would be relatively cheap (I had a vehicle shipped before when I moved out of state; it cost around $600 for a reputable company to ship my old pickup 1,000 miles). It would definitely be cheaper than driving 4,500 miles while burning $6.00 diesel in my F250. Although, picking the vehicle up myself would be an excuse to take a road trip to California, which is never a bad thing.

        I have genuinely wanted a ’70s Mercedes for a while, so this vehicle definitely caught my attention (I am more interest in a diesel, though). I am going to start looking at vehicles in California or Arizona, if this Benz isn’t an anomaly.

        1. I’ve been looking there before, but somehow over the last several years got wound into saving local cars instead. I’m way past due for something that doesn’t involve nearly as much penetrating oil, wire brushes, sandpaper and heating so many bolts with a torch to get them to release.

          The Mercedes here or the Imperial of a couple weeks ago are the sorts of thing I’m in the mood for but don’t have space for right now. I doubt I’ll be the only one later regretting not making a move on today’s Merc.

          Hmm… storage units are about $100 a month, how quickly can I make garage space… ?

        2. Try looking in Washington and Oregon as well. Many well preserved old cars up there, and they won’t be sunbaked like those in the south west. I keep begging my s.o. for a trip out west (not just for the cars, I have people there as I used to live above Seattle, among other places).

  2. I opened the article expecting to choose the BMW, always had a preference for 90s and older BMWs. But, this one is pure lawn ornament status, just like my (future) stepdaughters much newer 750.

    As such, the Benz is the only one that makes sense here.

    1. Same. Hardcore older BMW lover. Always wanted a V12 Bimmer. Alas, after reading and looking, the Benz is the only way to go. If I had free garage space, I’d actually consider buying it. I guess I would have an extra space after my wife divorced me for buying a 46 year old car just to play with.

    1. I would get it for the M73 V12 to do a swap into my BMW 850 with the M70. Pretty Straightforward. Would not be pay $2500 for it though.

      Might get lucky with a Limited Slip rear end.

      Part out the rest on Craiglist and send the rest to the scrapper

  3. Pretty lopsided win for the MB.

    Pay 33% more for 33% more cylinders? I mean, normally, fine. But just look at that BMW. It aged exactly as expected for something that’s intended to last the length of a lease. I’ve always gotten the impression that BMWs after the E36 have been a cynical cash grab, but that’s just my opinion. Of course, MB seemed to have lost the plot after the W140, so there’s that.

    I admit to being somewhat biased against newer BMWs. There just seems to be an extraordinarily higher amount of cost cutting in the most inexplicable and crippling of areas.

    1. The Benz for sure. I leave near Gardena too. And if you know the right places you can have the interior redone and outside painted for about $2k. Plus an engine tune, again with someone in their driveway for about $800 tops. All told a great old car under $5k

  4. The MB is such an easy choice. A W116 Mercedes body shell in good condition for under $2000? Are you sure the ad is not a scam? This is a great Mercedes, well worth restoring. It’s also a great looking car if you’d rather restomod it or just clean it up and drive. I’d rather have the 4.5 engine if it’s to be driven frequently. The bigger motor would be lots of fun, but a chassis this old surely makes a better cruiser anyway. The 4.5 has plenty for that.

    That BMW looks like garbage, has a garbage engine computer, and scrap wood holding up the hood. It’s nowhere near worth all the money it would take to restore to even 10 foot condition. The missing catalytic converters cost how much? AND a rebuilt title?

    Also, BMW 12 cylinder engines just don’t tempt me much because they’re not enough better than a similar year V8 engine to justify the additional maintenance and repair costs.

    Find me an E23 7 Series in nice condition for under $3000 and we might have a fight on our hands. Or better yet, an E12 5 Series.

    Today’s competition is no contest at all. The Mercedes is going to win the week, too.

    1. Called it. I believe you’re correct, sir.

      The conspirators, I mean, authors will give us some sensible sedans and one outrageous old Benz and laugh at us for picking the fat, fuel- and maintenince-heavy German over a decent small, supposedly reliable car with good fuel efficiency.

      Mind you, I don’t have a problem with any of this, quite the contrary. I find it delightful.

      1. I’d never laugh at anyone for choosing that Benz over anything. I love it, and if I didn’t have to park in such a sketchy part of town for my day job, I’d probably daily something like that.

        Today was supposed to be Toyota Avalon versus Pontiac Bonneville, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it after I spotted Big Red there.

    1. Probably a few voted before reading the article, figuring they were in pretty equivalent condition and couldn’t be bothered with, ya know, actually reading about them to find out for sure.

  5. I can’t imagine spending actual dollars that I had earned on that BMW, unless is was a far cheaper parts car. That old Merc will run forever with some time doing regular maintenance, and it could probably be a pretty fun car to learn on for someone younger. Easy choice

  6. The Benz is the more solid of the two cars and the one worth saving. As mentioned, parts will get pricey, but you can also update quite a few things (restomod!) and not destroy a super valuable or unusual car.

      1. Oh yes, my local one also “takes in” old appliances and any other form of metal. They’ll even *pay you* for the privilege! Not much, mind you, but something.

  7. 450SEL

    I would go nowhere near a 750 with ecu-related symptoms at any price. I actually had someone offer me one of there for $1000 almost 20 years ago – complete and in excellent physical condition except for the engine, which did none of the useful engine things.

    If I remember right, this engine’s fuel and spark was controlled by two sets of engine controls for an I6 and then added computers to handle the communications between the separate halves? I know someone here will have better knowledge.

    Can a megasquirt handle a V12? If so, this particular car still has too few parts in good condition to make it worth the effort.

    1. In order:
      It’s worse. It’s 3 separate DMEs; one per bank, plus one to coordinate those two. Each bank has a completely separate set of sensors, inputs, everything. And all 3 are unique, special, and guaranteed to fail. It’s the most idiotic setup in the history of systems design. And that’s just the DMEs. You ALSO have an EWS, a TCM, a BCM, an audio module, and an ABS module.

      And fuck no. It’s a highly tuned, highly precise 12 cylinder with 2 complete sets of sensors and a dozen other computers that rely on proprietary signals to function at all. And MegaSquirt can barely handle a V8 with knock, dual Lambdas, no ABS, and a manual transmission. If MegaSquirt was so great, I would gladly save thousands and use it instead. It’s not. Especially not in high complexity.
      There are three systems on the market that could handle it – the MoTeC GPR-M190 for sure with a whole lotta extras, maybe could get an Adaptronic M6000 or ECUMaster EMU Black to work with additional standalone units.

      1. For some reason, I remember people saying the thing had 12 ‘computers.’ I tune out at the mention of more than one, so my count could be off. I did only enough research to understand that this was not the droid I was looking for.

        It’s a shame. I think it’s a beautiful machine along with the e36 and e39.

  8. As an owner of an old school Benz (R107) I can say that if here is no rust and the interior is in good shape these cars can be resurrected at reasonable cost if you do the work yourself. The 450 engine is practically bulletproof, as is the auto transmission. Parts availability is surprisingly good, these cars were sold on virtually every continent and there are lots of aftermarket parts available to keep them going, even for the older D-Jet engines.

  9. I like how the seller of the Merc managed the “at least clean the car before taking the photos” test but then forgot the surprise “also clean the camera” test which I didn’t realize was necessary.

    But the BMW has more red flags than a Hongqi museum so there’s only one choice here.

    1. Agreed, and please, leave the terrible artsy photos to impress your InstaFaceTwit friends with.

      It may seem weird, but people looking for a used car tend to want to see….THE CAR. Not how nicely you can focus on ordinary things in the background, or how well you can hide damage by doing so.

      I could do a whole series on laughably bad car photos, from focusing in on your thumb hiding the license plate (leaving the rest of the car a red blurr that you couldn’t tell if it was a Sequoia or an Aspire) to this one guy literally using Zillow (a real-estate website) to show a shadowy black blob that was supposedly a 2003 Ford F-150. I think the actual image came from Google Street view or whatever. I’m not making this up. I’d gladly post the screen shot if I could.

      1. I have an old used car ad from a Swedish magazine that will trump anything you have ever seen; really looking forward to Autopian allowing us to post things. Also, the car in question was a 6-year old Austin Allegro in “good condition but engine somewhat defective”.

  10. One of these is a California rust-free example of a classic design that will likely appreciate in value.

    One of these makes maintaining a boat when you don’t live within 100 miles of a lake seem prudent.

    Easy call.

  11. Even though I own a 2000 750iL (with no cats or mufflers), I had to vote for the MB. The owner of the 750iL will be lucky to get $1000 for what is essentially a parts car. I paid $4500 for mine with ~200k miles, but it was well maintained mechanically and has highly desireable and valuable 18″ BBS Style 5 wheels that are worth almost half as much as the car.
    I bought the car just to get me through the winter, which it did successfully, with the intention of transplanting the engine into a much smaller car in my stable 😉 It’s surprisingly not very loud, despite the open exhaust. Maybe its the double pane glass, but it basically sounds like a sports exhaust on other cars. I have headers on the way from Ukraine, which will go on for the swap into the other car, though I’ll be putting some high flow cats in line so I don’t choke at every stop 😉

    1. This post inspired me to drive the 750iL to work today instead of my wife’s Mazda that would use 1/2 the fuel. Aaaaaaand, it cranked strong (thanks to a 2-battery system that ensures the starter’s battery won’t be drained), but no start. UGH.

  12. I picked the Bimmer because I had an older 730i when I lived in Germany. It was a great Autobahn car with the 3.0 liter 6, I can’t imagine it with a 12 cyl. It’d take a ton of money to get it into good running condition, though.

  13. I worked for Motorola’s semiconductor sector in the 90’s, and at one of the monthly divisional meetings, management was touting how we had over 70 chips in the latest BMW 7 series. Even without the obvious water damage (check out that headliner), I wouldn’t want to rely on all 70 of those chips still functioning. We stressed them to 20 years equivalent lifetime and guaranteed them for 10.

  14. I had an electrical and drivability specialty.
    I am a fucking wizard with automotive electrical systems. I’m the guy who can fix the CANbus error on the first try and NOT have a return. When the error codes make no sense, you bring that shit to me, and an hour later (pending parts) it’s back to closed loop. I can identify good fusible links without referring to the manual. I like a challenge.

    AND YOU ARE FUCKING HIGH IF YOU THINK I WOULD EVEN LET ANY ONE OF YOU BUY A 750iL WITH ELECTRICAL PROBLEMS.
    No, SERIOUSLY. I will literally come to your house and slap the title out of your hand and stare in furious judgment while I made you dismantle it and take a plasma torch to the frame rails.
    No! I don’t care who you think you are. You cannot fucking fix it. I could fix it, absolutely, as soon as you’re ready to pay for a MoTeC GPR-M190, wiring, and programming.
    That’s a $6,500 ECU, a $900 dual lambda module, about $1000 in sensors, call it $9500 for the wiring, and I charge $250 an hour for custom programming – actual time only. Plus dyno expenses. (So yes, it will be more than $10k. Probably a lot more.)

    You know what? No, no. Anyone who does vote for it has to pay me to fix it. And it’s done when I say it’s done.

  15. I would pick W116 450 SEL over E38 750iL due to the ease of repair/service and wide availability of the parts on the cheap. We owned a 1977 450 SEL for a few decades and enjoyed driving it as well as servicing and repairing the car (German equivalent of Haynes repair manual helped enormously for the “shade tree repairs”).

    I am not even one bit surprised about the “astoundingly” low price for 750iL. I would probably buy 750iL as a part car and parting it out until there’s nothing but bones left.

  16. That BMW V12 is a POS, and so is that era of 7 series. I have a friend, very talented OCD perfectionist type, who runs an imported/exotic car dealership; it is literally HIS dealership. He told me he was getting a 7 series with a V12 and I said bad idea, he didn’t listen. He had it 1.5 years, and sold it because even with FREE LABOR FROM SKILLED MECHANICS, it was difficult to keep on the road. Those cars are terrible.

  17. Having owned both BMWs and MBs, I would normally choose the BMW every time (I find them much easier to work on.) However, in this case the MB is a easy choice, sometimes you have to go with condition, and the BMW is best suited for a junkyard so it can give it’s remaining good parts to another.

  18. This was a no brainer. The BMW 750iL is a legendary money pit in good condition and this one is fit only for use as Ford Windsor swapped Lemons car. The 450SEL is running, driving and $1000 cheaper, which will cover most of a thorough service at an independent specialist.

  19. A 1995 BMW in good condition would be a potential money pit, but this one sounds like a disaster from the start. I’m not sure any 7 Series but the first will ever be a classic on par with the 450SEL, so it might not be worth more than scrap. The 450SEL is definitely worth preserving. At that price, I wish it was in PA.

  20. If I didn’t already have the old executive sedan slot filled in my garage I’d be tempted to take on that Merc as a project. The only real downside to the car is that it’s a ’76 which means it needs to be smogged here in Cali. Otherwise the price it so low it leaves me wondering if it’s a scam. As of the moment I voted the Merc is getting the 90%+ vote it merits.

    Even the V12 can’t save that BMW. Woof.

  21. There are, apparently, living breathing humans voting for the BMW. Who the hell are you people, and what is wrong with you? Is there some kind of childhood trauma involving a boxy Benz that you’d like to talk out, and get off your chest. I mean if not here perhaps you would consider some professional help?

    Seriously though, why!?!

  22. I think this could be the easiest choice yet. The Mercedes. I’m not the biggest BMW fan (and I only like older Mercs), though I do like the 7 series from this era, but this looks too much like a basket case, and that centre console has WAY too many buttons. The Mercedes is elegant, and probably doesn’t have as much that can go wrong (though I would leave that to an expert to find out since I certainly ain’t that).

  23. No contest, Benz-me. In fact, I wish this w116 was closer – at that price, I’d be happy to detail it and just park it in the driveway for awhile. I’ve owned a variety of w114, w115, and w123 Mercedes and even the shit-boxiest among them would fire up without too much fuss. Meanwhile, I tried to help a friend out with what looked like a nice ’85 BMW 735i, but it seemed near impossible to work through any of the electrical gremlins hiding within that thing. He finally sold it out of sheer frustration.

      1. I would get it for the M73 V12 to do a swap into my BMW 850 with the M70. Pretty Straightforward. Would not be pay $2500 for it though.

        Might get lucky with a Limited Slip rear end.

        Part out the rest on Craiglist and send the rest to the scrapper

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