Home » The ‘S’ Is For Sunroof: 1985 Mercedes 500SEL vs 1996 Mercedes S420

The ‘S’ Is For Sunroof: 1985 Mercedes 500SEL vs 1996 Mercedes S420

Sbsd 8 24 2023
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Good morning! Today is our fourth and final installment of same-make cars with non-standard roofs. This time, it’s the Germans’ turn as we look at two be-sunroofed examples of Mercedes-Benz’s flagship sedan. But first, let’s take a look at the foregone conclusion from yesterday’s T-top Nissans:

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Tommy the Cat’s ride runs away with it, and no one is surprised. The Spartan had its fans, and provoked its share of incredibly silly (and awesome) ideas, but let’s be realistic: no one is going to actually buy it unless they’re an eccentric millionaire with a very long garage. Or a hobby farm.

You know what has always puzzled me? A hole in the top of a car with an openable solid panel is called a sunroof, but an otherwise identical feature with a glass panel is called a moonroof. Why is that? They both let in the sun if you open them, and if you’re going to moon someone, it makes a lot more sense to just press ham against a side window than try to get your hindquarters all the way up there. Seems awkward. And dangerous. And nobody will see it anyway, except maybe the truckers.

No matter. Today’s contenders are far too classy for such shenanigans. For many decades, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class has made a statement: it says you’ve arrived. And unlike so many other aspirational vehicles, it’s generally reliable enough that you should actually arrive. These two are a generation apart, and almost two grand different in price, but the cheap one needs some work that might make the more expensive option a better buy. Let’s take a look.

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1985 Mercedes-Benz 500SEL – $2,600

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Engine/drivetrain: 5.0 liter overhead cam V8, four-speed automatic, RWD

Location: Port Orchard, WA

Odometer reading: 165,000 miles

Runs/drives? Runs great, but needs brakes

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The W126 series S-Class is still, to this day, the car that first comes to my mind when someone says “Mercedes-Benz.” It’s got that classic Bruno Sacco styling, it’s built like Fort Knox, and it has presence. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the cars indirectly responsible for one of the most reviled automotive laws in the US: the 25 year import rule. Early on, US-spec W126s were only available with a sluggish 3.8 liter V8, or the glacial – but stalwart – 3 liter turbodiesel. Gray-market imports of faster, more desirable European-spec W126 models were popular, leading Mercedes and other carmakers to get petty and help Congress close the loophole in 1988.

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This sad-looking specimen might be such a gray-market car. Honestly, it’s kind of hard to tell sometimes. The speedometer is in miles per hour, but the bumpers look like the svelte European ones instead of the US-spec battering rams, and the headlights look European-spec too. The 500SEL (“L” for long wheelbase) was officially sold in the US in 1985, but gray-market cars were still often cheaper. You’d have to check the stickers on the door jamb and under the hood to know for sure whether this is an actual US-spec model or not.

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The seller says it was just tuned up and runs great, but it needs brake work “ASAP.” You’d have to ask them if that means you need to tow it home, or if it can be driven carefully. They also say it “needs interior work,” but don’t get specific. It still looks pretty good in there, a little dirty, but not nearly as beat-up as some I’ve seen in this price range. There are bound to be a few electrical things that don’t work – and this car has a lot of electrical things – but if the core functions are all intact, you can fix little stuff as you go along, once you take care of the brakes.

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Honestly, I think this car mostly suffers from bad presentation. It would look a lot better if they moved it out of that ditch and cleaned it up a little.

1996 Mercedes-Benz S420 – $4,300

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Engine/drivetrain: 4.2 liter dual overhead cam V8, five-speed automatic, RWD

Location: Ladera Ranch, CA

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Odometer reading: 188,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep!

Now this is how you present a used Mercedes-Benz for sale. Of course, location may have something to do with it; this looks like one of those fancy-pants Orange County McMansion neighborhoods, where a twenty-seven-year-old S-Class is equivalent to a scruffy Buick Century most places. It’s a fitting backdrop for a living legend, however; this car looks like it belongs here, or did, in its day. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the W140 S-class is a very photogenic, and timeless, car.

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The W126 and its twelve-year run was a tough act to follow, but the W140 rose to the occasion. Its styling was a nice conservative evolution, nothing too radical that would scare away the old buyers. All the major advances were where you can’t see them anyway, starting with a host of new quad-cam engines, including a V12. No V12 here; this car has to make do with a mere 4.2 liter V8. This one has had a lot of work done to it recently, and the seller says it runs well. The air conditioning is inoperative, however, and it needs “little things here and there.”

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Cosmetically, it’s in fine shape, and the interior is as clean as a whistle, as far as I can tell. Again, it is an old Mercedes, so some stuff probably doesn’t work; cars like this are a hobby as much as they are transportation. But at least you’ll look good in the meantime, and rides don’t get much comfier or more solid than this.

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Personally, I’m not crazy about the oversize wheels with their painted-on tires, but that can be changed, I suppose. I could live with them, at least until it was due for new tires. And if I had my choice, I’d look for some other color than silver; this isn’t the right car for something wild, but it doesn’t have to blend quite so completely into the scenery.

Neither of these cars is going to be exactly cheap to live with, but if they really are in decent mechanical condition as claimed, you’re starting from a good place. These are extremely durable cars, if not always completely reliable, and if you take care of them on their own terms, they should last a long time. So which will it be – the last of the old guard, or the first of the technological new world?

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
9 months ago

I think I trust scruffy more than I trust the gaudy wheels. The latter paired with the base engine screams “I just made superficial updates to appear richer than I am.” The scruffy one—well, you know that one needs a full going-over. It’s the prettier design, a far better color and nearly half the price. No-brainer to me.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
10 months ago

126 instantly here. I dailied two different 300SDs for years. Replaced almost all of the brake system in my first, which cost me a whopping $500, so that doesn’t bother me. It’s been 20 years, and performing the contortions necessary to r&r the booster/master cylinder will leave me much creakier than I’d like, but I can still do it. The vacuum lines are tedious as all hell, but those things were built to be serviced. Just takes patience and care. Intricate and meticulous, but not insanely complicated. It took time to grok the zeitgeist for me, but once you get the rhythm the work isn’t difficult. That sounds stupid, but I think anyone who maintains one for a few years will understand & agree.

They reward you when you take the time. The stately ‘chunk’ of a door once you’ve spent an afternoon shimming it & aligning the catch assures you that the world is right. The steering is light, but assured-and the car is not nimble, but surprisingly competent for such a massive beast. They will flat eat miles. My ‘85 SD felt exactly the same at an indicated 105 as it did at 65-and felt like it would willingly do it all day. Confident and solid, awesome cruisers.

Now, however, I prefer to throw rowdy shitboxes weighing some 3/4 of a ton less at switchbacks to a stately cruise of Memory Lane, so mind that booster as you exit, please: it took me hours of packing and layering and stretching and tucking to get the shape right again.

Last edited 10 months ago by TOSSABL
EricTheViking
EricTheViking
10 months ago

The 500SEL (“L” for long wheelbase) was officially sold in the US in 1985…

Actually, 1984.

http://www.peachparts.com/shopforum/diesel-discussion/243314-high-quality-pictures-1984-brochure.html

The SL-Class was only one that didn’t get the 5-litre M117 engine so 380 SL lacklustrely soldiered on until 1986 when it was upgraded to 560 SL along with 560 SEL and 560 SEC. Allegedly, it was due to the difficulties of packaging the larger cataylsators in the smaller engine bay and under the chassis.

The loophole was closed in 1988 mostly due to the dodgy conversion work, fraudulent documentation, and onus of product liability and warranty on the manufacturers, not grey importers and conversion specialists. This and along with the army of lawyers salivating for the 30% of exorbitant monetary damage awards if the grey import cars were found to be “defective” or lacked the FMVSS-mandated “safety equipment” following the accidents or injuries.

Additionally, the manufacturers resented having to pay at least $10 million (now $42 million, according to Automobile News) to engineer, test, document, and certify each model in each body form and each engine and gearbox combination in the 1980s. The grey importers didn’t have to do that…

Autoweek and several car magazines did a lot of extensive coverage in the 1980s on the peril of grey imports and notoriety of importers and specialists in committing the fraud. Albert Mardikian and his family and relatives were the most famous example…

67 Oldsmobile
67 Oldsmobile
10 months ago

i voted for the w126 because I had one maybe 10-12 years ago. It was a low-spec model with cloth seats and a gas straight 6 in it,but it made a nice sound and was beautiful to drive as well.

FleetwoodBro
FleetwoodBro
10 months ago

Not a fan of either of these. I mean, if you want a 126, bite the bullet and find a good one that’s been taken care of. A neglected 126 will likely need everything. Seats resprung and stuffed so you don’t fall out onto the curb when you sit down in it, vacuum lines and check valves, fuel injection gibberish, the aforementioned brakes, timing chain, guides, probably valve cover gaskets, fuel pump, numerous perished rubber suspension parts (dear god please no hydropneumatic nonsense), recored radiator, you name it. If the “tempomat” cruise control works, you should buy a lottery ticket. Even then, after you’ve done all that, it might be less of a pain in the ass than a 140 with a bad evaporator core.

Chris D
Chris D
10 months ago

The ’85, for sure. They were solid as if they were carved out of a solid block of steel. It’s a classic that will only appreciate with time.
The newer one has embarrassing douchebag wheels and tires, which will cost a bit to replace. The AC doesn’t work, which means that a few other important things have likely been ignored as well.
If you are going to drive a Mercedes, then get a classic, not a common, high-mileage used car.

Rapgomi
Rapgomi
10 months ago

I’ve spent time working on and owning both these models, and a clean W140 is a far far better car than a tired W126. You would think the simpler W126 would be easier to work on – but you would be wrong. You will spend your entire life tracing leaking vacuum lines… and in the end the doors still won’t always lock, the windows will stick, and it will still have mysterious and intermittent running issues. Once inside you will find that every window seal will leak and the seats are lumpy with molding rat chewed rubberized horsehair. Mechanical parts are often single source, hard to get, and use difficult and out of date assembly methods.

With an older Mercedes you want the cleanest one you can find that has been continuously driven. This W140 is clean and appears to have had an owner who cared and drove it with some regularity, while the W126 looks tired, and has almost certainly spent some time sitting, every seal and fluid absorbing moisture.

The W140 is a massively better driving car, and this appears to be a clean reasonably well cared for example.

A clear win for the S420!

OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
10 months ago

I preferred the W126 anyway – the fact that it’s cheaper is just gravy.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
10 months ago

The Commisar’s in town and he wants to ride in old world luxury so W126. Yeah the cheaper one needs brakes but the hoonerbenz needs an AC Service likely more than the ask of this car. I also hate the trashy wheels but who are you kidding, a decent set of wheels for a Benz? A couple of thousand easy. A boat would be cheaper.

Mike F.
Mike F.
10 months ago

Gotta go with the 126. The styling is one reason, but the price difference locks it up for me. Take that extra $1700 and put it into the brake work, some floor mats, and a decent detailing job. After that, you’ll likely put no more into it that you would the 140 and you’ll have a nicer car.

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
10 months ago

I feel like we’re running out of good W126s (especially lwbs) in the world, just like we ran out of good W123s. Time to get one if you want one.

Ricki
Ricki
10 months ago

I just went newer on this one, for no real reason beyond finish. Just hop in and drive away.

Richard O
Richard O
10 months ago

I’ll take the newer one. 10 years advancement in fuel injection systems is nothing to sneeze at. Especially in that period.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
10 months ago

I’ll take my chances with W126, while the W140 isn’t as bad as the W220 it still marks an era of increasing complexity. Also the W126 is the car I described as “body by Mosler” M-B has a surprising amount of support for old cars, albeit for a price

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
10 months ago

> if you’re going to moon someone, it makes a lot more sense to just press ham against a side window than try to get your hindquarters all the way up there. Seems awkward. And dangerous. And nobody will see it anyway, except maybe the truckers.

Did Jason edit this article?

Old MB > newer MB every time.

> Bruno Sacco

… Under Geiger. Sacco left to his own devices was MB’s Bangle.

Last edited 10 months ago by Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Jason Roth
Jason Roth
10 months ago

I’m with all the people who like the W126 styling more. I didn’t exactly love it at the time—as a teen, I was too into sports cars too admire any sedan—but when the W140 came out I thought it was a step down.

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