Buyers Guide, Classics, News, Opinion Pieces, Used Cars / Bikes

The Mercedes-Benz W126: In Search Of The Best Car in the World

Do you remember that TV series “In Search Of…”? Every week they’d feature something mystical that humans have been perplexed about for ages, like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, UFO’s, Noah’s Ark, Atlantis, etc. and go hunting for it. Of course they never really found anything, but that wasn’t the point.

The show was deeply captivating; I reckon we’ve always been fascinated by the unknown or unexplained, and if you do remember that show, then you’re the right age group to remember this car, the Mercedes-Benz W126. I recently went searching for it…again.


Debuting way back in 1979 at the Frankfurt Motorshow, the Merc W126 took the motoring world by storm, winning numerous awards internationally, and even that famous accolade ‘the best car in the world’. It was actually also the catalyst for Lexus to develop the LS400; its sole mission, to dethrone the W126 and snatch away that infamous tribute from under its tyres. As a successor to the W116, the W126 was only the second Mercedes-Benz to wear the ‘S-Class’ badge (Sonderklasse or Special Class), and was available with several different engines, the most popular (here) being the 280 and 300, which denoted engine size. I’ve had three of them.

If you’re serious about buying a W126 you’d be wise to have a Merc specialist follow you when viewing it, as I did here. Pay for his time, it’ll save you lots in future.

They’ve been around for more than three decades, but they’re impossible to miss or ignore. Over-engineered to say the least, the cars have endured over the years, and even its simplistic external styling has aged very well. It’s still a regal looking thing, a big and luxurious car that just wafts along. It’s even better on the inside as occupants are ensconced in an expansive interior that set the standard for all other luxury cars to follow. Once the doors are closed with a reassuring ‘thud’, you’re quite literally in a different world.

Interior trim will usually show signs of major wear and tear due to the sheer age of these cars. Note the missing gear knob.

Okay to be honest, the seats offer very little support. They’re big, wide and comfortable yes, but it’s almost like sitting on a well-padded bench. The steering wheel is just too big, and looks like it belongs in a Mercedes Actros instead. But then you crank it, that engine roars to life, slip it into gear and you’re off. Oh yeah, in addition to the regular auto, the W126 was also offered with a manual gearbox as well, something pretty much unheard of these days.

Yes, your eyes don't deceive you, that's a cassette player!
No, your eyes don’t deceive you, that’s a cassette player!

I’ve liked the Merc W126 for a very long time, and I’ve owned three of them in the past. Of course just like the cars I’ve owned in the past and bought again like the Alfa Romeo 155 and Ford TX3, I’d been harboring thoughts of getting another one-twenty-six for a while now. A quick scan of the online classifieds yielded no shortage of W126’s for sale; some looking resplendent and commanding prices in the teens, while others looked like ‘fixer-uppers’, priced as low as RM5,000.

Old but still robust!

The thing to look out for apart from accident damage and rust, are issues with the electrical system and of course wear and tear items. The engines in the W126 are quite hardy and most have survived none the worse for wear despite their age, however, one aspect of the engine that seems to always rear its ugly head with the W126 is the ‘fuel-divider’. Replacing that isn’t cheap, and one way to tell if it’s about to go is that the engine ‘sputters’, and sometimes just dies. Oft times it will start up again, only to die again later. The last I checked a fuel-divider for this car costs about RM1k. Other parts are quite easy to find, but shop around because thanks to past ownership I’ve learned that different places charge very different prices for the same part.

If well maintained, these W126 engines are bullet-proof!

It’s a very robust car, but thanks to our harsh climate, small items like bushings and bearings, and pretty much anything made of rubber will need looking at. And because it’s a very heavy car, suspension components often suffer the most. Do remember that when these cars first came into the country, there was no such thing as ‘tropicalisation’ or regional homologation. We got what Germany got. Thankfully, right out of the crate, these cars were made strong, and the mere fact that there are still so many around for sale and still plying our roads daily is definite testament to that.


I went to see two different units for sale recently, a 280SE manual (above) and a 300SE auto (below). The reason I went to view these two specific cars (in addition to being genuinely interested to possibly buy one of them), was to find out for myself just how stark a difference buying from a used car dealer (280SE) and a Mercedes enthusiast (300SE) can be.


I came to the conclusion that whenever possible always try to buy a car like this from an enthusiast or private seller. Even in terms of overall appearance, despite both cars not being used for lengthy periods of time, it was so obvious that the 300SE was in much better shape, whereas the 280SE looked somewhat abandoned. Both started up on the first crank though, as mentioned earlier, if maintained properly those W126 engines are bullet-proof, but it was also the interactions between me and the two different sellers that proved crucial.


I was able to learn a lot more about the car and its history from the private-seller (above), than I was from the used car dealer, who didn’t seem to know a single thing about the car he was trying to sell me, save for the fact that it was a Mercedes-Benz, (duh) and seemed more eager to just close the deal, which was not going to happen anytime soon, as I needed to know more about the car first, much to his impatient chagrin. Get this, I even had to spring for petrol in order to test drive it, and I paid for a car wash since it was filthy and I wanted to see the condition of the paint, the ‘lines’ and gauge any repairs on the body work.

Paid for this car wash myself to gauge the paint and bodywork!
Paid for this car wash myself to gauge the paint and bodywork!

The Merc W126 is a lovely car really, and more than worthy of taking on the duties of a ‘classic’ daily-driver. If properly maintained they will continue to serve their owners faithfully for many years to come. It was once the ‘best car in the world’ which even the aforementioned Lexus failed to usurp. Of the two that I went to see, the one being sold by the private seller was definitely in better condition, you could just tell right away that this car had been better taken care of. At the time of writing, the car remains unsold, and I’m more than a little tempted to just bite the bullet and buy it, for the sake of Part 2 of this article (ahem) and because, well, it’s simply gorgeous.


In the next ‘buying guide’ installment I’ll be talking about something a bit different; the lost art of selling a car, seeing as how I’ve been visiting showrooms quietly too. Stay tuned! – Chris Wee.