Life is about more than sports cars. I mean, I like a small, go-fast car as much as the next Car Geek, but there are times when you need space for you and three of your closest friends or the kids or the in-laws or, well, you get it. The spacious 1980s Mercedes-Benz W126 S-class remains an icon of solid, over-engineered, reliable luxury – and these days they can be had for a song.
Find this 1981 Mercedes-Benz 380SE here on eBay in Burlingame, California.
The problem with W126s in U.S. spec – at least the early cars – is that they were drastically de-tuned to cope with the USEPA’s emissions stranglehold. Enter the grey market. To get around the rules, many buyers went straight to Germany to get their cars – which could be brought back to the States under a one-time exemption from the rules, but did have to be converted to certain DOT standards – which was completed to varying degrees of quality and success. This 380SE is just such a car. According to the seller it was imported to the U.S. in the late 1980s, which begs the question of what the actual mileage may be. Most grey market cars received new speedos when converted to U.S. specs, since they would have read in km/h in Germany. When the new units were put in – like this one – some adjusted the mileage accordingly and others just started a zero. This car shows over 206K miles, but in truth could be much higher. It’s worth investigating.
One of the appeals of this car is the Thistle Green metallic paint coupled with the green velour interior. Yes, you’d definitely have to be a fan of green to live with this for any period of time, but if you are it is fantastically early 1980s: think new wave, the end of disco, and Blondie. Velour was a no-cost option on U.S. cars, but very few owners went with it, choosing instead the standard leather or MB-tex (depending on the specific model). The velour is not only attractive, but very comfortable. The only real downside is that it does wear more than other materials, and replacement velour is getting harder and harder to source. It is out there, though. Fortunately, this car’s upholstery appears to be in remarkably good nick, especially considering the miles on the car and the fact it has been in dry CA for quite some time.
The European-spec 380s delivered over 50 additional horsepower over the U.S. variant, which transformed the feel of the car from stately boulevardier to peppy sport-sedan. They also had a dual-row timing chain instead of the troublesome single-row on the U.S. cars. This particular car comes well-equipped with automatic climate control (which the seller reports needs a new monovalve – sigh – about $250 installed), factory power windows, and rear headrests. It needs to have European headlights refitted to complete the Euro look of the car – and the vacuum-actuated headlight adjuster switch is still in place on the dash. It could also benefit aesthetically from a set of the 15″ version of the stock “bundt” style alloys, available from the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center.
The only thing missing on this car – and it is a matter of taste, really – is the power sunroof. This is a positive if you are really tall, and it is one less thing to break. Otherwise, the recent work on the car is a good sign of overall roadability, including the full transmission rebuild, timing chain, guides, and tensioner, and general maintenance and tune-up stuff. This is a car I am truly sorry I have no current use for, because I love the short-wheelbase version of this body, the color, and the total home market look of it – right down to the Dusseldorf dealer sticker!