1978 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL: Big Whole Lot of Car for Cheap..!

If you’ve read this blog with any regularity, it’s no secret that I like Mercedes – especially those of the big stinkin’ V8 variety. To the subject of today’s post, the W116-bodied Mercedes S-class was the first Mercedes I can recall seeing on the showroom floor. It was a black one on a turntable, and it was glorious. Released in 1973, the W116 brought Mercedes (and with them dozens of other manufacturers through osmosis) into the modern era. Performance, safety features, and styling (in my book) were head and shoulders above the competition from the likes of Cadillac, Jaguar, BMW, and frankly even Rolls Royce. These days they look somewhat dated but can represent a tremendous value to the buyer looking for that special saloon car to stand apart from the crowd that stands a chance of starting every time you turn the key. Find this lovely yellow example here on eBay in Redwood City, California with a buy it now price of just $2,950.


Among the safety innovations pioneered on the W116 were wraparound turn signals, energy-absorbing steering wheel and column, padded dashboard, highly-reinforced body structure, and most notably but only available in Europe: anti-lock brakes. They further featured 4-wheel disc brakes, Bosch electronic fuel injection, and anti-dive suspension geometry fitted to the fully independent suspension. All that adds-up to an automobile that feels as solid as a bank vault but drives like a car thousands of pounds lighter than it is. That isn’t to call it “nimble” – not by any stretch of the imagination – but rather “poised” is the word I’d use.

W116s like this 450SEL were the last Mercedes to wear the dominant chrome grille up front. Subsequent models starting with the smoother-skinned W126-series put the Mercedes grille on a weight reduction program to the point that it no longer stands apart as a trademark design statement on modern Mercs. In fact, the new ones look like just about every other car out there. At least they haven’t given up the hood ornament just yet. The W116s design belies its size – it’s actually a bigger car than it looks like, but we like the body contours and accent trim that gave cars of this era a flair you don’t find on new cars. Look at the way the sides are sculpted and the divots on the hood. That’s what I’m talking about. Being a California car, this seller’s statement of “rust free” is entirely believable but should nonetheless be confirmed. If the body is as nice as it appears it is probably worth the price for parts, much less as a nice, usable driver.

The inside of this car is finished in a tasteful palomino leather, and the black dash is a nice contrast to that. The leather could use some conditioner and possibly a re-dye, but these cars had durable upholstery and any wrongs should be fairly easy and inexpensive to right. The dash doesn’t appear cracked, but it may have a dash cap on it. Those don’t look factory good, but are more than serviceable for a driver-quality car. There are no photos of the rear seat in the listing, and that may be due to the fact that the horsehair padding in these cars almost always disintegrates from age leaving the seats wrinkly and completely unsupported. New pads are available and not terribly expensive to have fitted. The seller reports that the air conditioning is fully functional which makes this car infinitely more usable than one without. I’m also a fan of the enormous W116 sunroof.

The 450SEL’s M117 4517cc V8 delivered 190hp in U.S. specification but delivered a healthy 240 lb-ft of torque. That power translated to a 0-60 spring in the 8 second neighborhood and a top speed nearing 140mph. Mileage – in the mid-teens – was not stellar, but considering these cars came out prior to the fuel crisis efficiency was probably not originally on the radar screen. Besides, buyers in search of a miserly W116 could have the 300SD turbodiesel version – but only in the short-wheelbase body.

Buyers considering a 450SEL or any W116 should ensure that the automatic climate control works properly. The complex system has a vacuum-operated “servo” that directs coolant flow and adjusts cabin temperature that will fail. Replacement is not that difficult, but servo prices are on the rise and a good replacement will set you back easily $500. Beyond that, listen for rattling from the motor which could indicate loose timing chains or bad cylinder heads, but everything else is typical used car checks: electricals, rust, odors, etc. Water or heavy musty odor inside the car is most likely a window seal or a clogged sunroof drain.

Most parts for W116 cars are still available new from Mercedes. The only things I would consider doing to this particular example would be adding a set of 15″ OEM-style “bundt” alloys which are available new from the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center and I would install the European-style rectangular headlights both for the aesthetics and because they provide substantially better light than the sealed-beam U.S. lights. Otherwise, this beauty appears ready to go. Some East Coaster should fly out to California, buy it, and drive it home. I’ll bet you’d even make a profit on it in a couple of years just by keeping it as nice as it appears today….

~Reed

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19 responses to “1978 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL: Big Whole Lot of Car for Cheap..!

  • Michael Trei

    I once bought a 450SEL from that exact same dealer, for about the same money. The place is about 200 yards from my Mom’s house. Except it was in a more desirable anthracite with black leather. I drove it back to NYC, then down to the 1998 MBCA Starfest in Savannah GA, I ended up selling it for about $10k to a NYPD cop.

  • Christian

    thanks for this! the car in this story looks exactly like the one i just “inherited” from my father-in-law. it took about 2k to fix the a/c, the steering column and some issue with the injection system, but now she drives like a champ, fast and tight. much like her predecessor, the s-class built through 1972 (i used to have the 280 se 4.5), she loves going 50-60 mph after dark, a perfect cruiser. one thing that bothers me about the W116s are the atrocious bumpers, unnecessarily bulky and unsightly. has anyone replaced them with their european equivalent? is that even possible? and of course, the horsehair pads in the rear have disintegrated just like the author wrote. i’m pinning my hope to a small shop i came across in jersey city, the owner of which apparently drives the same car…

    • Reed Hitchcock

      I’ve seen people put the Euro-style bumpers on, but if I recall correctly there are issues with holes in the sheetmetal on the sides of the car where the big rubber bits are attached, and the front and rear valances may have big cutouts for the bumper shocks on the US cars. I guess it comes down to how ambitious you are. I would scour some of the forums like Benzworld or Peachparts and see what others have done. Again, I know it *can* be done…..

      -Reed

  • Christian

    thank you, reed. much appreciated. will make some inquiries, but the difference in attachment specs should pose a challenge.

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  • Peter van bussel

    Hello .
    I am the new owner from this Mercedes 450sel 1978.
    This car its now in Holland drive Very Nice.
    When its 40 years old its roadtexs free to drive.
    I am Very happy whit the car its my mid week car.
    I have a 500se for the weekend.
    Greatings from Holland .
    joke en peter

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