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1985 Mercedes-Benz 380SE: Bargain Benz That’s Better Than You Think

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One of the things that the “BringaTrailer” phenomenon has seemingly accomplished is having helped push prices of even many of the most esoteric of classic Mercedes-Benzes (and countless other marques) to levels that were unthinkable just a few short years ago. Compounded by COVID-19 meaning a lot of people spent a lot more time in front of computers and with time to kill, Swabian bargains have become few and far between. Youngtimer or Rad-era cars seem to have been particularly vulnerable, so if you’re looking for a killer deal on a W123, W124, or W126 or an E30, E24, or E28 BMW, you may be looking for a while…

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Still, there are a few Rad Mercedes bargains left out there, and chief among them is the W126 380SE. They offer the timeless W126 S-class style and M116 V8 smoothness but at a fraction of what a comparable condition 560SEL, 420SEL, 500SEL, 300SD/L, or even 300SE/L will set you back. This clean 1985 380SE showing just 128K miles (and looking like a lot less) is available here on CraigsList in San Diego, California for just $5,950. 

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Truth is, 380SEs got a little bit of a bad rap – for a couple of reasons. First, in US-specification despite its 3,839 cubic centimeters of V8 motivation, the 380SE only put out 155hp and 196 lb/ft of torque (thank you, draconian emissions regulations!). Second, to help keep weight to an absolute minimum (and probably other reasons), in model years 1981-1983 Mercedes decided to install a single-row timing chain where in Europe and throughout the rest of the M116/M117 engines starting in the early 1970s and lasting into the 1990s they’d always had double-row chains. The perception – not without some truth – was that this was a less reliable solution. The double-row chain was retrofitted to a lot of single-row cars, and for 1984-1985 they came that  way. Many mechanics will tell you that a well-maintained single-row engine will be fine for hundreds of thousands of miles, but here we are. As a 1985, our subject car, along with the other 25, 907 1984-1985 380SEs, came with the double row.

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By the seat of the pants, the underpowered-by-the-numbers US 380 actually feels more powerful than it is. While no rocketship, 196 lb-ft is still a reasonable torque number. 0-60mph is a hurried if not quick 9.6 seconds, and top speed is about 115mph. Like the 3.5 before it and the 4.2 that replaced it for 1986, the 3.8 liter iteration of the M116 motor is a well-engineered, well-developed that is well-suited to the W126 chassis. Properly maintained, these cars can go well past 250K miles without rebuild. Religious oil changes are your friends, folks. 

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Parts availability and DIY-ability are very good for these cars as well. There is ample space to wrench under the hood of the W126, even with a V8, and the majority of parts remain available and not overly expensive – particularly if you shop around. Being a well-kept California car, this example still has much of its factory cosmoline and cadmium plating which gives it a nearly-new appearance. Looking around the car (and at some of the undercarriage shots in the listing or at this link), there does not appear to be any rust in any of the “usual” W126 spots. It also doesn’t have a sunburnt interior like is often the trade-off for a rust-free car. Lord I love a clean W126.

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One of the other reasons that the 380SE is not as popular (read: expensive) as some other W126s is that it is a 1st generation W126, and arguably the least interesting. I’ve always preferred my W126s in short-wheelbase form – like this car – as opposed to the long-wheelbase “SEL”. I just think the proportions work better. I get it: it’s a personal taste thing and the LWBs do have that cavernous back seat. Maybe it’s just because I grew up with an SWB 300SD. Probably for similar reasons, I’m among the rare few who prefer the 1st generation to the facelifted cars. I like the ribbed lower cladding, and that’s how the cars were originally designed. I also like the older “bundt” or “barock” style alloy wheels. Moreover, in my experience with literally dozens of W126s, I have found that the earlier cars were generally finished just a little better: the wood, the leather, heck, even the taillights. I am no fan of the US-style sealed-beam headlights on earlier W126s, but that’s an easy fix with proper European headlights that look and shine better. Still, the 2nd generation cars offered more power and amenities, and many folks just prefer the smooth moldings, pseudo-Euro lights, and flat-faced wheels.

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Examining this car (and the CL ad) with a critical eye, there really is very little to fault. The only obvious upholstery flaw is the driver’s side B-pillar cover, which is a known issue where it tears at the seatbelt adjuster. On the outside, there are a few scrapes, mostly touched-up, that one might expect from a car that is likely to have done some highway time. The seller reports that the right rear window doesn’t work and that the SRS light is on. The former could be as simple as a switch or a contact, but even at worst is a DIY project. Airbags were relatively new in 1985, and optional on the 380SE. My bet would be an airbag contact for that light, but there are several internet threads to walk folks through diagnosing the illuminated SRS light. Neither of these issues should be catastrophic to address. The aftermarket head unit is a little ugly, but we’re not talking concours here. 

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It’s mighty tempting to pick this one up, fly out to San Diego, and take a leisurely drive back home. Open that big sunroof (when the sun isn’t beating down), point east, and let the car effortlessly absorb the miles. There is no specific mention here of AC functionality, and I’d certainly want to know that before I flew across the country to drive this home to the hot mid-Atlantic region and across deserts and valleys, but hopefully the condition of the rest of the car means that was just an oversight. Otherwise, assuming you like German Taxicab Yellow Light Ivory on Palomino (as I do), I’d wager this would be a rewarding car to own for a number of years and not be afraid to drive. Keep in mind, though, a rising tide lifts all boats. Cars like this won’t be cheap for long.

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