RAC

Mercedes-Benz S - class Saloon and Coupe (1979 - 1991)

Introduction

The Mercedes-Benz S-class series has a long and distinguished history. The fourth generation series, announced in 1979, succeeded three other ranges of the same name, the first of which dated back to the Sixties. The W126 shape, as Mercedes' engineers call the post-1979 S-class model, took the world's motoring press by storm when it was launched and it remained the yard-stick by which all other luxury cars were judged, throughout the 1980s. The technology it brought made Jaguars and BMWs of the day seem like yesterday's cars. Both companies were forced to go back to their drawing boards and their 1980s cars eventually caught up with the technology-showcase Mercedes.

Models

Models Covered: Fourth generation S-class (Saloons: 280SE, 280SEL, 380SE, 380SEL, 420SE, 420SEL, 500 SE, 500SEL, 560SEL. Coupes: 380SEC, 420SEC, 500SEC, 560SEC)

History

The old early-Seventies S-class was replaced by an all-new fourth generation model in late 1979 and right-hand drive examples arrived in the UK the following year. The cars were full of clever technology and advanced safety equipment. Everything from anti-lock brakes, through to hydropneumatic suspension was available, along with the promise of airbags, years ahead of the competition. The engines were a carried-over 2.8-litre six-cylinder and a range of new 3.8 and 5.0-litre aluminium V8s (though the 5.0-litre had been seen already in the 450SLC 5.0). These cars were called 280, 380 and 500SE and SEL. The 'L' signified the long wheelbase and therefore a lot more rear legroom. The two-door Coupes (SEC) arrived in early 1982 as the 380 and 500SEC. They had room for four passengers, though back seat space was of course nothing like that of the saloons. The range remained fairly unchanged (engines apart) for most of its life, though new engines were introduced in 1986 and 1987, along with a slight across-the-board facelift. The 280 models became the 3.0-litre 300SE, SEL and SEC; the 380 grew to 4.2-litres and became the 420SE, SEL and SEC; the 500s remained and the new 5.6-litre 560SE, SEL and SEC joined the line-up. The saloons were superseded by a new, fifth generation S-class in September 1991 but the coupes carried on until their replacements arrived in October 1992.

What You Get

A car that you could probably drive for the rest of your life. These cars were really built to last and you'll be amazed at the condition many (even 10 or 15-year old cars) are in. For a car that was first released back in 1979, the S-class is surprisingly competitive against many newer cars on the market today, though the styling is, naturally, a little dated. Either way, the big Mercedes is a great machine for pampering weary passengers and drivers alike - which is why many are still in service.

What You Pay

The 2.8-litre six-cylinder cars tend to be a little on the slow side, compared with the 3.0 and V8s. It's probably worth the extra that a 300 will cost over the older 280SE or SEL. A 1988 300SE will be around £2,400 and £2,600 for the SEL. A younger G-plater should be about £3,100 and a 91H roughly £4,300. Add £200-£300 for SELs. The 420 range starts at around £2,700 for the 1988 420SEs. Add about £400 for a 420SEL. A 420SEC of the same age will be about £4,200. Younger examples, such as 91H-reg cars start at about £4,700 (420SE). Again, add about £500 for a 420SEL, while an SEC on the same plate will be about £6,000. For 91J-reg cars, pay roughly £5,000 (420SE), £5,200 (420SEL) or £6,200 (420SEC). The bigger V8, the 500, starts at around £2,400 for an E-plate 500SE. The long wheelbase SEL will be an extra £300. A 500SEC with the same registration plate should be about £4,100. Newer (91H-plate) 500SEs start at about £5,200. The SEL will be around £5,400 and the SEC just over £6,000. The last 91J-platers will be about £5,400 (500SE), £5,600 (500SEL) or £6,600 (500SEC). The 5.6-litre V8 560SELs start at about £3,700 on 88E plates, while the equivalent 560SEC coupes will be about £4,500. The 1991J last-of-series 560SELs will be close to £6,000 and the 560SECs around £7,700.

What to Look For

Being a Mercedes, the S-class was designed from a fresh start, to a virtually unrestrained budget, so all components are tested almost to destruction before any prototype is committed to production. The durability of these cars is legendary and it's unlikely that an S-class will cause you lost sleep over the possibility of it wearing out. Mechanically, these cars are all very strong; Mercedes engines are always built soundly as are the gearboxes. Equally, you'll find the interiors to be very hard-wearing, though many cars will have leather upholstery and this may be wrinkled if it hasn't been looked after. Check that all the electrical convenience features work and that there are no signs of corrosion, though you're fairly safe with an S-class unless it's experienced poor-quality crash repairs.

Replacement Parts

(Based on a W126 300SE) A new clutch will be around £225 and a full exhaust system about £530, while front brake pads are around £30 and rears closer to £16. A headlamp is about £200.

On the Road

The S-class is a big, heavy car but despite this, it handles quite well. In its day, the fourth generation model set the standard for luxury cars, though it was eventually eclipsed by rival Jaguars and BMWs - from a driving satisfaction point of view; the S-class always retained its edge when it came to all round passenger comfort. There's a lot of room and the suspension allows a very smooth ride.

Overall

Once the standard by which all luxury cars were judged and still takes some beating, for its age. If you want a big, roomy, strong luxury car that will last seemingly forever, an S-class Mercedes takes some beating.

Once the standard by which all luxury cars were judged and still takes some beating, for its age. If you want a big, roomy, strong luxury car that will last seemingly forever, an S-class Mercedes takes some beating.

The Mercedes-Benz S-class series has a long and distinguished history. The fourth generation series, announced in 1979, succeeded three other ranges of the same name, the first of which dated back to the Sixties. The W126 shape, as Mercedes' engineers call the post-1979 S-class model, took the world's motoring press by storm when it was launched and it remained the yard-stick by which all other luxury cars were judged, throughout the 1980s. The technology it brought made Jaguars and BMWs of the day seem like yesterday's cars. Both companies were forced to go back to their drawing boards and their 1980s cars eventually caught up with the technology-showcase Mercedes.

The Mercedes-Benz S-class series has a long and distinguished history. The fourth generation series, announced in 1979, succeeded three other ranges of the same name, the first of which dated back to the Sixties. The W126 shape, as Mercedes' engineers call the post-1979 S-class model, took the world's motoring press by storm when it was launched and it remained the yard-stick by which all other luxury cars were judged, throughout the 1980s. The technology it brought made Jaguars and BMWs of the day seem like yesterday's cars. Both companies were forced to go back to their drawing boards and their 1980s cars eventually caught up with the technology-showcase Mercedes.

Scores
Performance 5
Handling 5
Comfort 6
Space 7
Styling 5
Build 7
Value 7
Equipment 4
Economy 5
Depreciation 6
Insurance 5
Total 62
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