One of the interesting side effects of a life spent in both old and new cars is the realisation that progress isn't linear, or even guaranteed. The point was made very stylishly last year when I got the chance to experience some of Mercedes Classic's carefully preserved S-Classes before driving the all-new one.
These weren't bangers, of course. Mercedes Classic has the mission of preserving the company's history, a role it takes enormously seriously with a collection of over a thousand cars. Some of these are literal museum pieces, being shown as part of the company's official collection, or loaned to other distinguished institutions around the world. Others are kept in driveable order so they can be used for promotional work or media loans. And some cross the streams, like the full set of immaculate S-Classes that were assembled so that a few lucky hacks could have a hands-on history lesson, from a late '60s W108 riding on whitewall tyres to the outgoing W222.
For a confirmed Merc geek, this was the highlight of the trip. Yet among the pack, one car really stood out: the W126 500 SEL. Compared to its successors it was short on both toys and performance, the best efforts of its 230hp V8 blunted by a slushy four-speed auto. But it had a sense of solidity and dignity that none of the more recent cars could match, supremely relaxed when ask to cope with both Stuttgart's rush hour and a brief dose of Autobahn, and with doors that thunked shut like those oft-cited bank vaults even after three decades. I was searching the classifieds long before I got home.
At which point I discovered that the market had shifted since I'd last been paying attention. W126 prices bumbled along the bottom of the bathtub for years, but now seem to have got to the head end and started to take off. Well within the last ten years usable examples of the coupe were still changing hands for under £5,000, but now the kick-off seems to be three times that. The saloon is less desirable and hasn't risen as far or as fast, out our Pill still looks like conspicuously good value at £8,990, especially as it is the 560 range-topper, complete with the brawnier 300hp engine.
Closer examination proves there are some good reasons for the enticing price. The first is the odometer's 207,000 miles, a figure that even confirmed old Merc fans would struggle to shrug off as "barely run-in." The second is the selling dealer's honest declaration that the car is better considered a rolling project than a finished car. And the third becomes obvious the moment you click through to one of the pictures of the cabin.
I've been criticised for calling out especially vivid trim colour in previous Pills on the basis that such things are subjective, and some people do like to drive around surrounded by Rodney Dangerfield's suit from Caddyshack. Yet it seems unlikely that too many potential buyers in the market for a W126 painted in a sensible shade of black on the outside are going to want that in conjunction with a plush red velour interior.
The seller says the car was originally bought by an Arab Sheikh, who was presumably rich enough to give no consideration to the used market implications of such a bold choice. It's fair to say that he went all-in: seats, carpets, door cards, the centre console and the lower dash are all the colour of a 1980s casino carpet. None of the available images show the headlining, but it would be surprised if it wasn't in the same flamboyant hue. It's as red as Ron Burgundy.
While there's no accounting for taste, the highly individual interior is undoubtedly one of the bigger factors in this car's valuation, with the dealer being candid enough to shown images of various other issues. The most obvious of these is a dinged rear bumper - I suspect those aren't cheap these days - as well as some heavy chipping on the front one and a couple of other trim scuffs. Paint has also started to bubble around the rear offside door handle, and at least one of the alloy wheels needs a repaint. Inside the walnut dash insert that should go around the passenger side air vent also seems to be missing.
The MOT history shows that the previous test expired in September 2019, the one before that ran out in 2016 and the previous one in 2014. The on-off use cycle could suggest returning issues, and from personal experience from Mercs of this vintage it will almost certainly require careful recommissioning to be brought back to full strength. But the online record has plenty of good news, too - the last test was a clean pass and the earlier advisories are for the sort of issues you'd expect on any car this heavy and leggy: worn tyres, brakes and suspension components, and occasional power steering leaks. There is no mention of structural corrosion anywhere in the published record, highly reassuring for any Mercedes from this era.
The advert also promises plenty of service history, and says most of the mileage has been racked up by a single owner using it to regularly tour the continent. While the M117 V8 is famously tough if looked after, it also needs regular and sometimes intense maintenance, with the biggest job being replacement of the timing chain and its guides and tensioners, which - on harder-used cars - can slip and destroy the engine. This should be done at least every 100,000 miles, meaning our Pill should be on its third set; good grounds for negotiation if it isn't.
One plus is that this car doesn't have the early climate control system that was offered as an option on late W126s, this prone to very expensive and hard-to-fix borkage if its vacuum-operated internals fail. Old fashioned rotary controls like these ones are obviously less swish, but almost certainly more reliable. The next buyers is unlikely to get much use out of the multiple obsolete mobile phones, with a pair of plumbed-in Motorolas front and rear, plus what seems to be a mounting point for a later Nokia. But the Becker radio-cassette appears to be both original and rare; working versions often change hands for a couple of hundred quid for those seeking period originality.
As the vendor acknowledges, this is a car in need of some care and attention, also a love of red velour. But put ticks against all those boxes and this could continue to be a thoroughly special S-Class, if red is your favourite colour.
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