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Shed of the Week: Mercedes-Benz S500

A V8 S-Class for less than Β£1,500? It's true

By Tony Middlehurst / Friday, March 15, 2019

 

If you ever find yourself wandering through the more affluent western suburbs of Stuttgart at night, you may hear a faint whimpering sound coming from behind the curtains of more than one comfortably proportioned detached residence.

The sounds you are hearing are the sobs of retired Mercedes engineers. What is making them sad is the terrible realisation that used examples of their beloved W220 series S-Class are now being traded at low four-figure prices.

How could this happen? The S-Class has always been the ultimate car, built without compromise or cost considerations. What has the world come to when potless members of the working classes can afford to experience a motoring lifestyle that was designed only for the plutocracy?

If you include the Mercedes-Maybach in today's S-Class range, as Mercedes itself now does (going off its UK website, anyway), you can now pay £178,660 for a new S-Class - and that's without options. Our one hundred and twenty times cheaper Shed therefore looks like something of a bargain, especially when you bear in mind that it's not going to be a hundred and twenty times worse to drive. You could certainly spend an awful lot more than £1,500 on a W220 without noticing any difference in how impressively it smooshes along the highway. Even the regular S-Class, which today starts at £76,540, is not going to be fifty times better than our £1,500 Shed-Class - which, by the way, would have been £60,110 when new in 2001.

The reality of course is that the S-Class has had its ups and downs just like any other series production car. And even allowing for the distorting effects of time and rose-tinting, some S-Classes have been demonstrably better - or should we say less expensive to run - than others. In that context, the commonly-held view is that the W220 is very much in the 'others' category.

And that's why cars like this week's Shed now come up at the slightly fantastical price of £1,500. The problem with all saloons these days, of course, is that their practical limitations have been ruthlessly exposed by the do-it-all versatility of the SUV, but if you prefer not to cart around 3000 cubic feet of unused luggage space or to look like a plum perched eight miles up in a mega-SUV, the right S-Class will move you both physically and emotionally.

'Right' being the operative word here. Later, Shed will summarise what can go wrong. First, though, let's rejoice in the rightness of this particular W220. Irrespective of series, the 500 V8 has always been the S-Class of choice for those who place performance over pump-parsimony. 500s are hardly ever chosen by taxi or wedding hire operators, so the history-backed 152k mileage of this S500 in classy Almandine Black is unlikely to be hookey.

In case you're wondering, the almandine is a crystal from the garnet family. When it's not being used as a jewel, it's being used as an abrasive in things like garnet sandpaper. Which in a roundabout way brings us to the one big potential W220 snafu, namely rust.

Some of the Mercs from the disastrously brown late '90s/early 2000s era seem to have fared better than others. The seller of this one ventures the opinion that colour is a factor. Subjectively, silver ones do seem to be worse than darker coloured ones, but that may be down to them being better at showing the rust. As to why it happened, who really knows? Was it the switch to water-based paint? Was it a reduction in the number of coats? Was it a batch of cheap steel? You'll find fewer theories in an X-Files script meeting.

The MOT history on this one is interesting. It confirms the vendor's statement that some welding was carried out last year to the nearside rear subframe mounting area. Being naturally suspicious, Shed would now be wanting to take a look at the offside rear subframe mounting area, along with the bootlid and suspension turrets, but the MOT record gives cause for optimism as all the advisories picked up over the years appear to have been promptly dealt with. That's what proud owners of prestige cars do. It's only when those prestige cars fall into the wrong hands that the pace of degradation accelerates to a ruinous rate.

Our honest-sounding vendor reports no other corrosion, a statement that again is supported by its non-mention on any of the MOT documentation dating back to 2006. Slight brake pipe corrosion did pop up in 2012, but that was evidently fixed on the spot as it didn't show up in 2013, and hasn't since. Like just about every car on sale since Edwardian times, the S-Class's brake pipes are made of steel rather than the copper or copper-nickel 'cunifer' that's now commonly available in the aftermarket. Rusting brake pipework is an industry-wide problem.

Mechanically, there are no obvious worries here. To coin a cliché, the 152k mileage is nothing for one of these. Two independent services have been tacked onto the full MB service history that ran up to 2012. Now it's coming up to two years and 18,000 since its last (minor) service. A more in-depth B service won't be buttons even from an independent, especially if pollen filters and the like are changed. Shed is assuming this car has one of those.

But even if you're starting your S-Class journey from a sound-looking base like this one, there are plenty of bumps in the road that can trip you up. Most have electricity running through them. As they say, more gadgets, more problems. M-B did a recall on 2000-model S-Classes to fix a fire-risk short-circuit caused by water backing up in a blocked plenum chamber drain. A soggy front footwell is bad news on many modern cars as ECUs are often kept there. Older Mercs like the W124 sensibly kept this area free of non-water-compatible gubbins.

The W220's ABC power steering pump fails, as do its crank position sensor and the electrical components of the heater system. The gear lever can stick in gear and the Airmatic suspension might collapse. Mending that can far outweigh the value of the car. Check for leaks before buying a new pump or struts.

A final note of realism. S-Classes throughout history have been routinely dubbed 'best car in the world' by road testers, but those journalists have generally been driving brand new examples. The secondhand scene is a different world. A cheap S-Class can easily turn into the dearest car you've ever had. If that awful word 'bork' doesn't appear at least once in this forum, Shed will eat not his hat but his lunch. If you've ever sampled the results of Mrs Shed's culinary efforts you'll know that the hat would have been tastier.

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