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Mercedes-Benz W 126 S-Class

The best car in the world at its time, the W 126 S-Class can be yours for the price of a new bargain-bin econobox

Mercedes-Benz W 126 S-Class
Image Credit: Supplied picture
All the creature comforts you really need, even by today’s standards.

It has long been an established adage, that if you want to peer into the crystal ball and get a glimpse of future technologies in common cars, all you need to do is sit in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class of today.

Although Mercedes’ luxury saloons can trace their lineage all the way to the beginning of the past century, it was really the Fifties’ Ponton (‘pontoon’ in German; a reference to the model’s slightly swollen body shape) Mercedes that birthed the modern S-Class.

As early as the Sixties, S-Class models ruled the Autobahn’s left-most lanes, with fuel-injected high-displacement engines, rear air suspension, automatic transmission and electric windows. By the following decade, Mercedes-Benz’s S-Class pioneered ABS and driver’s airbags, and fought the enveloping fuel crisis with the world’s first production turbodiesel engine.

These cars are all classics, but in 1979, Stuttgart revealed the W 126 generation S-Class, and more than three decades on, this car is still as at home on our roads today as it was back in its prime. This is thanks to its understated, modern but timeless and simple styling, its hydropneumatic suspension, smooth straight-six and V8 engines, smooth automatic ‘boxes, loads of passive safety equipment and luxury kit, freezing air conditioning, acres of interior space and the performance of a brand new mid-size V6-powered saloon.

The W 126 was produced for over 12 years, before arguably the greatest luxury saloon ever made, the W 140 S-Class, succeeded it. But the W 140 is merely a very modern classic, while the W 126 is a true, usable one. What other classic car can you think of with headlamp washers, traction control, seatbelt pre-tensioners, and passenger airbags?

Best of all, there are plenty to be had on the second-hand market, as this was Mercedes’ most successful luxury saloon made, with more than 800,000 leaving Sindelfingen. The place to hunt for your own in the UAE seems to be Al Ain, with more driving examples per capita than anywhere else in the country in our experience.

Otherwise, a quick look at local online classifieds reveals usable examples for cheaper than Dh20,000, with trader-stocked cars retailing in the Dh30K-Dh40K range, and ultra-low-mileage models (as in, less than 30,000km or just barely run-in) asking Dh55,000. What will it be, the best car in the world gracefully enjoying its retirement years, or a new Nissan Sunny?


Tips and tricks

Mercedes specialist and W 126 owner and enthusiast, James Rothwell lets us in on a few tips Generally speaking, the W 126 is very reliable, and they seldom rust apart from the wheel arches and the bottom of the rear windscreen. The great AC, however, is very complex, so if it does break it can be a nightmare. If it is maintained well, it is colder than most modern cars, though.

The best condition W 126s here in the UAE seem to be Japanese or European imports, but make sure no ABS light stays on, as the pump is expensive to replace, and the same goes for the airbags. Additionally, these cars — maybe due to age, weight, design and overengineering — seem to enjoy munching through suspension bushes, giving it a really loose feeling. A well-maintained W 126, even today, drives like a new car.

The 300SE lacks in power, but it is adequate, although the 500 is perfect, and the 560 adds more power, but also has the hydraulic rear suspension, which can become a maintenance worry. Pretty much all parts are available direct from Mercedes for the W 126, but UAE dealers stick to only very basic parts.

One thing to look out for with the V8 engines is that there shouldn’t be any loud ticking — if it sounds like a diesel injector pump firing every few seconds, there could be a problem with the camshafts. Labour time on a W 126 is normally much more than with a new car — if a job takes two hours on a new S-Class, it will take five hours on a W 126, but you’ll get a cheaper rate because of the age of the vehicle.

A normal service would cost you around Dh1,200. In my opinion, the best W 126 is a 500SEL 1989/1990/1991, or a 560 of the same year if you’re feeling brave and can find a good one.