1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SE

A few months ago I checked out a great W126 Mercedes-Benz 300SE painted in the rare Willow Green with just 66,000 miles. As you can see, another W126 300SE in, you guessed it, another cool color happen to pop up for sale. This 1991 happens to have almost twice the mileage and reside on the total opposite side of the country, but the condition remains just as nice and maybe even a tad better. The price? I’m really surprised this one is even still for sale.

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1990 Mercedes-Benz 300SE

The majority if the time I check out a Mercedes-Benz W126 it is either a 560SEL or a 300SD. For good reason though as if you wanted the ultimate luxury car short of Rolls-Royce/Bentley, you went with the 560SEL. If you wanted a car to literally last you a generation, you bought the OM617-powered 300SD. But if you wanted a compromise of both models, Mercedes gave you that option towards the end of the W126 life-span from 1988 to 1991 with the 300SE. It was the tried-and-true M103 3.0 inline-6 paired to a standard wheelbase sedan that saved you over $20,000 if you selected the 300SE for $53,000 versus the $74,000 you would have paid for the 560SEL. Now that the majority of these cars are sneaking up on 30 years-old, you don’t often see them in really nice condition. Fortunately, this example painted in the rare Willow Green up for bid in Connecticut is in really nice condition and probably won’t cost you a ton of money either.

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 1990 Mercedes-Benz 300SE on eBay

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1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SE

I’ve been living with my W126 300SE for several months now. In that time I’ve clocked up about 1,500 miles and taken the car on a few road trips in the mid-Atlantic region. Apart from a couple of initial hiccups (which I wrote about here), it has been a pleasure to own and a real joy to drive. Comfortable, stately and classically good looking, my friends joke that all it needs is a set of ambassadorial flags on the front bumper. It’s true that the 3.0 liter motor lacks the low-end torque made by the larger V8 models – I have to use the kick-down switch at the bottom of the throttle pedal more often than I did in my smaller W201. But once up to cruising speeds on the highway, the 300 behaves much like the 420 and 560. The six cylinder M103 motor is robust and relatively easy to fix (except for the fuel injection system, which can be a bloody nightmare when it goes wrong). And the proportions of the short-wheelbase exterior are, to my eye at least, just right.

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SE on eBay

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Craig finally buys a 300SE, but it’s not all plain sailing …

As readers will know, I’ve been on the lookout for a 300SE for a while now. In fact, one of the first cars I wrote up for GCFSB was a 300SE, which should tell you something. After a couple of false starts, I finally have a W126 I can call my own.

I found it on Craigslist while looking for cars to write up for the site. It stood out because it was in exactly the spec I’d been looking for. It was a 1989, a Gen II car with the more modern looking leather seats and updated exterior side cladding. It was in a great color combination, nautical blue over mushroom cream leather. And, unusually for a 1989 six cylinder, it was equipped with a passenger side airbag and upgraded Bose sound system, options that are more commonly found on the V8s. It also had only 116k miles on it, and was priced fairly. Unfortunately, it was located in Austin, TX, while I’m in Washington, DC.

After a lengthy back and forth with the seller, apparently an enthusiast who assured me it was in excellent running condition, I decided to buy it sight unseen and have it shipped to me. After a couple of weeks of delays on the shipping company’s end (I went with the cheapest option, and it showed), the car finally arrived. At first I was thrilled. It looked great.

But my excitement soon turned to disappointment as the hauler tried unload it. The car wouldn’t start. To be more precise, the car would start with a puff of black smoke out the back and die immediately. It did eventually start on the fourth or fifth try. It then ran rough for a minute or two, like it was misfiring, then smoothed out. My heart sank.

We eventually got it off the transporter and I gingerly began driving it, uncertain what the problem was. On acceleration from low RPM there was a definite hesitation and the car felt sluggish, slower than the other 300s I had driven before. The economy gauge on the dash also wouldn’t peg left on idle, as I know it should. In fact, at startup it was nearly in the middle. I’ve had a Mercedes with the M103 engine before and I knew this could be caused by vacuum leaks or problems with the CIS-E fuel injection system. So it was off to a mechanic for diagnosis.

Mechanic 1 said that there was a vacuum leak inside the fuel distributor and that I needed to buy a new one. He said I could take my chances with a cheap one from eBay, or he could get me a re-manufactured unit for $600. I had never been to this shop before. I only went there because my preferred mechanic couldn’t fit me in for another week. I wasn’t sure I could trust him. So I held out for a second opinion.

A week later mechanic 2, a Benz specialist to which I used to take my 190E, said the fuel distributor was fine. He said that the car was running rich – which would explain the poor starting and running and condition – because the 02 sensor had failed and the duty cycle was stuck at 90%. So the first line of attack was to install a new 02 sensor.

Unfortunately, even with the new sensor onboard he couldn’t dial in the fuel mixture correctly, though he was able to lean it out considerably. Cold starts were still hard but the car was running much better than before.

Suspecting a short or another sensor problem somewhere, he eventually diagnosed a broken fuel injection ECU/ECM, the black box behind the carpet in the front passenger footwell. Reading the threads on the forums, I gather that the ECU provides pre-programmed settings for the air/fuel mixture on cold starts before the 02 sensor reaches operating temperature and takes over. Apparently ECUs rarely fail, but when they do, they produce symptoms like the ones I had been experiencing.

I ordered a used ECU from eBay that matched the part number on my old unit. Once it arrived, I put it in myself (it’s as easy as changing a battery) and crossed my fingers. The car started from cold on the first turn of the key and settled into a smooth idle. Success! I took it back to mechanic 2 for a final adjustment of the fuel mixture, and then took the car for an emissions inspection. It passed with flying colors.

Now that it’s finally running properly, I love it. The interior, in mint condition, is a very comfortable and relaxing place to be. I look forward to doing long distance trips in it with my wife, who approves of the passenger airbag. All the electrical accessories work, including the heat, A/C and original Becker radio. The nautical blue exterior really is gorgeous and I’ve received numerous compliments from strangers in the short time I’ve been driving it. There are a few blemishes in the paint, some small scratches here and there, but that’s about it. I’ll probably have it gone over with a dual action buffer at some point.

Some people complain about the 300SE/L being too slow, but I think the performance is fine for what it is. It pulls quickly enough in city traffic and cruises admirably on the highway. The handling is also nowhere near as boat-like as I feared it would be. I think this is where the short wheelbase SE really excels over the long wheelbase SELs. I do miss the E34 525i which this car replaces – it was admittedly a much more spritely car to drive. In an ideal world, I would have kept both.

I texted the seller in the vain hope he might offer me some money back. He had, after all, assured me that it needed no repairs. I’ve received no reply, and I suppose his silence speaks volumes. I think I learned a valuable lesson here. I will probably never buy another car sight unseen again. Not unless it’s from someone I know I can trust. I will also not be going back to mechanic 1.

– Craig

Double Take: Mercedes-Benz 300SE

I planned to leave the W126 300SE alone for a while since I’ve posted quite a number of these over the last few months. But I couldn’t resist when I noticed not one, but two really nice examples pop up on eBay this week. While these short wheelbase, six cylinder cars are often overlooked in favor of the 420 and 560 SEL, they offer all the class and sophistication of the larger models with somewhat lower running costs, making the 300 a nice entry point for W126 ownership. They certainly don’t have the power of the V8. But on the plus side, the M103 motor is famously stout and will run forever without needing too much work. The only real weak spot is the headgasket, which tends to need replacing every 150k miles or so. I’ve test-driven a few of these recently myself, and I was pleasantly surprised by the driving experience. The 3.0 liter engine provided more shove on the backroads than I was expecting, certainly enough to get the car moving, even if it won’t win any drag races. And out on the highway it cruised effortlessly, which is what these cars are all about.

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SE on eBay

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1989 Mercedes-Benz 300SE


Time for another of my wistful W126 posts. Although it’s generally seen as less desirable than the V-8 powered 420SEL and the 560SEL, I think the short wheelbase 300SE remains the hidden gem in the W126 lineup (though not for much longer if I keep posting them, I guess.) It’s not quick off the line, but that’s sort of besides the point. These are for cruising along on the interstate at 70MPH in quiet comfort, and a six cylinder model will do that just as well as a V8 while returning slightly better gas mileage (maybe 20MPG on the highway, if babied). There’s nothing quite like the way these feel. When the door shuts with a satisfying thunk like only a 1980s Mercedes door can, and you slide yourself into the helm and stare down the long hood to see the three pointed star at the end, you feel richer than your true bank balance suggests. It’s quite intoxicating.

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 1989 Mercedes-Benz 300SE on eBay

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1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SE

I continue to keep an eye on the W126 market. Mint examples of the V8-powered 560SEL can sell for as much as $20k, though higher mileage examples that are rougher around the edges can be had for just a few grand. The W126 hasn’t yet achieved collector status – there are probably too many of them out there – but they remain an attractive proposition for those who want a luxurious, usable car for not too much money. This version of the S-class perhaps marked a watershed moment in Mercedes-Benz history, being among the last cars built to a standard rather than cost. I’ve written before about my love for the short wheelbase, six cylinder version, the 300SE. Though generally less desirable (and therefore cheaper) than the V8 420s and 560s, occasionally a really nice one pops up for sale with a higher price tag attached.

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SE on Raleigh, NC Craigslist

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1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SE

1The other day I wrote up a Euro-Spec 190E 2.3-16, noting that the seller must have good taste in cars since there was a W126 pictured in the background. It turns out that W126 is also for sale. It’s a 300SE. These are my favorite old Benzes. Imposing and timeless, these old S-classes still look beautiful today and remind you of an era when Mercedes built stately cars of bank-vault solidity. It’s a real treat to see one in mint condition, which is not that uncommon. Many of the original, wealthy owners have held on to these since new and maintained them at whatever cost necessary. Looking like it just rolled out of the factory, this appears to be such a car.

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SE on eBay

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1989 Mercedes-Benz 300SE

The W126 generation S-class is stately and sublime, hailing from an era in which Mercedes built their cars to standard rather than cost. These cars offer graceful and classic MB styling, tank-like solidity and a relaxing and comfortable driving experience. The good news for anyone looking to pick one up today is that there’s a car out there to suit every budget. You can find everything from two grand hoopties to $20k+ museum pieces. While the 560SEL, the unadulterated, full-cream model, might be the most obvious choice for those looking for an 80s German luxury car, I’m often tempted by the more humble 300SE. The short wheelbase model is arguably prettier and better proportioned than the SEL, and the six cylinder engine in the 300 is cheaper to run and maintain than the V8s in the larger models.

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1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SE

As some readers will know, while I toyed with the idea of replacing my W201 with another old Mercedes for daily driving duties, on a whim I went with a similar era BMW instead. My E34 is a fine car, but I really miss driving a Benz. For that reason I like to torture myself by browsing them online. Lately, I’ve been obsessed by the W126. There’s one always parked outside my apartment building in DC. It has rust, faded paint, a broken bumper and a broken headlight. You could say it’s pretty beaten up. And yet, I’m still charmed by it every time I see it. I often think about buying one myself. At the moment I have a very long commute, which rules out the V8s on grounds of fuel economy. The diesels have their own problems, leaving the 300SE/SEL. I wouldn’t exactly call these “frugal,” but they do offer the best fuel economy in the W126 without going down the diesel route.

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SE on eBay

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