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

1995 BMW 525i

I recently sold my E34 525i and replaced it with a W126 300SE. I’ll post a write up on my new car next week. I love it, but let’s just say I learned a few valuable lessons about buying cars sight unseen from the whole episode. As potential buyers came to view my BMW, a funny thing happened. The more I explained my ownership experience while they test drove it, the more I began to wonder why I was selling it. In fact, I concluded, if space and money had allowed, I would have preferred to keep it alongside the Benz. In one year of ownership, I put an unusually high number of miles on it while doing a mega commute. During that time, it never once failed to start or gave me any reason to worry. I replaced some suspension parts that were worn out. But other than that, all I did was drive it and feed it fuel and oil. It was remarkably fun to drive, which I credit to the 5-speed manual gearbox and sweet chassis setup. Sure, it wasn’t terribly powerful or fast, but it was certainly fast enough for me. And it made for a good commuter, getting 28 MPG on the highway. In all, I think the E34 525i is an under-appreciated gem. I’m sad I let it go.

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 1995 BMW 525i on eBay

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1987 Mercedes-Benz 560SEL with 28k miles

I’ve made no secret of my love for the W126 on these pages. Produced between 1979 and 1991, they date from a period when Mercedes-Benz produced over-engineered cars with an unrivaled reputation for durability and quality. The W126 sat at the top of the range, offering the highest levels of luxury, safety and refinement that money could buy. Whenever I see one on the road today, especially if it’s in nice condition, I immediately think “old money.” Many well-heeled owners, too attached to part with them and wealthy enough to afford the upkeep, simply held on to their cars, replacing parts as necessary. It’s not unusual to see them being driven by their original owners, and buyers usually don’t have to look too hard to find one-owner examples in good condition. With a $20k price tag and only 28k miles on the odometer, this one falls into “collector” territory.

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 1987 Mercedes-Benz 560SEL

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High mileage 1992 Mercedes-Benz 500E project

The product of a collaboration between Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, the W124 500E was a worthy competitor to the E34 BMW M5. Powered by a 5.0 liter V8 motor generating 322 hp and equipped with beefed-up suspension and brakes, these stealthy Q-cars have languished on the used market until relatively recently. Finally receiving the attention they deserve, over the last decade values have steadily risen, with mint condition examples now commanding $30k price tags. Cars at that end of the market will likely stay tucked away behind closed doors. But what if you want to just drive a 500E, and not worry about every ding or scrape it gets in the parking lot? The courageous and open-minded might want to take a look at this forlorn-looking example. With a bit of attention and light restoration, this could turn out to be a steal. Or a money pit. Only the brave need apply…

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 1992 Mercedes-Benz 500E on eBay

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2002 BMW M3

My dad’s E46 M3 was by far and away the best car he ever owned (though I guess that’s not saying much, since he mostly owned Fords). It was a convertible and, as a result, the chassis was somewhat compromised – the dash would shake at the slightest provocation from a pothole. Still, it was a great car, mostly because it was such a perfect all-rounder. It was fast, handled like a precision instrument and looked sufficiently aggressive without being too shouty. It was also very practical. If you took it down to the shops to pick up a pint of milk, and resisted the temptation to mash the throttle, it could be a very docile car to drive. But if you did open it up, the sound of that 3.2 liter straight six was pretty incredible. There’s nothing else I’ve heard that’s quite like it. It wasn’t a growl. It was a rasp, a sinister, menacing one. I hope that one day I’ll own one too.

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 2002 BMW M3 on eBay

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1990 Mercedes-Benz 300SEL

Buying a high mileage car can be a bit scary, even if it’s a Mercedes with a reputation for longevity. Odometer readings can have a profound psychological effect on our perception of a car’s health (and worth), making people leery of high mileage cars. But in truth, at a certain stage in a car’s life, maintenance history and upkeep become far more important than any number on the dash. This is particularly true of the W126. A low mileage car that has been sitting is liable to cause you more problems than a high mileage one that has been driven and cared for by a meticulous owner. The upshot is that if you shop around and choose wisely, you can score a bargain on a high mileage car. This 300SEL, for example, has 286k miles on the odometer and a cheap price tag attached. Offered for sale by a knowledgeable and friendly Benzworld contributor, it offers a budget friendly entry point into W126 ownership backed up by plenty of maintenance history.

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 1990 Mercedes-Benz 300SEL on Benzworld

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1990 Mercedes-Benz 300CE

The 300CE  joined the W124 lineup in 1987. These cars offered the same levels of reliability, passenger comfort and safety as the sedan, but with a shorter body, two doors and no B-pillar. This gave the coupe a much a rakish, sporting look. But there can be no mistaking its provenance: the coupe retains the elegant, taut and brawny good looks of its sedan sibling, and both are unmistakably the work of famed Mercedes stylist Bruno Sacco. Powered initially by the 3.0 liter version of the M103 SOHC engine, in 1990 the CE’s motor was swapped out for the M104 DOHC unit, which increased power output to 217 hp (the engine was revised again in 1993, bumping displacement to 3.2 liters, but power output remained the same).

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

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1985 Mercedes-Benz 280E

The W123 is a classic car you can use on a daily basis. Produced between 1976 and 1985, these mid-sized executive sedans set industry leading standards for safety, passenger comfort and reliability during that time. In fact, the W123 was so rugged that Mercedes took it rallying, scoring a surprise win in the notoriously grueling, 30,000 mile, transcontinental London-Sydney Marathon. The W123’s iconic silhouette remains a common sight on today’s roads – no wonder, since they last forever – and when you see one, there’s no mistaking it for anything other than a classic Mercedes. From 1981 onwards you could only buy the W123 as a diesel in America. These cars would get you where you wanted to go, but not very quickly. Which makes this final year, European import gasoline powered car a tempting option.

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 1985 Mercedes-Benz 280E on eBay

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1989 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.6 manual

I’m a purist at heart. I like older cars that have survived into the present while remaining practically bone stock and unmodified. But I also realize that there are many different ways to love and appreciate cars, and the stance scene – with its lowered ride heights, deep dish rims and negative camber -  is just another of them. So even though I don’t quite understand it, or find it all that appealing, I respect the craft, and the obsession that goes into creating these cars. This modified 190E caught my eye on the Benzworld classified forum. It’s riding low, but not too low, and while the wheels really don’t quite fit, they are at least very handsome. And with an “Avantgarde” interior taken from a European spec car, the inside on this one’s a bit of a treat too.

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 1989 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.6 on Benzworld

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1992 BMW 316i Touring

The US-market never received the touring (wagon) version of the E30 3-series. But these cars are now old enough to import under the 25 year rule, which means you can find a steady trickle of these popping up on eBay for sale over here, and various accounts of enthusiasts’ attempts to bring them over. And no wonder: the E30 estate is a handsome and utilitarian looking car, practical and quite stylish.

The E30 was offered in Europe with a wider range of engines than we received here, so there a variety of different longroof options to choose from.  There were two four cylinder models (a 1.6 liter and a 1.8 liter), two six cylinder models (a 2.0 liter and 2.5 liter, with the latter also being available in “iX,” all wheel drive spec), and a 2.4 liter naturally aspirated diesel inline six. This particular car is a 316i, the entry level model. While the car is currently located in Germany, it’s being advertised on US eBay to tempt American E30 fans with a taste for forbidden fruit.

CLICK FOR DETAILS: 1992 BMW 316i Touring on eBay

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