An Ancient Cruise-Mobile – 1991 Mercedes-Benz W126 300SEL
This time around we’ll be looking at an older Mercedes Benz. What you see here is a W126 300SEL with the ’L’ denoting the “Long Wheelbase”. What this car is basically, is an old S-Class. It is luxurious, relaxing, good at high speeds, massive, has a serious looking face, and is over-engineered in certain areas.
The W126 300SEL is A Cruise-Mobile
Before we go on, we'd like to thank Mr. Han from Chemlube for getting his W126 ready for a photoshoot.
OK now let’s get to the W126. It’s a rear wheel drive car with a 6-cylinder engine. Sounds like a recipe for a Nissan Skyline R34, a Toyota Supra, or an E36 M3. But the W126 300SEL is nothing like those cars. It is relaxed. It comes with a 4-speed automatic from the early 90s which is paired to a massive M103 3.0L in-line 6. The throttle is a bit stiff so you really have to put your foot down. Shifting into Drive from Neutral hunkers the car down a little, but upon release of the foot brake, it takes off in a very relaxed manner. The 300SEL weighs approximately 1.5 tonnes which is surprisingly lighter than its modern counterpart, the W222 (over 2 tonnes). Mind you, a standard modern compact saloon also weighs around 1.5 tonnes.
Somewhat related: The Memory Mobile - K.T. Pillai’s Mercedes Benz W108 280S Restoration
The added weight we see in modern cars is due to the extensive safety features added. Inarguably, a modern S-class would have way better safety features than a W126. But, the safety the W126 provides is actually rather plausible. It does have a strong body and the long hood provides a front crumple zone longer than the doors of a Perodua Axia. Of course, we don’t want to even think about crashing an old Mercedes like this. But if you do, and God forbid that, you’ll most likely be unharmed. The doors still open and close after a frontal impact, so you can get out of the car, calm down, assess the damage, drive to a safer location, and decide what to do next over a cup of coffee.
The Appeal of a Mercedes Benz
Older Mercedes cars have a very simple style. They were just large and boxy. They certainly didn’t appeal to teenage boys and young drivers and I don’t think Mercedes ever wanted them to. It was a symbol of status and power and it had the plausible engineering to back it up. The type of customers old Mercedes cars attracted were successful grown-up men with families. In the era of the W126, there was no A-Class, no B-Class, no CLA, and definitely no GLA. Even earlier Mercedes sports cars looked like they were meant to be driven by a grown-man with faint strands of grey hair.
Things have changed. With the introduction of compact Mercedes cars, and some sports compact models, the Mercedes of today is partially targeted at the youth and women. The ads feature the likes of The Weeknd and Nicki Minaj.
Somewhat related: The Comfortable Compact- 2018 Mercedes-Benz CLA 180 Review
What about the sports cars? Well, today’s sporty Mercedes cars are aggressive, angry, and growl when you start the engine. Put a GLA45 AMG next to this W126 and it will look like granddad and his unruly teenage grandson are sitting next to each other at the dinner table. Of course, Mercedes still does cater to the grown-up & sensible demographic but the youthful & inclusive marketing campaign seems to shout louder.
Where does an old Mercedes Benz like this stand in Malaysia’s 2018 automotive scene?
It’s a collectors’ item. It turns heads, it looks good, and prices could rise depending on future demand.
Let’s Have a Look Around
I can only think of one situation where the 300SEL would be my car of choice. And that’s for cruising through scenic routes or the highway. The immense size of the car makes it hard to park and the car is longer than most standard parking boxes.
Agility and manoeuvrability are not key strengths of the 300SEL so town driving isn’t fun. There’s also not much power left in the 27-year-old M103 engine, so uphill drives are a bit of a struggle. If there’s anything the big body and long wheel base are good for, it is to make the cabin feel comfortable and the car feel planted at high speeds.
The luxuries in the car are great too. For a car from 1991, you get electronically controlled seats, cruise control, and an electric sunroof. Some modern cars don’t even have these features. There is decent power steering (hydraulic), leather seats, a radio, a window blind, and even a first aid kit. The only classic luxury item left to be added here is a mini fridge. The special thing in this cabin is the centre console storage box which was shipped all the way from the US. (The car is from UK).
The W126 has an economical driving mode which sounds rather futuristic for a car from 1991. Unlike Honda’s new ECON mode, the W126’s economical mode does not interfere with the throttle response or the air-conditioning. What happens instead when you switch to economy mode is that the 4-speed automatic gearbox shifts up at lower revs.
Is it economical by today’s standards?
The only exterior cosmetic enhancement done here are the AMG wheels and the removal of the traditional extending antenna. The owner did plan to get the tri-spoke wheels (by Brabus I presume) but opted for these beefy five spoke AMG wheels instead. I think the 5 spoke fits the W126 better and looks a bit more period correct. Talking about tri-spoke wheels, they certainly are a rare sight these days.
The antenna was originally on the rear left quarter panel. It’s long gone. Replacing the conventional power antenna is a windscreen mount antenna. I’ve never seen one before and it certainly helps give a cleaner look on the outside.
Somewhat related: The 4-Cylinder Grand Tourer - 2012 Mercedes-Benz E250 CGI (1.8T) Review
The bonnet hinge is a little different. It doesn’t need a hood prop and it’s doesn’t use a gas spring. It can stay at whatever height you leave it at. It is great but it does seem a little over-engineered for a bonnet hinge.
Being an older car, the hand-brake is positioned on the dash. Just pull to engage the parking brake. To release just pull, twist to the right and release gently.
It’s got a fancy interior by my standards. The sunroof is massive and the light-coloured interior makes it look super spacious especially when bathed in sunlight. The dash doesn’t rattle so thumbs up to that. The only thing I don’t like on the inside are the springy seats.
There is A Lot of Space in Front…
…for any in-line 6. The M103 is a traditional engine with only 2 valves per cylinder. 1 for the intake and 1 for the exhaust. Modern day 4-cylinder engines have more valves in total than this ancient inline-6. It’s a single cam engine with mechanical fuel injection. The fuel distributor, if broken, will cost a fortune to replace (somewhere in the region of RM10,000).
Options you have when the fuel distributor fails are…
- Buy a replacement fuel distributor (expensive)
- Buy a parts car for the distributor (and other parts)
- Scrap the car
- Turn it into a restaurant prop
- Swap the M103 for a JZ or RB engine
Personally, I would go with option number 5 but pair it with an automatic transmission.
So, what you get with a W126 300SEL is a big ancient cruise-mobile. It is thirsty, has springy seats, can cost a fortune to fix, and it is not quick. However, it does have decent safety for an old car, it does have good luxuries in the interior, it is considerably stylish, and you could fit a more powerful in-line 6 in the front if you wanted to.
Will I buy one?
No. I'm more interested in a Volvo 850 T5R Estate
What else might interest you?
Well, I looked up some classified ads on the internet and the W126 in Malaysia is selling at below RM20,000. It is a willing buyer & willing seller market but I’ll take that price as a guideline. There is a 1987 560SEC W126 with whopping asking price of RM135,000.
There are other options for classic continental cars from a similar era going for under RM20k. There’s an E30 (with a JZ swap), some older BMW 5 series cars, and some older Volvos. All of them which I would personally do a JZ or RB engine swap because it fits under the long hood.
A newer S-Class (W140) is still under RM20k. The M104 engine has more valves per cylinder and has Double Overhead Cams. Cruising around in a black W140 S-Class with blacked out windows will make you look like a mafia boss.
The W220 already crosses the RM20k boundary and has a ‘soft-edged’ & roundish look which I’m not a fan of. The W221 onward already have a relatively modern look by 2018’s standards.
Somewhat related: The Memory Mobile - K.T. Pillai’s Mercedes Benz W108 280S Restoration
It was certainly a pleasure getting the chance to be up close with this old Mercedes. I definitely managed to see how things were done by the Germans in the late 80s and early 90s.
Once again, I’d like to thank Chemlube for the opportunity.
To learn more about Chemlube, you can head on over to their website.