Mercedes-Benz 420SEL

When Mercedes-Benz introduced its W126 line of S-class luxury sedans and coupes in the mid-1980s, it accomplished a feat for which the automaker is well known: it created an instant classic. Almost overnight, the SEL (Saloon-class, Fuel-Injected, Long-Wheelbase) sedan became the flagship luxury vehicle for the marquee and became one of the most prestigious vehicles to grace the road.

Two decades later, this icon of refinement is aging gracefully. Although it was retired in the early 1990s, the W126 line (which includes the 300SE/SEL, 420SE/SEL and 560SE/SEL, among others) can still be spotted fairly frequently in wealthier neighborhoods where it exudes an aura of “old money.”

When the driver first enters this car, it becomes immediately clear why the luxury crowd has elected not to discard their aging vehicles. The seat feels, even after many years, more like a comfortable recliner than a vehicle seat. The oversized steering wheel contains a first-generation airbag and, on later models, the passenger dash contains one of the first instances of a passenger airbag (virtually unheard of in the time period when this car was produced). The burl- or zebrano-wood dash and inlays are smooth and refined, a lasting symbol of the care taken when this car- the last line of hand-built Mercedes- was assembled. First impressions are that this car is a functional, rolling piece of art.

The particular car used for this review, a 1990 model black 420SEL, shows more than 243,000 miles on the (working) odometer. These numbers are a sure sign that this car has spent the majority of its life on the road, not in a shop. Such reliability is typical of Mercedes-Benz, earning them the reputation as “the most well-built cars in the world” (it should be noted that Mercedes vehicles used as taxicabs in routinely reach the million mile mark).

Despite the mileage, the car immediately came to life with a single turn of the laser-cut key. After a very slight start-up shudder, the car quickly settled into a smooth, quiet idle. The tachometer needle hung nicely just below the 1,000 RPM mark and an elegant sign, reminiscent of an airplane warning signal, flashed a “fasten seatbelt” warning from overhead.

The first sign of this car’s age became evident when backing out of the drive: a small puddle of oil had formed beneath the car. Further research at, an online forum for Mercedes-Benz owners, found that oil leaks are highly common in the W126 line, a result of an aging main seal. The leaks are so common, in fact, that one enthusiast proclaimed, “it it’s not leaking, it is out of fluid.” With proper and routine maintenance, though, these leaks are more dangerous for the driveway than they are for the health of the car.

Out on the road, the car returned to its sophisticated, refined self. The ride was exceptionally smooth; even with nearly a quarter million miles on the clock, the car was as smooth and comfortable as any brand new, showroom vehicle. The four-speed automatic transmission shifted smoothly and quietly, hardly noticeable under the acceleration provided by the 4.2 liter V8. The engine’s acceleration is so enjoyable, in fact, that one needs to be reminded to back off the accelerator in order to conserve fuel. The car’s “economy” gauge, appropriately situated just under the fuel gauge, efficiently serves this purpose.

For a car of its age, the 420SEL offered remarkable instrumentation and controls. In addition to the innovative (and markedly German) economy gauge, a sophisticated analogue clock and digital ambient temperature gauge very nicely complimented the instrument cluster. A seat-shaped nest of switches controlled every aspect of the front power seats, even to the point of raising and lowering the power head rests. Analogue climate control (as opposed to digital) kept the car’s climate incredibly comfortable, quickly adjusting the air conditioning to compensate for the indicated ambient temperature of 93 degrees.

The attention to detail carried throughout the car, with seatback pockets providing storage (again, reminiscent of airplane seatback pockets) for rear passengers, a marked location for a first-aid kit in the rear dash and- surprisingly- a separate rear deck box for cigars. Certainly, no detail was overlooked when the 420SEL was assembled.

Although the cars have a reputation for being highly reliable (while examining the engine bay, a passing observer commented, “A Mercedes with the hood up? You don’t see that very often.”), maintenance is a must in any vehicle. Do-it-yourselfers will be pleased to know that the car offered ample room in the engine bay, easily big enough to accommodate large German hands. Some research on Benzworld indicates that most routine maintenance- such as changing spark plugs- can be accomplished in less than half an hour by all but the most uninitiated. Even better, parts are surprisingly inexpensive, with each of the eight spark plugs costing around $3.00() and other parts comparable to a modern Japanese import.

Without a doubt, the reputation of elegant, refined and sophisticated has been well earned by Mercedes-Benz. Couple that reputation with timeless styling and incredible reliability and the 420SEL is born. Only Mercedes is capable of creating a car that age as gracefully as this one.

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