What it takes to buy, fix, drive and enjoy a classic Mercedes
Having long watched grizzled old fogeys with their grizzled classic cars from afar, I recently decided to become one of them. With the wife’s blessing (after convincing her what a great investment it would be), I donned my sepia-toned glasses and perused the golden-goldie car ads.
There was no shortage of classic cars being advertised at my maximum R200,000 budget, but I settled on a 1985 Mercedes 380 SEC at Executive Cars in Randburg for R125,000.
It’s the two-door coupé (C126) version of the Benz W126 that was produced from 1979 to 1991 as the predecessor to today’s S-class. It was made in 380, 420, 500 and 560 derivatives — all of them V8s — back in the days when badges still denoted engine size.
The car looked in great exterior nick, particularly the paintwork. Inside, the wood panelling still looked new and shiny, though the seats needed some TLC.
Apart from non-original alloy wheels the Merc was as authentic as the day it left the showroom when the Pet Shop Boys were hitting their stride, right down to its Becker radio-tape system.
I decided to spend under budget as I expected a 35-year-old car to have some issues, and it would be nice to have an R75,000 buffer to deal with them.
A test drive revealed that the brakes were squeaking and there was a clunking noise from the rear suspension, while the car pulled to the side under braking.
I offered the full asking price on condition that these issues were seen to, and we shook hands; deal done.
The car was fitted with new Bilstein shocks and a set of brake pads, and I drove home in the old gal, who henceforth became the “Waftmobile”.
The rear suspension still clunked intermittently and the idling was lumpy so I took the car back a few days later.
The dealer this time found the source of the clunking and fixed it, and sorted out the misfire by fitting a new set of HT leads — all at no charge. He also offered to give the car a full service for my cost, which I accepted.
After collecting the car it ran as smooth as silk. Despite reminding the dealer a number of times to invoice me for the service, he never did, and must have decided to throw it in as part of the deal. Well played sir.
It all looked plain sailing until a few days later while out for a Sunday drive when the four-speed automatic gearbox wouldn’t go past second gear. It was an intermittent problem and sometimes went back to working perfectly.
I took the car to a transmission specialist and asked them to check if it needed a top-up of gearbox fluid; they told me the transmission needed to be reconditioned at a price of about R25,000.
A visit back to the selling dealer's mechanic found it was indeed just a little short on transmission fluid! Duly topped up with oil, it’s been running perfectly ever since, but I’m still grumpy with that transmission “specialist” for trying to liberate me of an unnecessary 25k. Moral of the story: get a second opinion.
Next up was sorting out the leather seats, which were scuffed and cracked after 35 years of wear. Colorglo in Sandton specialises in restoring old upholstery and at R5,200 it was the most expensive single cost since buying the car, but well worth it as the difference is night and day. The 35-year old seats look more like five-year old seats now.
The car kept pulling a little to the right under braking so I took it for a R150 wheel alignment, which improved matters but didn’t cure them.
Another workshop figured out that the left rear brake caliper had been stuck in the open position, which caused the pulling under braking. Fixed for R2,200, and now she tracks straight and true.
Finally, two items were purchased at a Mercedes used spares shop: a switch for the front passenger’s electrically adjustable seat for R1,250; and a pair of side mirrors for R1,000 (the old ones were scuffed).
Spent on fixing and beautifying so far: R9,800
The W126 is a grand old dame with a comfortably wafting ride quality and vague steering. The 3.8l V8 is on the lazy side, but it doesn’t matter as I wasn’t after a speed demon.
It understandably makes a couple of creaks and rattles after 35 years, but still has that solidly engineered feel.
Waftmobile is a reset from all the slick, modern cars I road test for a living. It’s a floaty, laid-back drive that puts me into a more relaxed frame of mind. I swear a lot less at minibus taxi drivers.
The Mercedes SEC was the top luxury car of its day and most of the electronic goodies still work including the windows, sunroof, aircon, central locking, cruise control, and one of the electric seat belt feeders — fixing the other will be a project for another day.
It was time for Waftmobile’s coming-out party at a golden oldie gathering, but classic-car purists can be an infuriating bunch.
The day before the show, I spent hours polishing the car and getting ’er spick and span. Show day dawns, and instead of looking at the shiny white paintwork, newly restored leather seats and period-authentic Becker radio-tape, they zero in on the non-standard alloy wheels.
I priced a set of original-equipment wheels for about R10,000 and decided it wasn’t worth it; I’ll have to live under the disapproving glare of the purists — for now.
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