Appreciating Asset The W116 Sedans • 1973-1980

Richard Simonds, Data Daniel Stahl
W116 02_0.jpgThe W116, buiit between 1973 and 1980 was the first Mercedes-Benz model range to be officially designated as the S-Class, these beautifully built modern automobiles were all but ignored for decades


Appreciating Asset – The W116 Sedans • 1973-1980

The first Mercedes-Benz model range to be officially designated as the S-Class, these beautifully built modern automobiles were all but ignored for decades

Article Richard Simonds

Data tables Daniel Stahl

Images Daimler Archives


he W116 is one of the most polarizing Mercedes-Benz series ever built in Sindelfingen. Bruno Sacco’s modern, angular design was one contentious factor; the technical challenges presented by the negative effect of mandatory emissions controls on drivability was another. Enthusiasts of the W108–W109 regard the W116 as a guinea pig forced to meet the safety and environmental issues of the 1970s; others prefer the later W126 series from the 1980s. Constantly changing U.S. emissions and safety requirements in the 1970s meant that Mercedes-Benz in effect used the W116 as a rolling test bed for evolving engine specifications, suspension tuning and emissions technology. These ongoing adaptations included catalytic converters (added to U.S. models in 1975), automatic climate control (added 1976, all models), the four-wheel selective leveling system (1976, on the 6.9), the turbodiesel engine (1978) and K-Jetronic fuel injection (1976, all gasoline V-8 models). The darkest days of the model’s plight are exemplified by the 1975 and 1976 280S, which relied on a low-compression version of the M110 twin-cam six to generate 120 horsepower, while returning a paltry 12 mpg at anything over 70 mph. 

The W116 was given a new lease on life by the introduction of the breakthrough 300SD in 1978. The turbodiesel era of Mercedes-Benz automobiles had finally arrived, and as a result, most of the W116s available today are diesels. However there are still plenty of examples of the 280SE, 450SE/SEL and even the 280S, still available for enthusiasts. In spite of the challenges in the 1970s, Mercedes-Benz vehicles of the time did not suffer the “malaise era” epithet that dogged so many American cars because of their terrible performance and poor drivability.



With the international oil crisis and growing environmental concerns, the 1970s were an era of great turmoil in the automotive industry. Launched to high public expectation despite this uncertain economic climate, Mercedes-Benz designed the W116 as the successor to the robust and popular W108 and W109 series.

The W116 first came to the United States in 1973. There was never a 1972 version, not even in Europe – the predecessor W108 wasn’t phased out until September of 1972, a rare instance of a delayed model launch in Stuttgart. One of the earliest W116s tested by Road and Track was built in February of 1973. The launch range in Europe consisted of the 280S, 280SE and 350SE. In March of 1973, the 450SE and 450SEL were introduced. These models remained the only models for the United States until the 280S came to America in 1975.

In 1976 all V-8 models were updated with hydraulic valve tappets and K-Jetronic injection. The automatic climate control system that Mercedes-Benz adapted from Chrysler was also standardized on U.S. models. Difficult to repair, this system has somewhat clouded the reputation of the 1976 and later W116s.

The 450SEL 6.9, officially called simply “6.9” in the U.S., was introduced as a 1976 model in Europe; an American version followed in 1977. The 280S was replaced in 1977 by the stronger, faster 280SE, when the 450SE was discontinued in the United States. In 1978, interest in the W116 was revived by the 300SD, which, while not being as fast as a 450SEL, was capable of 25-30 mpg. Production of this model continued into August of 1980, with almost 29,000 examples manufactured.

The majority of W116s were phased out in Europe during the 1979 model year, but production for the American market continued into 1980.

Few major model changes occurred during the life of the W116. The first major revision came in the summer of 1973 for the 1974 model year, with the addition of larger bumpers to meet recently instituted federal standards requiring vehicles to survive five mph collisions without damage to lights, safety equipment or engines. The W116 engines and climate control systems also received major updates in 1976.

Today, many W116 buyers are new to classic Mercedes-Benz ownership, and see the model as elegant and with an airy cabin offering greater visibility than modern cars. Sacco’s angular design has caught the eye of a younger generation that appreciates both the build quality and image of these cars. The 6.9 and 300SD have their own cult followings; the 6.9 has found an especially enthusiastic reception in the last few years. Much like the 300SEL 6.3 that preceded it in the W109 series, the 6.9 was the “gentleman’s hot rod” of its day.


Reasons to buy a W116

Consistent build quality, even on 1975-1976 emission-era cars.

Mechanical robustness.

Long driveline and suspension life.

Bumpers could exceed the required 5 mph impact.    

Comfortable M-B Tex or leather upholstery interiors.

Increased interest from the collector car community.

Access to service literature and mechanical parts supply.

Cheaper to purchase and service than a W108 or W109.

The 300SD has bulletproof build quality and diesel economy.


Reasons not to buy a W116

Poor fuel economy on gasoline models.

Emissions headaches on 1975-1976 U.S. market examples.

Automatic climate control systems are challenging to repair.

Difficulty of finding interior and exterior parts.

Not as good as the W126 that replaced it.

Stubborn sellers with unrealistic expectations.



Front and rear glass seals often in need of replacement.

Transmission leaks at the front seal.

State of driveshaft flex discs, engine mounts, driveline parts.

Leaking steering gear boxes.

Excessive steering column play indicates bad steering coupler.

Road test 6.9 hydraulic suspension for leaks, bouncing ride or other strange behaviors.

Rebuilding the hydraulic suspension on a 6.9 is expensive.

Engines, whether M110, M116, M117, or the OM617, are all quite robust and long lived. 

The V-8 models may need timing chains and upper chain rails.  The 6-cylinder engines usually require a gasket between the cylinder head and the camshaft carrier-bearing box.  With the exception of V-8 engines after 1975, all engines require regular valve adjustment.  Oil consumption should be assessed, as valve guides and seals are common wear items on gasoline engines.

Trunk wells often rust due to water collection.

Floor pans rust especially towards areas that are low enough to collect water.

Rust at extremities of firewall, as well as around the fuse box.

Check for rust in the sunroof tray if sunroof equipped.

Rust in the bottoms of the doors is also possible.

Rust in the rocker panels is a common problem in coastal cars and cars from severe winter states.

Rust is often found around the shock towers, under the brake booster, and under the climate control servo on cars that have not been cleaned or garaged.

Rust can hide in the cowl under the cowl vent grill due to drainage issues.

Front control arm bushings, ball joints, steering linkages, and worn upper control arms.

Rear sub-frame bushings and rear control arms can be worn and/or rusty.

Condition of driveshaft flex discs and engine mounts, as well as other rubber driveline parts.

Leaking steering gear boxes.

Transmission leaks at the front seal.

Interior panels, such as door panels, roof rail panels, center console, dash, etc. are prone to fading and cracking.  These are not available new, and used ones are hard to find.

Automatic climate control systems almost always need some kind of repair, however new replacement servos and vacuum actuators are still available.

Woodwork is often faded and lackluster. Refinishing is a challenge due to difficulty of removing the trim for refurbishing.

Front or rear seats on early W116 can look flat, meaning excelsior pads have failed. Replacement kits cost over $3,000.

Finding a seller with realistic price expectations.



Today, the W116 range is slowly gaining recognition with classic Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts. While these cars often require a fair amount of work to get in order again, a well-sorted W116 can be a delight to drive. Even the 280S, burdened with its catalytic converter and Solex carburetor, can still be a fun car to own and drive regularly. Like all classic Mercedes-Benz vehicles, these are usable, comfortable automobiles with excellent braking and handling.  Driving one doesn’t feel like a chore.

While W116 models are now recognized as outstanding examples of Mercedes-Benz build quality, market valuations haven’t quite caught up. Although this can make a W116 a difficult sales proposition, the buyer of a carefully chosen example will quickly appreciate that the W116 is one of the best-kept secrets in the world of classic Mercedes-Benz ownership.


W116 450SEL 6.9 • 1975-1980


The W116 was launched in autumn 1972 as the company’s flagship model; every aspect of the big sedan was new or improved. Upgrades included a modern double-wishbone front suspension

(1) for better handling and road holding,


a central locking system


(2), smooth automatic transmission (3),


plus available tachometer (4) and


headlight washer system (5).



Bruno Sacco’s angular design concealed a stronger passenger safety cell with high-strength roof, reinforced doors and door pillars to protect passengers in the airy cabin (6-7)


with a padded dashboard, four-spoke safety wheel (8),


and deformable switches (9).


In 1975, the 450SEL 6.9, with its powerful 6.9-liter V8-engine (10)


became the new top model of the W116 range.



Specifications: Mercedes-Benz W116 Sedans • U. S.  Models • 1973-1980


MODEL   YEARS         CHASSIS          ENGINE           POWER           TORQUE         

450SE  1973-1975       116.032           117.983           73: 190             73: 240           

                                                                                     74: Fed 190      74: Fed 240                           

                                                                                     74: CA 180       74: CA 232                                          

                                                                                     75: 180             75: 220

450SE        1976           116.032           117.986               180                  220     

450SEL 1973-1975       116.033           117.983           73: 190              73: 240           

                                                                                      74: Fed 190     74: Fed 240                      

                                                                                      74: CA 180      74: CA 232                                   


450SEL1976-1979       116.033           117.986                 180                 220     

450SEL     1980           116.033           117.986                 160                  230     

280S    1975-1976       116.020           110.922                 120                  143     

280SE  1977-1979       116.024           110.985           Fed 142          Fed 149        

                                                                                      CA 137             CA 142                    

280SE  1980                 116.024           110.985                 140                   145     

6.9       1977-1979        116.036           100.985                 250                   360     

300SD  1979-1980       116.120           617.950             79: 110            79: 168           

 Turbo                                                                             80: 120            80: 170                              



450SE     1973-1975        3A        3.07                    11.5                121            16       

450SE         1976             3A        3.07                    11.6                 118            16

450SEL                            3A        3.07                    11.5                 121            16                                   

450SEL   1976-1979       3A        3.07                     11.6                 118            16

450SEL       1980            3A        2.65                      12.8                 115            16

280S       1975-1976       4A        3.69                      15.8                 106          12-18

280SE     1977-1979       4A        3.69                      14.4                 112          15-18                                           

280SE          1980            4A        3.69                      14.4                 112         15-18

6.9       1977-1979           3A        2.65                        8.9                 133            12

300SDTurbo 1979-1980  4A        3.07                       17                   103             22


Global W116 Chronology

1972    September                280S, 280SE, 350SE introduced

1973    March                       450SE, 450SEL (100mm longer wheelbase) introduced

1973    November                 350SEL introduced

1974    April                           280SEL introduced

1975    May                           450SEL 6.9 introduced as a successor to the 300SEL 6.3

1975    November to             Improvements to fuel-injection system to meet more stringent emissions regulations on 2.8-, 3.5-, and 4.5-

1976    February                    liter engines (Bosch K-Jetronic replaced D-Jetronic).  Transistorized, breakerless ignition system introduced

1978    May                           The 300SD (3-liter, 5-cylinder turbodiesel) is produced exclusively for the United States and Canada to offer                                                        a luxury sedan with high fuel efficiency to meet “Corporate Average Fuel Economy” (CAFE) standards

1978    September                Anti-lock brake system (ABS) introduced exclusively on the W116

1979    September                W126 model introduced

1980    April - September     W116 production phased out according to model. Final W116 off the assembly line was a 300SD


Global Production

280S         122,848

280SE       150,593

280SEL         7,032

350SE         51,100

350SEL         4,266

450SE           4,160

450SEL       59,578

450SEL 6.9   7,380

300SE         28,634

TOTAL       473,035