Buyers Guide 1972-1980 W116 Flagship Sedans

Pierre Hedary with Richard Simonds and Albrecht Stachel

















W116 – The First S-Class
A Buyers Guide to the 1972-1980 Flagship Sedans

by Pierre Hedary
With Albrecht Stachel and Richard Simonds
Photography Enzo Murillo and Daimler Archives

Safety, comfort, and style were the watchwords that had guided the designers of the Mercedes-Benz cars to be built on the new W116 chassis. When the line-up of three models was introduced at the Paris Auto Show in autumn 1972, the company called the group the S-Class, thereby setting the parameters for the nomenclature of the variety of “Classes” that would follow.

Little did anyone expect at the time that fuel efficiency and emissions issues in the United States would supersede other considerations after the 1973 oil crisis, forcing Mercedes-Benz to adjust to the idea of an American market with different regulations than other major markets. In response, the S-Class, as available in North America, would go through a mid-course correction before production ended in 1980.

The consequence is that today the W116 cars, produced in great numbers and called by commentators at the time the “best cars in the world,” offer enthusiasts a wide variety of model specifications at relatively affordable prices, all sharing the common virtues of comfort and elegance.


In 1971, safety was the next horizon for Mercedes-Benz as it undertook the development of its new generation flagship sedan that would replace the W108 and W109 models. Mercedes had pioneered this concept in earlier models, so participated actively in the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Experimental Safety Vehicle program, unveiling its prototype ESF-05 safety car at the ESV Conference in 1971.

The ESF-05 illustrated how safety, comfort, and elegance could be integrated into a vehicle with leading-edge active and passive safety equipment. It was no surprise then that the new W116, first marketed in early 1973, included enhanced crumple zones, a sturdier roof, more responsive suspension, improved cabin design, and other measures to increase occupant safety.

To improve handling, the front suspension was completely new while the rear suspension was adapted to the sedan body from the 450SL roadster. Braking refinements gave the car less of a tendency to nosedive in sudden stops, improving accident avoidance.

Equally impressive, designer Bruno Sacco had taken his knife to the upright grille and headlights of the W108 and produced a new design with horizontal headlights, lower grille, smooth rounded lines, and pleasing proportions that would distinguish the Mercedes-Benz from anything else on the road and set new standards for generations of models to come.

When the S-Class was first unveiled in 1972, it included three models, the 280S, 280SE, and 350SE. At the introduction of the production lineup at the Geneva show in spring 1973, the lineup had been expanded with two new models, the 450SE and 450SEL. Noting the quality and luxury of the new models, Road & Track crowned the 450SE the “Best Sedan in the World.” The stretched 350SEL followed in November 1973, and the 280SEL in April 1974. 

Perhaps assuming that American buyers would expect flagship luxury sedans to have high-powered engines, the 450SE/SEL models were the only ones that would be sold in the United States and Canada. Those models were very popular from their introduction, and sales continued strong, even though the design had to be tweaked with the addition of an unattractive bumper arrangement for MY1974 to meet new U.S. crash protection mandates.

By late 1975, in the wake of the oil embargo and consequent fuel crisis, the U.S. Congress passed new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) regulations. In response, beginning with the 1977 model year, Mercedes-Benz withdrew the high-volume 450SE from the U.S. market and replaced it with the fuel-injected 280SE that provided less power but better mileage, dropping the 280S at the same time. For the smaller-volume luxury and limousine market, the company allowed the 450SEL 6.9, introduced in Europe two years earlier, to be sold in North America (see page 53). Because of its rarity and excellent performance, it is quite desirable today, in spite of poor fuel efficiency.

The U.S. W116 model lineup would increase by one model in 1978 with the addition of the 300SD, with a turbocharged version of the 3-liter 5-cylinder diesel engine installed in the W116 chassis. This model was part of the U.S. fuel efficiency strategy, and would immediately become the best-selling diesel sedan in the United States. Today W116 enthusiasts see this as the second most desirable model in the model range. Because of its strong torque, this model can outperform many higher-horsepower cars of the period. With strong sales all the way through the model run, many of the 28,000 produced are still with us in one form or another.

In 1980, with the successor W126 in the pipeline, production of the W116 models ended, with nearly half a million units sold. Interestingly, the very last W116 produced was a 300SD bound for the U.S. market.


  • Timing chain and valve guides (pre-1978 V-8s and all diesels and gasoline engines required valve adjustments every 10,000 miles)
  • Fuel injection systems – check for starting problems, odd running issues, and for leaks, especially at injectors and fuel pump (fuel mileage may be as low as 13 mpg, but with little to no oil use)
  • Cam shafts should be checked for excessive wear that will alter valve timing
  • Transmissions should not slip, and should behave well in reverse (weak reverse usually means a new reverse band piston seal is needed) 
  • Climate control system operation – try all controls and modes  
  • On 1975-1976 cars with early emissions equipment, watch for overheating and oil leaks at the cylinder heads
  • Lower ball joints and upper control arms should be replaced, if worn
  • Check for weak or slow power window regulators
  • Check vacuum locks for operation, and cruise control, if equipped
  • Sunroof pan and inside engine bay are susceptible to rust and rust repair on this series is rarely economical
  • Worn or rusty exhaust components will make the car uncharacteristically noisy and are expensive to replace


Reasons to Buy

  • Pleasing classic design, except for the post-’73 big bumpers
  • Excellent handling for a classic luxury automobile
  • Solid body structure providing good accident protection
  • Good seats and efficient interior design
  • Nicer trim than later S-Classes
  • Strong mechanicals, ease of service on diesels
  • Excellent AC systems on pre-1976 models
  • Very reliable fuel injection systems on gasoline cars
  • Excellent fuel economy on diesels
  • Good examples are easy to find and not too expensive
  • Cost-no-object design means high intrinsic value


Reasons Not to Buy

  • Parts such as window regulators, seat leather and exterior trim, are all very expensive
  • Fuel economy on gasoline models is discouraging
  • 1975-76 cars are laden with early efforts to meet emissions requirements
  • Automatic climate control on 1976 and later U.S. cars can be difficult to repair
  • Mechanical components, such as Bosch D-Jetronic systems, valve guides, and fuel pumps, are more than 30 years old and are often in need of component replacement
  • Second and third owners often neglected these cars rather than taking the time and spending the money necessary to maintain them properly
  • Mechanics with experience on these models are hard to find
  • Market values are improving, but aren’t enough to support major repairs, so finding a well-maintained example is critical


Sept 1972W116 S-Class – 280S, 280SE, and 350SE – introduced in Europe to replace W108/W109
Feb 1973450SE, 450SEL introduced for European and North American markets – Named European Car of the Year and Road & Track Best Sedan
Nov 1973350SEL added to European lineup
April 1974280SEL added to European lineup
May 1975450SEL with 6.9-liter V-8 introduced in Europe as top of the S-Class range; 280S introduced in North America
Nov 75-Feb 76Fuel injection systems changed from D-Jetronic  to K-Jetronic
Fall 1976ACC2 automatic climate control system introduced
Spring 1977In North America, fuel-injected 280SE replaces 280S, and 450SE is withdrawn, but 450SEL 6.9 becomes available
May 1978300SD turbodiesel introduced, as North America-only model, to help meet CAFE standards
April-Sept 1980

Last W116 models produced;

300SD was last W116 produced

Total production 473,035 units


How Much to Pay

ModelD ConditionC ConditionB ConditionA Condition
350/450 SE/SEL$500-$1,000$2,000-3,000$5,000-8,500$10,000-15,000
280 S/SE$500-750$1,500-2,500$4,500-6,500$9,000-11,000
6.9 and Crayford$2,500-4,000$4,500-6,000$8,000-13,000$15,000 and up

Note: Add 20 percent for chrome-bumper U.S. model 450s and early 1978 and late 1980 300SDs

  • A Condition:   Exceptional preserved original or restored example
  • B Condition:   Good condition driver with no mechanical needs
  • C Condition:   Fair condition driver with some mechanical needs
  • D Condition:   Poor condition needing significant cosmetic and mechanical work

Above: Both front and rear suspension were re-engineered from the previous W108/W109. On the front, a completely new wishbone-shaped lower control arm was mounted to the unibody chassis, rather than to a separate subframe, with geometry designed to reduce nosedive  under braking. The anti-sway bar extended across the rear of the engine compartment. At the rear, the single-joint swing axle of the W108/W109 was replaced by an adaptation of the suspension introduced on the R107, consisting of semi-trailing arms, with the wheels connected to the drivetrain with constant-velocity joint axles. Below, left: The 300SD, introduced in 1978 and available only in North America, incorporated a turbocharged version of the 3-liter, 5-cylinder engine from the 300D, though the exterior and interior trim was common with the other W116 offerings. Below, right: The interior (this is the 450SEL 6.9 with the ACC2 climate control system) was understated but elegant, dominated by a huge steering wheel, and with the top of the dashboard padded and knobs recessed for safety. Opposite page: Two views of the interior of Guy Lewis’s original and unrestored 280SE. The parchment MB-Tex interior nicely matched the English Red exterior.

I Bought One
by Guy Lewis

Advertised by a California collector on eBay as “an original, low-mile California car,” this 1978 280SE caught my eye in 2006. Always interested in original cars, well before the auction ended I called the seller for more detailed information.

He sent me additional pictures, including the undercarriage, engine bay and door jambs. To me, if the engine bay and undercarriage are in good order, then the rest of the car seems to follow. The high-resolution pictures showed a drop-dead gorgeous, car and clearly supported the claimed 26,000 miles shown on the odometer. The seller also reported that the car came with a folder of purchase and service records, including the original window sticker – another important sign of an authentic, well-cared for car. After a minimal amount of negotiation, I bought the car over the phone.

The car arrived in South Florida three weeks later. It was even more stunning in the metal. The original paint still had a deep glossy finish in that  unusual not-red, not-orange color. I am convinced the Germans were laughing when they decided to call the color “English Red.” I decided to keep the non-original chrome wheels.

The interior is the indestructible MB-Tex in parchment and in as-new condition. The wood was perfect with no hairline cracks. The chrome, glass, and weather-stripping were all in showroom-new condition. Even without driving the car, I could not have been happier. When I turned the key, the car fired right up. The 6-cylinder fuel-injected engine ran perfectly. Driving it was even better – solid as a rock. It shifted smoothly; accelerated and braked with precision; and cornered wonderfully.

With a little engine and undercarriage clean-up, and some minor, normal maintenance, we debuted our seductive sedan at the 2007 Antique Automobile Club of America National Show in Punta Gorda where she received her First Place (Junior) Award. The following year, she received her AACA First Place Senior Award. Across the board, the judges were amazed at her showroom condition.

Owning a low-mile, original example has been a slight dilemma. In my attempt to perfectly preserve the car, I’ve put only a little over 500 miles on the odometer during my six years of ownership. I readily admit it: That’s not nearly enough! Every time I get into the car, it screams “Drive me!” Without a doubt, the car was engineered and built to be driven. If only it didn’t look like it belongs on a Mercedes Benz showroom floor. Oh, well, I’ll continue to ponder the dilemma as I gather my family, and drive our time capsule to dinner, adding another four miles to the odometer.  

1973-1980 - W116 S-Class Sedans

Specifications 450SE450SEL450SEL 6.9280S280SE300SD
Model No. 116.032116.033116.036116.020116.024116.120
Years Produced1973-19801973-19801975-19801973-19801973-19801977-1980
Available in U.S.1973-19761973-19801977-19801975-19761977-19801978-1980
Total Produced 141,60459,5787,380122,848150,59528,634
Displacement4520 cc4520 cc6834 cc2746 cc2746 cc2998 cc
Horsepower@rpm190 @ 4,750 2190 @ 4,750 3250 @ 4,000120@4,900142@5,750110@4,200
Torque @ rpm240 @ 3,000 2240 @ 3,000 3360 @ 2,500143@2,800149@4,600170@2,400
Length205.5 in 4209.4 in 4210 in205.5 in205.5 in205.5 in
Weight (U.S.)4,070 lbs4,100 lbs4,389 lbs3,890 lbs3,820 lbs3,839 lbs
0-62 mph10.8 sec10.8 sec7.4 sec13.5 sec12.5 sec12.7 sec
Miles per gallon16 mpg16 mpg14.75 mpg18.75 mpg18.75 mpg22/29 mpg

1worldwide production
21975-1976 180hp@4,800, 220 lb-ft@3,000
31975-1979 180hp@4,800 and 220lb-ft@3,000; 1980 160hp@4,200 and 230 lb-ft@2,500
4with longer crash-resistant bumbers