Buyers Guide – Best of the Best in Affordable Classics, 1973-1993

Pierre Hedary

_01W201.jpgA concise reference – featuring careful selections from The Star’s past Buyers Guides – designed to help you choose a modern classic Mercedes-Benz.


The Best of the Best

Article Pierre Hedary

Images Daimler Archive



A concise reference – featuring careful selections from The Star’s past

Buyers Guides – designed to help you choose a modern classic Mercedes-Benz


Perhaps you’ve been inspired by one of our previous Buyers Guides or articles about other owners’ bargain buys. Maybe you own a new example and have been attracted to an older one you’ve seen at a club meet. Or you might even be thinking about buying an affordable older Mercedes-Benz as your very first car.

The good news is that there is an extensive range to choose from and I can help you narrow the field based on my 15 years of experience working on all years and models of the three-pointed star.

What should you consider when buying an older car of any make or model? Of course you should look for the best blend of power, efficiency and appeal that you can afford without breaking the bank. You also need to look at how long the model will last from one major sorting to the next and what you’re likely to have to spend to sort out that model to make it safe, reliable and suitable for daily use.

With those criteria in mind, let’s look at what I believe are six of the best model ranges Mercedes-Benz sold in the United States during a time I consider to be the golden age of Mercedes-Benz automobiles, when engineers and designers made the final decisions: 1972-1995.


Good thing, small package: W201 (1984-1993)


The W201 is not as simple as it looks, but a good example can be a fun daily driver. Although the company did have some component-longevity issues and working space in the engine compartment is a little cramped, the overall design is rock solid, the handling is amazing and the smile a W201 will put on your faces is priceless.


Best diesel: The naturally aspirated 1986-89 190D 2.5 is the best diesel sedan in this lineup. With 93 horsepower on tap, it still returns 35 mpg and can run all day at 80 mph. While the turbo is a bit faster, the non-turbo engines tend to be easier to maintain. A 5-speed manual transmission is a bonus. Watch for leaking injector prechambers, vacuum pumps and temperamental climate-control systems.


Best gasser: The 1990-93 2.6-liter model is a tight, balanced sport sedan. The Sportline model is the most exciting and can be had with a 5-speed manual. Performance and fuel economy are delightful, so the daily commute will leave you smiling and won’t break your wallet.


Best market appeal: The 190E 2.3 16-valve, or its later 2.5-liter equivalents. Unmodified examples of these are appreciating rapidly.


Areas that could need work: Suspension, including front struts, strut mounts, lower ball joints and rear-axle spindle bushings; climate control, especially actuators for the Tempmatic system, and engine – head gaskets and valve guides (all gas models).


Budget: A good basic W201 can be found for $5,000. A good 16-V example will run $15,000-$20,000. Sorting costs will run $1,000-$5,000 for repairs of each of the major problem areas, plus an extra $1,500-$5,000 to do a valve job if you need one in addition to the other stuff.


Stand out in a crowd: W116 S-Class (1973-1980)


The W116 marked the beginning of the modern-classic era, with subframe and kingpins replaced by the familiar front axle used on later W123 and W126 cars. This is a super-solid car, with all of Mercedes’s legendary engines available, from the 617 turbo to the M100.


Best diesel: There’s only one, and it’s the 1978-80 300SD. What else is needed when you have the superb 5-cylinder turbo under the hood? Build quality on these early engines was excellent and should give you 500,000 miles of reliable use. Watch out for worn camshafts on early engines and electronic climate-control issues.


Best gasser: Any European market 350- or 450SE/SEL built after 1976. By then, the cars were being built with K-Jetronic fuel injection and hydraulic valves. Many were devoid of automatic climate control. The 350 was available from Day 1 with a manual gearbox. These can and will need timing chains and valve jobs between 100,000 and 150,000 miles.


Best market appeal: The 450SEL 6.9 is the up-and-coming collector’s model, with top examples in the $35,000-$50,000 range. At the other end, the 1975-76 280S may not be fast, and it might be full of early emissions controls, but these initial complications mean there are plenty of well-preserved, low-mileage examples of this model available for under $6,000.

Areas that could need work: Front suspension, U.S.-market climate control (1976-80), window regulators, body rust in non-structural areas and seat pads.


Budget: $1,500 for a worthwhile project, and up to $12,000 for a low-mileage diesel. Plan on spending from $1,500 to make your W116 safe and reliable to $18,000 for a major sorting.


Envy inducing: R107 SL/C107 SLC (1972-1989)


The R107 was Mercedes-Benz’s most successful convertible by the time it was finally taken out of production; the C107 SLC Coupe is one of those elegant chapters in Mercedes-Benz history that deserves more attention. Offering unparalleled open-air motoring, good 107s are loved by their owners for their fun and reliability.


Best SL: Any of them, except the 1975 450SL and any 380SL from 1981-83 that needed the timing chain changed to a double-link version.


Best SLC: This is a tough one, but the 280SLC with a manual transmission is absolutely sublime. If you can’t find one, look at the early 350/450 variant manufactured from 1971-73.

Best market appeal: The 107.026 5.0-liter SLC and the European 500SL. Buyers are finally starting to realize these are something special.


Areas that could need work: Weak points include aluminum-engine-block issues on 1981 and newer variants, rust from water collecting in the body and all the stuff we listed for the W116. Sadly, any cheap 107 will usually need new or refurbished seats and dashboard to make it livable. Worn convertible tops are also a given for replacement.


Budget: $5,000 for a solid, high-mileage 380 or 450, and up to $18,000 for the best examples. A Silver-Star Preservation award low-mileage 560SL will set you back about $40,000. This model range is one where we recommend careful purchase backed by a thorough prepurchase inspection – always a good idea – performed by a mechanic who has an intimate knowledge of these sporty cars’ issues.


Good looking fun: W124 E-Class (1986-1995)


The W124 was a great midsize car that will deliver reliable service without demanding constant attention. Easy to maintain and fun to drive, the W124 should also be considered if you’re thinking of buying a newer W210 or

211 E-Class.


Best diesel: It’s a tie! The 1990-93 300D 2.5 and the 1994-95 E300 are both great cars, with fuel economy of 30 mpg, the ability to cruise at 80-90 mph all day and relatively few mechanical issues.

Best gasser: The tried and true 1986-92 300E, CE or TE with the M103 engine. Easy to service, fast and dead reliable, this was probably the best gasoline-powered Mercedes-Benz ever built. The 400E is also a solid choice.


Best market appeal: The 500E, with the best cars bringing $30,000 or more, and the E320 Cabriolet, with great examples from $12,000 up to $30,000. (See also, “The Perfect Car,” Pages 42-47 in this issue.)


Areas that could need work: Watch out for vacuum-pump failure, delivery-valve leaks on the injection pump and glow-plug failures on the E300 diesel (the giant intake manifold impedes service access). At some point all the gassers need valve jobs and head gaskets, but this is a sub-$2,000 job (about the same as the cost of many simpler repairs on the W211). Air-conditioning evaporators on all models, cylinder heads on the 1987 300D/TD, transmissions on 320, 400, 420 and 500 variants are problem areas. Suspension wear has usually gone unaddressed, too.


Budget: Under $3,000 for a solid gas or diesel runner and no more than $10,000 for a pristine 300E Cabriolet. Cars with V-8 engines cost substantially more. Plan on setting aside $1,500 to make the car reliable; $5,000-$10,000 to make it perfect. Because of their hydraulic tops, cabriolets are always more costly to restore.


Timeless beauty: 126 S-Class (1981-1991)


The W126 was, according to many experts and marque aficionados, the best S-Class Mercedes-Benz ever made. There are more of these on the road than the later W140s, and they are DIY-friendly, very safe and timelessly elegant.


Best diesel: 1985 300SDs, with their available air bag, ABS, 2.88 differential, and other numerous modifications, are the leaders of the diesel pack. Capable of 30 mpg at 70 mph, they offer amazing reliability for an affordable price. With the a/c compressor being the only weak point, buy one of these and I promise you won’t be able to resist making it perfect.


Best gasser: The 1988-91 300SE/SEL, with its bulletproof M103 engine, will always satisfy. While V-8 cars might be faster, the 6-cylinder cars are easier to service with well-balanced performance. If you want a V-8, look for a 1980-91 European 500SEL; they are rare, exclusive and surprisingly economical. Don’t shy away from an SEC, either.


Best market appeal: AMG 4-cam sedans and coupes, with values frequently soaring over $50,000.

Areas that could need work: a/c evaporator (all post-1985 models), rust under rear windshields (especially SECs) and cylinder heads and gaskets (OM603 diesels and all gas models) are all potential problems.


Budget: Anywhere from $3,000 for a car with known and repairable problems to $17,000 for a nice sedan. A good SEC will run anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000. Sorting costs are usually in the $2,000-$7,500 range.


Make a friend for life: The W123 (1977-1985)


Simply stated, the elegant and understated W123 is arguably the best Mercedes-Benz ever built. If you’ve never owned one, you should. They are devoid of major issues and truly have the potential to outlive their owners.

Best diesel: They are all great, but if you have to pick one, it should be a 1981 or later model. 240Ds and 300Ds drive differently, but they each have their strengths. Watch out for a/c-compressor issues, front suspensions, rubber parts and rust in the floors, battery tray area and doors, all of which are easy to fix.


Best gasser: The European 280E/CE/TE model line was wonderful in its own right, delivering 185 horsepower from its M110 inline-6. Manual transmissions were also available.


Best market appeal: Turbodiesel sedans, coupes and wagons in excellent condition can bring anywhere from $15,000 to $35,000.


Areas that could need work: Seats wear out after 300,000 miles and dashboards crack, but lots of low-mileage examples are available as donor cars for interior parts. If you have a 1980 or earlier 300D or 280E, watch out for that climate control.


Budget: You can buy a W123 for under $5,000, spend $15,000 on it and have a practically new car with more style and space than any contemporary automobile. Just ask Lady Gaga. That being said, if you’re handy and have some working space, as little as $1,000 will get you into a 240D, with another $1,500 to make it roadworthy. Don’t be afraid to learn how to fix it yourself.


Whichever you choose


Whichever one of these models you choose, know that you are buying a car that was designed to last indefinitely. No other car from the era can offer the style, safety, reliability and longevity of a classic Mercedes-Benz. And no modern car at the same level of investment and operating cost will match it for head-turning appeal. So if you’re thinking about making one of these a daily driver, or you’re looking to add one to your collection, don’t hold back: If carefully purchased and properly sorted, any modern classic Mercedes-Benz is a great choice. Over the next six issues, we will explore each of these model recommendations in more detail, updating and expanding the Buyers Guides published in past issues of The Star.


Club member Pierre Hedary owns and manages his own Mercedes-Benz repair and restoration shop in Florida. He can be reached at:,, 407.765.2867.



W201 1984-1993: 190D, 190, 190E, 190E 2.3 16V

W116 1973-1980


R107 SL 1972-9189 450SL


C107 SLC 1972-1981 450SLC


W124 1986-1995


W126 1981-1991


W123 1977-1985: Sedan, coupe,  station wagon