For those wondering about the title, what I hope to achieve here is how not to lose the farm by purchasing a car with your heart rather than your head (as I did). Any sharp car buyer will always have pre-determined limits and/or rules. I surmise even the average car buyer is aware of this concept. However, this is especially true if you are looking for an used car. Particularly a cheap used car. More specifically, a cheap used luxury car.
It has been said the most expensive car you can buy is a cheap luxury car (or something to that extent). I’m slowly learning this expression is most probably absolutely 100% true.
The following is an account of how I broke nearly every rule for finding and buying a good used car in pursuit of my current “project car.” Please note, this is more of a chronological account as these rules are not listed in order of importance.
Rule #1: Know Your Budget
In this instance, I sold my beloved Subaru Impreza for $1,850, and that determined my budget. Now I needed a “fix” to assuage my car habit for that sum or less. Apparently, I was Jonesing more than I realized. Within 2 hours of signing over the Subaru title, I was in the fetal position on the floor of my garage like a junkie rapidly crashing back to reality, sobbing into my cold sweaty mitts with the title of a 1993 Mercedes Benz 600SEL clutched in my grasp. Not only was this decision impulsive and ill-informed, but I went into pocket $150 above my intended budget, knowing full well the behemoth needed work.
How did this happen?
Rule #2: Know The Make & Model
I spent the preceding weeks trying to sell the Sooby, all the while researching the common problems and what to look for when inspecting a W126 Mercedes-Benz, expressly the 560SEL. The W126 was the top-of-the-line model, produced from 1979 until 1991 (in the United States) and is known as the S-Class, the flagship of the Mercedes-Benz brand. I even had four or five prospective sellers lined up to haggle with and make absurdly low offers to.
Most reasonable examples of big V8 Mercedes-Benz’s from the W126 series usually can be had for around $3,000 to $4,000. Due to my previous offers resulting in a chuckle or merely a dial tone, I had resigned to look for something a bit more modest. Upon closing the sale of my Impreza (like the halfwit lemming I am), I began scrolling mindlessly through hundreds of adverts I had viewed a dozen times before. As luck should have it, my Craigslist filter was set to search for any Benz under $3,500. To my surprise, what should I see? But a black, 12 cylinder, 6.0-liter, Mercedes-Benz 600SEL; a shining example of magnificent opulence.
Mind you the ostentatiously appointed sedan is of a different vintage than I had been looking for. The year 1992 marked a model year of substantial change in the S-Class lineup. The opulent beast that caught my eye was not a W126 like I had been researching, it was from the newer W140 lineup. This new model S-class featured significant technological changes, many of which had never been seen before in production passenger vehicles. Examples of such changes are things like electronic stability control (ESP), adaptive damping, brake-assist, and vacuum assisted self-closing doors. Essentially, in terms of conducting a pre-purchase inspection, I would be in way over my head.
Rule #3: Beware The Cover of Darkness
Because all previous research was for a different model, I passed on viewing the decadent land yacht during the twilight hours . . . no, I didn’t! I called the owner and immediately went for a test drive. I had to act fast, the sun was setting and I only had about 30 minutes before complete darkness. Luckily, the owner was showing the car around the corner from my house to another potential buyer.
The massive German cruiser looked remarkably stunning against the red and orange hues of the sun setting backdrop. The V12 badges and polished stainless steel accents glimmered hypnotically in the twilight. The layer of dust and pollen was all but invisible to me (as were the scratches and paint blemishes beneath). All these foibles would have been clearly detectable in broad daylight. Furthermore, Her Majesty had been all warmed up, being test driven by the previous buyer; therefore I was unable to witness the starting system operate a during a cold start. Having a background in sales a mere lifetime ago, I set myself on the notion this was somehow a feature. The silver lining being the car was not overheating as it idled, AND the air conditioning worked!
Rule #4: Check For Check Engine Lights
While it’s true a car being sold with some deficiencies can be had for much less than the asking price, if the cause of the deficiency is unknown, it can be a great gamble as well. This is categorically true for luxury and performance vehicles. If the luxury is deteriorated, or the performance is diminished, the whole point of the thing is defeated, and the value is reduced significantly. One of the few things I did know about the monster 6.0-liter W140 chassis, is how it had issues with the wire insulation literally crumbling away, bringing about potentially catastrophic ramifications. Again, I was in luck, because this wire harness had clearly been replaced, but unfortunately, I was blissfully unaware there were two additional wire harnesses that suffer from the same ailment. Although the check engine light was not on, when the accelerator was firmly applied, a few of the 394 original horses didn’t leave the stable.
The condition of the drivetrain was suspect, so I would be remiss not to cycle the power and make sure all the warning lights illuminated when the ignition module was energized. Well thank me lucky stars, all the warning lights illuminated and subsequently went dark again. Regrettably, this masterfully engineered machine has 8 archaic computers compared to the one semi analog electronic controller of its predecessor, and no OBD port to read the ever so obvious active faults (there is a method of reading faults but it is easily cleared and simply unreliable). The silky V12 felt as though it was in “limp home mode” but no check engine light. This brought me to the conclusion that it must be something small causing the reduced power, or surely some warning light would be on.
Rule #5: Be Sure All Interior Electronics Function Properly
This one is normally a straight forward task: check the window motors, seat functions, lights etc. and you’re good right? I failed miserably here, largely due to the fact I had not fulfilled the prerequisite groundwork to familiarize myself with the copious electronic functions available on the W140 600SEL. I was completely overwhelmed with the doo-dads, switches, and bobbles; as I was messing about with one of the twelve seat adjustment functions, the seller showed me how the windows all function normally. I noted the sunroof did not function properly, but the air conditioning was ice cold, the cruise control worked a treat, as well as the electronic adjustment controls for all three mirrors.
The sheer number of trappings in the S-Class is staggering, several of which were firsts for the industry, and are not found in anything less than the finest automobiles of the luxury segment today.
Rule #6: Never Buy Any High Maintenance Vehicle Without Maintenance Records
When the Merc was introduced, the base MSRP was roughly $130,000. Certainly, the records of maintenance and service would accompany such a distinguished machine. I asked for the presumably extensive documentation. Based on the high six digit figure found on the odometer, I expected a catalog of records rivaling the old testament in size. What I got, however, was an equally epic excuse and a single sheet of the most recent service. At this juncture, the only way I was not taking this immense dreamboat home with me was if the seller refused to accept my money.
Rule #7: Beware The Morning After
To this point the real consequence has been (hopefully comically) downplayed. The fact of the matter is the following day I realized there is a wheezing, limping, over engineered, complicated, and problematic German luxury sedan parked in my garage. This dawned on me the moment I went to fire it up from a cold start. There was a beautiful sound of a gigantic starter whirring that is uniquely indicative of a twelve-cylinder drivetrain, followed by . . . nothing.
For the motor to start and stay running at an idle while cold, the gas pedal had to remain pressed and modulated so as not to rev too high. Once the idle balanced it began to really sink in. The Merc may only need a tune-up but that is still a $600 endeavor. Additionally, I soon found that many of the accouterments that had astounded me the day prior did not work as flawlessly as I thought. The power rear shade, side and lumbar adjust, front headrests, stereo, phone – just a few of the components that need work. If more than a tune is required to bring this German to life, I will be into this thing for thousands of dollars before I could even hope to sell it for what I paid initially.
The preceding detailed how I fell in love with what amounts to a 5,000 lbs. piece of steel architecture. Should this account help anyone else avoid making the same mistakes please let me know, because right now, I really need some consolation. I’m considering going back to the fetal position in my garage.
Benjamin Caschera is a car nut in every sense of the word. His eclectic writings range from rants on traffic and wrenching on $500 cars, to adulation of the finest classic and/or latest hyper cars. Follow and heckle him on Twitter and Instagram: @TheBoringCarGuy