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Old 03-12-2003, 11:47 AM
Registered User
Join Date: Feb 2002
Location: Kingston NY
Posts: 114
SEL buying questions

I am looking for an SEL. I have two 1988's I am looking at.

One is a silver 420SEL with 107k and is mint. Runs and drives excellent. Everything seems to work just fine. I cannot find any issues except a lack of records. It is $5000.

The other is a 560SEL with 166K. It is also MINT (actually slightly better than the 420SEL). Teal with parchment. It has all records and is from a very respectable independent shop. Price? $11000

Now my question.. whic one should I consider seriously? Is the performance difference between them so significant that I should only consider the bigger engine? Isn't $11k a bit high for a high mileage car like that? What can I expect the longevity to be for one of these cars? Transmission life? Motor life? Obviously I have to have them both schecked by an indy shop before I part with my cash, but any advice will be much appreciated.
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Old 03-12-2003, 12:58 PM
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Join Date: Dec 2001
Posts: 571
Here's the Kelley Blue Book site:

There's a difference between what you're likely to pay an individual vs. a dealer and I don't just mean an MB dealer - any dealer.

According to KBB, this car is worth about 5 grand from a private party.

I got hung up in all of this "blue book" stuff awhile back, then finally learned it means absolutely nothing, especially when you're working with a dealership(MB or indy) that makes a living selling cars.

I'm not suggesting that the $11K car is worth this amt. I'm saying that you might end up spending $6K on the $5K car to get it up the same level the $11K car is at.

Make sure you pay a REAL MB tech to go thru either one of these cars with a fine tooth comb and realize you're looking at a 15 yr. old car. I don't care how well these cars were maintained, they both need something. The question is what?

Good luck.
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Old 03-12-2003, 02:23 PM
Join Date: Dec 2001
Location: Southern California, U.S.A.
Posts: 8,508
What he said.

Mike gave you great advice.
Paul S.

2001 E430, Bourdeaux Red, Oyster interior.
79,200 miles.

1973 280SE 4.5, 170,000 miles. 568 Signal Red, Black MB Tex. "The Red Baron".
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Old 03-12-2003, 04:41 PM
tivoliman's Avatar
Happy with Mercedes
Join Date: Dec 2002
Location: New Jersey
Posts: 364
Some Experience

I have twice purchased an SEL
1983 380SEL
1993 500SEL

From my experience I suggest that you need to be a risk taker. Also, you need to define what things you really will live with if they break.

I have enjoyed both cars, and am glad I bough each. BUT magic things have happend with both - things that just were not visable when I bought the car.

The power steering pump blew on the 380SEL and the transmission sprang a leak on the 500SEL.

I only sold the 380SEL (yes some one bought it with 293K miles) when the rear engine seal leaked so that I was embaressed - puddle at each parking spot. I still own the 500SEL.

Summary: I agree with others - have the car checked out my a Mercedes mechanic, but also realize that something very expensive is going to break on the SEL.

My next car will be an S class. They are great. Enjoy your adventure.
Thanks for the help
Bill Fisher

'86 560SL (186K) - Now a 'classic' : Registered as an Historic Vehicle
'95 E420 (198K)
'99 E320 (80K)
'03 LS430 (Lexus)
- - - - -
'95 E420 (231K) Sold to a happy buyer, new to Mercedes
'90 300E (65K) Sold to an Mercedes Lover
'92 190E (215K) - retired to the salvage yard, sigh
'93 500SEL (214K) - Moved to another family, still runs like a young pup
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Old 03-12-2003, 04:43 PM
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Join Date: Sep 2001
Location: Austin, TX
Posts: 563
'88 was a good year, wasn't it?

The questions that come to my mind are:

Why is the 420 only $5000? Why is he selling it? I'd certainly ask about the timing chain, if you can't get history on it, you should at the very least, pull the valve cover and check the rails and chain.

The first thing that you have to keep reminding yourself when buying a used car is that the overwhelming majority of people sell their car because something is wrong with it. They'd rather sell it than deal with it (or keep dealing with it as the case may be).

The 560 is at the top end of the price range, but it has several good things going for it. Your also paying for the records and the fact that the shop has probably already gone over it. See what they've done recently for a possible clue as to why the previous owner decided to sell it.

Budget an extra $2-3k for repairs in the first year, especially for the 420 since you have no records. But it's not like the 560 won't need anything done to it.

That said, you should also understand the differences in the two. The 560 has a different rear end: automatic level control and a limited-slip differential. The 560 also has several standard features that were optional on the 420, like sunroof, electric rear seat, heated seats (front and rear). It will also have a few features not available on the 420, like leather steering wheel, removable rear foot rests, and the rear suspension mentioned earlier. And then of course, is the more powerful engine.

All else being equal (meaning that an independent mechanic approves both of them), I'd probably take a chance on the 420 because of the huge price difference. Fully expecting to sink half of that difference into the car during the first year.
Mike Heath
1988 560SL Black/Palomino
1988 300SEL Black Pearl/Burgandy
1984 500SEC Anthracite Grey/Palomino
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Old 03-12-2003, 05:28 PM
Join Date: Dec 2001
Location: Southern California, U.S.A.
Posts: 8,508
Once again, more good advice above.

I disagree on one small point. I always ask people why they're selling the car, even though I know they might not be honest. I believe that people sell their cars because they are tired of them and want something new.

Also consider the often said mantra from members on this site:

"the most expensive Mercedes you will ever own is the cheapest one."

Even though a car may be above blue book, it is sometimes worth paying more if the condition is excellent, if expensive repairs have been performed recently and documented (such as timing chain replacement, transmission overhaul, etc.), and if the car has a full and complete maintenance history with books and / or records to back it up.
Paul S.

2001 E430, Bourdeaux Red, Oyster interior.
79,200 miles.

1973 280SE 4.5, 170,000 miles. 568 Signal Red, Black MB Tex. "The Red Baron".
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Old 03-13-2003, 09:17 AM
Registered User
Join Date: Feb 2002
Location: Kingston NY
Posts: 114
Thanks guys. Both cars are at dealerships and both come with limited warranty (30 day 1000 mile) AND I am covered by NY's Lemon Law. Both dealers have good reputation. Many people here have purchased from both dealers and almost everyone in my company that has a mercedes (17 or 18 people) use this indy shop and recommend them.

I will now just have to compare the performance differences and review the records to see what has been done. I will have the indy shop review the 420 and let me know what they think.

I have a 190e that gave me a ton of trouble. I spent more on the repairs for that car than I paid for the car. So, I am familiar with the big expenses that a used mercedes (or any car) can cause.

Thanks again.
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Old 03-13-2003, 11:24 AM
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Join Date: Aug 2002
Location: La Quinta, CA
Posts: 271

Pay the extra money and get the 560 with all the papers. I bought a 1986 560 SEL with 55K miles on it with all records included in 1995 for $21K. In the past 8 years I have spent a bit over 10K in repairs that have included AC, new radiator, new timing chain and related pieces, new valve cover gaskets, fixed oil leaks at main seal, new front end parts, etc. The car now has 122K miles on it and runs like new. The money I have spent on repairs comes to about $1250 per year or $104 per month. I think that is pretty cheap considering the satisfaction I get driving this classic. The car would still sell today for $10K as it runs and looks as new and of course has all the original records plus everything that I have done is documented. If you do the math you will see that this has been a bargain car to drive even including depreciation expense. This car is ready to go for another 150K miles at least.

Last edited by Rockman59; 03-13-2003 at 09:45 PM.
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Old 03-13-2003, 02:07 PM
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Join Date: May 2002
Location: West Linn, Or
Posts: 341
Thumbs up Nonwithstanding Rockman's excellent advice...

...there is something to be said about having what amounts to a $6K maintenance/repair fund sitting in the "Bank" (or, "un-borrowed", as you prefer) vs. buying (or financing?) at the $11K figure.

Either car could (perish the thought!) come down with a mandatory major repair (say a tranny rebuild) sometime after the limited warranty runs out. The big difference is whether you can afford to foot the bill for the repair IN ADDITION TO the $6K extra investment in the purchase price of the 560SEL. In either case you would know for sure that the affected component had been repaired: the total co$t$ of owner$hip over the longer run must be recognized, though... $6,000.00 represents a lot of preventative maintenance and normal repair costs. Might last you quite a few years. Are you planning to keep it for long? Daily driver?

560SEL's are more complex & have more features, as has been previously mentioned. Both are wonderful cars. There is a measurable (but not IMHO "dramatic") performance difference, as well as additional costs to insure & maintain. How much risk are you willing to assume? How much routine maintenance work can you do yourself? How long to you plan to keep the car? Can you afford a major repair above and beyond the additional purchase price? If these questions are not considered prior to the purchase you will, probably , eventually have to deal with them.

If this was a choice between two less expensive to repair cars (say two '65 Mustangs, one restored & one a low mileage original) and the difference in purchase price was still over 50%, which one would you choose? The one you could work on and update to your satisfaction or the one already done? Is it going to sit in a garage and be driven on sunny Summer days only, or be expected to reliably get you to work in all seasons?

If you had $20K to start out with, were not interested in (or inclined to) doing any work yourself, enamoured with the extra features on the 560SEL, I'd call it a toss-up! Most people with $20K available would buy an even more expensive MB to begin with.

You roll the dice anytime you buy an older vehicle: sometimes you CRAPOUT!
& sometimes you WIN BIGTIME!

Good luck with either choice!
'91 420 SEL @ 199K, '92 SVX @ 181K, '93 SC400 @ 86K, '93 Kaw ZX-11 @ 30K, '87 F250 @ 181K , 2001 Valkyrie Interstate @ 6K, Y2K Honda NightHawk 250 with 1.5K, '88 420SEL I.@ 179K & the 2nd latest, an '88 420SEL II.@ 210K runnin' parts car, '85 F150 300/NP435
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Old 03-13-2003, 10:40 PM
Registered User
Join Date: Feb 2002
Location: Kingston NY
Posts: 114
I am capable of doing most of the maintainence myself on these cars. I completely rebuilt the motor in my 190e (except for machining, all work was done by me). I also just finished rebuilding the motor in my 94 Nissan Pathfinder. I am not a professional mechanic, but I have a very well eqipped garage and access to prefessionals. I still use an indy shop for the "have to have done it before to get it right" stuff. I thought I was totally hooked on getting a 560SEL .. because it is the flagship, but I think the 420 is just fine for me. I will put the $6000 in the bank and use it to repair the 420 as needed. I do plan to jhave the car for a couple years.. and will not be driving it in the winter unless it is a nice day.

Thansk for all the input!
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Old 03-13-2003, 11:58 PM
Larry Delor's Avatar
What, Me Worry?
Join Date: Jun 1999
Location: Sarasota, Fl.
Posts: 3,109
The 560 may be a little stronger, but its also a little heavier.
I would go through the records of the 560 and see if the chain was done, and if the valve seals were done. If those two things were not done on the 420, they will be needed. Check out the underside for any oil leaks/trails. See if the radiator was replaced on the 560-if it wasn't eyeball it closely. I think (not sure) the 560 is self-leveling in the rear. The 420 is not.
Both will suck gas. Check the radios - they came with a 10 speaker system, if its been replaced, make sure it was done right.
The 420 will need front end parts (nothing super expensive) the 560 should have already have them replaced.

In many ways, the repair records of the 560 will tell you what you are going to repair on the 420. If you can find an 89 or newer, you will find they have a differently stitched interior which, in my opinion, is nicer looking.

Good luck with your decision.


PS: I just saw the 94 Pathfinder reference. Your mpg will be about the same. ( I was getting around 16 on the highway) Btw, did your exhaust manifold leak too?
It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so. Robert A. Heinlein

09 Jetta TDI
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Old 03-14-2003, 09:59 AM
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Join Date: Feb 2002
Location: Kingston NY
Posts: 114

Yes, the Pathfinder exhaust manifold was leaking. The Pathfinder is a peculiar story. I took it to Nissan because it was running really bad.. like the timing was way off.. no power at all. It was under an extended warranty. They fixed the harmonic balancer key. Then 8 months later it is doing the same thing again, but my warranty is over (eneded a month before I took it in). they tell me it is the same thing, only the the crank is damaged and I need a new motor now. They tried to tell me that it was a temporary fix that they did 8 months ago. I ask why I wasn't told that when they initially fixed it.. could I ask the mechanic myself? "oh no, he was let go" was my answer. Long story short, they would not fix the issue. So I did it myself and am now in small claims court with them. Turns out they did not file the extended warrantu I payed for until almost a year after I bought the truck.. which explains why they did not fix it under warranty when I initially took it in. I have nothing good to say about that dealer. I love the Pathfinder though.
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Old 03-14-2003, 12:10 PM
Registered User
Join Date: May 2002
Location: West Linn, Or
Posts: 341
Angry I just HAD to jump back in!

Let me see if I've gotten this straight:

The dealer didn't file your extended warranty for over a year after you purchased it, then didn't correctly & permanently fix your motor under the "original" extended warranty period and are now declining your claim BECAUSE THE TIME EXPIRED?

WHAT?!!!!!!!!!!!! That is FRAUD (maybe 2 counts) pure & simple.
Why Small Claims? Something to do with NY State laws?

You are owed a refund the entire premium you paid for the warranty + interest & the dealer cost (parts & labor @ THEIR LABOR RATE$) of a complete repair. IMHO

You gotta' let us know how the Small Claims action comes out.

Totally disgusted, I am really hoping you prevail!
'91 420 SEL @ 199K, '92 SVX @ 181K, '93 SC400 @ 86K, '93 Kaw ZX-11 @ 30K, '87 F250 @ 181K , 2001 Valkyrie Interstate @ 6K, Y2K Honda NightHawk 250 with 1.5K, '88 420SEL I.@ 179K & the 2nd latest, an '88 420SEL II.@ 210K runnin' parts car, '85 F150 300/NP435
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Old 03-14-2003, 12:54 PM
BrianH's Avatar
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Join Date: Jan 2003
Location: Chicago
Posts: 46
All the advice given is very valid in terms of which car might be the most trouble free.
I have owned and enjoyed 45 German cars in the past 12 years. I currently drive a 1994 C280 w/ 116,000 I bought for $5200 from a dealer.

1. ANY dealer, MB or otherwise wants to move product...period!
2. Private party owners generally view their cars as their "baby" and feel they should get their investment money back with price.

The dealer paid under $3000 for the 560sel. He knows the car will be very hard to move with that mileage and color, REGARDLESS of records. Remember it's just a piece of metal to the dealer and not his pride and joy. If he does not move the car after a certain amount of time, it will go to auction where he will only get about $2200 if he is lucky. Wait til the end of the month when non-selling cars go to auction and offer about $4500-$5000 cash. Remember, it's just a piece of metal to the dealer and it's his job to sell cars. Don't be fooled by the glitz of the showroom, shop or good cop/bad cop bartering techniques. The 560sel is NOT worth more than $5000.
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Old 03-14-2003, 02:55 PM
Registered User
Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Posts: 63
I've had an '89 420 for several years and the most important thing I learned was the timing chain guide rails have to be replaces at about ten years or you lose the left head and possibly a piston like I did. Just got done putting a short block in to fix the repair the shop did with a used piston that didn't quite fill the hole. Look at this page to see the problem:
It shows what to look for. My car gets 22 mpg on the Interstate runs I do of close to 400 miles each way to parents or in-laws. I-80 has a cruising speed of anywhere from 72 to 82 depending on which state you're in and the car goes with the rest of them. My 2 cents.
'89 420 SEL "Moby Dick"
'30 Ford Coupe
'31 Ford Slant Windshield Town Sedan
'33 Ford Pickup
'34 Ford Pickup
'01 Honda Passport
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