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$900 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Actually Turned Out Okay

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 10/23/2021 Ezra Dyer
It's no longer a $900 car, but a junkyard engine brought the 1990 300SE back to life. © Car and Driver It's no longer a $900 car, but a junkyard engine brought the 1990 300SE back to life.

When I bought a 1990 Mercedes-Benz 300SE for $900, I knew it needed major work. It ran, but it also sounded like several of the connecting rods were attempting to pile-drive their way out of the block. The front-seat adjustments were dead, and the heater core was ominously bypassed under the hood. The odometer read 222,000 miles, and, ominous sign number 37 or so, the spare tire was a Blizzak, implying a salty past. But the black paint still had an inky-deep shine, the interior looked nearly new (thanks to the 1990s trend of sheepskin seat covers), and the wheels were 18-inch monoblocks from an E55 AMG. It looked too good to die.

Nevertheless, after tinkering with it for a few months, I decided the prudent course of action would be to find stock wheels at a junkyard, then sell the car and the AMG wheels separately and be done with it. So I listed the car and, for a week or so, responded to the inevitable offers of $300 (cash!), people who wanted to trade a Cuisinart, and scammers. A couple of tire kickers actually came to look at it, with one guy proclaiming, "I just want to ride around in this and look all Mafia." Another guy said he'd take it but didn't. Eventually, I was on the phone with my mother, who lives in the next town over. She said, "Take the listing down! I want that car!"

I counseled her against this. But she bought it, for $900, and the Benz changed hands again, this time with a spare set of 15-inch wheels in the trunk.

So I used a 7.3-liter F-250 to tow it over to Euro Auto Service in Aberdeen, North Carolina, where owner Dean Segovis agreed to assess the situation. A day after I dropped it off, he confirmed that it needed a new engine. He could swap one in but wasn't sure it was worth bothering. "I can tell you, this is going to be one of those cars where there's always something," he said. I figured as much. But my mom just wanted to ride around in a Mercedes every now and then. It didn't need to be perfect. So we decided to do this thing.

Now, Segovis has a source for quality used engines that are guaranteed to be compatible. I didn't go that route. Gambler that I am, I found a 1988 300SEL being parted out on eBay, mileage unknown, with an engine that was guaranteed in good running shape—$800, shipping included. Buy It Now? Yes, please. After some finagling, it was in the car and running, looking more or less like the engine that came out. Now it was time to find out about all the problems that reveal themselves once a car is actually in motion.

One scuffed bolster, 233,000 miles. Thanks, 1990s sheepskin seat covers. © Car and Driver One scuffed bolster, 233,000 miles. Thanks, 1990s sheepskin seat covers.

"The tires are so flat spotted, it's like driving on railroad tracks," Segovis said. "And the flywheel was rusted, so that probably abraded the rear main seal, so it's leaking a lot of oil. The rings are also letting a lot of oil past, so it smokes and runs rough until it clears out at high rpm. And the transmission takes a long time when you're going into reverse. That could mean the transmission is on the way out." My $4000 estimate was starting to look delusionally optimistic.

Smooth as all get-out. © Car and Driver Smooth as all get-out.

But after a set of new tires, I showed up to claim the Benz with the hope that the rest of the problems would dissipate as the engine and transmission refamiliarized themselves with S-class propulsion. And amazingly, that's exactly what happened. I think Segovis added transmission fluid, and that fixed that. I added BlueDevil rear main sealer, and by Jove, it worked, the Benz no longer leaving a lake of oil on the garage floor. After 100 miles or so, the rings freed up and the engine stopped smoking and running rough at low rpm. The heater core, no longer bypassed, didn't leak.

And, as it turned out, the ancient S-class was unbelievably good to drive. That little inline-six is reasonably potent and unimpeachably smooth, and the ride is seriously as good as any new car. Even with its trip-to-the-moon mileage, the 300SE glides down the road in silence, imperious and looking damn good the whole while. So the rear windows don't roll down, and the seats don't adjust, and there seems to be a slow draw that eventually drains the battery. It might've developed a power-steering leak too. But so what? Sometimes good enough is good enough.

Everybody’s lookin’ if you’re jealous turn around, the AMG kit keeps us closer to the ground. © Car and Driver Everybody’s lookin’ if you’re jealous turn around, the AMG kit keeps us closer to the ground.

And that's where we're at with the $900-slash-maybe-more-than-$4000 1990 S-class, now with a random 1988 engine that will surely hurt its chances at Pebble Beach. It's still got some issues. But it runs great, and with the front windows down and the sunroof open on a nice fall evening, you can feel like a 1990s rich person. And, since my mom barely drives—I rode shotgun for one exciting trip to the grocery store—I still get to drive it. As it turned out, not a bad deal.

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