Junkyard Gem: 1988 Mercedes-Benz 420 SEL

During the 1980s, if you wanted a big, powerful luxury sedan with otherworldly build quality and all the latest technological marvels, there was only one rational choice if you had the money: the Mercedes-Benz W126 S-Class. I see quite a few W126s during my junkyard adventures, including a couple with better than 500,000 miles showing on the odometer, but today’s 420 SEL— found in a Denver self-service boneyard recently — is an unusually clean example with heartbreakingly low miles.

For a W126, even a gasoline-burner, 161K miles is just getting broken in!

The interior looks like it’s 10 years old, not 35.

The sheetmetal is a bit grimy, but there’s no rust and no serious dents.

This car had an MSRP of $58,540, or about $155,357 in 2023 dollars. It wasn’t the most expensive Mercedes-Benz car you could buy in 1988, however; that honor belongs to the rakish 560 SEC two-door and its $76,380 price tag (a stunning $202,701 after inflation).

The ’88 420 SEL has a 4.2-liter SOHC V8 rated at 201 horsepower and 228 pound-feet. If that wasn’t enough power for the S-Class sedan shopper in 1988, there was the 560 SEL and its 5.5-liter V8 with 238 horses and 287 pound-feet (and a list price of $69,210, or $183,673 in today’s money).

If you wanted a manual transmission in your W126, you had to buy it in Europe (and you couldn’t get three pedals with the biggest V8s, even there).

Driver’s-side airbags were optional in the W126 starting in 1981, becoming standard equipment in 1987.

Because it’s always 4:20 in Denver, badges from 420 SELs and S 420s tend to get pried off cars quickly, after which we can assume that they end up on the walls of groovy little hippie pads. Not in this case!

We can only hope that some of the nice parts from this car will be rescued before its date with the crusher.

Go ahead, cruise at 125 mph.

There has always been a big Mercedes.


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