Making a case for the Mercedes-Benz S-Class W126

By Jonathan Bell

2 minute read

There are very few certainties in the world of car collecting.

What we do know, is that the upper echelons of the market attract classic metal like a magnet, leading to increasingly optimistic values for cars that were once reliably affordable (and therefore usable). Signature models by the likes of Aston Martin, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Bugatti have long been go-tos for collectors. Ferraris are also up there – the older, the better. In fact, almost anything with Ferrari’s prancing horse upon its bonnet will eventually stop depreciating and start to climb in value. Even the more modest offerings from Fiat, Lancia and MG have vaulted up the rankings, transforming their status from every-day hobby cars into potential nest eggs for the future. 

So, what constitutes an undervalued car? A good place to start is with cars that have already shed a significant proportion of their initial value, and which were engineered and built from the outset for mechanical longevity. This is best illustrated by luxury models, with flagship cars that heralded new technologies and endless option lists of features and gadgets. These machines are traditionally depreciation disasters; while technology adds a desirable element when it is shiny and new, it can soon become awkward and expensive to repair. 

Enter the Mercedes-Benz S-Class

New Mercedes Most Undervalued 1 Pr
Top and above: Photography courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Enter the Mercedes-Benz S-Class

The German marque’s flagship model from 1972 to date (the latest of which, an S-Class for the 2020s, premiered last September). The first car to bear the ‘S-Class’ name – an abbreviation of Sonderklasse, meaning ‘special class’ – was the bold and beefy W116 series. It was succeeded by the W126 model in 1979; and this is our undervalued classic of choice. 

The W126 S-Class is one of the all-time great car designs. The model was overseen by Bruno Sacco, an Italian designer who spent over four decades at the company and a quarter of a century as its head of styling. Sacco’s genius was to convert Mercedes-Benz’s engineering principles into visual terms. The W126 was in production for 12 years and never lost its air of sophistication and quiet modernity. In both four-door saloon form (the SE and longer SEL), and two-door pillarless coupé (the SEC), it still makes a striking statement, with a neatness of line that emphasises its long, horizontal silhouette. Every detail is beautifully and cohesively conceived, from the lights to the grille, pillars and door handles. Its elegance still stands out in traffic today. 

The W126’s immediate successor, the brutish W140, and the sleeker W220, are usually cheaper and easier to find, but neither has the former’s innate class. As befits such a complicated car, it’s best to source an example that has had a quiet and cosseted life. Many old-school S-Classes were used as limousines and official cars, with well-appointed back seats designed for dignitaries, diplomats and CEOs, complete with blinds, reading lights and adjustable heated seats. With a global appeal that transcended politics – the Pope, Saddam Hussein and Nelson Mandela were all customers – many examples of the W126 remain in use, years after production stopped in 1992. 

Customizers had a field day with all W126 variants, and while an unaltered original car is always the best investment choice, bolder buyers can find many oddities. The SEC coupé was considered the ultimate grand tourer from the outset, a role it still plays with considerable style. There are stretched and fettled saloons, with interiors that exude the loudest aspects of ‘80s design excess – think cocktail cabinets, vibrant leather, plush carpets and integrated TVs and video players. German company Styling-Garage even built the outlandish 1000SEL for select customers in the Middle East, purportedly twice as good as the Mercedes original. 

Styling-Garage were also among the firms offering versions of the SEC with gull-wing doors, a nod to the classic ‘50s-era 300SL model. Meanwhile, Swiss designer Franco Sbarro used the SEC as the basis for customised models, widened and lowered. Less overt, but no less outrageous are the high-performance iterations of both saloon and coupé, created by Aufrecht, Melcher and Großaspach, better known as AMG, now Mercedes’s official sports car division.

There are myriad specialists who can cater to these cars, while Mercedes-Benz’s own Classic Service and Parts department can supply practically any part. As a result, an original S-Class can be restored, improved and used every day, if you like. Slick, practical and very much appreciated – the S-Class ticks all the boxes to qualify as our underrated classic. 

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