COAL: 1995 Mercedes Benz S420 – Gambling On A High Mileage German


My partner James had his 2001 Bullitt Mustang (COAL) and I had my 2001 Mustang GT convertible (COAL).  Having “His & His” Mustangs would not last for very long however, the overlap was only about 6 months.  Something shiny caught James’ eye at work one day.  That something shiny was a set of 20” chrome rims reflecting the sun, and the car they were mounted to.  It didn’t take too long before we were the new owners of a W140 1995 Mercedes Benz S420.

A coworker of James really loved his flashy cars.  His pride and joy was a Ferrari 360 Modena, in Ferrari Red of course.  He drove the Ferrari to work a few times, but Korean culture (he worked for a Korean-based company) dictated that he primarily drive his Mercedes to work.  You weren’t allowed to drive a car to work that upstaged the boss’ car.  He wasn’t content to just drive a regular Benz, so he had some modifications done to the car to make it really stand out.  James heard he was going to be selling the Mercedes to buy another flashy car, and James decided he wanted the Mercedes.

James picked me up for lunch in it, and we took it on a test drive.  It was a very good looking car, it had presence.  The primitive cell phone pics that I had seen prior did not do the car justice.  It was in spectacular condition, it looked phenomenal.  It rode very well and drove very luxuriously, the exact opposite of our Mustangs.  I myself wasn’t really enamored with the car, it wasn’t my style.  The biggest concern about buying the car was the mileage.  The car had 120K miles on it.  Were we crazy in thinking about purchasing a technologically advanced (for 1995) used German sedan with 120K miles and no warranty?  James and I are both mechanically savvy, and figured we could fix anything that went wrong with it.  So what the hell, we decided to roll the dice and take a gamble.  We exchanged the $13K asking price and the car was ours.


Holy moly, what a big car!  For the W140 generation S-class (1992-1997), all cars except the base 320 six-cylinder had the long wheelbase.  This barge was over 17 feet long and weighed over 4700 lbs.  It seemed like it was only marginally smaller than our Excursion (COAL) The 4.2L V8 was rated at 275 HP, and 295 lb-ft of torque.  (Compared to the Bullitt Mustang:  275 HP, 305 lb-ft, 3300 lbs).  After driving two Mustangs, the expectation was it would be a leisurely driving car.  It lived up to those expectations, for the most part.

Initially, the car drove like I thought it would.  After a couple of weeks of ownership, that’s when we discovered the “fun button”.  It was during a merge onto the freeway when I really punched it, it felt like the gas pedal went through the floorboard.  The Benz squatted on its haunches and it came to life.  The key to the power had been unlocked.  Below the gas pedal was a button, a kickdown button.  When you hit the pedal with enough pressure to also push the button, the transmission was forced down another gear.  Additionally, from a standstill this would force the transmission to start in 1st gear.  Forum members call this the “fun button”.

Our Mustangs were muscle car quick, but this was German fast.  There was slight delay in getting all that weight moving, but once it did hang on.  It was very easy to get this thing to triple digits and not even realize it.  It was so smooth on the freeway, it just hunkered down and pulled like a freight train.  For as big as it was, it also surprised me in the way it handled going around corners.  I think I expected something wallowy like a big Caddy, but I was definitely mistaken.  It handled corners very well.  I now understood the phrase “it drives smaller than it is”, because that was definitely the case with the Benz.

Visually this car was stunning, the best looking W140 S-class in San Diego.  The car was painted Black Pearl Metallic.  Originally it was a two-tone car, but the previous owner had the lower body color matched to the top.  For a car of this age and mileage, the paint was damn near perfect.  The amber front turn signals were replaced with clear units from the Euro S-class.  At the rear, a subtle rear spoiler was mounted on the trunk.  Taillight lenses were replaced with ones from a later model.  Most of these changes were subtle and just made it look newer than it actually was.  The not so subtle modification were the deep mirror tint on all windows and the flashy 20” chrome Lorinser rims.  The one modification that I didn’t like was the rear badging.  It was badged as an S500, even though it was an S420.  The badging should have just been removed.


The interior was my introduction into “Teutonic” german interiors.  Black everywhere.  It was a cave, albeit a very large and very luxurious cave.  The leather seats still looked new, not like they had 120K miles on them.  The original steering wheel was replaced with a wood/leather wheel, and framed a set of classic Mercedes dials.  Dual-zone climate control.  Becker AM/FM cassette deck.  Heated seats.  Power everything.  It was so quiet, like a tomb (more on that later).  The rear seats had so much room, a benefit of the longer wheelbase S-class models.  I’ve never ridden in anything with more leg room, except for an actual stretch limo.


Analog Rear Parking Assist

For a car built in 1995, it had a lot of luxury features on it that you can find on a mid-level Chrylser 300 these days.  Parking such a big car was probably a chore for a lot of owners.  Our car came equipped with a rear parking assist feature.  Instead of the radar sensors (and beeps) that you find in cars today, these small little chrome rods extended up from the corners of the trunk to show you where the rear of the car was.  Another feature were the “soft-close” doors and trunk.  When closing the doors or the trunk, you just had to make the initial contact with the latch.  Then a vacuum system would pull the doors or trunk fully closed against the triple seals.  Never did you have to slam the door closed to ensure that it was fully closed.


[Really thick double pane windows.]

So you’re probably wondering, what sort of problems did we encounter owning an over-engineered Benz with that many miles on it.  Surprisingly, only two.  One day, someone sitting in the back was raising the right rear power window when there was a loud pop from inside the door panel.  The window refused to move at that point.  That tomb-like silence I mentioned earlier was a result of new dual pane windows Mercedes introduced on the W140.  Compared to the previous generation S-class, the weight of the windows doubled.  However, Mercedes didn’t upgrade the plastic window regulators to compensate for the added weight. This is a common failure of the W140, and the repair estimate was well north of $600.  The regulator was purchased online for just over $100, and an a few hours to remove the door panel and the regulator was replaced.

The second was regarding the dual zone climate control.   The air flow from the system was abysmal from the day we purchased it.  On the highest setting, the airflow was the equivalent of a mouse fart.  Researching online forums pointed to a resistor bank as a possible culprit to this problem.  The resistor bank was located under the hood up against the firewall.  Underhood temperatures would sometimes cause the internal components to breakdown.  This was a $50 part, and about an hour worth of work to replace.  When starting the car for the first time, instead of a mouse fart we were greeted with at least F3 tornado winds!!!


The Benz was with us for about 18 months.  The co-worker who sold us the Benz was now selling the car he purchased after selling the Benz.  It was just as decked out as the Benz, and James ended up buying it.  The Benz was sold to yet another co-worker at the same company for the same price we paid for it.  That’s when being an old Benz reared it’s ugly head.  4 months after we sold it, the transmission went out.  While the timing was bad, replacing a transmission after 145K miles isn’t unheard of.   Driving a German luxury car past the warranty always seems to be like living on borrowed time.

When we first purchased the Benz, I was just kinda meh about it.  It had no initial appeal to me.  It was big, lumbering, and just not quite my style.  In our short amount of time owning the car, it really grew on me.  When I look back over all the cars we have had, this one is at the top of the list of cars I wish we had held on to, even with hindsight of the transmission going out.