COAL: 1978 Mercedes Benz 450SEL – Grey Market Special


The right color, but my find didn’t look this good!

This starts my “beater” COAL series. About the time we had the 1998 Jimmy, I started with a long line of somehow distressed used cars that attracted my interest in various ways. So, the wife and kids mostly had the “good” cars you have read about up until now, while I had some that were “challenged” shall we say. Yet, they were good enough to be relied upon as daily drivers. I would avoid good looking cars that had a major mechanical failure or malady, since that was beyond my skills. Those were (and are) plentiful. I latched onto generally well-running cars that were cosmetically distressed, which is a little harder to find in my experience. In this entire series, I don’t recall ever being stranded once, which is pretty remarkable. I would have days of no heat, no AC, no stereo, hard starting, and that type thing, but never a failure to get from Point A to Point B.

This was the first in that lineup: a 1978 Mercedes Benz 450SEL. In my travels for work, I drove by a foreign car garage a couple of times a week. One of those places whose name usually ends in “Haus” or “Werke”, such as “German Haus” or “Euro Werke”, you get the picture. Anyway, they were usually full of cars, which never seemed to move, or to leave. In fact, the daily customers were relegated to parking on the street.

They usually had a lot of interesting things around. They were heavy on Volvos and Saabs, as I recall. The 450SEL always caught my eye though. It was always easy to catch a glimpse of it, as it never moved for about a year. From a distance, it looked okay, but it clearly was no show quality car.

One day, it was gone. Geez, how disappointing, I thought. Did they sell it? Crush it? Maybe the owner had finally come to collect it after all. The next time I passed by though, it was back. On the front row this time, with a for sale sign in the windshield.

Like this, but navy. Note the round Euro HVAC controls

I swooped in for a closer look. It looked OK overall to be about 20 years old at the time. The silver paint was weathered but might clean up well. The inside didn’t look bad, it actually looked pretty decent. It had navy cloth seats which seemed odd, I had never seen cloth seats in a Mercedes. It also did not have the Chrysler based automatic climate controls I had expected, it had round European controls like my mom’s 1979 240D. Finally, the speedometer was in kilometers, not miles.

I stepped into the office to inquire how much. “$750.00 cash”. Geez, really? That’s like $1,100.00 today. So, think of finding of a serviceable 1997 S Class today for $1,100.00! The garage was selling it for a storage lien. In our state, a car can be sold for a mechanic’s lien or storage lien after posting notice at the courthouse, notifying the owner and DMV, and waiting the requisite number of days.

The story was that the owner brought the car in for not starting. They got it to start, but the owner (a local college student) disappeared. When the garage went to notify DMV, DMV in our state could not find any evidence of the VIN ever being registered in any of the 50 states. The DMV investigator had even come in person to see if the VIN was fake or changed. Nope, it was a genuine factory VIN, but no USA registration history, ever.

Apparently, it was a grey market import of some sort. It did have the US sealed beam headlights and US bumpers added along the way, but everything else about it indicated it was at the very least a Canadian vehicle, and maybe European. Why anyone would do this, I am not sure, since the 450SEL was sold in the US at the time. Perhaps it had more power by virtue of not having US emission controls, but we’ll never know.

So, the car was mine for $750.00 if I wanted it, but the mechanic said “It runs rough, and I don’t know if you can get a title ever, at all. And I’m not working on it any more either, so don’t ask. I want it gone.” Who cares, I thought, it was a great project and toy for $750.00. I knew that I couldn’t tag or insure it without a title, though, so I went to the local DMV office a few days later to ask what could be done. Well, it turned out I could get a title in my name for a $200.00 cash bond. If no one surfaced in 12 months claiming to own it, I get the cash back.

So, I bought it, and posted the bond to get the title and tag issued in my name. It did run, but very rough, with poor acceleration. I knew just the person though to tackle that. My father in law had grown up in the 1950’s, and had told me tales of his hot rodding friends from high school. One, in particular, had retired from his factory job and tinkered with cars in his basement garage. I knew from driving past his house that this old friend liked old BMW’s and usually had a number gathered there, running or not, and some for just parts.

I went to talk to him about the 450SEL. “Son, I just don’t know nothin’ about a Mercedes. I really can’t help you”. I pleaded with him to just at least look at it. “It can’t be that different from these older gas, fuel injected BMW’s”. He reluctantly agreed to look at it. I chugged and sputtered over there and left it, telling him that if he couldn’t fix it, it was OK, I just appreciated him trying.

A few days later, the old timer called me back. “Come get your car, it runs like a top. You owe me fifty bucks”. This sounded too good to be true. Indeed, it did “run like a top”. It now started, idled, and accelerated as you would expect a Mercedes V8 to. The solution was simple; he found that the adjustments and settings were indeed pretty much identical to the fuel injected BMW’s. And, every such setting was as far out of adjustment as possible. Either someone completely incompetent had worked on it, or, it had been purposely misadjusted to make it run rough or poorly. Maybe they were trying to make it not run at all, so the college student couldn’t make off with it at night. Who knows, but once properly adjusted it was running great.

So I was then able to start cleaning it up. I shampooed the seats and carpet of course, and buffed out the paint. That helped a lot. It was never going to look new, but a little elbow grease went a long way. I painted the “bundt cake” alloys with silver spray paint. A lot of owners about this time were throwing out the 14 inch “bundt” wheels for the newer, flat faced, 15 inch Mercedes alloys. I always liked the bundts myself, and thought the flat faced wheels didn’t look right on these older models.

There was no radio present at all, so I turned to Crutchfield and installed a low-key Blaupunkt that looked right in the car. A window regulator or two was bad, so I replaced those and restored operation to all the power windows. Otherwise, I really don’t recall doing much mechanical work to it. My mechanical skills are limited, but I didn’t have to do brakes, filters, fluids, or anything else.

I drove the 450SEL for about 18 months. I figured I needed to wait at least 12 months to be able to have a “good” title. As with most of these beater cars, the tipping point for selling it on was when something else caught my eye. I can’t swear to my figures, but I made pretty good money on this one. I think I sold it for $3,500.00 or so, which was pretty good profit considering I also made regular use of it as well.

My wife swears all these beater cars were money pits, and I remember making money on most of them. So the truth is probably in between, more or less a wash over the years, all things considered. But a “wash” on the purchase and repairs would mean the miles were free, which isn’t bad. And there was a lot of entertainment value for me. I enjoyed the cleaning and minor mechanical tweaking that could add quick value to a car.

What was your first “project” car? One you could actually drive, mind you!