COAL: 2000 Mercedes-Benz S500 – When Life Hands You Lemons…..

As everyone knows, Mercedes-Benz was whipsawed in the 1990’s first by Lexus, then BMW’s growing luxury bona fides, and finally Audi emerging from the shadows and taking ever more market share.

1990 LS 400

Even though I am late to the Lexus owners’ club, I’ll be the first to admit the first LS was a game changer. It was a near universally admired car, and struck a balance between looks, reliability, poise, and desirability that few cars have matched before or since. Indeed, later versions of the LS seem to have lost the formula somewhat, though that may also have as much to do with changing consumer tastes. I still do a double take when I see an older LS, they still just seem so “right” to me.

W140, 1992-1999 MY

And that’s where my idea for a title comes in. Mercedes was handed a basket of lemons in the 1990’s. In my opinion, their engineering prowess was under attack. Other cars were getting the luxury job done as well, more reliably, for less money. The W140 was simply too large for most “normal” people. Hard to park, hard to see out of, expensive for what it was. A dream to ride in, no doubt, but as an everyday car to go to work, or the grocery store, or what have you it was almost a cartoon car, a caricature of a Mercedes. So Mercedes gave in to the market demands and gave us a lighter, “cheaper”, more nimble S-Class. It had cost cutting and compromises, but sold more copies than the W140 and was really a better car to live with day to day.

By late 2007, we had been back into the city for a while, in an old house on a tree-lined street of old houses. And older neighbors too; the couples on each side of us are in their mid 80’s now. We are slowly morphing into neighborhood “old timers” ourselves, as our kids have become teens and one has left for college, with the second going next fall as well.

Not the actual neighbor or car, but pretty close

Not long after we moved in, I noticed a stately older lady in the neighborhood. I often saw her walking, and also often saw her behind the wheel of her black on black S500. It turned out she was the mother of the realtor who sold us our house. She was a widow, and also had a wonderful W124 convertible. The W124 was “her” car, and it now sits in her son’s garage around the corner from us. The S500 was her late husband’s car, who passed when it was almost new.

I saw it often, but it was always within a mile or two of our house. Usually at the grocery store, or our little neighborhood shopping district outside the women’s boutique or wine shop. I always admired it, despite the pretty widespread criticism of the W220 body I was reading about at the time.

The general criticism of the W220 was that it was cheap, poorly engineered, and rushed to market. It was 90% baked from a company that had never brought anything to market that wasn’t fully baked. GM had used buyers as beta testers for years, but Mercedes not so much. The W220 was not intended to come to market until 2001 or so, but Mercedes started building them for Europe in August, 1998 in an attempt to stem the inroads being made by the competition.

W220, 2004-2006 facelift

The 2004 refresh seemed to quell a lot of the negative talk. The 2004-06 versions brought refreshed lights, bumpers, and wheels to the party. But more importantly, it addressed weaknesses with the audio, navigation, and air suspension systems.

Lexus ES, 2007-2012 body

About this time in 2007, I noticed Ms. Realtor Mom in a new 2007 Lexus ES, oddly enough. It was a good looking car too, though of course not as much as an LS. Little did I know I would be trodding the same S-Class to ES path later. Perhaps subconsciously she gave me the idea. In any event, I wondered what had happened to the S500 and figured, regretfully, she had traded it in.

1968 Olds Toronado, “parked last 35 years”

Fast forward a few months later, and it appears on the front row of the local mom and pop used car lot. And I literally mean, mom and pop. It was run by an elderly couple who had been there in the same place since the 1950’s. They were formerly a new car franchise dealer, and sold out to a larger dealer the next town over. They had kept busy selling creampuff used cars and running a busy service operation in the ensuing years. They still have some funky old stuff for sale that they have owned for years; this Olds is on the lot right now.

Turns out her ES was not new, but was a barely used one the mom and pop establishment found for her at auction. They had taken the S500 in on trade, driven it as their personal car for a few months, and now were selling it.

It was an early W220, built July 1999, so it was just over eight years old and had just turned 40,000 miles. They said it had no issues at all and they wanted $24,000.00. I talked them down to $20,000.00 and we made the deal. That seemed like a lot to me for an eight year old car, but knowing the history of it as I did, I felt it was a sound choice. It certainly was drop dead gorgeous, what Mercedes calls “Obsidian” which is a metallic black, with black leather and burl walnut.

$20,000.00 in 2007 is about $23,000.00 today. And the private party value for a similar S-Class (eight years old, 40,000 miles) today is about $25,000.00 so I did OK, a little under private party for a car I knew had not been abused. I drove the car for seven years and about another 100,000 miles, to about 140,000 total.

My experience? Overall quite positive. The 24 valve (3 valve per cylinder) V8 (and V6 sibling) had single overhead cams, and an unusual multipiece valve cover arrangement. These pieces were sealed with RTV and were a common leak point. My engine was sure enough pretty grubby looking even at such low miles, and these covers were the culprit. I removed the valve covers, and cleaned the pieces with a wire brush and engine cleaner. After reassembly with new RTV, I am proud to say they never leaked again.

To remove the valve covers, one had to remove the ignition coils, which were screwed to the valve covers. One coil had two leads, as each cylinder had two spark plugs, or 16 total. After removing and labeling all that, I figured I might as well do the plugs too, since the factory recommendation was 5 years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. I ordered a special multijointed spark plug socket recommended for this engine off eBay. Despite the tight quarters, the socket made it quite easy.

The A/C “EC” light stayed on not long after that, and the compressor clearly wasn’t engaging. Pushing the “EC” switch didn’t change anything, so we took a trip to the dealer. It was diagnosed as low refrigerant, and the car turns “econ” on to prevent compressor damage in that situation. They topped off the refrigerant and could find no leaks. It worked fine after that and never leaked down again.

The car was too old to have satellite radio built in, or Bluetooth for your phone. It did have a funky phone dock in the center console, I think mine was set up for a Motorola of some sort. Then, when docked, you could use the screen and dash keypad to make an answer calls. I had an early iPhone and never made use of this feature.

I did add a Sirius receiver like this, which fit perfectly in a coin tray just ahead of the gear shift. It was wired via RCA jacks to an FM modulator, which then plugged into the antenna jack on the head unit (and the antenna plugged into the modulator, so AM/FM still worked). I powered the Sirius and the modulator by splicing into the cigarette lighter wiring. There was plenty of room around the radio, behind the dash, to hide all this.

W220 factory 2000-2003 16 inch wheels

W221 factory 2007-2009 18 inch wheels


I didn’t like the 16 inch wheels the car came with. I replaced them with used 18 inch wheels from a W221, 2008 S550. While I liked the looks of the new wheels much better, and handling improved, the ride quality worsened more than I expected and I regretted doing it overall. But they really looked sharp on the older body. Perfect blend of curves and angles.

The car did have navigation, but it was pretty crude. A single CD was inserted which held 2 or 3 states of data. From the papers that came with the car, a buyer could apparently choose a couple of CD’s to start, and then you had to buy more. I therefore had data for a limited area and it was pretty useless, truth be told.

There’s a number of companies and websites now selling adapter plates for the wood trimmed area, to allow you to mount a new double DIN receiver if you’re feeling adventurous. This is a European site talking about the S320 version we didn’t get here, but it’s a W220 dash too. I think everything downstream of the head unit is fiber optic, so you’d probably have to redo everything else too.

The car stalled in a McDonald’s drive through and would crank, but not catch or run. I got some employees to come out and push it out of the way to a parking space. While I sat there debating what to do (and feeling quite embarrassed), it started up fine after a few tries, and drove home like a new one. I web-diagnosed this as a failing crankshaft position sensor, which I bought for $30 or so online and replaced myself. It never happened again, so maybe that was it.

Everything else about the car was great. Good gas mileage, super comfortable of course, no meaningful mechanical problems until the end. That came in the form of failing front air springs. I really lucked out in this regard, as the early models had a more trouble-prone design that was changed by 2002 or so. The leaking springs make the air compressor work overtime, so it dies and then you have a big repair bill: front air springs, a compressor, and related valves and fittings that should be changed out at the same time.

My car lasted longer than most in this department. My compressor never died, and my struts never completely failed. Maybe I just headed for the exit at the right time, when I could see the writing on the wall. The first clue was when the car appeared to sit ever so slightly lower on the passenger side when parked. I got a tape measure and measured between the top of the tire and the fender lip….yep, about a half inch lower on that side. Then, it started leaking down overnight and by morning, the front end of the car was on the bump stops. When you started the car, it would rise up right away and stay there all day, but it wasn’t going to repair itself.

There are companies that make replacement kits to get rid of the air system altogether. And there are more and more aftermarket sources for remanufactured air springs at a big savings. I looked into all the options, but $4,000.00 or so parts and labor looked like the cheapest option for all new parts, and I would still be left with a 14 year old car with 140,000 miles on it. It seemed like a good time to part ways prior to the car needing half its value on a good day poured into it.

If you can find a W220 that has had the front struts replaced, and been well cared for, it would be a nice ride and I wouldn’t be afraid of it. I saw a 2001 S430 in my area recently for about $5,000.00 with under 100,000 miles, two owners, showroom clean inside and out, new tires and new struts. It sure was tempting for a weekend driver, but there’s no room at the inn so to speak.

So, what replaced the S500? Well, a very similar car. One that I bought “accidentally” and which caused my wife to ban me from eBay for whole cars, anyway. But it turned out to be a good car, kind of like a stray mutt that turns into a great pet. And at over 200,000 miles, it’s still here and going strong.