Burned Buyer: 1979 Mercedes 280SL


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One of the worst feelings I’ve experienced as part of this hobby is driving a car I bought sight unseen for the first time. The car in question is one of my current projects, a 1987 BMW 535is. Needless to say, on the short ride home, I couldn’t wait to park it and process what I had just experienced. I imagine it was much the same for the seller of this 1979 Mercedes 280SL here on eBay, the listing for which claims the car was far rougher than he believed it to be.


Now, in my case, I knew most of the car’s ills but it still was far more project-like than I expected. And, there were a few things the seller neglected to mention, which really violates the trust you try to forge with a stranger who claims to be another enthusiast. That’s all under the bridge now, as the car drives great and I’m happy. But I’ll bet when this seller picked up his sweet Euro-market R107 and saw the faded paint, rust in the floor, cracked dashboard and broken windshield, his heart sank a bit.


Truthfully, the photo of the interior doesn’t look too bad but this picture of the rust is troubling. One thing I notice a lot of sellers genuinely don’t seem to notice is the rust on their vehicles. Seriously! I don’t even think it’s an intentional omission any more. If you don’t crawl all over your vehicles like some of us here do, it’s like it’s not even there. The rust on one car I looked at was dangerously close to the subframe but the seller claimed it never affected the driveability of the car – at least, not yet.


The shame of this car is there are a lot of tasty bits here. From the BBS or Mahle mesh wheels to the slim Euro bumpers and aftermarket air dam – not to mention the more powerful drivetrain that the U.S. market didn’t get – there’s easily that much value in the parts alone for the current bid of just under $2K. The factory hardtop is a plus as well, but are these perks enough to overcome the dinged-up, rusty bodywork and other cosmetic issues? It could be a score for someone who is willing to make the corrections the seller didn’t expect to have to deal with.

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  1. Capt Doug

    “sight unseen” are the key words for this disappointed seller – and his buying experience – sometimes the price sounds too good to be true and jumping into what feels like a bargain turns out to be jumping into a money pit instead.
    Looks like it could be a good project for the next owner.

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  2. jimbosidecar

    I’ve done it twice, never again.

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  3. Bert Bennett

    When you buy sight unseen it better be a great deal. My two epic fails are an E type and a Porsche 912. Both needed full engine jobs and both had been intentionally bandaged to fake past any inspection I might have done. They are now both great cars with fresh motors done by specialists I trust but the unscrupulous sellers are out there untouched and emboldened to strike again. Let’s be honest to each other and trust but verify!

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  4. Francisco

    He calls 120,000 very low original miles!

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    • Paul

      And why wouldnt he? Its a 1979…..36 years old and only 120k, id be happy! 3.5 k per year is ok in my book!

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  5. Rex Kahrs Rex KahrsMember

    You get what you “inspect”, not what you “expect”.

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  6. sunbeamdon

    There’s more to this than meets the eye – the degree of rust and its location suggest involvement of the frame. This may be a flooded/salvaged car – couldn’t see any mention of title.

    Seller is probably right to cut and run!

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  7. DolphinMember

    The topside is OK to look at—from a distance. But underneath is a nightmare. Good for this seller to admit the car’s problems and show them clearly in large photos. Too bad. This would be a nice Euro version coupe for someone who doesn’t mind feeding its habit for European-sourced parts.

    If you are going to run an undercoated car in salty winter conditions you need to go over the underside carefully after *every* winter season and touch up any breaks in the undercoat. Looks like that didn’t happen with this car.

    Better still would be the oil spray undercoat that’s used in places like Ontario and Quebec that are brutal on cars in the winter. But the oil must also be sprayed inside boxed rockers and must be reapplied underneath each and every fall to be effective.

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  8. JeffAuthor

    Some good feedback here. My rule of thumb if it’s a screaming bargain, you can take the chance; if the price is market-rate or higher, an inspection is worth it. Of course, other variables come into play, like how important is completely rust-free to you. It made a big difference to me, but had I known a few things, I might have bargained a bit more on the 5-Series.

    Of course, with the new project I’ll be announcing here shortly, the price was so right I could care less about the work involved!

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  9. Roseland Pete

    As I told one guy who was selling a 72 Riv in California years ago, I wouldn’t buy a new car without seeing it first much less a 35 year old (at that time) used car. I told him that I would fly out there to see the car myself. After I told him that, the car went from perfect condition, everything original to a laundry list of things that were wrong. I guess he didn’t want a pissed off postal worker on his hands.

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  10. Kevin Harper

    This happens to us all. I walked away from a 74 X1/9 recently that the owner said had a perfect body, and it really looked good in pictures. What he failed to mention was it was all bondo.

    I only drove about 100 miles on this fiasco and didn’t lose any real money, just time and gas. I had a friend who drove to PA from NC to pick up a car. It was so bad she walked away from a 500 dollar deposit and the time spent.

    It happens and as I get older I am quicker to walk away from a car

    KL Harper

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    • Dave Bevan

      Kevin Harper, of Mexican Fiat twin cam fame?

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  11. Dan h

    Foolish,foolish,fololish to buy a car sight-unseen. This was my unseen purchase:


    Later, I looked the car up online and saw it in an old BF posting!

    Ultimately, I still fell in love with it, and she is on her way to becoming new again.

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  12. Barzini

    Because I live on the east coast, I am often tempted by cars for sale on the west coast. Enough experts and others have warned against buying sight unseen that I’ve come to trust that advice. It was further validated when I saw a local car that looked so much better in the Craiglist photos than it did in person.

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  13. ydnar

    Many of the gray market cars have rust issues, that came with them from Germany or elsewhere over there. My only other comment is that the 2.8, M110 engine is not a powerful engine. I’d guess it has/had the least amount of power than any other engine offered in the W107 chassis cars. We did not get that engine here, because the US market cars were marketed to a different clientele. That rust is a serious issue, as that is or is very near the jacking point.

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    • Dan

      Interestingly enough, even though the Euro R107 280 SL has less displacement than any R107 officially sold in the U.S., it had more power than a few U.S. models. Depending on the year, a 280 SL could have as much as 185 PS DIN = 182 hp SAE net. The U.S. 450 SL had 180 hp in some later years, and as low as 160 hp in the last year, 1980. The U.S. 380 SL had only 155 hp.

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      • ydnar

        Your figures are a little low according to wiki, the only engine the 280 overpowered was the anemic 380. I’ve driven a multitude of all of theses SL’s, and the 280 could never keep up with a 450. The 380 was a turd, and the “entry level” 280 was not offered here. The 280 engine was a great engine. It even got put into euro spec w126 chassis, and would propel that big car well.

        Nothing here to argue about, I just like to present the facts.

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      • Dan

        Wiki shows some years of the U.S. 450 SL with only 180 hp which is less than the 182 hp, the most power the 280 SL had. Also, wiki is missing the correct power figure for 1980, the last year of production, when the U.S. 450 SL had only 160 hp, also less than the 280 SL’s 182 hp. So as I wrote above, there were some U.S. 450 SL’s and all 380 SL’s with less power than the most powerful 280 SL’s.

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  14. Tirefriar

    One thing to note about the R107 is that they are prone to rust in the frame rails. I would never buy anything old at close to market value without inspection. BTW, the Benzes rust just as bad as my beloved Alfa Romeos, but no one seems to complain much about that. At least Alfas used cheaper Soviet steel in their construction, so what’s MB’s excuse?

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  15. Dan

    There is a problem with this car’s VIN. Production of the R107 280 SL started in July 1974. It’s impossible that by 1979 they were only up to car number 120 being built as the VIN suggests. In addition, the VIN should consist of 14 digits, and this VIN only has 13 digits.

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    • ydnar

      You are correct, it should have 6 digits after the 12, the 12 signifying automatic transmission. There has been some hanky panky in the past on gray market cars and the VIN #’s. It seems to me there are ways to alter years when brought over, but a VIN search would show the alteration. The 280SL had very low production numbers, I think I read 20K or so total production.

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      • Dan

        Actually the middle digits mean more than just automatic transmission.
        Here is this VIN deciphered:
        107 – means SL/SLC type
        042 – means the 280 SL specifically
        1 – means LHD (a 2 here means RHD)
        2 – means auto transmission (a 0 here means manual transmission)
        000120 – the actual sequential serial number of the specific car, which in our example is missing one digit.

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  16. MountainMan

    Unfortunate for the seller. The car looks decent on top. For the right price I would buy it for what it is and enjoy it until it isnt safe. I sure like the Euro market Benzs

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  17. Charles

    With that much rust in such a critical structural area, it seems like trying to repair a car like this one could end up being a Pandora’s Box? Every time I see a severely rusted vehicle of any brand it reminds me of a Flexible bus my Dad bought to build into a motorhome. The bus looked pretty solid on the exterior but had a few holes here and there. It had beautiful stainless trim that covered most of the exposed areas around the rocker panels. Dad was a skilled welder, and his plan was to fix all of the rust before starting the conversion. After buying the bus Dad stripped it down to good metal, and soon there was no bus left, just a rusty skeleton with a lot of structural issues.

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  18. Peter R

    I have bought a number of cars sight unseen with mixed results. When possible I seek out an authorized dealer to do a detailed PPI for me – both mechanically and cosmetically. I’ve been looking for a good E320 convertible and had two examples checked by Mercedes – one in Montreal and the other in New York City. Sellers described the cars in glowing terms – one had only 43k miles backup by paperwork. But both needed $1000’s in repairs even after discounting the Mercedes prices to those of my local specialist.
    My worst experience was using a local Mercedes specialist garage to check a 1984 500SL with less than 60K original miles. While he found a few items requiring attention, he missed about $2k of obvious problems such as pieces actually missing and heat that did not function (and this was in March in the North East). I find the luxury car dealers seem to be most attentive and have had good results with them. But as has been said many times on many sites, always without exception get a good PPI on any car you cannot inspect personally and even then you may still want another opinion –
    I’ve owned a number of these 500SL’s over the years – repairs are expensive – buy the best one you can afford –

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  19. charlieMember

    Not quite as bad as buying sight unseen, is buying at night. In ’67 I bought a ’54 Corvette from a 18 year old who had to report to the Army the next day, drafted, headed for Vietnam he thought, and scared to death. It was in the dark, buy it then or never, it sounded good, it drove well (for a ’54 Corvette), shifted well, no clunks, interior was in good shape, after market radio and seat belts, but all the trim was there. It was not rusted, but at dawn the next morning, it revealed a thousand mini cracks in the fiberglass, plexiglass side curtains that you could not really see through, and a big dent in one of the members of the X frame underneath, 3 leaking Carter sidedraft carbs and two pretty bald tires, and an aftermarket exhaust system that used the ports in the bumpers without the downward deflector behind the bumper that kept the exhaust from traveling over the rear deck into the passenger compartment. I drove it for 18 months, on good days, and got my money back plus a little bit when I sold it, bought tires, rebuilt the carbs, but the frame dent was beyond me, as was refinishing the whole fiberglass body, as was replacing the plexiglass sidecurtains.

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