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Compression Test Candidate: 1984 Mercedes 380SEC

As we all know, I’m a sucker for a good Euro car. I’m also a sucker for a cheap car, too, especially if it’s a genuine gray market article. That’s why this 1984 Mercedes-Benz 380SEC is so tempting, wearing its poverty-spec Euro trim with hubcaps instead of chromed alloys like so many of U.S. models wear. It retains all the overseas goodies, like the glassed-in headlights and less restrictive emissions equipment, but it’s unfortunately billowing white smoke at the moment. Find it here on eBay at no reserve with just over two days left. 

Sadly, this W126 coupe has some mechanical woes of the potentially-headgasket kind. The seller notes it blows out some white smoke from the exhaust at startup. The seller doesn’t allude at all to the car’s gray-market specification, which usually means they don’t know what they have is a more obscure version of a car sold here in U.S. trim. In addition to the hubcaps, the slimmer bumpers are another giveaway that this W126 wasn’t originally intended for U.S. customers.

The seller notes the engine bay is quite tidy, despite the potential HG issues lurking within. Last year, my beloved and departed E36 M3 surprised me when the thermostat let go and I overheated the motor – a symptom the seller says isn’t present here. This M116 V8 is a 3.8L mill, and like the bigger motors we got stateside, the blocks are alloy and it uses a long-lived timing chain. They are stout motors, but a quick Google reveals they are not immune to headgasket failure.

The interior remains quite tidy, with blue leather that was quite common in Benzes of this era. The pillarless design is one of the my favorites, and these SEC cars look stunning with the windows down. The white smoke could be a few different things but my money is on headgasket replacement – and of course, whatever else is needed in terms of head work, as it often turns into one of those “while you’re in there” jobs that you hope to only do once. With cheap bidding, is it worth a gamble?


  1. Steve65

    Nothing more expensive than a cheap used German luxury car.

    And with the current sea of bland colorless automotive landscape, it would take an act of Congress to persuade me to buy a silver car.

  2. Wayne

    Not so sure about the long lived timing chains, they do have a habit of jumping a tooth.

  3. Dolphin Member

    I’m impressed how smooth, elegant, and clean a design this ’80s Benz is. I wouldn’t mind having it as a second daily driver to provide a new environment with class. And the bidding hasn’t gotten very far….only a bit over $2K with a day left.

    But I think the best buyer for this car would be a M-B guy who knows these cars and can deal with the present and future needs mostly himself, like a M-B service tech.

    Actually, with the bid only at $2K the car might be a bargain if you could handle the work yourself. Otherwise it could be a money pit….a very classy one, but a pit just the same.

  4. Dick Johnson

    Worn intake valve guides will also show this indication on start-up. Love the looks, but my wife will let me know that my timing chain jumped a tooth if I would EVEN think of buying this one.

    Like the oil ad advertised, “you can pay me now, or (REALLY!) pay me later.

  5. Lawyer George

    It might be worth $2K for parts.That interior looks quite spiffy and might look good in something else a person happens to be building up. But silver–no, no, no! Red? Of course.

    • Dick Johnson

      Rustoleum makes a nice shade of ‘Resale Red.’

  6. SAM61

    This car made me think of the one in the movie “Roadhouse”.

  7. Jake

    Actual mileage???? Not sure they did speedos with kph and then odometer in miles??? Be worth it for parts as a breaker but unless you are a Mercedes tech or know your way around these very well mechaic wise–steer clear as gonna cost $$$ to repair!!!

    • Jimbosidecar

      They didn’t and this car isn’t either. The white numbers (not shown in full detail) are the mph and the yellow numbers are in kmh

  8. Bruce

    The mechanical are generally very good on this series of cars. The problem is that even with the EURO motor this thing is slow. It will cruse all day at highway speeds but it feels like it has a boat anchor holding it back.

    Find a wrecked 560 mercedes and do an engine swap and then you will have something really useful. Of note Mercedes is still making parts for these cars and they have on site here in America everything you might need to restore one.

    While many bad mouth these cars and talk about how expensive are the parts or labor rates they do not tend to talk about how many of these cars have huge milage counts on original engines and transmissions. The bodies hold up as well. Care for them properly and they might be the last car you ever purchase.

    The later models have more gimmicks and features but are not built to the same standards as the Mercedes of this era.

  9. ACZ

    No one else said it but I will……….LS motor candidate. Runs stronger, more reliable, more easily fixed if you break it.

  10. Ian

    …these are getting very expensive here in the UK….even with engine problems at this price it’s a steal…though appreiate you have a much wider choice in the US

  11. Jimbosidecar

    I’m not sure this is a grey market car. I don’t remember the 3.8L motor being an option in Europe and the speedo is in miles per hour with kmh added. If I recall correctly the Euro cars were calibrated in KMH only.

  12. wes

    Two of the happiest days of my life ,were buying a slightly used Mercedes-Benz and selling it

  13. Maestro1

    i don’t know about this Benz. Many intelligent folk above have excellent comments/advice. I think if the price was low enough it would be worth
    a chance. Worst case scenario figure $7000. in resurrection if you don’t do your own work.

  14. Doug

    Another , often overlooked source of white smoke can be ATF – if this trans has a vacuum operated modulator, it may have started to leak a tad……
    That being said, I think ACZ has the right idea IF it is an engine problem –
    an LS, properly set up with an o/d trans & the right rear gear ratio, would probably get great gas mileage as well as be a fun ” sleeper.”

  15. Brian

    This appears to be a Euromarket delivered 380SEC. The VIN is not affixed properly on the dash for a US-spec car. And, the VIN plate attached using screws looks strange – it should be riveted. The seller says it is registered in California and there are California plates on it. What the seller may not realize is that they cannot be released from liability for obtaining a smog certificate if sold to a California buyer. You cannot claim “as is” or “for parts only” and waive your responsibility. I hope this seller doesn’t go through what I learned the hard way (buyer bought a car for “parts,” spent $4K to get it running well enough to get it through smog, and sued me successfully to pay for these charges as well as late registration fees since it took him 9 months despite the fact I had no way of knowing they were going to do it). So, seller should make it clear they won’t sell to California buyers or provide a valid smog certificate obtained with enough time remaining to get it registered. As a gray market car, it also needs to have a Bureau of Automotive Repair sticker in the door jam with the VIN to match the car. If it was imported recently, then it would have a California import sticker as well. I would make it a point to go see this car in person and make sure it could be titled (if in California) before bidding.

  16. jesus bortoni

    A crate SBC would fix the problem right away. Throw in a T400 transmission and for less than 10 grand you’ve got a nice ride.

  17. Peter

    long lived timing chain?
    that’ll be news to the clowns who designed the GM HFV6 motor


    Blown head gasket??

  19. Don

    I had an 87 420 sel..great car!- I was afraid parts wud kill my wallet, but found that many after market parts on e-bay worked developed an electrical problem I didn’t want to deal, I paid $1600 for it, drove it 5 yrs & sold it for a grand.

  20. chad

    Brian explains a sinaro as strict as the world’s worse (the German “DMV”) i.e. almost impossible to do any mods off OE, no ‘custom’ cars, etc. Boy, hope it’s not coming to that here in US…I’ll hafta switch to oneadoze new autonomous driven cars!

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