'76 450SL

Jill's 450 SL, 1976 For Sale Sold! Replaced by

My wife's engagement present. (Her ring had a key on it, not a diamond!) I knew how to work on 107 cars, and wanted something to replace her (failing) Escort. Plus, these are cool cars. Even if she didn't think that much of it (she is no car buff), her friends might. (They do!) Colors are Milan Brown (exterior) and Bamboo (interior). I did ask my wife, cryptically, "Do you like brown?" before I bought it. Wanted to make sure she didn't hate brown. Turns out she doesn't hate it, but neither does she particularly like it. (Official color names are one thing, but to my wife's eye it's root-beer brown and orange. Her A&W car, in other words.)

According to information I found in this Road & Track article, this year's model is actually a pretty good choice, except for raw horsepower.

She didn't want to own two cars, so I was very interested when I ran across this car in less-than-perfect condition. It wasn't nice enough that you'd worry about it being a year-'round driver. (I'm sure I overpaid for it anyway, but if you don't count my time we're not really into it for much more than it's worth. Which is pretty good for a car. For me, especially.) 107 SL's have a nice hardtop so they're good in the winter. And they have more storage space than you might expect, certainly more than almost any current two-seater.

It had some apparently minor rust (being defined as cosmetic, or as easily repaired), lots of things didn't work, and it could barely get out of its own way. But it did come with a significant chunk of its records. So I bit. (I figured that I could always sell it if things didn't work out. Either mechanically or matrimonially.)

The two Mercedes bought prior to this one, my SL and the SDL, had significant parts of their repairs done at the dealer, or at other shops. However, this car apparently needed a lot more attention than either of those did, and I was (temporarily) out of work at the time. I had time, but little money. So I tackled a significantly larger set of repairs myself. I also explored other avenues of parts procurement than the dealership, namely mail-order and used parts. This has worked out so well for me that after this point I started doing a lot more of my car work myself. Not everything, but the majority of it.

A belated log of its life with us.

A (partial) list of its repairs and upgrades.

The car needed more work than I thought (big surprise), though it was going well. However, it was behind schedule a bit. I gave my wife the key, she said yes, so I let her keep it. For the day. You see, the car was still up on jack stands in my driveway! The transmission was out. But she did get both the key and the car eventually. And me. (Hey, honey, do you want to get married? I realize that I don't have a job, and I promise to actually give you this car someday, and my yard is full of broken cars, but I'm a good catch, really!)

There was a problem with the purchase. It seems that there was a lien on the title in the pipeline somewhere. (Something to do with a consignment sale that never paid the original owner.) The dealer I bought it from was a bit on the sleazy side (and was two owners away from the bad deal). Most of the cars on his lot had three-figure price tags. I was a bit nervous as you could imagine, especially as I had already started working on the car. In the worst case it would have ended up in the courts, with me also having a mechanic's lien on the car. I couldn't get it licensed, but the dealer kept 'selling' me the car every month so that he could put temporary tags on it. I think we did this twice.

Ugh! This was not fun. I kept the car hidden in a locked garage to foil any repossession attempts, as I was not intending to be the chump that was stuck holding the bag. I had paid a more-than-fair price, "valuable consideration", in good faith for the car. As long as I retained possession of the car I wasn't screwed. (Why should I be screwed and not the thief?) I had an even better place to hide the car if it looked like that was going to happen, while the courts sorted it all out, and I had a pretty good case for putting a mechanic's lien of my own on the car, but all this was never necessary. As promised, the paperwork finally came through. It was just late. (Thankfully, this was all settled before my wife-to-be became involved with the car.)

Incidentally, around here this sort of problem could come up on any car sale from a dealer, especially on a used car. Some time after the sale the State mails you a title, but only if the paperwork is all in order. I was wondering where mine was, it hadn't showed up yet. So watch whom you do business with.

Jerks. I drove by the place once after I had gotten the car running properly. (Distributor repair and damaged valve stem seals on one cylinder.) The guy there (not my salesman) asked me if I had "had to take the head off?" No, I hadn't. The jerks. No mention of the head before the sale.

Did I mention that it could barely get out of its own way when I bought it? They said it needed a good tune up. Well, the distributor was all messed up. The first day I worked on it I found and fixed this (along with oiling the shrieking heater motor, which ran continuously due to another problem that I later repaired). The advance mechanism had come loose from the 'points' plate, and whatever spark timing it got was by random choice. Also, I think the centrifugal advance was jammed. I repaired this all, for no parts cost.

After this it started to run properly, but boy did it smoke! As it turns out, the valve stem seals on #2 were damaged and it sucked a lot of oil in there, fouling the plug in short order. No sign of this on the test drives. But I think it was running so poorly that the engine didn't get hot enough to vaporize the oil pouring into the manifold. Once it was timed correctly, look out mosquitoes!

I recall one trip she and I took downtown in the car. Whenever we started out from a light everybody behind us waited for a bit, the smoke clouds were that bad. It made her laugh out loud, but it was very embarassing. I was really sweating this problem, as serious engine problems would completely blow the budget on the car. But, I thought I'd try a valve stem seal as this is cheap and easy. And it worked! I didn't even bother to install the rest of the seals on that bank of cylinders. (It's been nearly three [six, now] years, and the fix is still holding, so it wasn't the valve guides that caused the seal damage in the first place.)

Of course, the car still had really lousy pick-up off the line. Absolutely nothing like my 560 SL, and worse than our 300 SDL's pre-turbo acceleration. But at speed it acted more like I expected. That is, weaker than my 560 SL but not too bad. There was also this odd little whine from the transmission when you weren't moving. Turns out that the stator splines were sheared off the front of the transmission, negating the torque converter's torque multiplication function. (It acted like an older MB's fluid coupler, but without the necessary first gear to make up for this. A slug, in other words. The helpful service people down at the dealership said that this problem was rare, but not unheard of. No known cause, except possibly a manufacturing defect.) Well, this was also a potential budget buster. But I found a used transmission in Seattle for $350 and installed it myself. It works fine, and has for nearly three [now six] years of daily driving.

By the way, you test this by testing the stall speed of the torque converter. (Lock the brakes, jam the accelerator, and note the RPM that the engine can develop. With a non-functioning stator the RPM is low, like 1000 RPM rather than 1800–2500.)

Finally, the car was in the condition that it apparently was in when I bought it. After only about $500 in expenditure, this wasn't bad. But it was a lot of work, and a lot of worry. On the plus side it was tremendously educational. (As is anything that doesn't kill you.)

After all this the car was back on track and the remaining serious repairs were completed before the proposal. The upgrades, and various minor repairs, have been done since then. We drive this car a lot, though lately it is mostly I that have been driving it. My wife generally drives the SDL, with our son in it.


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