Mercedes-Benz 380 SEL

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Mercedes-Benz W126 380 SEL

1980 - 1985
V8 M116
145kW @ 5500 rpm
4 spd. auto
Top Speed:
200 km/h
Number Built:
2 star
Mercedes-Benz W126 380 SEL
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 2

A Suitable Replacement For The 450 SEL

The 380 SEL was a great car. But you don't need us to tell you that. Chances are, if you are reading this article, you already know. Back when the 380 SEL was rolling off the Mercedes-Benz production line the car had few equals. BMW came the closest to the mark, while in a very different sphere, and Porsche was another over-engineered beast. All were German, the three of them bearing that unmistakable stamp of quality in every little feature.

Expediency or compromise just don't exist in their makers' minds. While other manufacturers were capable of equalling them in a few respects, none of them were able, or willing to put everything together in one golden, bugger-the-cost product. At a time when most of the world's car manufacturers were scrambling to produce smaller, more fuel efficient cars, many thought the S class was doomed. But Stuttgart went against the norm.

The company did plenty of research of course, it would have been stupid to develop a car that nobody would buy - but these surveys showed that Mercedes cars in general, and S class models in particular, travelled far greater distances each year than most other makes, and carried a higher than average number of passengers. In Germany S class vehicles covered twice the mileage of the average of all cars in that country.

When the 380 SEL hit the showrooms, most other makers were suffering the effects of recession. But Mercedes Benz were sitting pretty, expanding its production to a goal of 430,000 units in 1981 compared with slightly less than 400,000 in 1980. Australia imported around 2500 of the total in 1980, restricted by quotas. In 1981 the company's local offshoot sold around 3000 vehicles in the passenger car market, and 60% of all Mercedes sold in Australia at that time were compacts based on the W 123. Of these around 30% were diesels.

Styling wise the 380 SEL did not look all that slippery, but looks were deceiving. The drag coefficient was a remarkably low .36. Of major consideration in the design of the 380 SEL was its traditional style. This has been retained despite the nose being sloped far more, and the rear roof line was extended with sharper rake, both at the windshield and the rear window. There was a higher boot too, this being an important feature of the improved aerodynamics. It resulted in a distinct wedge shape.

Not only had the look of the car undergone subtle change, but it was quite different dimensionally. In SEL form it was 115 mm longer in the wheelbase than the old car. It had 24 mm wider front track and 12 mm wider rear track. While these increases assisted in ride and road holding, they also provided better interior packaging. And this was particularly the case for rear passenger leg room, which reached Ford LTD proportions. The 380 SEL was, however, narrower overall externally.

From most angles the 380 SEL was a fine looking piece of styling, but from the rear it had a rather ugly boxy look. The body structure made considerable use of high strength low alloy steels, and on the outside plastic trim was been used for durability and cosmetic purposes. Thanks to the detail work undertaken by designers, the 380 SEL was 150 kilograms lighter and the old 450 SEL. Interior noise levels were reduced still further from the old S type's already high standards. This was achieved through the modified mounting of the suspension, and was further enhanced by the addition of an extra insulating bulkhead between the cabin and the engine compartment.

There were double seals on the doors and the rear axle was mounted to the chassis using a thicker rubber than before. Not least of the contributions to low interior noise levels came from the aerodynamics. Even at 200 km/h wind noise was just a whisper! While the basic S type retained the twin overhead cam 2.8 litre six cylinder engine (280 SE), the 380 SEL featured a completely new all aluminium V8 with a single overhead camshaft per bank. This same basic unit was used in the fabulous 500 models too, but Australia didn't get these owing to the difficulties in gaining ADR compliance.

Thanks to its aluminium construction, the V8 engine was 40 kgs lighter than the old V8 fitted to the 450 series. It was made of an alloy containing silicon. The cylinder linings were chemically treated to expose the hard wearing silicon crystals. They improved efficiency in conjunction with specially coated light alloy pistons. Eight balance weights on the crankshaft also added to this efficiency . With its short stroke it was an easy spinning engine all round, and was somewhat quieter than the old unit, further enhancing Mercedes' luxury image. In what was a momentary step backwards, Mercedes ditched the electronic fuel injection systems and went mechanical for the sake of reliability and simplicity. As Mercedes put it at the time, this was not a compromise, but rather a necessary part of the company's philosophy concerning durability. Naturally transistorised ignition was fitted for these same reasons, as were stainless steel exhaust pipes.

To go with the new engine there was an all new four speed automatic transmission. Apart from being 5 kg lighter than the old unit it was a work of art in itself. When moving from rest it automatically selected first gear and then progressed through the other three ratios. When idling however, the box selected second gear in order to avoid creep. In the interests of economy, all gear-changes occured considerably earlier than you would have expected. Although the shift lever could be held in "1" after starting in first gear it would change into second at between 50 and 60 km/h. If the lever was not advanced to "S" when maximum rpm's were reached, there was an electronic cut out which limited the engine speed.

Mercedes avoided the use of electronics in the change mechanism, preferring to stick with hydraulics, again in the interests of reliability and weight saving. A particularly useful feature of this transmission was a secondary pump which allowed for tow starting, or towing away in emergency. In most other automatic transmissions this could have a detrimental effect on the box, and usually cars have to be towed backwards with the rear wheels off the ground, or the propellor shaft has to be disconnected. Zero offset steering geometry provided sharp steering response, and thanks to the variable power assistance to the recirculating ball system, steering forces were negligible. The trick here was to retain sufficient feel to enhance driving enjoyment, and it was a trick Mercedes had learned well.

Changes to the suspension included the use of softer coil springs. The forged alloy upper and lower wishbones at the front were located with new rubber mountings. The semi-trailing arm rear end was much as before, complete with anti-dive properties to assist braking. One of the most remarkable features of the whole chassis is the ABS braking system - standard kit these days, but rare in 1981. One motoring journalist performed a crash stop test from 110 km/h on a gravel road to pull up the car, in a dead straight line, in under 60 metres. Most Mercedes models rode on steel wheels with plastic covers shaped to direct cooling air on to the brakes, but the SEL rode on the superb - and very expensive - forged alloy wheels. Cars delivered to Australia were shod with Michelin XVS radials.

On The Inside

As you would have expected, the 380 SEL's interior was beautifully executed - every single item was a logical asset to the overall product. Standard leather upholstery featured in the SEL with a cloth material as an option. In the shorter wheelbase SE, Mercedes' own superior brand of vinyl, MB-Tex, was standard. The seats were all hand assembled using layers of natural wool and horsehair around the central springing. In line with Mercedes philosophy, they would feel hard at first, but a few hundred kilometres of driving was enough to convince anyone of their worth in delaying the onset of fatigue. On the SEL the driver's seat had a squab height adjustment as well as the normal reclining backrest and fore and aft adjustment.

Driving controls were in the traditional form. Steering column stalks were mounted on the right hand side only. One operated the multi speed windscreen wiper washer system, while the other was the control for the Tempomat speed control, fitted as standard in all S class cars. Light selection was by means of a facia mounted twist switch. Instrumentation was concentrated in the binnacle ahead of the driver rather than being spread all over the place as was often the case in cars from this era. There were three dials. To the right there was the tacho containing an analogue clock. In the centre was the speedometer with trip recorder and odometer, and to the left a composite grouping of instruments including fuel level, water temperature, oil pressure indicators and an economy gauge.

A strip of warning lights running underneath the main instrument dials covered such things as failure of the ABS system and most of the usual functions. Even by today's standards, there was very little you could have desired over and above the various luxury items which equipped the SEL. It had central door locking, this also securing the boot and the petrol filler flap. Two rear vision mirrors were fitted on the passenger side controlled by a multi directional switch on the centre console. All windows were power operated, as was the standard sun roof. Fully automated air conditioning was standard too.

The Becker sound system which came as standard looked complex - but in reality the unit was quite easy to operate with its all touch control system. It had a wide range of memorised stations, together with a self seeking system in both AM and FM modes. And there was the regulatory stereo cassette player and four speakers, as well as a digital clock. While rear boot space was a little smaller than on the previous S type, there was plenty of internal storage to make up for it. There was a lockable glove box and small pockets in the front doors. Pockets for rear seat passengers were contained in the front seat backrests, while two lidded trays were fitted in the rear parcel shelf. One of these contained the usual comprehensive first aid kit which had been a feature of Australian Mercedes for a while. A large tray was located under the moveable centre armrest in the front centre console, and there was another, smaller bin under the ash tray.

On the Road

Behind the wheel you would find the S type retained firm, yet supple ride but somehow achieved amazing heights with regard to road holding and handling. It was a very hard car to get out of shape when you were at 9/10ths. The chassis' limits were very high, and on the open road it was pretty unlikely that anyone would have ever get even close to them. Pressed really hard it would begin to understeer soon after turning into a tight corner. If the throttle pressure was maintained this would change to a discernible oversteer which was very easy to control. One of the 380 SEL's greatest joys was the way it was willing to change direction at the driver's slightest whim. For a large machine it was amazing, giving the impression that it was a far smaller vehicle than was revealed in the specification.

Normal highway ride in no way gots rid of all the bumps in the road, but then, there was always a need for the driver to have some feel with regard to the surface over which they were travelling. On really sharp ridges some impact harshness could be felt, but the suspension soaked up any tendency for the car to skip around. On rough gravel it was much the same story. Excellent damping and well designed suspension bushing cushions all but the worst holes in the surface. And again, there was never any hint of instability. Very often it can be difficult to tell whether tyre performance or suspension design is the main contributor to fine road holding. In the case of the 380 SEL most people believed it was a combination of the two, the latter being well matched to the excellent qualities of Michelin's XVS covers.

380 SEL Performance

To save some money people may have been tempted to opt for the 280 SEL - but that would have been a mistake. The 280 SEL required considerable use of the manual shifter, particularly when going up hills from a slow starting speed. But you never needed to touch the gearstick in the V8 - the 1730 kg machine bounding forward whenever you asked it to. Zero to 100 km/h in 10.4 seconds was a good particularly when you consider it was being achieved in such a large heavy luxury car powered by a comparatively small 3.8 litre engine. Some road tests have the 380 SEL running the spring in 9 seconds flat. Given time to get wound up, the standing 400 metres took 17.4 seconds with a terminal velocity of 137 km/h, clearly showing how the 380 SEL had been designed for long distance, long legged cruising. Combined city / country driving gave fuel consumption of around 12.6 litres/100 kms (22.5 mpg) overall.

Mercedes designers claimed there were advantages of using the apparently large diameter steering wheel, and relatively hard seats. The latter provided full support for the body where it was needed, and the former kept the driver's arms well apart allowing them to breath properly. Time would show they got the firm seats part right, but the truck sized steering wheel? This is our major criticism of early Mercedes models here at Unique Cars and Parts. But regardless, even today, if you needed to long-haul vehicle, you could not go wrong with a 380 SEL.
Mercedes-Benz 380 SEL

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