Which Car? Is this 'cheap' Mercedes as good as it sounds?

David Green, 42, works for a publishing company as an editor. He has spotted something tasty in an auction brochure, a "cheap" Mercedes-Benz. It is a 1986 Mercedes 500 SEL and has been, apparently, maintained by the supplying UK mainland dealer for most of its life, and an independent specialist latterly. It has done 82,000 miles and is in original, unmolested condition (with champagne coachwork and cream leather). It has a full specification including front electric seats, air-conditioning, illuminated vanity mirrors, ABS braking and original alloy wheels. It seems to have a Jersey registration number. Is it worth the £3,000 to £3,500 estimate?

Before going into detail about the Mercedes SEL and whether it makes a good, or even a good value buy, let's take the opportunity to investigate just what goes on at auction. First of all things happen fast and David can't afford to get carried away. Effectively bidders will be get a vehicle at a wholesale, or trade price and in recent years this has been the most cost effective way to buy a classic. However, the potential for making a mistake is massive. Cars can be tarted up to look good and hide multitude of often structural faults that would cost many times the hammer price to sort out.

Potential bidders only have limited time to inspect a car, won't be able to drive it and very limited grounds for rejection which is why you need to know your vehicle. The good news is that Mercedes especially a nineteen-year old one, is not like other classics. It was built properly the first time, won't have been restored and any bodging or damage will be fairly obvious. Most crucial of all the Mercedes has had few owners and a comprehensive history which means that its condition and mileage can all be verified.

A car for the head

David has got great taste, because of all Mercedes recent big saloons this generation (W126) is arguably the finest. Not only does it look elegant, it was exquisitely engineered, yet never overdid the technology. In contrast to the next generation of Grosser Mercedes from 1991 which really was gross the W126 looked compact and classy. The later S-Class was over complicated with self-closing electric doors, the design was clumsy and slab sided, plus the whole package screamed conspicuous consumption. Not good. The old S really is a classic and benefits from Mercedes superb attention to detail. That huge light alloy V8 won't ever break down and rust will only be a minor irritant on some panels. What will put some buyers off is the marginal fuel consumption and potentially huge repair costs. That is why it remains a notoriously difficult car to value because the market for this sort of car is limited. £3,000 which could buy a sub standard used Ford Mondeo would be better spent on this Merc. It can be run cost effectively and there is a good nationwide network of independent engineers, parts suppliers and the mercedes-benzownersclub.co.uk. At auction though it would be nice to bid £2000 and drive happily away with it.

A car for the heart

If David likes the idea of a big, comfy limo but does not want to be mistaken for a third world despot, or an upmarket private hire driver there is another German alternative with rather more character. BMW's 7 series represents one of the finest big cars of any era and once again shows up more recent versions by being relatively uncomplicated and stylish. The appeal of the 7 has always been its sharp styling and equally sharp handling. Whilst current models have åchallenging' cutting edge design and a silly computer the older ones were as nice to drive as the smallest 3 series and their six cylinder engine were also wonderfully smooth. Models like the 735i can do the wafty limo thing, although room in the back was limited in all but the long wheelbase L models. Just as importantly though the 7 could be hustled along like the performance saloon it really was. Like Mercedes build quality was important and I have come across many examples that have covered more than 300,000 miles without fault. With £3000 to spend David should be able to get an early '90s 735i with full service history and in immaculate condition.