Date registered: Feb 2008
Vehicle: 2004 W220 (S430) ; 2001 R129 (SL500) Sport
Location: Alabama Gulf Coast--formerly Charlottesville, VA
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I had a W108 ('72 280 SEL 4.5) nearly thirty years ago--my first Mercedes. It was surprisingly trouble-free. I bought it with 100k miles, and drove it another 50k. Other than maintenance, some trivial repairs, and a new set of shocks, it was a gas-and-go car. The two problem areas I encountered were the heater/AC control slides and the camber compensator on the rear end. The slides are plastic, and they get brittle with age. Replacing them involves disassembling the dash. The camber compensator keeps the swing axles plumb and when it fails, the rear end sags. There is a spring compensator available that replaces the pneumatic OEM piece for a quarter the price and works about as well.
The paint and interior (mine had MB Tex, not leather) held up in nearly showroom condition from the time I bought it until I sold it.
Other than that, watching for fluid leaks because the gaskets get brittle like the heater controls, and keeping the maintenance schedule are about all you need to do.
I had no problems with rust, but I've heard W108s are a bit prone to rust around the fender wells.
Everyone would love to have a 300SEL 6.3, but they are very expensive these days and the air suspension restoration and maintenance are a nightmare. W108 280SE 4.5 (short wheelbase) are fairly sporty and according to a recent article are available for USD 5k-6k in excellent (but not original) condition. A 6.3 would be multiples of that price in the same condition.
The 6-cylinder W108s are less expensive, but they don't have nearly the grunt of the V-8s. If you can swing the added cost of a V-8 version, I think you would be happier with it in the long run. Late MY versions are more desirable as well. Neither are barn-burners, but the V-8s will accelerate with modern cars, and will cruise at interstate speeds easily. The general advice is buy the latest MY and best maintained car you can afford.
Good luck in your hunt.
"Don't pick a fight with an old man. If he is too old to fight, he'll just kill you."--John Steinbeck