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Take my advice, you want a 450 SEL 6.9, just not the one I had

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When it comes to big Benzes, there are few that were as ambitious as the 450 SEL 6.9. With its massive, 6.9-liter V-8 sporting a racing-derived dry sump oil system and a self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension, this car combined size and speed in a way that was unheard of a the time. Consider that the 1984 Chevrolet Corvette was only a half second faster through the quarter-mile than the 6.9 that Car and Driver tested in 1977.

It cost $39,377 in 1977, the first year of official sales in the United States, or 64 percent more than the base 450 SEL. Today you can more than double the sticker price running from the bottom of the S-Class lineup to the most expensive AMG variant, but at the time, this was a big spread. Few cars short of a Rolls-Royce commanded as much money.

As this is a promotion for the 1979 450 SEL 6.9 going up for sale on Hemmings Auctions, I’ll mention that you can get a good 6.9 for less than the original sticker price. I will also tell you to click on the auction listing for any information on the car, because what follows is not a description of the car for sale, but a story about my brief ownership of what was possibly the world’s worst 450 SEL 6.9. It was nothing like the auction car, or indeed any examples listed in the Hemmings Classifieds.

A rare photo of the 24 Hours of Lemons 450 SEL 6.9 that I owned. Photo credit: Mike Austin

My tale began when Judge Phil from the 24 Hours of Lemons told me that the first 6.9 ever to race in a Lemons was free for the taking, shipping from Florida not included. “All you’d have to do is update the cage to the latest rules,” he told me, “it’s just been sitting and has a slight transmission leak.” I found a shipper, paid a sum I have since forgotten out of spite, and a few days later the combination of excitement and regret that summed up my entire tenure of 6.9 ownership began. To start, the suspension didn’t hold pressure, so we could barely manage to free the tie down straps that were now pinched by the lower body. The battery was also dead. If I remember correctly, we managed to force the car off the hauler through some means of questionable floor jack use and brute force and left it parked on the curb for a few days, miraculously avoiding a blight ticket.

It’s worth clarifying again that this Lemons 6.9 was not good, nor did I expect it to be. It was a rusty heap, but it was also a free 6.9. The car that was probably behind the camera in C’etait un Rendezvous and one of the hero cars from Ronin! And this one had an open exhaust no less. When you started it up by touching the positive starter wire to the positive battery terminal – which was relocated to the front passenger area (and no, I’m not making this up, although I think there was an actual switch at some point in the past) – it boomed to life with a thunderous roar as the car slowly stood back up to normal height. That noise alone is what sustained me through my few months of ownership. I downplayed the car’s general crappiness to my eventual wife, telling her the giant black exhaust soot stain on the garage floor was no big deal, the suspension just need an accumulator – an easy fix, and that Lemons cars are supposed to be terrible (they are).

This little badge makes all the difference, otherwise the 6.9 looks much like any other 450 SEL.

It was winter in Michigan, so my one smart decision in this saga was to delay any major work until spring when I could move the car in and out of the unheated garage that barely fit the 6.9’s largess. In the meantime I read up on repairs, made a to-do list, and did some online window shopping for parts. I’d fire it up when friends came over and we’d marvel at the sheer hugeness of the M100 V-8 – so big that the 12-quart oil reservoir for the dry sump had to be located inside a fender.

When spring came around I loaded the big Benz on a trailer and took it to my roll cage guy. Out in the harsh daylight we saw things that the weak overhead bulbs my garage did not reveal. I knew the car was rusty, including several bad spots on the floor, but I didn’t realize how bad, not quite understanding how much Florida humidity can contribute to oxidation. The roll cage was sketchy in its own right, but the bigger issue was that the rust was so bad we weren’t even sure if the underlying structure would be sound after fixing the floor and putting in a new cage.

To be clear this is the photo of the auction car, not the one I owned. Look at how the M100 V-8 is absolutely shoehorned into the engine bay.

Slightly dejected, I put the car up for any takers on the 24 Hours of Lemons forums, swallowing the original cost of shipping with my pride. The guy who stuffed a radial engine in a Toyota MR2 drove up from Indiana to take it off my hands. After that, the 6.9 and I fell out of touch. My one regret is not having the space or resources to hang on to that drivetrain and make some incredible rat rod out of it. Oh, and the bonus regret of taking Judge Phil’s advice on a secondhand Lemons car (it took me two failures to learn that lesson). But oh, that sound. Part of me has wanted a real 6.9 ever since.

Which brings me back to the auction car. The seller states that the air conditioning does not work, nor does the radio. In every other way it appears to be the exact opposite of that Lemons car, which is to say a 450 SEL 6.9 you could own with pride and actually drive on public roads. I only took mine from the curb into the garage, and it was a pretty great 500-foot trip. I’d bid on this one myself, but I’m presently out of garage space and have a friend trying to sell me his Toyota Century (clearly I have a thing for giant, over-built luxury cars).

If you, however, do have a space for this car, bidding starts on Thursday, November 7, at 7:00 p.m. eastern time and runs for a week. You can sign up to bid, read the seller’s description, and check out extensive photos (including the rust-free underside) on the auction listing page.

This is what the inside of a 450 SEL 6.9 looks like. Having an interior automatically makes this better than the stripped racing car that darkened my garage.