“There’s no rhyme or reason, it’s just love,” says Mary. No, she isn’t speaking of John, her husband of 61 years, nor her children, grandchildren, or friends. Rather, she is referring to the W126 that she purchased 27 years ago. The story of how she came to buy the car is as interesting as the car itself. 

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The brand of Dutch bicycle that Mary and John wound up buying. 

In 1992, the Nonhofs took a trip to the Netherlands to visit the family farm. Their hosts didn’t have a spare vehicle for them to use during their trip, but they did have a pair of “Made in Holland” touring bicycles that John and Mary could use. (The Netherlands, for those readers who haven’t had the opportunity to visit there, is one of the most bicycle-friendly countries in Europe. Its terrain is billiard table flat, and it has dedicated bike lanes in every city and ample public bike parking. Citizens of all ages ride bikes regularly.) 

Upon returning home from their vacation, John and Mary went to one of their local bike shops—there are at least five such shops in Holland—and inquired about the possibility of obtaining the same brand of bicycle that they rode in Europe. They were informed at the time that the brand, Batavus, was so popular in its home country of Holland that the factory was no longer exporting bikes. But the dealer did know of a local couple who owned a pair of Batavus bikes and he offered to call them to see if they would be interested in selling theirs. The answer came back in the affirmative, and the Nonhofs went to see the bikes in the barn of an area businessman’s home.

As Mary was writing the check for the his and her bikes, the seller commented that he had never thought of selling the bikes; what he was interested in selling was in a different barn, a couple of hundred feet away. Mary looked up to see what the seller was referring to and asked, “What is that?” The answer: a 1983 380 SEL.

(Prior to this event Mary had been approached by a good friend in church who announced that she had just purchased her “dream car,” which was a 60s or 70s-vintage Mercedes Benz. Mary had told herself at the the time, “That’s not a bad goal in life.”)

Without driving the W126, hearing its engine start up, walking around it to get a good look or kick the tires, or even having shopped for a Benz previously, she asked, “How much?” Upon learning the asking price she stated, “Done deal, I’ll add that to the price of the bikes!”

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Mary claims that she wasn’t taken aback to learn that the SEL had a long wheelbase, once the car was taken out of the barn. In fact, there was nothing that she disliked about it. The style, the color, the comfort, the power, or the size. She fell in love with the four-wheeled beast, a love that has remained steadfast to this day. Oh sure, she has become irritated with it, from time to time, when it seemed that every repair bill would cost $1,000 or more. And when she has threatened to sell it, John has calmly talked her out of it.

This 380 SEL became her daily driver. When asked if there was murmuring among her fellow teachers when she pulled into the school parking lot amid their Fords and Chevys, she said, “No, not at all, but the parents of my students did.” She says that most of her  students were children of farmers or truck drivers in that rural area. The only school employee who may have had a problem with her luxurious means of transportation was the principal, who preferred that his teachers would keep things low-key. (It also may not have helped for the principal to see that Mary specifically parked her car away from the other teachers’ cars, so as not to get any dings or scratches.)

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The 380 SEL was originally purchased new by a couple from a Chicago dealer, which delivered the car to the couple’s Florida home, where it remained until the wife decided (unwisely, some might suggest) to sell the car in order to purchase a new Lexus. The Mercedes had never seen winter weather prior to Mary purchasing it. To this day the car exhibits no rust, although the front bumper did have some corrosion and was consequently replaced. The car’s paint that you see in the photos is original. Aside from routine maintenance (tires, battery, oil changes, and tuneups) the car has had relatively few major repairs, the most significant one being involving the replacement of the fuel tank (located aft of the rear seat) because a crucial weld in the filler neck had failed, causing gasoline fumes to enter the passenger compartment. There was a power window regulator replaced and a damaged rear bumper from a minor accident that only injured the bumper itself. The radio is currently not working, but since the Nonhofs rarely use the radio anyway, they have left that problem unattended.

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The early W126s imported into the US (along with all other US cars made from ’79 to ’81) came with an 85 mph speedometer, thanks to our unelected safety bureaucrats/ regulators in Washington D.C. at that time. The reasoning stated was that drivers with such speedometers would alter their driving habits—think speeding—if they saw the needle edging towards its limit. This nonsense ended in 1981 and Mary’s ’83 model sports a 160 mph speedo. According to the factory, the top speed of the 380 SEL is 134 mph. (The reason for the foregoing will soon be made clear.)

Soon after Mary purchased the car, she and John traveled to Big Rapids in order to visit one of their adult sons. The son in question, who shall remain nameless, asked his mom if he could borrow her car. Mary described him as “a very responsible young man who was in his twenties [at the time].” He drove off and when he returned he asked his mother if she thought that her car, in fact, could travel at 160 mph as the speedometer indicated. Her answer, “I don’t know and I don’t want to find out.” Impetuously he replied, “Well, I just did!” Consequently, this son, the Flying Dutchman (see the model name of the bikes pictured below), has never been permitted to drive her car since. 

When Mary purchased the car, it had about 40,000 miles on the odometer. Since then she and John have added approximately 160,000 miles. Most of these miles have occurred while driving in the Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Once they they drove across Lake Michigan to Manitowoc, WI, if one considers the ferry from Luddington to Manitowoc as driving on water. There have been no cross-country trips in the SEL. When traveling long distances, they prefer the long queues at TSA and baggage claim (and, one assumes, delicious airline food as well). 

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Since the car is currently registered as a historical vehicle, it is not driven very much anymore. (By law, a car with such a registration can only be driven to parades and car shows.) Last July, Mary drove the car to the Deutsche Marques show at the Gilmore Museum and won the Mercedes Best Daily Driver award.

These days, John and Mary spend much of their time teaching ballroom dancing, playing bridge, traveling, and being involved at their local church. Through the mists of time, Mary’s love of her car has never dimmed. Once, during a Bible study, the biblical passage about King David lusting after Bathsheba was discussed. John leaned over to Mary and told her, “That’s how you are with that car.” Mary adds, “I’m not interested in any other Mercedes-Benz. I’ve never come across another Benz that I’ve lusted after.” When she went looking for the perfect bike, she found one in a barn, only to find to find a perfect Benz in another barn. 

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Color: Anthracite Grey – Metallic (172U)

3.8 liter 16 valve V8 engine (M116) 155 hp 196 lb-ft torque

Top speed: 134 mph

Wheelbase: 121 inches

Length overall: 208 inches

Width: 72 inches

Curb weight: 3682 lbs MSRP (new): $52,005 

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