Low Miles, High Miles ... Same Difference.

If I had to pick just one bit of advice to give someone looking for an enthusiast car more than 10 years old, I'd say this: Look for a vehicle that's been loved. I know it sounds obvious, but there is simply no substitute for conscientious, regular maintenance and care.

Here's another corollary for anyone considering an older vehicle: Not driving a car is not the same thing as taking care of it. In other words, don't confuse an old car that's hardly been driven with a car that is like-new. Cars inevitably deteriorate on just about every level, but the mechanics can deteriorate even faster when they're not driven. Valves stick, seals break down, gaskets leak, hydraulics die, tires get dry rot. (And you thought exercise was only good for people.)

I'm reminded of a W210 wagon I once owned that had clearly not been driven for at least a couple of years. When I picked it up, it was burning oil to the point where the Check Engine Oil light turned on repeatedly. I drove it for at last four different 500+ mile trips, and everything cleared up perfectly over just a few months. It went from a couple of quarts of oil between oil changes to zero consumption.

Age is bad for a car, so, if possible, try not to age. If that's not possible, you need to anticipate the inevitable deterioration and replacement of everything rubber, regardless of mileage. This is especially true in the suspension. Bushings, mounts, seals, gaskets ... all of these fail with use, but also with age.

I'm reminded of a friend with a Pagoda SL who told me his friend kept the factory tape on the chrome door sills. He figured it would keep them like-new, but when he removed the tape decades later, he found that the tape had irreparably pitted the surface of the chrome. His words: "You just can't win."

My best advice is to buy smart and not to fall into any of the following failed strategies for car shopping:
  1. The Favorite Color Trap - It's fine to have colors you prefer, but the smart way to buy a classic is to have a range of colors that are acceptable. Don't limit yourself to one color because that's the surest way to find the wrong car in the right color. Take my Cabriolet, for example. I wanted a silver Cabriolet, but I ended up with black. Am I happy? Of course. Do I still long for a silver Cabriolet? Hey, I'm married. 
  2. The Low Miles Trap - Buy on condition and not miles. A car that's a couple of years old with low miles can be assumed to be fairly fresh, but an old car is different. It's going to need things purely because of its age. It needs things regardless of mileage. Also keep in mind that cars can have low miles because it has had issues in its past like an accident that kept it off the road for an extended period of time. Also, keep in mind that the miles can also be bogus. In fact, I would argue that 90% of the Pagoda SLs I see for sale have unknown mileage. 
  3. The Leap of Faith - As a rule, do not buy a car without seeing it first. Photos can be deceiving (and sellers can be that way as well). You leave yourself very little room for redress when you don't see what you're buying first.
  4. The Pig in a Poke - Buying a car at auction where you can't test drive the vehicle (and sometimes can't even hear it start up) is not for the novice. If you must buy at an auction, then do it with the help of someone with a trained eye. Or at the very least, do not pay a premium for a car with unknown qualities.
  5. The Zombie with Fresh Paint - Be suspicious of anything with fresh paint or undercoating. It generally means the car was painted to sell (i.e., deceive). I remember a friend's father in high school who had a beautiful red Ferrari Daytona in his garage. Over time, the lovely red paint started to show "ring worm" where the filler was coming through the new paint. The car was a bargain, but we soon realized why.
To illustrate the wear and tear on the rubber suspension parts, I'm attaching a youtube video from Wheeler Dealers. At around 21:48, you'll see an R107 front subframe taken apart to show the wear and tear on an 80s SL that has reasonable mileage. Even though this isn't a 124, you'll get the idea:

Let's face it. Buying an enthusiast car is an emotional decision. If low maintenance is your goal, then you may want to ask yourself if this should be your hobby. For this reason, I offer this one final bit of advice: When you look at a car for sale, bring a friend. It'll make it easier to keep both feet on the ground.