During the time that John was having his Mercedes-Benz 380 SL restored, we also had the occasion to drive a couple of cars that the body shop doing the work had as fleet vehicles.
One of these was a mid-1980s Mercedes-Benz 420 S. We both marvelled at the incredibly smooth ride, high class interior and a feeling of solidity that was unmatched by any vehicle we’d ever driven. It was also no slouch when it came to accelerating, and the seats and suspension were both comfortable and firm.
However, both of us found the four door version of the W126 platform a little stodgy in terms of looks. I think this is most emphasized by the vaguely hearse-like profile of the long-wheelbase SEL models, but all the sedans in this generation had always looked to me (and John too) a little frumpy.
However, I told John that I recalled that during the production of the W126 Mercedes had also made a coupe version. As soon as we got home, he Googled Mercedes-Benz S-class coupe, and found what I soon realized was one of the more beautiful cars MB had ever made.
The 560 SEC really was the pinnacle of Mercedes prestige of its time. While it followed the timeline of the S-class sedan and used the same engines and platform, it took many of the same styling cues that looked rather boring and frumpy on the sedans and made them…fabulous.
John loved the shape as well. The trick was finding one. The later S-class coupes were enshrined at the very top of the Mercedes-Benz pyramid and priced accordingly. Prices for the later models (John quickly decided he wanted a 560 SEC, made from 1986 thru 1991 as they were generally said on online forums to be the best of the model) topped $115,000 new and as such were pretty rare. Mercedes made slightly fewer than 26,000 copies of this car from 1985-1991, and its a safe bet that the Canadian market saw only a few of those each model year.
However, a quick search revealed a 1991 560 SEC at a small dealer of rare cars in Belleville, Ontario – only about two hours from where we lived, so we drove down that Sunday for a test drive.
The car was every bit as fabulous as we thought it would be. The seats were covered in high-quality full grain perforated leather, every interior surface not covered in the highest quality wood or leather were high quality plastic.
Once seated inside and having closed the bank vault-like doors, a turn of the key revealed a little plastic arm holding the seat belt. I’d never seen anything like that, it was a very sensible solution to having the seatbelts mounted somewhat far behind the front seats because of the pillarless hardtop styling. It’s a gadget that Mercedes pillarless coupes have to this day.
The front seats were really amongst the most comfortable i’ve ever sat in. Not only were they infinitely adjustable with electrical switches on the doors, they were also sprung independently off the floor. So whatever bumps the firm suspension didn’t soak up were filtered out before they reached the front seat occupants.
And the power was pretty great as well. The 5.5 litre engine (although de-tuned somewhat for the North American market) made 238 hp, but i’m sure the torque made by it far exceeded those numbers. It was the first car I’d ever driven with enough power to actually push you back in your seat if you accelerated hard.
As I recall, the dealer was selling the car for about $10,500, which seemed to both John and I as a reasonable sum. There were a few rust bubbles around the rocker panels and wheel arches, but nothing seemed serious.
However, after purchasing it, John took it to the same place that had restored his SL to have it repainted. Soon after, he received a call from the shop, and the news was not good.
Both rocker panels were plugged with filler, which was also evident around the rear and front wheels. To take out the bondo and weld in good metal would cost about $3,500, plus the new paint job. “Well, we’re into it now, so do what’s needed,” John said. About a week later we picked up the now-perfect 560SEC and paid a $5,000 bill.
As John still had his 380SL at the time, he decided that the 560 SEC would be his “winter (and fall and spring) fun car.” And fun it was. It was really the first car of his that I actually got to drive extensively and it quickly became my favourite. Although not great on ice and snow (it had all season tires, not winter ones), using it in the winter when the roads were bare and dry was a treat. It was also the first car I’d ever driven with heated seats, which made it a welcome beast to pilot on the minus-20 days that we sometimes get in Ontario.
Many times i’d be driving this car on one of our 400-series highways and i’d imagine I’d be on the Autobahn, driving to Stuttgart or Dusseldorf or any of the other German cities i’d only read about. And then if i’d inevitably get stuck behind a transport truck (the Highway 401 which you need to travel on to get away from my hometown and to Ottawa, Kingston, Montreal or Toronto is Canada’s most heavily traveled highway), I’d just tap the accelerator slightly to pass it in an instant. The engine really never felt stressed, even when driving way faster than our speed limits permit here.
Well, the engine wasn’t stressed but if one looked at the gas gauge you might sweat a bit. As one would imagine, a car like the 560 SEC was not designed with economy of operation in mind. And unlike the earlier Mercedeses and BMWs in John’s stable, premium gas was not a suggestion but a requirement. Once I filled up with mid-grade and it was obvious the car was not happy, with a rough idle the reward for my thrift. And while John loved the car dearly, the fact that it was so uneconomical in use was a sticking point that proved insurmountable as gasoline reached the $1.20 mark in Canada by late 2006.
We had the 560 SEC for about 10 years, however in 2007 John said he simply couldn’t justify driving a car that cost so much to run. So he enlisted a friend to help him put the car up on jack stands in our garage. “It’s just until gas prices go down,” he said. I felt a little sad that we’d no longer have the SEC as our cooler-weather weekend toy, but I hoped he would be true to his word.
When gas prices reached close to $1.40 a litre in Ontario, I started to wonder just how long the SEC would remain covered up and unused. John started to make some references to selling it. “I just can’t justify driving a car that costs $40 to drive 200 kilometres,” he said. “and I hate seeing it just sitting there.”
But then something great happened. In 2009, gas prices started to fall. By 2010 they started to head below a dollar per litre.
“Well, I guess we can think about taking the SEC out of storage,” he said. And for the next three years, we used the car as had been intended, as a nice-weather toy for times when a convertible wasn’t ideal. It even served as a wedding car for my younger sister and younger brother’s weddings.
However, by mid-2013 John was looking to downsize his car fleet once again. “We don’t really use it much, and it’s still expensive to run, insure and fix,” he said. I couldn’t disagree with any of those points but I reminded him that it was a car we both loved to drive, which i conceded was not a good enough reason in itself to keep the vehicle.
We listed it for a while for $8,500, which was what similar vehicles were going for on car selling sites like Autotrader. We didn’t get any bites; we both reasoned that, no matter how fabulous the SEC was, to most people it was just another old Mercedes, expensive to run and (possibly) super expensive to fix. Also SECs don’t seem to have the collector value that Sls do, as John was able to sell his relatively easily for what he paid.
We ended up selling it for about $7,000 to a man who knew exactly what he was getting. “I love these cars,” he said. He came to the test drive in an E-class coupe of the early 90s.
We were both glad that the 560 SEC had found a good home. To this day, it’s the one car I’ve driven that made me feel like an honest-to-god millionaire. But I think that’s the point of this car, it was one that from its very inception was designed in every way to be the best car ever, irrespective of cost of purchase or cost of operation or ownership.
And for that feeling, any money that it cost to buy, restore, repair or operate seemed like peanuts in comparison.