Lost children of European royalty living in destitution is a familiar and popular theme, recurring in stories such as those of Grand Duchess Anastasia and Kaspar Hauser. Their tales and similar ones are almost always disproven and rejected, but the case of a W126 S-Class Mercedes of elevated birth unexpectedly spotted in a photo on this website appears to be legitimate. This unusual relic of the 1980s appears to be living out its life in the streets of Baghdad, in the middle of a story that must be interesting to say the least.
Jerseyfred deserves credit for spotting this Mercedes in a photo in an article about 1970s Toyota survivors of Baghdad. Its image is off to the side and out of focus and eluded notice by me for years, but Jerseyfred somehow saw it and felt motivated to point it out. It shows a W126 four door sedan with a cabriolet roof, obviously customized, since Mercedes was not in the business of making Broughams during the 1980s and did not make a W126 convertible either, let alone a four door convertible, a body style that it last used in the 600 Landaulet in 1963-81. More telling details are the presence of a slight “coke bottle” kick-up in the rear door, along with a badly misaligned rear door quarter window and what appears to be a frameless side window. This Mercedes randomly spotted on the streets of Baghdad apparently was no ordinary W126 S-Class sedan.
Online research quickly revealed the identity of the Mercedes. It is a custom four door convertible by the Swiss firm Carosserie Caruna AG, a coachbuilder in Spreitenbach (near Zurich) from 1969 to 1987, which made W126 four door convertibles based on both the standard wheelbase SE and long wheelbase SEL bodies in 1984-87. The Queen of the Netherlands, Juliana, had a 380SEL-based convertible made for her by Caruna in 1984-85. The late Queen Juliana’s car is shown here, after its restoration in 2009. The modified rear door is clearly visible, with its chrome trim emphasizing the coke bottle kick-up line. The rear door kick-up appears to have been unique to Caruna, not used by other companies in their W126 four door convertible conversions.
Caruna was one of many firms worldwide that customized Mercedes S-class sedans and coupes during the 1980s, and its products apparently were more exclusive and tasteful than the flamboyant creations of firms such as Koenig and Sbarro, whose massive fender flares and spoilers would have been too undignified for royal use. Caruna introduced its four door convertible conversion in 1984, initially based on a standard wheelbase 280SE, with a large hump for storing the lowered top positioned far back on the rear deck. The rear door kick-up harmonized the door line with the raised rear deck, and it may have also created space inside the door for the rear quarter window to roll down completely. The first examples had two individual seats in the rear, supposedly to limit the weight of passengers and avoid straining the body structure – an indication of the loss of structural integrity caused by removing the roof and possibly also part of the rear bulkhead from the W126 chassis. The price started at 166,000 Swiss francs for a 280SE-based car – 255,460 Swiss francs ($254,766) in January 2016 – with more powerful engines and other options adding to the bottom line.
Caruna soon redesigned its four door convertible conversion to use the long wheelbase SEL chassis with the smaller doors from the SE. This reconfiguration allowed moving the convertible top storage space forward and reducing the size of the deck lid hump, which made the car’s proportions closer to those of the original sedan with the top either up or down. It also may have created space for structural reinforcements, as conversions using this design could be ordered with a three place bench seat in the rear. The rear door kick-up was angled less sharply upward, to match the lower deck lid hump.
Former Queen Juliana’s car, which appears to be the only example with a significant internet presence thanks to publicity of its 2009 restoration, uses the later SEL-based design. Ordered in 1984 and completed nine months later in 1985, it has the ribbed body cladding, headlights without wipers, and “bundt cake” wheels of a pre-1986 S-Class.
According to the owner nameplate installed inside the glove compartment door by the manufacturer, this car was the 10th convertible conversion built by Caruna.
The car has the rear bench seat available on the SEL-based conversions, with footrests and gray leather upholstery with triangular stitching. The triangular stitching appears to have been a Caruna signature feature.
The car’s trunk has a unique compartment with brackets for holding the royal flags on their staffs. It is likely that most of the small number of these cars that were ordered had comparable made to order details for their VIP owners.
The W126 S-Class four door convertible spotted in Baghdad in 2010 may be the very same dark blue SEL-based example shown in this factory photo, with headlight wipers and smooth body cladding from second generation 1986-91 W126s but pre-1986 “bundt cake” wheels. Identifying the year and chassis of the car in Baghdad is difficult, though. Details appear to be from 1986-91, such as headlights with wipers, smooth body cladding, and smooth-sided alloy wheels, but the graininess of the photo makes them uncertain, and if present they may be parts added from later years.
The car in Baghdad also could be the SE-based car in this black and white photograph from the 1980s, which shows the mix and match nature that was possible with these cars, with the 1984 SE-based body and pre-1986 ribbed body cladding and “bundt cake” wheels, but 1986-91 headlight wipers. The car in Baghdad appears to have rear doors with the sharper angled kick-up, as well as a break in the chrome strip at the base of the convertible top, both features of the early SE-based cars. The graininess of the photo makes these details uncertain as well, though. The shape of the rear deck would be the best evidence, but unfortunately, the rear deck is cut off by the edge of the photo.
In any case, the car clearly has seen better days in its 20-odd years of existence. Since it left Caruna’s works in Switzerland, it has led a far harder life than Queen Juliana’s 1985 380SEL. The original owner will be impossible to determine without further research and a lot of luck, but it may have been Saddam Hussein or his son Uday, each of whom accumulated enormous collections of cars. It would have been a suitable more modern counterpart to the 1978 Mercedes 600 Landaulet that Saddam owned. Or, it may have been originally owned in Kuwait and then looted and brought to Iraq during the 1990-91 Gulf War. Regardless of who ordered it originally, its first owner was certainly an individual of considerable means and importance, its current owner may be as well, and a lot of bad things must have happened in between. It is an unlikely curbside classic that will have to remain a mystery for now.