Almost forty years ago this was the ultimate object of my automotive lust. It was the best car in the world and one of the most beautiful ones, so naturally I wanted one. I’d been obsessed with Mercedes since my very youngest days; with the arrival of the SEC, I was utterly consumed by desire. I could have killed for one.
A few years later in 1989, the year this 560SEC was made, I could have easily written a 80k ($170k adjusted) check for one. But by then my lust had turned to apathy, bordering on repulsion. Funny how feelings can change, if you allow them to.
1981, the year that the sleek new Mercedes W126 SEC coupe arrived, was also the year I became General Manager of KSCI-TV in Los Angeles. I was only 28 and my salary was still quite modest, so a Mercedes, never mind an SEC, was utterly out of reach. So I settled for a cheap American facsimile.
Admittedly, my early lust for these was blunted a bit by the lack of a mission-appropriate power plant, as the initial US-market coupe only came in 380SEC form, with a 3.8L V8 making all of 155hp, or essentially the same as my lighter Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. That was just ok for 1982, but expectations were changing as the energy crisis receded from memory.
That led to a booming gray-market business for federalized 500SECs, along with other Mercedes models, all of which were in great demand in Southern California and elsewhere at the time.
When one of our biggest clients at KSCI showed up to take me to lunch in his new blue 500SEC, the surge of desire that came over me was very palpable, as if a blast of a hormone had been released in my body and was now coursing through my arteries and impacting every fiber of my being. It was almost too much to bear. I want this!
I remember every detail and sensation of that ride to a new yakitori restaurant in Beverly Hills—most of all my profound envy. How could this guy, a Japanese who bought a block of air time at KSCI to run Japanese-language programming, afford this? I found out all-too soon: he was a slick operator who specialized in entertaining corporate executives visiting from Japan in all manner of ways, including sleazy and illicit ones, resulting in fat advertising contracts. I didn’t tumble to this fully until after he had manipulated naive me too, in order to give him a block of better airtime that had been contracted to a competitor of his that he could then use to secure a daily news program from NHK in Japan.
His method was the same, in reverse: He took me to Japan and entertained me there. And I didn’t fully tumble to actual impact until I signed that contract and had to let the other guy know that he had been screwed. It was one of those painful loss of innocence moments after which you’re never quite the same. So this is how the business world actually works? And here I thought it was all done by objectively weighing the pros and cons.
In 1985 I left KSCI to start a new Spanish-language station (KVEA). My senior partner—who drove an S-Class sedan, naturally—negotiated five year employment contracts with our New York based financial backers that included a company-paid car, lease payments not to exceed $500 per month. Thanks to dropping interest rates, I was able to get a new W124 300E for a five year lease for $499/month. As it turned out, that seriously ruffled some feathers in New York even though it was within the $500 limit. Apparently they thought I had leased an S-Class, clearly an affront to their sense of where I fit into the corporate ladder at the age of thirty-two. S-Classes is what they drove, and they were the big shots, who all smoked big Cuban cigars in the meetings I attended in New York. I had to take my reeking suit off and hang it outside to air before Stephanie would let me in the house.
I finally had my Mercedes, and I loved it dearly. And thanks to its ultra-slippery shape, it was actually a few miles faster (140 mph vs. 137) than the 500SEC/SEL that Mercedes officially brought over starting in 1984, undoubtedly in response to the growing number of gray market 500’s. Given that it cost less than half as much as an SEC, my 300E was a very good compromise. My Mercedes itch was being well-scratched.
As much as I loved my superbly-sprung ride, my corporate ride was not nearly as smooth. Our real backer was the notorious financier Saul Steinberg, who made a fortune before the age of 40 through very aggressive takeovers and greenmail. Steinberg became famous for paying himself outrageously large sums from the public companies he controlled. As such, he was an influential factor in the dramatic increase in CEO and executive pay starting in the 1980s, which dramatically accelerated the growing inequality in the US. As other CEO’s saw what Steinberg was paying himself, they said why not me? Why not indeed. Who was going to stop them, when there was a very strong trickle-down effect in the board room, with board members and other officers and executives all happy to accept bigger salaries and look the other way.
Since 1979, CEO pay has increased by over 1000%, while pay for “average workers” increased by 11.9% since then. Back in 1965, CEOs average pay was 20 times that of average workers; now it’s closer to 300 times. It was a trend (along with some others that started in the 1980s) that I read about all-too often in the WSJ, and it made me increasingly uncomfortable. Undoubtedly my European background and my embrace of some pretty radical politics in my youth were the cause. That and seeing the lifestyle of the rich and famous play out in real time.
1989 was the was the final year of my five-year employment contract that had been negotiated by my senior partner, which included an annual bonus based on a certain percentage each year of the gross sales and net income of KVEA, back in LA, even though I was now running the start up station for Telemundo in San Jose. In the first couple of years, that didn’t amount to much. But KVEA turned out to be every bit as successful (and more) as I had projected in my original business plan. In 1988, that bonus was some $200k. And in 1989, it was close to $600k ($1.3 million adjusted). Yowza. How did I feel about that?
Probably not the way most guys at the age of 36 would feel about being handed a check for that amount. I remember the details perfectly: Ken, the station controller, popped his head in my office to tell me that New York had just approved the payment, and that he was going to have Maria, the accounts payable clerk, make up the check for me.
Maria was an angelically-sweet young Latina who had a grueling almost two-hour long commute (each way) from the little town of Hollister. Her salary then was about $18,000 a year or so. She was married and they were expecting their first baby. Like most of our Latina employees, her mom was going to take care of the baby while she was gone some twelve hours each day. Maria was always cheerful, polite, trustworthy and worked very diligently. I could not think of a better employee.
About twenty minutes later, Maria knocked at my open door, saying she had a check for me. A mix of embarrassment and shame came over me, and I struggled to make eye contact with her, as she handed me a check for some $490k (net of tax withholding). I felt like I owed her an explanation. Did she think this was connected to KSTS here in San Jose, which was still struggling to break even in its second year? And where we were always reining in costs? We were both trapped in a typical big boss – little employee situation, and there was no easy way out of it. We could only guess what the other was thinking, although I doubt she would guess mine. This is how the world worked, right?
The only words that stumbled out of my mouth were “thank you”, but they felt utterly awkward—never mind inappropriate—for the occasion. Thank you? That check represented some 33 times what she made in a year. And what exactly did I do to deserve it? Be white, tall, with hair and relatively good looking? And be at the right place at the right time with those attributes? Luck, in other words: Genetic, geographic and temporal.
Reality check: there’s no such thing as a “self-made man”.
Since the five -year company lease on my 300E ended now too, I could have just driven over to Stevens Creek Mercedes-Benz after work and written a check for the $80k ($170k) that this SEC cost by then. “The Best or Nothing”. Yup; these were mighty expensive at the time, just before Lexus came along and knocked Mercedes’ pricing strategy off its lofty perch. But it was going to be “nothing” for me.
More like an old cheap Volvo, actually. I knew that our next door neighbors and friends were going to be selling their 1984 Volvo 240 GL sedan. It was a low-mileage cream puff, and they were only asking $5,000 for it. Sure, I’ll take it. I’m over the whole Mercedes thing, and I’d rather bank the $450/month car allowance my new contract included.
By 1989 I had become increasingly uncomfortable with the corporate politics and most of all the embarrassing doings of Saul Steinberg, who celebrated his 50th birthday in 1989 with the world’s first million-dollar birthday party, which raised quite a few eyebrows in the process. Another key milestone in his colorful life. Then in 2000 his empire started to totally unravel, leaving him broke and having to borrow money from his mother, who eventually had to sue him for $5 million to try to get it back. A movie ending, except it would be hard to believe.
Meanwhile, I undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows when I showed up with the used Volvo at work a week or so later. Maria must have wondered…
I rather liked the Volvo; it was boxy, tall and rather narrow, so that was all good. The GL trim had very nice leather seats which were actually more comfortable then the 300E’s. The four cylinder and automatic made it poky in comparison, but it did the job for commuting just fine. I felt right at home in it.
The Mercedes was parked, waiting to be turned in to the leasing company. In an impulsive twinge of Mercedes-loss-to-be, I called the leasing company and made a really low ball offer; $12,500, IIRC. The lease was based on a significantly higher residual, so I figured they’d pass. But Lexus’ impact on the market forced Mercedes to lower the price on new W124s, and used prices were down some too. So they called back and said yes. And in a bit of back-sliding, I said yes.
Which meant that after only a week or so of rolling in a Volvo, I asked my neighbors if they wanted it back or whether I should sell it. As it turned out, they had a friend who was interested in it, so it all worked out ok. But I did own a Volvo 240 GL for a week, and part of me regrets not keeping it. It would have been perfect for Eugene—which the Mercedes was not—so it got sold before we moved up there in 1993.
So what did I do with all that money? Poured it into my new passion, our 1866 money-pit of a house in Los Gatos. It was pretty badly damaged after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and I decided to go bonkers and expand it by 50% and restore it, after practically gutting it. The cost-plus estimate started out at $350k; I ended up spending almost twice that amount. It was going to be our forever house, but the corporate life is almost never forever. Mine ended abruptly in 1992, and that whole story is here. I had to sell it at a loss, but the rest of it ended up in all of the rentals we know own in Eugene: one money pit turned into a dozen money-makers. A much better way to invest in real estate.
So that’s my story about the W126 SEC. Turns out that what I so desperately wanted when I couldn’t afford it wasn’t wasn’t compelling anymore once I did have the money a few years later. I was coming to see that money could buy something a lot more compelling now: the freedom to live like I really wanted to, doing the things I really wanted to be doing. Buying expensive cars is too much like taking drugs: a poor facsimile of the real deal.
Which of course explains why I’m doing this instead of buying a Land Cruiser.
Enough about me; since this is ostensibly a CC too, let’s pay our respects to my former lust object, and a well-used one at that. The funny thing is how utterly modest and understated it looks now, given that this was about the most effective way to convey wealth and status next to a Roller or Ferrari back in its day. Cars have gotten so loud and cartoonish. It’s much harder to get noticed than it was in 1982.
For 1986, the S-Class got a bit of updating, with aero 15″ alloy wheels (this one has aftermarket wheels), integrated aero headlights with those nifty wipers, and some other external details.
But the most significant one was under the hood, where the 5.5 L SOHC V8 now resided, making 238 hp @5200 rpm and 287 lb.ft of torque @3500 rpm. This put it in the sweet spot for American drivers, who much prefer the instant urge a big torque-rich engine provides than the maximum top speed that Europeans used to obsess on.
The interior was updated too, with a new pattern on the leather upholstery, door trim and a lighter shade of wood trim, if I’m not mistaken. There were a number of different functional differences too, including ABS, air bags, and all the other goodies that were hot stuff in 1986 and long ago became standard on the cheapest Hyundai.
I couldn’t see the odometer, but from the wear on that arm rest, I’m guessing this SEC has seen a few miles roll under its svelte body. That or someone likes to chew on leather arm rests. Maybe they were trapped in one of LA’s traffic jams and got really hungry.
True confessions: this is another reason I wouldn’t have bought one of these, given that I was a family man. The rear seat was tight, thanks to a 5.5″ reduction in wheelbase, all of it at the expense of rear leg room. No wonder the upholstery still looks like new back there.
So how did it feel, encountering my former lust object in the street that day? It provoked a lot of mixed feelings and memories, ones that I haven’t thought about in a while. It’s so low-key and understated, I could see myself in one; it’s just another old beater Mercedes. There’s something to be said for fulfilling an old desire.
But there’s also something to be said of being free of old desires and having new ones, and fulfilling them.
Related reading (curiously we’ve never had a comprehensive W126 CC):