Mercedes-Benz 500SEC - 0 to 500 SEC


‘Go for it.’ That was Pablo giving me some helpful advice on my first ever BSM shoot. Advice I found hard to ignore and impossible to resist. And to be honest, there is little else that you can do behind the wheel of a 5000cc V8 Mercedes. So, I went it for it and soon the big windscreen became a barrage of activity – the earth leapt up, trees began to blur, the road sharpened and the horizon was charging hard towards us. And yet on my side of the big, typically Mercedes steering wheel, there was hardly any activity. I swear, if I had closed my eyes I wouldn’t have been able to tell if we were moving.

But then the SEC is that sort of a car. It’s big. No wait, at 5 metres long, it’s massive. So when you depress the go pedal, the car doesn’t dart off the starting grid. It hunkers down, sticks to the road like glue and lunges ahead as if it were guided by a higher power. Soon you are travelling fast enough to leave everything behind, looking like it was tied to something. Yet, if you wanted, you could trudge along slow enough to catch a glimpse in the shopping window. A big shopping window. In other words it’s a typical Mercedes Benz. 

But it’s not the kind of Merc that Bijoy talks about in his road tests. Quite the opposite really. To understand the generation gap, you have to know a bit about life in the eighties. The world had just realised that the oil crisis was man-made after all, and people were ready to burn some rubber. But, this was also a time when ‘political correctness’ was coming to the fore. So, while everybody from Ford to Ferrari could now build cars that went like stink, they had to do it under an ‘energy program’. One that pledged to keep all the rain forests intact by reducing, amongst other things, fuel consumption and pollution.   Mercedes had one too, and the W126 was their tree hugger. The new energy conservation initiative forced Sindelfingen to cut the fat. Weight saving initiatives led to traditional chrome bumpers being replaced by deformable plastic ones. Yup! Carbon fibre was still a decade away, so polyurethane was the way to go – albeit a less glamorous one.This might be even harder to swallow, but the SEC did spend some time in the wind tunnel. At a time when aerodynamics was nothing more than a sloping of this and a rounding of that, the SEC came out looking like a streamlined S-Class. But then that’s exactly what it was. 

These were days when Mercedes didn’t concern itself with cars like the A-Class, nor did it have to borrow names from the past to justify exorbitant sticker prices. Grand tourers were high priority and that’s why an S-Class was the place to start. Well, that and the fact that the then grand tourer from Mercedes, the SLC (W107), used a lengthened SL platform. This made it a 2+2 rather than the genuine four seater which the cost-be-damned market really wanted.

In the autumn of 1981, the SEC replaced the SLC, and as could be expected from Mercedes, it certainly wasn’t bedroom wall material. More of the usual, form follows function – German engineering.And what brilliant  engineering! Just look at the car. Even fifteen years later, it is as tidy as a kid on his first day of school. From the big three-pointed star on the grill upfront, to the striated, typically Mercedes taillamps there isn’t a crease out of place. Everything looks just like it should on a ’80’s Benz. Even at that time, when owning a Bentley was considered too self-indulgent and anti-social, the understated, dignified looks of the SEC worked like a charm on the intended clientele from the capitalist persuasion. But it’s beneath the body where the major chunk of automotive engineering really exists. Get this. The W126 was the first car to meet offset-collision norms. Under the hood, the new grand tourers received a full compliment of V8 engines mated to four-speed gearboxes. And what good is a grand tourer without gimmicks? In 1982, the car came with heated seats that could be adjusted via switches on the door, climate control for the front passengers, electric headrests, memory seats, deep pile carpeting, cruise control, and best of all, motor driven arms that whirred forward to help you with your seat belt. That last device fixed the awkward manoeuvre you would have to make in a pillarless two-door with two long doors.   All that luxury and quality (the paint still looked so good, you’d swear the car had never seen daylight, and only just arrived) had to be paid for. At a time when a Jaguar XJS had a US $34,000 sticker price and a BMW 633 CSi set you back by 39,000 of Uncle Sam’s best, the SEC cost a disproportionate 57,000 dollars. Fifty seven thousand dollars! Thirteen more and you would get a 911 today.

Suspension at the front had unequal length A-arms, coil springs and an antiroll bar while the rear got semi-trailing arms with torque compensation. In other words, it’s the sort of hardware that takes you farther away from the road surface the farther you push the right pedal in. Perfect for breakfast in Paris, lunch at Nurburgring and dinner at Kitzbuhel. Sadly I didn’t do all that. But I did take it to a nice winding stretch where my fifteen minutes of fame lasted exactly for, fifteen minutes. Or that’s what it felt like. Enough to let me
know that this is one helluva supercar. 

It’s a real TGV for the road, this SEC, and the way it wafts you away without giving you a clue that you are moving is truly awe-inspiring. The recirculating ball steering doesn’t really indicate to you what kind of surface you have been on in the last few seconds, while the scotch smooth automatic transmission makes it possible to devour kilometres and kilometres of long asphalt ribbon in serenity at over twice our speed limit. It is as unruffled at 60 kph as it is at 160 kph and it continues to be so till the far end of the 260 kph speedo.The SEC was built to cover great distances in rather short elapsed times. Fittingly enough, it’s one supercar that doesn’t like corners too much. It doesn’t demand a Route 66 but the largely incommunicative steering would bring a wider smile to your face on the autobahns than in the south of France.  

Like every iconic automobile, this one too had issues.Or shall we say, ‘character imparting quirks’? The factory fitted radio hated RJs even more than you did, and it rolled over and died between ad breaks. The seatbelt arm came off as a belligerent mill worker and was perpetually on strike. But these were small niggles in a production span that lasted 12 years. The W126 series became the largest selling flagship model that Mercedes ever had and in that period it became quite an icon. Well, three countries even issued postage stamps that depicted the W126. Yes, the SEC was also one of them. Wonder how many BMWs can boast of that.