Mercedes-Benz W126 560SEC

Money. Big fat dirty piles of the stuff. Cash, notes, coins, cheques, shares, bonds, futures, drafts and derivatives. And gold.

The Polish currency, the Zloty, is supposed to mean "Gold", which is amusing if you've ever held one of those pressed stainless steel discs in your hand. A zloty will buy you a chocolate bar, not much else. Two will get you a can of the cheapest tramp-fuel lager. A quarter of a million will buy you a small apartment in a city somewhere, but with average salaries in Poland still only around 3000 a month, it would take 83 years of saving before you could buy one. Unless, that is, you had some way of buying things with money you don't have. Which is what banks are for; lending money to people who can prove they don't need it.

In the Eighties, making money from nothing was the name of the game. Bankers bought things that didn't even exist yet, like next year's potato harvest, then sold it on at an even higher price to someone else at an even later future date, lining their pockets with the profits before the seeds have even been planted. This is known as a futures contract, but meant for the traders a lucrative bonus at the end of each quarter.

This greed (and remember, greed is good) needed to be translated into something physical eventually; there's only so much cocaine you can shove up your nose before bits fall off. For those whose wealth was only surpassed by their levels of taste, Mercedes-Benz offered the pinacle of Eighties yuppie motoring: the W126 560 SEC.

The W126 had been launched in 1979 as the second "Sonderklasse" vehicle in the Mercedes fleet. This "S"class was the flagship, the cream of the cream car designed for dignitaries and diplomats. Stretch limousines, sedans, bullet-proof editions; all was made available to the top brass and high society with a gentle not of the head from Stuttgart. But when the demand came for a roadster, the Germans excelled themselves, swooping the sedan wheelbase into a magnificent pillarless coupe without compromising any of the interior opulence. And in 1985, an all-new aluminium 5.6 V8 was engineered and fitted straight to the W126, making the 560 SEC the most exorbitant Mercedes of the time, without becoming a gauche footballer's car. It oozed style and, well, class, which made it perfect for the monied elite who were steering the worlds political and financial futures.

That's not to say that the car was futuristic. Many other cars offered the same things as the W126; multiple airbags, aluminium panels, traction control, in-car phone. But having them all wrapped up in one sumptuous coupe and propelled along by 272hp, that was something else, something divine. No other car on the road could offer such ferocity and grace in equal measure. And being a coupe, this was for a generation of moneyed powermen who eschewed the chauffer and got themselves behind the wheel, free to tweak and fiddly with every gadget available. To finish it all off, a heavy coat of that exquisite paint colour, Champagne Metallic.

This kind of luxury doesn't come cheap. Prices started at $70,000, which could easily shoot over $100k if you ticked all the boxes for optional extras. Sure, modern S-classes go far beyond that, but this was $100k when the average Pole earned $20 a month. And the only aluminium a Pole would get his hands on is the strange Communist currency that was circulating at the time. And the Polish currency at the time wasn't doing well; hyperinflation kicked in at the end of the Eighties, with the Zloty trading at a wallet-fattening 9600zl to the dollar.

So what is a car in a class of its own doing on a Polish side-street in the nation's capital? The only plausible explanation would be another rapid devaluation, this time in the worth of the W126. While the original purchase price would be $150k in today's money, a clean 560 SEC (remember, the best W126 ever made) can be had for as little as 5000 dollars - that's almost 97% of the value of the car gone, in just two decades. And yet the Coupe is still immensely driveable; cars of this calibre might be surpassed by technology but they don't go out of date, and the relatively small run of just 22,000 units means that finding a big-engined Coupe is a rarity that should be cherished rather than debased.

The W126 is certainly admired among car enthusiasts, and almost reverred by Mercedes aficiondos, as being a modern classic. The replacements, with all their smooth flowing curves and fat banker bloat, just don't have that pin-stripe edge that the Eighties Mercedes does. Production finished less than 20 years ago, but for this particular car, that Champagne still has its fizz.


Anonymous said...

I have a 380SEC for '83. Does not have the cachet of the 560 but it's still a great car for those longer drives.