The last Panzerwagen
Mercedes-Benz 560 SEC (1990)
The W126 (and all of its mutations) was The Mercedes of all Benzes as they say. All those that came before were full of greasing nipples, their swivel axles buckled alarmingly when cornering, and the mechanical pumps in their injection systems packed up just by normal usage. Uh...and them diesels too. They all smelled like taxis.
But Europe was very lucky, because only US-bound 126's got the diesel-treatment, in this part of the world the 126-series was spared of losing its dignity on the grounds of having become a smoke-spitting, oil-grinding, half-wit workhorse. There weren't even four-cylinder petrol models listed among the engine options. What Mercedes was already offering though was ABS, seat belts with pre-tensioners, airbags (two at your service, if you wish, Sir), ASR, seat heating, electric windows and mirrors, two zone air-conditioning, tempomat, parking heater, electric seats with memory and the rest.
At that time the same type of engineers could be seen in the drawing rooms of Daimler-Benz as the ones who designed the direct-injection, upside-down, supercharged V12 engines of the Messerschmitt airplanes a few decades earlier. Men with umpteen years of education, without the ability to make compromises, with long Dipl. Ing. inscriptions on their name badges, wearing thick-rimmed spectacles, in blue cloaks, with slide rules hanging out of their top pockets.
In 1979 these people were still set on making the Perfect Automobile. Unlike today, the lowly attendants creeping over from the financial departments of the company had their hands uncontrollably shaking when they grabbed the knob on the door labeled “Forschung und Entwicklung”. They didn't have any reason to wander there anyways: in 1979 the engineer designed The Mercedes which then automatically made a profit. There was no need for any financial tricks or special business knowledge.
There are people who believe the best Mercedes-Benz's were made one or two generations earlier, there are others who think the Golden Age lasted a decade further but all of them agree that the 126-series was as close to be the epitome of car making in the brand's history as it gets. From there on the road wound downwards due to the simple reason that Benz had to make more money to be able to carry out even more expensive developments.
It isn't a coincidence then that the cheapest, small-engined, albeit working 126 sedans with gummed up interiors start around 1500 Euros, a somewhat more tidy V8 with just a few extras cannot be found for any less than 3000 and the really good ones with proper equipment and a large engine go for more than 5000. Then what about a high-specced coupe? Well, that one's going to cost you about 20 grand, you see...
Fate threw one of these ultimate 126's at me. It was a 560 SEC – the biggest engine the 126 ever had that is. 279 PS, 422 Nm of torque, an acceleration of 7.5 secs to 100 kph, top speed hitting the ceiling of 245 kph. All this coming from a car of 1.8 tons, which fits in a 4.4-metre garage only if the plaster isn't too thick on the wall at the end. A huge, quick, heavy, dangerous beast, a real Panzerwagen it is.
At first it is quite humiliating to drive, too. The blue leather armchairs that are called ‘seats' for some reason are so huge that one wouldn't be too glad to install them in his living room. And even if the wheelbase of the coupe is shorter than that of the sedan by nine centimeters there was enough space left for the engineers to put a real, huge couch with springs in it. And what a couch that is. The seat faces are all bolstered, the passengers sit in their own cocoons with an armrest each. You don't find settees like this in the most expensive furniture stores.
Let's add to all this that all adjustments on the front seats – and there are lots of them, like automatic headrests and a massage function for your back – are operated by either electric motors or pneumatically. Do they work? Please don't be rude. After all, this is a 126-series Mercedes-Benz with only a quarter of a million kilometers on the clock. To think of it, it has just passed its running-in period, why should anything be wrong with it?
The air-con blows cold air if needed, the ASR doesn't let the driving wheels spin unnecessarily, the limited-slip differential can be switched on from the dashboard, the small column stalk adjusts the speed to be held on the motorway and the ventilation system blows hot and cold air - even in the ducts of the huge door. This flow in turn escapes directly to the edge of the door panel to keep the side windows from fogging up. This car is overwhelming in its indestructible, high-handed Teutonicity. No matter if you look at it part by part or as a whole, it is breathtaking. A devastatingly comfortable, multi-ton steamroller, that's what it is.
The feeling is so very distant from Mercedes cars of later years. In those the bottoms of the windows are high up, but you sit way down, the feeling being more or less like crouching in a dark pit. What about the 126? There's lots of air round the heads, the occupants sit far from each other, and the combination of the low waistline and the high seats give you an outstanding view of the bonnet extending to the horizon like the Sierra Nevada.
And while you're surrounded by all the safety and comfort features what modern automotive technology can throw at you, your bum is swaying on a seat cushion with real springs below it, your hand is caressing a steering wheel that is linked to a recirculating ball steering box which used to be the best technology available before the advent of rack and pinion systems. It might be a little dead in the middle but its operation is silky smooth with no kickback whatsoever. There are four disk brakes eating up the kinetic energy of 1.8 tons of fast-moving Stuttgart iron. Should the wheels slip, don't worry, the Bosch ABS comes into action.
You know, this tank can really move. You don't notice this at first, because what you do when you get in is wind down all four windows. You do this of course to let all the lowly creatures creeping on the pavement or the ones sitting in forgettable plastic boxes what some tend to call cars nowadays, see how a happy man wafting along in a pillarless grand tourer looks like. And when you do this wafting thing, you don't drive fast, oh no. This way you also get a glimpse of the brighter side of the fuel consumption spectrum the 560 SEC. We're talking about 15 l/100 kms which is less than 15 (US) mpg. If you start using your right foot, the values instantly spring to 20 km/l or even more (11.7 mpg).
It is only John Travolta who is able to live a whole life being cool and restrained, not us. So we naturally find ourselves stomping on the gas sooner or later. This is when...nothing happens. Although performance data are nearly on par with the Porsche 911's according to the brochures the action still feels like trying to extract some life out of the corpse of a freshly found, but still frozen, mammoth corpse in the Arctic. The needle of the rev counter swings out alright, there is some distant rumble from the engine room, the car even squats on its rear wheels a little, but there's no go. Where the hell is the damn power?
When the needle swings past the 2500 mark, the hydrodynamic clutch starts to close and a few hundred newtonmetres quickly lean against the prop shaft. You get a punch from behind as if the TGV had hit you, while other participants of the traffic instantly lose their importance, because you're already moving in another coordinate system. Although noises are still restrained, you can clearly hear Godzilla accidentally stirred from his sleep from under the blankets of sound insulation. He's angry.
The foolhardy who dare to keep the long pedal buried in the carpet after this point will take a psychedelic trip from here on – whilst disbanding the monthly fuel provisions of the car owner through the double exhaust within seconds in the process. Houses melt into exciting, colourful stripes on the two sides of the street, maybe there are cars there also but who is able to notice such nuisances at a speed difference so big?
Two tons of Ruhr steel want to take revenge on hordes of flimsy, plastic little cars in these moments and there's no doubt the 560 SEC would smother them to smithereens would the driver forget to show some mercy. The engine is really aroused in such usage and in a turn of just a few seconds you go drop the following stages of prosecution: traffic offense, penalty, losing the driver's license, disqualification from driving a car for life.
But if one finds the proper place to exercise the 560 SEC's reserves of almighty power – the much-used German autobahn springs to one's mind, but this time it happens with the right vehicle – it proves to be really good. Even around speeds of 200 kph it stays eerily calm, undisturbed by the ruts in the road. Of course, there's more wind noise in it than in a modern car – aerodynamics have improved a lot since then – but at constant speeds the engine noise subdues to about nothing and it is perfectly possible to carry on a light conversation while covering ground really fast.
From those huge, blue armchairs the outside world becomes a distant movie that happens to be projected on the windows of a car in 3D. And you wish that the journey would never end. The 560 SEC's interior is a very nice place to travel in.
It is easy to understand why it can go so fast in a straight line: the power of the engine still seems a lot today, even 23 years after this car was made. But what about corners? Well...it turns in. It's got a front suspension with the same pseudo double wishbone design what the better known contemporary W123 Mercedes had. And that used to be high-tech at the time. At the rear end the story is the same: an oblique semi-trailing arm system mounted on a massive subframe, very similar to the smaller 123-series. Oh, and there are anti-roll bars front and rear, so everything is kept under control.
What you'd never guess from the specs is that the steering of a car that has done so little – no kidding, 250 thousand kilometers is almost nothing in such circles – is very fluid and almost as precise as a rack and pinion system. The rim of the wheel itself is thinner, the padding under the leather is harder than on later cars from Mercedes. Your hands love the added mechanical feel, believe me.
Naturally this is not a car to go zigzagging through dense city traffic with, because even Mercedes wasn't able to kick up the rules of physics - although it was trying hard already. But to thread the behemoth through a series of hairpins on a mountain road is way more rewarding than what you'd guess by the sheer weight and size of it. The speeds might not be too high but beneath the layers of luxury a strong physical connection between man and machine forms.
In a car like this you're constantly reminded about how much pleasure we have been robbed of since the new directives in car design have come forth. Today a car has to be noiseless and vibration-free. The existence of gears, pistons, valves being activated by tappets, inlet manifolds with gases swirling in them are outlawed nowadays. Not so in the SEC... Although it is not noisy by any means, you are always aware of the hard work going on in the engine room. To some of us this is the kind of experience that makes the world a nicer place.
But there's additional resonance when this grand coupe moves, that one, however, doesn't give you goose bumps, it is rather plain annoying sometimes. The car shakes on small blemishes of the road because the steam-roller effect is turned on only above speeds exceeding 40 kph. The gearbox isn't too eager to throw back a speed or two either and there is the aforementioned wind noise which is inherent to pillarless car designs anyways.
These problems go unnoticed when you take a look around the cabin. You are sitting on real, thick sheets of leather costing the life of many a cow, not the grinded and glued leather-waste what is in use today. The wood here is real and you know you shouldn't question it. The switches are simple, heavy in look, easy in operation; you can see they were built for a lifetime. Not yours but the car's which is much longer. The principles of a long-gone world are oozing from each part of this Mercedes while it stays eerily modern at the same time. This is something the Germans would call an ideal ‘youngtimer'.
The owner Tibor bought the car in Germany, took it to Hungary but since having his own German company operating abroad, he kept the registration. A few thousand kilometers rolled into the odometer, every one of them was like a piece of gold, he says. He couldn't spend much money on the car. It was only oil changes and filters through the years. But he knew he couldn't keep the car forever, so that when a friend asked him how long he's planning to keep the big Merc, he understood the hidden question and just sold the car to the guy.
That man was about the last person who could buy a car like this for such little money – the value of this Mercedes is bound to rise sharply within a few years. Right now a ragged specimen costs around 4500 Euros, a really nice coupe with a big engine and lots of extras maybe four time that. If you find one, grab it. You won't regret having done so.
If you liked this article, please share it with others so that they may also see it. You can find the Facebook, g+, Twitter, Reddit and Pin It! buttons at the top of the page.