Mercedes SEC (x3)

What does a 1980s F1 racer drive on their day off? For Senna, Mansell and Rosberg, it had to be a three­p­ointed star – we drive their Mercedes SECS

Classic Cars (UK) - - Welcome - Words: EMMA WOODCOCK Pho­tos: CHAR­LIE MAGEE & LAURENS PAR­SONS

Con­corde tow­ers above us, all length, line and speed. Fated to stand for­ever as a mon­u­ment to its own achieve­ments, the plane echoes a fi­nal golden era where progress could be mea­sured in oil and me­tal, not sil­i­con and click-throughs. An era where a cruising speed of 1354mph could be pur­sued for no pur­pose but speed it­self.

Down on the ground, while the skies were filled with the sonic booms of busi­ness­men thrust­ing be­tween Lon­don and New York, For­mula One was also en­joy­ing a hal­cyon pe­riod of gid­dy­ing speed and ever-in­creas­ing power. This was a time when Ayr­ton Senna was driven into a sus­tained out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence while qual­i­fy­ing for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, when Nigel Mansell re­peat­edly hurled his car around the out­side of op­po­nents in cor­ners to take vic­tory, and when Keke Rosberg took the Sil­ver­stone lap record beyond 160mph with a de­flat­ing tyre. Their tales of strength and brav­ery re­main – like Con­corde – as icons of a lost age.

When look­ing for road cars, how­ever, these rock-ribbed rac­ers were less con­cerned with ul­ti­mate per­for­mance. Many opted in­stead for the lux­ury of a large Mercedes, no doubt en­ticed by the gen­er­ous deals the firm is said to have of­fered F1 driv­ers. The sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion S Class coupé would prove to be the model of choice amongst the pad­dock. In­tro­duced in 1979, the C126 im­me­di­ately sent shock­waves through the mar­ket by com­bin­ing a spa­cious, light in­te­rior with re­doubtable build qual­ity.

Ex­ten­sive in­no­va­tion helped to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the Mercedes from its com­peti­tors, with seat­belt pre­ten­sion­ers, heated seats, a stan­dard driver’s airbag and op­tional pas­sen­ger airbag all de­but­ing in the model. Sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion ABS and cruise con­trol also fea­tured. Add the owner’s choice of straight-six or V8 en­gine, lash­ings of leather and wal­nut burr grain and you’ve got one of the grand­est recipes in mod­ern-clas­sic mo­tor­ing. The re­sult is wrapped in crisp styling by Mercedes stylist Bruno Sacco. With an over­sized grille badge, taut shoul­der lines and bold rear pil­lars, it re­mains a fresh de­sign and one in­stilled with the spirit of its age.

Any SEC is spe­cial but the three ex­am­ples we have brood­ing un­der Con­corde’s delta wing are fur­ther set apart by their mo­tor sport links – the 1982 500 SEC was owned by Keijo ‘Keke’ Rosberg, the 1984 500 SEC by Ayr­ton Senna, and the 1986 560 SEC by Nigel Mansell. Thanks to the tire­less work of their own­ers and Mercedes his­to­rian Richard Mason, this marks the first time the trio has been brought to­gether – and we’re about to drive them.

All eyes are im­me­di­ately drawn to the old­est ex­am­ple, the 500 SEC owned by 1982 driver’s cham­pion Keke Rosberg be­tween 1982 and 1984. It sears against the fuse­lage, ex­ag­ger­ated an­gles and

ink-black paint ren­der­ing it as sym­bolic of jet­set ex­trav­a­gance as the plane it lounges be­neath. With one of the flashiest guys in F1 on the log­book it makes sense that this SEC com­mands at­ten­tion, thanks to ex­ten­sive after­mar­ket mod­i­fi­ca­tion.

The work was car­ried out by Carat by Duchatelet, a Belgian firm that then spe­cialised in out­fit­ting Mercedes with in­te­rior up­grades and bodyk­its. The full ex­te­rior con­ver­sion ap­plied to the Rosberg SEC in­cludes more ag­gres­sive front and rear bumpers, a rub­ber rear spoiler, side skirts and an ex­tended rear light strip. To­gether with a set of 16-inch, five-spoke Carat by Duchatelet Momo al­loys, it cre­ates an an­gu­lar, brood­ing pres­ence un­like any other SEC.

One photo of Keke with the car ex­ists, chron­i­cling the car’s de­liv­ery in 1982. How­ever, it shows that the 500 was vis­ually stan­dard with Sig­nal Red paint at that time. The next ex­tant doc­u­ment, a regis­tra­tion cer­tifi­cate from four years later, shows that the car had been re­painted in its cur­rent hue by 1986 but no pa­per trail ex­ists to show ex­actly when this change oc­curred.

The same regis­tra­tion doc­u­ment throws up an­other ques­tion be­cause it records the SEC as boast­ing the 5.5-litre en­gine it cur­rently car­ries. This larger vari­ant of M117 wasn’t avail­able un­til 1986, so it seems that this mod­i­fi­ca­tion oc­curred un­der the sec­ond owner. How­ever, the en­gine and chas­sis num­bers cu­ri­ously match one an­other. Sug­gests Richard Mason, ‘Of­ten when Mercedes were im­ported to the UK the chas­sis num­ber was also used as the en­gine num­ber be­cause it was im­pos­si­ble to lo­cate and read the num­ber on the en­gine.’

Puz­zles aside, drop into the in­te­rior and all con­fu­sion floats away. Cream leather ca­resses ev­ery sur­face, from the seats to the A-pil­lars to the over­sized Carat head­rests, with soft­ness and sup­ple­ness that eas­ily sur­pass that of the Mercedes-trimmed SECS. Thick sheep­skin car­pets and a wal­nut gear­lever in­crease the air of lux­ury, while the smaller span and thicker rim of the four­spoke Carat wheel raise hopes of a sporty drive.

Twist the key and those ex­pec­ta­tions are in­stantly met by the fluty, ar­rhyth­mic grum­bling from the twin ex­hausts. Flick-ca-click down to drive and breathe on the throt­tle; the en­gine note rises to

thanks to the car’s firmer spring­ing. The shrunken wheel makes things bet­ter still, ef­fec­tively quick­en­ing the steer­ing be­cause even a small wrist-flick pro­duces a re­sponse from the front end. Delin­quence has re­placed deco­rum – and it’s an ab­so­lute riot!

Two years af­ter Rosberg, Ayr­ton Senna took de­liv­ery of his new SEC. Though it looks like any other 500, there are claims that the Brazil­ian or­dered his car with mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the camshafts and ECU, ap­plied by Mercedes it­self. Mercedes Clas­sic could not con­firm this but cur­rent owner Mike Bruno lends cre­dence to the claims. ‘We took the top off the en­gine when we first got it,’ he ex­plains, ‘and the cams are no­tice­ably more ag­gres­sive than those in a stan­dard 500. Open it up and it sings; there’s a lot more power than in the stan­dard SECS I’ve driven.’ With the road open­ing up ahead of me, it’s time to put that as­ser­tion to the test. Slide into man­ual over­ride, send the throt­tle to the floor and… wait. Very lit­tle hap­pens at first, the car pot­ter­ing up to 25mph with barely a mur­mur. The ex­haust be­gins to bark but ac­cel­er­a­tion ini­tially re­mains flat­ter than the other SECS, per­haps be­cause of the thin­ner torque curve of this car’s 5.0-litre en­gine. Pass 3750rpm and the car fi­nally wakes up, pulling with sim­i­lar strength and greater ur­gency than its 5.5-litre coun­ter­parts. Per­haps Senna did re­quest an up­grade. a wa­ver­ing, mel­liflu­ous growl. Yet the note soon dies, smoth­ered by the trans­mis­sion slump­ing into third; I man­u­ally over­ride back into sec­ond. The revs rise, the econ­omy me­ter slings to­wards the red and the ex­haust is back, high-pitched and racy. At 3000rpm the torque swells, squat­ting the car onto its rear springs and light­en­ing the steer­ing. Add 500 revs more and the en­gine note hard­ens to a ser­rated roar as the car surges to­wards the hori­zon.

When that sky­line starts to buck and bend, it soon be­comes clear that this SEC is more than a straight-line hero. Though light around the straight ahead, the steer­ing quickly weights up through a cor­ner, while the sus­pen­sion chat­ters back through the chas­sis with in­for­ma­tion about the road be­low. There’s less of the lux­ury that de­fines the other cars but in its place comes en­gage­ment and an in­creased sense of se­cu­rity over crests and bumps,

Mansell reg­is­tered his SEC in the UK in 1988, three years af­ter it had been con­structed as an early, pre-facelift ex­am­ple of the 560 model. ‘Like many F1 driv­ers who had these cars, I imag­ine he col­lected it from the fac­tory,’ hy­poth­e­sises Mason. ‘In all prob­a­bil­ity Mansell’s SEC had sim­i­lar [oval, West­ern Ger­many] plates to Senna’s car, en­abling him to drive it all over Europe. Late in 1987 Nigel suf­fered con­cus­sion of the spine, so it’s likely the SEC sat around in Europe for some months be­fore he brought it to the UK to be reg­is­tered here. He used it to travel to races in Europe, hence the left-hand drive but mph-only speedome­ter.’

Be­fore pass­ing into the own­er­ship of Mercedes-benz UK in 2011, the car spent a decade un­der the stew­ard­ship of late in­tel­lec­tual art critic Brian Sewell, who used it to cruise around Europe in two tele­vi­sion se­ries – The Naked Pil­grim and Grand Tour. ‘He used to take the SEC on long con­ti­nen­tal trips,’ says Mason, ‘by all ac­counts driv­ing in bare feet. He was pas­sion­ate about cars and there are many quotes of his ex­tolling the grace of the SEC. He of­ten said the car would out­live him, and was right.’

As I drop the gear­lever into drive the car os­cil­lates on its haunches for a mo­ment, a sub­tle ini­tial sign that this car is less in­ter­ested in sport­ing pre­ten­sions than the two 500s. Mansell’s SEC also stands out by re­main­ing fac­tory-stan­dard, the 560 fea­tur­ing a very sim­i­lar spec­i­fi­ca­tion to the ear­lier 500. The slight bump in vol­ume cre­ates a cor­re­spond­ing and mean­ing­ful up­lift

Cling­ing onto the steer­ing wheel he held, foot hard down on the ac­cel­er­a­tor pedal he buried, thoughts quickly turn to how Senna hus­tled the SEC dur­ing his own­er­ship. With my rather less tal­ented hands on the wheel, this C126 feels ev­ery inch the fast tourer through the turns. What the steer­ing lacks in feel it makes up in a quick, pre­cise action, though the wide-splayed wheel can leave you scram­bling in tighter turns. Soft sus­pen­sion en­cour­ages a slow-in, fast-out ap­proach to quicker cor­ners, the car hang­ing in animation for a breath be­fore lean­ing into its out­side tyres. Strong, feel­some brakes and good grip make for re­as­sur­ing progress once a rhythm is es­tab­lished but you could never call it sporty.

Steve Ben­nett, a jour­nal­ist who rode along in this car with Senna dur­ing a 1986 pho­to­shoot, is quick to as­sure me that racer’s skills could draw far more from the car. ‘He took some big risks – slid­ing, hooning around and over­tak­ing huge lines of sta­tion­ary traf­fic be­fore forc­ing his way back in. On round­abouts he’d try to get it side­ways by us­ing a huge tug on the steer­ing wheel and a mas­sive bung of throt­tle. I wasn’t at all scared but then I’d never driven like that with any­one on the road be­fore!’

The third car of our cham­pion-owned trip­tych ex­udes a more gen­teel air – wa­ter­colour bronze drap­ing un­adorned body­work, edged by brown lower mould­ings that were un­ridged on the 560. The 15-inch, 15-hole al­loys are an­other model in­di­ca­tor, en­sconced in huge dough­nuts of rub­ber that hint at ab­so­lute com­fort.

in peak power and torque, which stand at 268bhp and 317lb ft. Pull away and the 4G au­to­matic trans­mis­sion takes up smoothly, shuf­fling into third with a mo­men­tary burr from the en­gine ahead.

At 30mph com­plete si­lence is dis­turbed only by a mi­nor swish of tyre noise. Bumps and lumps send mi­nor squishes of com­pres­sion through the struc­ture but they hardly bother me, so well are their hard edges cush­ioned by the com­pli­ant sus­pen­sion. Ar­rive on more open roads and the im­pres­sion of lux­ury con­tin­ues; travel two-thirds into the throt­tle and the 560 sim­ply gath­ers speed with re­mark­able per­sis­tence. The sound­track rises to a muted, per­sis­tent bari­tone, the car con­tin­ues to hold its gear and pulls con­sis­tently from the mid­dle of the rev range.

Only the most ag­gres­sive stamp of the pedal trig­gers the kick­down but­ton on the floor. The steer­ing, numb and flighty com­pared to the other SECS, sits even lighter be­tween my fin­gers; it’s a game of nerve to keep away from the brake pedal as a cor­ner ap­proaches. A heav­ing sway and dis­in­ter­ested front end char­ac­terise the cor­ner­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and, while trail­ing the brakes into a cor­ner adds some weight to the steer­ing, the con­trols never re­ally come alive. Bet­ter to aim for straighter, quicker roads and en­joy the long-limbed cruising where all three SECS ex­cel.

As the miles glide by, you grow to un­der­stand what the For­mula One driv­ers saw in these big coupés. You soon re­alise too what en­chanted the art critic, the Con­ser­va­tive party speech writer, the lower-league rac­ing driver, the prop­erty de­vel­oper and the night­club owner who have all since owned one of these three cars. Each feels like they could go on for­ever with an im­pe­ri­ous­ness un­matched in mod­ern cars.

And if that’s not a fit­ting trib­ute to a pe­riod that val­ued speed and power above all, I don’t know what is.

Carat by Duchatelet mod­i­fied the ex-rosberg SEC with a full-length brake-light strip and a rub­ber boot spoiler, in ad­di­tion to shorter, firmer springs and a sports ex­haust of un­known prove­nance

Bought new by Keke, it’s thought the sec­ond owner had the SEC cus­tomised and painted black

World Cham­pion Rosberg col­lects his car from the fac­tory in 1982

The 5.5-litre M117, likely retro­fit­ted by Carat by Duchatelet

Keke’s SEC was reg­is­tered to his UK res­i­dence, hence the rhd

Senna sup­pos­edly re­quested more re­spon­sive­ness from his V8 Benz – and by some ac­counts he cer­tainly used it...

Huge fac­tory wheels add to the im­pos­ing stance

Senna’s 500 SEC was a place for him to shel­ter from su­per­sonic cor­ner­ing speeds

A young Senna and his faith­ful steed – plus an old Lo­tus

...while Mansell kept his 560 SEC in fac­tory spec

Flush lower-body mould­ings sub­tly mark this out as a 560 SEL, but there are no out­ward clues as to its F1 star prove­nance

The 560’s ca­pac­ity bump boosted power by a use­ful 40bhp

Whether your des­ti­na­tion is a race track or an art gallery, you’ll ar­rive re­freshed

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