BOARDROOM BLITZ

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By Graeme Hurst

In the early 1980s Mercedes-Benz was on a roll with its premium offerings. Along with the successful SL range, the recently launched W126 S-Class gave the Stuttgart carmarker a firm grip on the luxury end of the automotive market. But rather than rest on its laurels, the company introduced a high-spec 4-seater coupé for the truly discerning buyer. Originally positioned in much the same way as the W111-class 280se 3.5 coupé of the late ’60s was, the C126 is now a modern classic that encapsulates the three-pointed star at the top of its game.

As the decade of conspicuous consumption, the 1980s gave us some memorable models on the car front and no more so than when it came to executive saloons. Back then your corporate status was defined by what you drove as much as who you mingled with. It was also the era of the company car. And, when it came to upper management, no South African executive parking lot was complete without a few W126 S-Class saloons or one of BMW’s range-topping 7 Series.

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Whether it was in the rarified echelons of mining houses such as Anglo American on the Reef or the wood-panelled corridors of insurance giants like Old Mutual and Sanlam down in the Cape, the two German brands had effectively captured the executive market back then.

Trouble was that meant that the chairman of the board had limited options to differentiate himself (always a ‘him’ back then) when it came to the all-important office car park brinkmanship. Until the introduction of Mercedes Benz’s SEC range, that is. Launched in Europe in 1981, this large coupé offered all the comfort and state-of-the-art engineering of the already impressive S-Class with the bonus of sublime 2-door styling and a distinctly premium brand position.

Referred to by the code name ‘C126’ inside Stuttgart, the SEC (acronym for S-Klasse-Einspritzmotor-Coupé) debuted at that year’s Frankfurt Motor Show. Its styling came thanks to company design boss Bruno Sacco, but his efforts were more than a cut and shut on the SEC’s saloon sibling: the 2845mm wheelbase may have been 90mm shorter but the captivating coupé lines were accentuated by proper pillarless construction and a heavily raked rear ‘screen.

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Available exclusively in V8 guise, the SEC was powered by the same 3893cc or 4973cc engines that did service in the 380 and 500SE, but the engineers in Stuttgart took the opportunity to update the bore and stroke of these units for improved torque. The Bosch K-jetronic fuel injection was also uprated in a quest for fuel efficiency, while ABS braking was offered as an option.

Inside the SEC there were plenty of gadgets to set the coupé apart from its larger brother and impress boardroom subordinates, including split (side-by-side) air conditioning and electrically-adjustable front seats and headrests. These were operated by ergonomic switchgear, styled in the shape of a seat – an industry first and the operation of which is so obvious that it’s hard to comprehend the movement being controlled any other way.

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There was also an electric sunroof (with tilt option) and a four-way Becker Mexico sound system as standard, but the SEC’s party trick was its automated electric seatbelt ‘arms’ which offered the seat belt to the driver or passenger as the ignition was turned on and after the corresponding door had been opened. This was a clever solution for ensuring front occupants access to the seatbelts, traditionally an issue in large coupé formats.

In 380 spec the SEC was good for 211km/h, with 100km/h coming up on the dial in just over 10 seconds if pushed, as CAR magazine found out in its October ’84 issue. By then the model, which had been on sale locally for around a year, was listed at R74 800 before GST, making it the most expensive production car in SA and more than R22 000 above a regular 380SE saloon.

The 500 version followed for the SA market soon after but the big change came with the facelift for the 1987 model year, when the 380 SEC moniker was discontinued to give rise to the 420 SEC, powered by a revised 4196cc. At the same time, the unit in the 500 SEC was given a capacity boost to 5547cc, to spawn the 560 SEC. In this larger form, Mercedes-Benz’s all-alloy single-overhead cam V8 was good for a mighty 220kW… nearly 46% up on what the 380SEC had been launched with.

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Although the 500 SEC continued to be available abroad, it was the 560 spec that became the three-pointed star’s sole range-topper locally. And, thanks to rampant inflation following the start of economic sanctions and spiraling investor confidence at the time, it was now priced at a whopping R183 000 before GST, which was around R100k more than a 300SE! No doubt an order would’ve been preceded by some serious boardroom debate as the sales brochure was scrutinised.

However, it’s safe to say the marketing bumpf wouldn’t have disappointed: the 560 SEC boasted a raft of engineering refinements including self-levelling rear suspension, a limited-slip differential and Mercedes-Benz’s new ASR (Acceleration Slip Regulator) control system – a system that measures the car’s acceleration and steering geometry and then automatically applies the brakes by wheel, should it detect imminent wheel spin. It was another first on the safety front and was in addition to the carmaker’s automatic seatbelt-tensioning system. The interior also featured various detail changes and a revised seat design, with the seat movement mechanism now featuring a ‘memory’ function – meaning the chairman could be immediately comfortable after his car had been returned from the local carwash.

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Visually there were several subtle changes with a switch to larger 15in wheels, which were now alloy as standard, while both the side skirts and bumpers were deeper – with the latter engineered to withstand an end-to-end collision of up to 4km/h. It was all a typical Mercedes case of quiet evolution. Quiet, that is, until the performance was sampled.  Despite the adoption of extended gearing (in the interest of economy) the 560 SEC now offered simply stunning performance, as CAR magazine discovered in its January 1987 issue: 0-100km/h was now a Porsche 928-scaring 6.78 seconds while the 1 760kg coupé was good for 247km/h if pushed. This was a true autobahn bruiser that could convey four people in refined comfort with all the ease of a large saloon, while offering a distinctly exclusive presence.

The performance put the Stuttgart offering at the top of its game and the investment paid off: of the 74 060 SECs built, 28 209 were ordered in full-fat 560 spec before the model made way for the W140 coupé in 1991. That replacement – while hugely specced with driver assistance aids and features such as double glazing – somehow never enjoyed the kudos given to its predecessor, a car that’s now regarded as coming from the height of the

‘built to a standard, not to a price’ philosophy.

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Nearly three decades since it rolled off the line in Stuttgart, this 1989 example still impresses for its graceful lines and exclusive image. Designer Sacco delivered a fetching 2-door shape which, although clearly derived from his larger S-Class, is well balanced and distinct enough to hold its own. In retrospect, his efforts are far more accomplished than the C107 (SLC) series which was technically the forerunner to the SEC but which was based on a stretched R107 SL wheelbase.

The fact that the C126 has aged so well can be attributed to various subtle design tweaks, such as the rain channels hidden in the windscreen pillars and the windscreen wipers which are stowed under the rear lip of the bonnet. Those details may seem common now but they were hugely advanced all those years ago – as was the use of aluminium for the bonnet, boot lid and the car’s rear bulkhead structure. All that was in a bid to offset the weight of the added engineering required to accommodate the lack of a B-pillar.

Pulling on the distinctive handle – which was set in a stylised insert to keep it free of road dirt – is the first taste of how good that engineering was: even after close on 220 000kms the vast driver’s door of this example still shuts with a solid thunk, with no evident drop. Inside, the electric seats and adjustable steering column all whir away according to one of two memory settings to deliver your exact driving position, while the seat belt arm proffers the tongue of the seat belt: all seemingly de rigueur now but no doubt captivating by late ʼ80s office carpark standards.

There are other gadgets too, including an electrically-controlled rear blind and a switch to set one of two tones on the hooter (town or country), while the roof-mounted sunroof switch is a masterclass in ergonomics: pull back or forward to open or close respectively or push up to tilt. It’s a bit like Mercedes-Benz’s famed cruise control which uses a simple column stalk: pull to engage; push to switch off and with acceleration or deceleration possible by lifting or depressing it. The cockpit ergonomics aren’t just for the sake of it, mind: the passenger door mirror can be adjusted electrically from a toggle switch but the driver’s mirror has a manual lever jutting out. That’s because it’s in reach so there’s no reason you can’t do it yourself.

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Space-wise, this executive coupé is impressively capacious. Even with a chunk out of the wheel base this is still a true 4-seater, with room to spread out and a full complement of head rests. The SEC’s passenger-carrying ability must have set it apart at the time from the likes of Porsche’s 928 or Jaguar’s XJS – two market peers with little to no rear seat accommodation, yet similar performance.

And that’s one area where the SEC still shines, even today. Select ‘standard’ mode on the gearbox (as opposed to ‘economy’) and the huge V8 will hold its revs well up the range while the enormous swell of torque (all 455Nm of it by the time the rev counter’s showing 3750rpm) comes on stream. The whiff of typical off-the-line Mercedes lethargy (amplified by the generous degree of travel on the accelerator pedal) quickly dissipates as the car’s 215R15 rubber lays down the power with a bout of jet take off-like acceleration. Fully depress the accelerator and the 4-speed automatic gearbox will reach for first gear (it usually kicks off in second) to shorten the pull-off time, while the limited-slip differential avoids any tell-tale tyre squeal.

The pace quickly becomes impressive and, thanks to extended gearing (at 120km/h the V8 is barely doing 2500rpm) the SEC will effortlessly romp along to 200km/h+. And while most company chairmen would’ve been unlikely to sample that – or indeed the car’s 0-100km/h ability – on a regular basis back in the late 1980s, this luxury coupé’s capacity for wafting around Joburg’s N1 concrete highway in supreme comfort between board meetings must have helped offset any concerns over their share price following PW’s infamous Rubicon speech…

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