Our 1980s automotive landscape offered a step change from the previous decade when it came to marrying saloon-sized luxury with searing performance, with BMW (think 745i), Daimler (remember the famed Double-Six?) and Mercedes Benz all coming to the party. But only the latter packaged the experience in a gorgeous coupé format.
Words by Graeme Hurst, Photos by Duwyne Aspeling
The 1980s: the decade that gave us some fab music (imagine the decade without Michael Jackson’s Thriller?), along with some memorable hairstyles (the mullet!) and nifty games (remember the Rubik’s cube?). And some conspicuously spectacular luxury performance cars. Particularly so if you sat at the end of the boardroom table, armed with a cheque book good for telephone number figures.
And, with South Africa’s rampant inflation and exorbitant import tariffs at the time, that’s what the price tag of this range-topping Mercedes-Benz 560 SEC looked like: in 1989 it set its first owner – author Wilbur Smith no less – back over R300k! At the time that sort of cash would’ve given you the keys to 15 VW Citi Golfs ….or a few thousand copies of Wilbur’s 1989 novel A Time to Die…
But while the famed fiction writer’s work could’ve transported you into the latest adventures of retired guerrilla fighter-cum-hunter Sean Courtney at the time, the venerable Citi Golf hadn’t the feintest chance of propelling four adults and 1.8-tonnes of automotive opulence from 0-100 km/h in a shade over six seconds before topping out at an Autobahn-friendly 250km/h. Nor could it offer a raft of state-of-the art engineering attributes – including self-levelling rear suspension, ABS and ASR (Acceleration Slip Regulator) – to ensure you could replicate the experience on a daily basis.
Yup, an SEC (an acronym for S-Klasse-Einspritzmotor-Coupé) was one seriously capable car back in the late ’80s. And it boasted more than just performance or arresting two-door looks: it had oodles of state-of-the-art refinement inside, starting with the electric seats and their clever ergonomic operation. Been in a car where you simply push parts of a seat-shaped button to adjust the seat in the desired direction? It may seem de rigueur today but the SEC was the first to do that. Had a seatbelt in a modern coupé ‘handed’ to you so you don’t have to throw your back out while buckling up? Welcome to the SEC’s party trick…
Of course, Stuttgart was no stranger to pretty two-door variants of its handsome saloon ranges but the Bruno Sacco-styled C126 was more than a cut-and-shut of the elegant W126 executive saloon when it wowed Frankfurt back in ’81. Some 90mm shorter in the wheelbase than its four-door sibling, the new model featured a heavily raked rear ’screen to accentuate its looks and extensive use of aluminium in its construction to keep its weight down. And, unlike previous Mercedes coupés, it was exclusively V8 powered.
Only the 380 made it to our shores in late ’83. When tested a year later it retailed for R74 800. Considerably less than the 560’s price tag five years later but that was still a monumental number on a South African car showroom floor back then, when something as desirable (and already pricey) as an Alfa GTV6 3.0 could be yours for just over thirty grand…
So what tarmac metrics did a lucky SEC owner get for that sort of dough? Well a top speed of 211km/h and a 0-100km/h time of around 10 seconds. Impressive for the day but not enough to embarrass BMW’s mighty 745i…well for two years at any rate. For the ’87 model year, Mercedes SA replaced the 380 SEC in our local listings with the full-fat 560 (a re-work of the previously overseas-only 500) which boasted a whopping 220kW under the bonnet. That was a 46% boost in grunt….more than enough to out-run Bavaria’s finest and stake the claim of being the fastest production car on sale in the Republic.
The SEC remained unchanged until early 1991, by when its price had crept up another R100k. Some three decades on a R400k windscreen sticker for something this capable seems laughable but, unlike some of its peers, the car’s presence certainly isn’t: its lines are still beguiling. And a reminder of just how timeless Sacco’s pen is: swing into the Mount Nelson today in this immaculate Arctic white example and it’ll still hold its own in the foyer…unlike a 7 Series from the same era.
And this Stuttgart beauty still feels surprisingly quick: sure, most turbocharged 2-litre hatchbacks on sale today can match its acceleration but the 560 still impresses for its locomotive-like urge when you drop it into ‘sport’ mode and hit the loud pedal. With its wide (well in 1980s terms) 215R15 rubber and substantial heft, the SEC feels sure-footed and hugely trustworthy as you negotiate sweeping bends at speed. And comfortable of course, with split zone air-conditioning, cruise control and those nifty seat-shaped buttons to dial in your favoured driving position…all super handy for overcoming writer’s block with a dose of 1980s Autobahn adrenalin!
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