Mercedes-Benz 560 SEC
by David Finlay (2 September 2011)
Few cars built as long ago as 1987 - even ones which have travelled for less than 41,000 miles in all that time - can be in quite such beautiful condition as this one, and there is one man in particular to thank for that. I'm going to reveal his identity, but rather than just blurt his name straight out I'm going to give him his proper place in the history of this glorious Mercedes-Benz 560 SEC.
That history begins with Nigel Mansell, who in 1987 was driving for the Williams Grand Prix team. There was no connection with Mercedes (Williams was using Honda engines at the time) but the company nonetheless offered Mansell the use of its powerful coupé, and Mansell - as you and I would have done - accepted.
It's because of Mansell that I have to get into the left-hand side of the car to drive it. There were certainly right-hand drive examples of the 560 SEC, but Mansell decided that he would use his to travel to European F1 races that season, and since he would mostly be driving on continental roads it made sense for him to have a left-hand drive car. So Mercedes gave him one of those.
He covered about 15,000 miles in it before handing it back, whereupon it went into a museum for over a decade. It then went into private hands, eventually being bought, in 2003, by the art critic Brian Sewell.
And it is largely to Sewell's credit that this 560 SEC is in such fine condition. Say what you like about him, he knows how to look after a car. But he didn't mollycoddle it. On the contrary, he racked up a further 25,000 miles - some of them, as he has admitted, at the rate of 140 per hour - before selling it to Mercedes-Benz in the summer of 2010.
(I assume, incidentally, that he is not responsible for the nodding dog which sits on the parcel shelf gazing dopily out of the rear window. If this is indeed his doing, I have to say that I am gravely disappointed.)
In some ways the 560 SEC is quite modern. The mechanism for moving the seatbelts within easy reach of the front passengers isn't especially elegant, but the idea is one which still isn't common 24 years on. And it's still by no means every car which can boast heated and electrically adjustable front seats.
On the other hand, there's something very mid-1980s about the fact that the passenger's side door mirror can be angled using a small lever on the centre console while the one on the driver's side has to be adjusted by hand. Nothing wrong with that, though. I mean, why would you need remote control over something that's right next to you?
There isn't a great deal of room for tall drivers, partly because the roofline is low and partly because the steering wheel, in typical Mercedes fashion of the time, is large (it's also adjustable, oddly, for reach but not for height). The proximity of roof and floor has little to do with the lack of rear space, though - the problem there is that there just isn't enough room for the legs of taller passengers.
By contrast, the boot is enormous. In an article published by the Independent in November 2004, Sewell described it, Sewellishly, as being "capacious enough to carry all forty volumes of Thieme and Becker's Kunstlerlexikon and still leave room for a fortnight's luggage". I didn't bring a copy of Thieme and Becker's Kunstlerlexikon (I'll forget my own name next) but I have no reason to doubt the assertion.
The really interesting part of the 560 SEC, however, is at the other end. Under the bonnet lies a massive 5.6-litre V8 engine which produces - very easily, I imagine - a maximum of 300bhp, leading to a 0-62mph time of 6.8 seconds and a top speed limited to 155mph.
"And there's no ESP," adds a Mercedes person as I fire up, hiding the menace of his words behind an amiable smile. But the point is taken, and I'm careful not to push the car too hard for a few miles, until its magnificent road manners persuade me that I don't have to worry as much as I thought I would. The fact that that big V8 gurgles ever more intoxicatingly the more revs you use has some bearing on this too.
The straightline acceleration really is quite something, but more impressive still is the handling. Despite its sporting looks, the 560 SEC rides like a luxury saloon, yet the suspension is so well-damped that it never feels floaty. Even with a considerable amount of body lean it still feels completely controllable, and while Sewell's line (again from the Independent) that "on a mountain road it draws a line as elegant as any by Paul Klee" suggests he knows a lot less about driving on mountain roads than he does about Klee, I can see why he would have been inspired to write that.
You must have realised by now that I want a car like this for myself. It looks great, it's wonderful to drive, and it feels about fifteen years younger than it really is.
It's not as expensive as you might think, either. Mercedes won't go into specifics about how much it paid for the car, but suggests that another one of similar age and condition (though probably without such an interesting history) would be worth about £15,000. Combined fuel economy of 22.2mpg means it would be ruinously expensive to run every day, but as a car for special occasions it wouldn't give your bank manager much to worry about.
Won't lie. Can't say I'm not tempted.