There Once Was a Dream That Was 1000SEL

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
there once was a dream that was 1000sel

Here’s a question for the B&B: When, exactly, did Mercedes-Benz completely lose its famous sense of aesthetic restraint? Was it the arrival of the Panzerwagen W140 S-Class, with its Bismarckian bulk and its little pop-up parking guides? Was it the debut of the two-tone Maybach 57 and 62, complete with their burl-walnut power window switches and sliding curtains? Was it the day that the CLA45 AMG proved that the company had no philosophical objection whatsoever to building what was basically a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution?

Whenever it was, it’s certainly happened. Those days of squared-off, buttoned-down diesel sedans and sensibly-sized S-Classes are long gone. But this is one of those rare cases where the reality was equal to the legend. There truly was a time when the W126, in V-8 SEL form, was simply the best car in the world. It was rapid, silent, safe, trustworthy, classic, and supremely comfortable. It existed in a space utterly beyond any but the most picayune criticism.

But it simply wasn’t enough. Wasn’t brash enough, wasn’t trash enough, wasn’t gold-plated enough, wasn’t gull-winged enough. Enter, therefore, the 1000SEL.

It wasn’t that Mercedes-Benz was averse to making pimp chariots for plutocrats. Some readers will remember the 600 “Pullman” with its vacuum-operated power windows and limo-style wheelbase extension. There was also some chap named Hitler who liked to ride around in big Benzes well before Sir Mix-A-Lot ever thought to rap about the S-Class. But with the energy crisis of the Seventies striking justified fear into the hearts of oil-less Europe, the company declined to update the 600 concept for the Eighties. Instead, the company revealed the W126, the car that would effectively replace the W116 S-Class and the 600. It was unapologetically aerodynamic, weight-conscious, deliberately efficient, powered by small, all-aluminum V-8s in addition to the usual inline-six in both gas and diesel form that made up the bulk of sales outside the United States.

To drive the W126 was to realize the apex of automotive accomplishment up to that point. It seemed utterly silent, particularly at high speeds. It steered and stopped like a sports car. In 5-liter 500SEL or US-market 560SEL form, it was capable of embarrassing a Porsche 911 of the day once aerodynamics entered the high-speed equation. You could drive it all day and night. No important control was out of the reach of a five-foot woman or a six-three man. Of course, it couldn’t match a modern Chevy Sonic for “telematics” or electronic features but it did have ABS before almost everyone else and it was an early airbag adopter as well.

It’s hard to think of what could be improved in a W126, but it’s not hard to understand why the car’s relentlessly functional presence seemed a little, shall we say, tame for some markets. Its predecessors had possessed nice big grilles and upright profiles. They looked like the kind of car an Idi Amin or Robert Mugabe could own without blushing. (John Updike made such a car a central character in his African novel of the period, The Coup.) The 600, of course, had an undoubted appeal just due to its stature — but the W126 was actually lower and more modest-looking than the cars that had gone before it.

Enter the tuners, most famously “Styling Garage” and Gemballa. You can read all about Styling Garage on the 1000SEL fan site but suffice it to say that they weren’t playing. They built the “1000SEL”, a pimped-out W126 that could be adjusted to suit the wildest fantasies of the shahs and the sheikhs. They even put the nose of the old car on the new one:

Imagine you were the engineer responsible for the 0.36 drag coefficient of the 380SEL and you saw that God-damned monstrosity on the road ahead of you. How would you feel? Certainly the lawyers didn’t like it, which led to the “1000SEL” being renamed the “1000SGS”.

But if Styling-Garage was the master of vandalizing the outside of a W126, surely Gemballa was the undisputed champion of interior pimpology.

Only the position of the dashboard trim stripe and the shape of the steering wheel really gives this car’s origins away.

What’s going on with that small screen on the passenger side? Is is a tracking device for stolen nuclear submarines or a way to watch The Cosby Show in black and white? But the greatest horror was yet to come. The 380SEC and 500SEC were not unqualified successes. They were heavier and slower than the nearly flawless sedans on which they were based. In the United States, where emissions equipment strangled the 3.8, this was particularly upsetting. But for some customers, the most upsetting part of W126 coupe ownership was the regular doors. So…

That’s right. A Testarossa-straked gullwing W126 coupe. And there was more than one of them.

Many of these cars disappeared into garages in Brunei or Saudi Arabia where they promptly rusted into worthlessness, often without having been driven any more than their delivery miles. But the arrival of the W140 put the kibosh on much of this extremely profitable and tasteless activity. To begin with, the new car was massively complex and far harder to modify. Just the thousand-mile-long biodegradable wiring harness alone was an insurmountable challenge to most tuners. But there was also the sense that Mercedes-Benz had returned to the idea of the Grosser Benz, a car that was too big to ignore for plutocrats of all stripes who were (usually) too big to fail or jail.

Eventually, Mercedes implemented all but the worst excesses of the tuners in their production vehicles. Some of those vehicles, like the sublime AMG SLS Black Series, are among the finest German cars ever made. Others, like the misshapen and depressed-looking Maybach 62, are not. But it’s fun to look back and see that there was once a brief shining moment where Germany’s best automaker really was the kind of austere, emotionally monochromatic, technically focused company that its owners always claimed it to be. So when you’re in your CLA or GLA or GLE Coupe or whatever and you see some slick dude or bearded hipster in an old W126, have some respect, okay?

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2 of 77 comments
  • UncleJunior UncleJunior on Aug 07, 2015

    Gemballa: proof that with money does not came taste. It's nice to see that every single vehicle that "company" slapped their name on was hideous and ostentatious, from the very beginning...

  • Lowreyldjd Lowreyldjd on Aug 08, 2015

    "When, exactly, did Mercedes-Benz completely lose its famous sense of aesthetic restraint?" When they stopped building their cars to an engineering standard, which was the essence of the model of this post, the W-126. Far and away the best car, of the 30 or so I've owned over the years, was my 1991 560SEL. Supremely comfortable, capable of cruising all day at high speed without breaking a sweat, and with enough power and handling finesse to embarrass most other cars on the road. An extremely handsome, not necessarily beautiful, automobile, too (mine was Smoke Silver with Burgundy hides). It also never gave me a lick of trouble, not even burning any oil between changes, up until the day I sold it with just over 330,000 miles on the odometer. Then, Mercedes-Benz got caught up building cars to a price and attempting to create the best eye candy...

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