Mercedes-Benz 560 SEC

Not only does it reach 140mph with ease, it's built to last and looks great, says Brian Sewell
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The aggression with which I am asked: "And what do you drive?" always foxes me. I see the sniff of prejudice prepared for the answer Rolls, Porsche, Aston, Ferrari or some other obvious rich man's toy, or for the confirmed assumption that manufacturers offer me their wares (they do not) and I tell them the truth - I drive an ageing Honda hatchback, the engine a 1.4, perfect for dogs and other domestic responsibilities. But this is only half the truth, and the smaller half to boot.

The aggression with which I am asked: "And what do you drive?" always foxes me. I see the sniff of prejudice prepared for the answer Rolls, Porsche, Aston, Ferrari or some other obvious rich man's toy, or for the confirmed assumption that manufacturers offer me their wares (they do not) and I tell them the truth - I drive an ageing Honda hatchback, the engine a 1.4, perfect for dogs and other domestic responsibilities. But this is only half the truth, and the smaller half to boot.

My first car was a 1934 Morris 10, bought in mid-National Service as a convenient tool for scooting up to London. It made only one excursion; I saw something at Covent Garden, I now know not what but it ought to have been Götterdämmerung, for the Morris burst into flames on the return across Salisbury Plain and never moved again. I then bought a 1937 Wolseley 25 which served me well as what would now be called a minicab, earning a surprising income for a student with an insatiable greed for books.

It was replaced by a string of Daimlers, all post-war but based on 1930s notions of engineering and design. It was nostalgia for these, after a lean period with small Peugeots and Hondas, that inspired the moment of madness in which I bought a Mercedes-Benz 560 SEC that had been presented by its manufacturers to Nigel Mansell in 1987.

This absurd car is as big as a barge yet has only two doors and only four seats, so form-fittingly sculpted that not even a chihuahua would be at ease between them. Ahead lies a V8 engine of 5.6 litres, and behind a boot capacious enough to carry all 40 volumes of Thieme and Becker's Kunstlerlexikon and still leave room for a fortnight's luggage. It is surprisingly pretty, its line lower than conventional M-B saloons - more flowing, too - and with frameless windows that help sustain the linearity and reduce the bulk.

It has a leaner and more urgent look to it than the two-door cars of Rolls and Bentley on the Shadow chassis, but lacks their finish, their pointless opulence and exquisite bad taste, and above all, their prestige.

In its first incarnation, in 1980, the engine was only 3.8 litres, its petrol consumption 21.5mpg at 75mph, and its maximum speed 131mph; to American reviewers it was "the best coupé in the world". A 5.0-litre version arrived in the same year, its maximum 140mph. In 1985 the 380 was replaced by the 420 SEC, its 4.2-litre engine returning the same petrol consumption but raising the maximum to 136mph; and the range was topped by the 560 SEC, offering 19mpg and 160mph, at 300bhp a great improvement on the 231bhp of the 500 SEC.

I have never much cared for the boy-racer business, but the car reaches 60mph easily in seven seconds and, in the spirit of inquiry, I have held it for miles at 140mph on an empty continental motorway at dawn; it just lowered its suspension and sped as though on rails. It has brakes to match, and on a mountain road it draws a line as elegant as any by Paul Klee. Its useable performance is as good as that of any supercar in production, except for one old-Daimler-like characteristic: from a standing start there is a moment when nothing happens. In a Daimler this is due to the slip of the fluid flywheel as it takes up the drive, but in the Merc the fault lies in an old-fashioned, American-style slushmatic transmission, and this, were I rich, is the one thing I would change. Stamp, and it will go without hesitation, but I drive it in town as though I were an old lady and, feather-footed, persuade it to give me 20mpg. On the open road, it does not settle into a natural gait until well beyond 80mph.

The SEC ought one day to be like the two-seater SL, a classic car; but of the 560 some 21,000 were made, and of the others more than twice that. With well over 60,000 of them made at a time when M-B's reputation for quality was at its height, the factor of virtual indestructibility, other than by accident, makes rarity impossible. With two doors, they cannot end their days as taxis; moth and rust will not corrupt them; cared for, age will not weary them; and no natural predator will reduce their number. Mine will assuredly outlive me.

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