With no more Mercedes-Benz 600s being built after 1981, what was a millionaire-by-questionable-means supposed to drive? A regular S-Class for the peasantry? Please. How embarrassing. Even in extended SEL trim, the fully-factory-optioned W126 was just downright not enough: it didn’t have enough falcon head gear selectors, too few dead animals were dyed red and stretched around interior television sets, and they weren’t long enough, they weren’t convertible enough, and Stuttgart certainly didn’t include enough hi-fi home stereo equipment in the dash so one could listen to “Money for Nothing” at concert volume while getting blitzed on chilled champagne and then deciding to have people killed via car phone.
The answer to this criminal dearth of flaunt and opulence was spelled “1000SEL,” and it was written in gold.
The paradigm had shifted in the mid-‘80s in terms of what was an acceptable way to display wealth, though I suppose what’s tolerable from that time is still debatable, especially from the front seat of a triple-white slantnose 930 with the car’s value in cocaine in the frunk. In the preceding decade, cars like the 600 Pullman were surely domineering, but the looks were backed up by the engineering. This was not so with the advent of the new class of super S-Classes, because these garish beasts were never made by Mercedes, and the coach builders who did stack them with minibars and red leather Recaro rear seats were not akin to the Bertones and Zagatos of the world either. More or less, the nebulously-defined but easy recognized forms of the W126-based 1000SELs were shoddy, glued-together testaments to what happens when taste leaves money in the room by itself. I love these cars.
It’s a shame that almost none are left now, the modern-day majority likely covered in inches and years of desert dust, their body kits long ago removed along with the bevy of entertainment electronics, the leftover extended-wheelbase carcasses parked in the bare sun of the Middle East or else sitting in a dirty cess of water in a leaky Moldovan warehouse as the plywood TV encasements warp and split amongst the mildewed leather dash. We still have the pictures of this bygone era though, and through these low-res windows we can look back with fond and silly nostalgia at the gilded past. I’m going to run through a few of my favorite modified W126s below, but if you’d like to learn more about them and their peers from the era, click over to Bram Corts’ site to spend some time in one of the best automotive archives on the web.
First, the bastion of W126 tuning, the aptly if simply named company, Styling Garage, or SGS. This German coach builder is commonly considered the progenitor of the widely-adopted 1000SEL moniker on this type of modified ‘80s Mercedes, and for good reason. We’ll get to their yuppy-extradinaire gullwinged SECs in a second, but we’ll start with the SEL-based sedan, the 1000SGS. If you brought the money, you could have just about anything added to the lowly starting point of Mercedes’ most expensive car: center console climate-controlled drink storage? Sure. Chromed wheel arches housing body-color-matched super-wide BBSes? Yup. Heavy silk curtains to hide the hookers and lookers. Why not. Electronically-adjustable rear seats in any color leather you like? Where else would you sit, the front? A grove’s-worth of wood inside? Just write the check. You could even add the front end of the outgoing W108/109 generation Benz, because you may as well bastardize history too.
So, you have a white and gold and louvered and luxury SGS sedan to be driven in, but what does the discerning and sporting son of a sheikh have when he wants to get in the front seat? An SEC with gullwing doors and 12-inch-wide wheels of course. The conversions cost as much as the cars that were the starting point, but you can’t really put a price on having your girlfriend standing up like a land-spotting ocean explorer while you cruise to the next casino, can you?
On the topic of bird-doors, if the Styling Garage version was too tame, there was always Sbarro to make you something that transcended tawdry. Dubbed the Shahin, this take on the W126 SEC was like a mixture of Mad Max and Miami Beach fueled by drug binges and sales.
The gullwings are great and the 1000SGS is the pretty much the seminal start of all this, but suppose neither have the space needed for meetings to decide the best methods for receiving and offering political bribes—what do you do? You go to Trasco and tell them to add a few more feet and seats to the S-Class, plus some serious yardage of velour or leather to increase the comfort along with the dimensions. There is a joke in here about compensating for endowment with the length of one’s car, but I dare not say it because whoever owns these stretched SELs probably doesn’t take kindly to being insulted by poor people. So instead I will compliment the pearlized paint and gold-plated emblems on the outside, the means to drink liquor and watch the stock market ticker on the inside, and the fact that building something like this was once a viable business.
Glenfrome also made an elongated SEL of the 1000 flavor, and the white-on-white-on-white sight of this car deserves some appreciation not for its refined luxury but for the lack of the first word and an unabashed indulgence of the second.
Though I can only imagine that the clientele of the SEL coach builders would already be quite noticeable in their mobile Playboy mansions, perhaps some owners would like to see as well as be seen, which is where Caruna comes in with their service of roof removal. Though a far cry from the fanciness of the others in this article, there is a certain cachet in the cabriolet S-Class that Benz never built, and the shorter-wheelbase SE-based Caruna convertibles look almost like shooting brakes when the top is up, which, again, love it or hate it, is at the least interesting to look at. Also, back to the relative degree of decadence of these versus the cars from Styling Garage for instance; isn’t taking a saw to the roof of a brand-new car—let alone a big MB—in a way the biggest middle finger to practicality and necessity of all? Given the quality of foldaway tops in the period from even the OEMs, it’s hard to think of these Carunas having much longevity before things start warping and the roof kind of flaps around in its holster like a spent accordion. Wastefulness at its very best. No sarcasm.
To complete our little tour, let’s end on a high note, and thanks to the common addition of what must have been hundreds of pounds of AV gear rattling and squeaking around in the dashboard and doors, it’s a loud one. The W126s adorned by ABC Exclusive are my personal favorites of the bunch, and with their golden grilles juxtaposed on the exterior against the sportier skirts and bumper covers I can’t help but appreciate the clash of (intended) luxury and (intended) athleticism in the styling department, however, the real good stuff is packed inside.
Remember the falcon head shifter from the intro? This is where you’ll find one that’s gold plated—because when you’re operating a slushy automatic in a car that weighs far more than the already hefty stock SEL, you may as well be guiding the regal head of a bird of prey. Besides, if some envious and pissed-off townspeople try to bum-rush your driver in order to steal the car that costs more than a neighborhood in the countries where you’re likely to find one, you can always remove the weighty falcon and use its sharp beak as a weapon of wealth. To repeat myself though, the real good stuff is still to come; the electronics.
The whole peer group of other W126 coach builders could offer owners basically whatever they were willing to pay for in terms of TVs, VCRs, and stereos, but I particularly like the ABC cars for going the extra-gaudy-mile and color-matching the mounting plates of the car’s bank of high-end sound system gear mounted in what was likely a very low-end methodology. It’s one thing to think about how much wattage is in these systems, and another to cringe at the reality of the situation, which, when you’re a few hundred miles into ownership, must equate to a constant vibrating of all this gear whenever traveling on less-than-perfect roads. I can just picture the driver irritatingly smacking every inch of the leather dash with the butt of his hand to try to restore order to a simultaneously over- and under-built early boxy version of “infotainment.”
These are only a handful of the vast and tacky luxobarges, and beyond even the Benzes here, I would fully recommend (if you have the bent towards this kind of stuff in some capacity to start with) digging deeper online. For example, Google anything by Koenig and follow the rabbit hole!