In 1983, West Germany was beginning an intense period of debate in the European Community (the forerunner to the EU) about tightening emissions standards across the continent in response to domestic fears of Waldsterben. With environmental groups clamoring for change in the face of scientific reports claiming that air pollution and car exhaust were killing off all of Germany’s cherished forests, along with the newly elected Green Party in a parliament now run by forest-sympathetic conservatives, it seemed quite possible that West Germany would break with the rest of Europe and impose its own set of national automotive emissions standards. This unilateral approach posed a great threat to the export-oriented West German car industry, as a patchwork of national standards meant multiple models were needed to serve multiple markets. There was a considerable efficiency to producing one set of engines and electronic management systems for all of Europe, and losing that uniformity meant losing a lot of profit for a company like Mercedes-Benz.
In 1983, Mercedes-Benz was losing market share in West Germany, facing the possibility of West German emissions standards unilateralism on uncertain footing. The West German car buying public was also unsure if the results of emissions standards talks in Europe might leave their cars undriveable in the rest of Europe. Many thought that until the emissions standards for gasoline engines were agreed upon, driving to Italy or France for vacation could be impossible with a new car. The car market suffered. Mercedes-Benz, however, persevered, and cars like this vast S-Class coupe were a large part of that success.
The European Community finally agreed to a uniform set of emissions standards in the 1985 Luxembourg Agreement, and by that time Mercedes sales had picked up with some of that same optimism, but what had kept the company growing in 1983, that dark year for West Germany’s car industry? It certainly wasn’t taxi sales in the Bundesrepublik, but rather the strong sales of high-price, high-profit luxury cars in the US of A.
So Mercedes should send a thank you to Wall Street and Scarface, because while the company couldn’t keep up with the industry average back home, exports to America were up 11.7%, and over half of those exports were S-Classes, SLs, and SEC coupes like this I’m Rich Red example.¹
Certainly this is a handsome, well-proportioned car, with plenty of overengineering under its steel skin. This is either a Mercedes-Benz 380SEC or a 500SEC, the difference between the two being 1.2liters of engine displacement, 27 horsepower, and 90 Nm.² I somehow doubt that the Wall Street moneymaker walked into the showroom out of lust for 200+ horses. I imagine the three pointed star pulled those checks in and started this car on its path uptown to retirement in the Upper West Side. That 80s status still rests on this bright red Benz, and I dream of buying up this car and abusing the Reaganomics memories that its draws up. What better car to blast Black Flag from?
But then, why stop at Wall Street fantasies? There prestige of SEC coupes has changed by 2011, for sure, but it was aging and maturing all through the past three decades the cars have been on sale. Because $hort Dog’s in the house once again, and here’s one of my favorite old Too $hort records, where you can see the body-kitted big coupes taking up some prime real estate on the album cover. What better car is there in 2011 to blast your UGK, your Juvenile, your Young L, your Sir Too $hort?
I know that the car would break my bank, that it’s one electrical malfunction away from being far beyond my means to maintain. But the car has such a pull, not unlike that damn grandma car, the hometown Tercel I still lust after. This SEC tempts me with its good looks, draws me in with thoughts of fine road manners and a strong vee-eight engine, and leaves me checking craigslist by reminding me of its history. So while Mercedes-Benz should be sending you gift baskets and a pension, I say damn you grandpa car! You tease me with punk rock dreams and you grow too old, too expensive for me to live them out!
1. Daimler-Benz AG. “Daimler-Benz Annual Report 1983.” 1984. http://www.daimler.com/Projects/c2c/channel/documents/1364443_1983_Daimler_Benz_Annual_Report.pdf (accessed July 31, 2011).
2. Danke Mercedes Clubs! – “Kategorie: W126/en.” http://et.mercedes-benz-clubs.com/mediawiki/index.php/W126-380SEC-Motor/en, http://et.mercedes-benz-clubs.com/mediawiki/index.php/W126-500SEC-Motor/en (accessed July 31, 2011).
If you would like more information on the history of West German emissions regulation, drop me a line in the comments, check out this comprehensive history by Hedi Schreiber, Die Entwicklung der Abgasgesetzgebung bei Personenkraftwagen in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland seit 1970 unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Einführung schadstoffarmer Kraftfahrzeuge und bleifreien Benzins in den achtziger Jahren. There is also a bit more info on Autofrei itself here, a look into the development of emissions regulation in West Germany in the 1970s.