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The 126 Series Coupes: 1981 - 1991
by Marcus B. Fitzhugh

Mercedes-Benz Coupes have always embodied elegance in motion. The S-Class based coupes are the choicest examples of these highly desirable vehicles. When introduced, the 126 based two-door was not seen so much as a car, but as an extension of a lifestyle that was often characterized by beauty and elegance.

The SEC Coupes, internally known as the C 126 series, were introduced by Mercedes-Benz at the Frankfurt International Motor Show in September of 1981. They were a big departure from the previous SL based coupes; the SLC. The SEC was based on the 126 series S-Class sedan, but with a frame and floor assembly that had been shortened by 85 millimeters. Even with the reduction in length, the SECs were luxury tourers fully capable of seating four adults.

Their design rendered them unmistakable as anything other than a Mercedes-Benz. At the time, Bruno Sacco was the Head of Design. With the SEC, his team produced a vehicle with perfect lines that seamlessly integrated into the Mercedes-Benz passenger car range. One major styling point was the grill. The horizontal radiator grill, with a large central star, had been a feature of the large Mercedes-Benz coupes since the 1950s. The star was also used on the SEC. Unlike some garish trinkets of the aftermarket world, the star fit the SEC as a natural adornment.

The stylish looks of the SEC were coupled with technically advanced designs, exclusive equipment, powerful engines and cutting edge safety equipment. The chassis is one example of its advanced design. The sophisticated S-Class chassis is renowned for unparalleled ride quality. Aside from a few minor details, the SEC chassis is identical to that of its S-Class sibling. The double wishbone front suspension and patented multilink rear keep the car firmly planted while absorbing road irregularities. The resulting ride quality is outstanding.

As was the case in the 126 based S-Class, the interior of the SEC was ergonomically designed and made with the finest materials available. This combination of ride quality and luxury appointments, allows SEC occupants to feel as refreshed after a long journey as they do after short trips.

The SEC was state-of-the-art in terms of safety technology. Its pillarless coupe design required additional strengthening over its S-Class sibling. To compensate for the missing B-pillars, the roof frame was improved and the A-pillars were fortified with welded in, high strength tubing. The rest of the body was designed in line with the latest safety research findings, and the front passengers were protected by something new; airbags. The 126 series was the first German car offered with a driver's side airbag and belt tensioners. On the early models, a driver's side airbag and a passenger side belt tensioner were both optional. A front passenger airbag was made available as part of the 1985 upgrade. In addition to these interior features, additional safety features such as the automatic locking differential (ASD) and skid control (ASR) ensured optimum power transmission on all surfaces.

The SEC line was available exclusively with eight-cylinder engines. From 1981 through 1984, there were two models; the 380 SEC and 500 SEC. Four models were available in the 1985 model year, and three from 1986 through 1991. Sound confusing? In 1985, there was a refresh. The 380 SEC was superseded by the 420 SEC, and the top-of-the-line 560 SEC was introduced. In 1986, the 380 SEC was discontinued. The 1985 refresh included a discreet retouching of the exterior. This was primarily the bumpers, the protective side strips and the wheels.

SEC production stopped in 1991, almost ten years after its market launch. The length of production and number produced are an indication of its popularity.

Production Figures

  380 SEC 420 SEC 500 SEC 560 SEC
1980 3   1  
1981 945   726  
1982 4393   4059  
1983 3829   6058  
1984 1310   6664  
1985 1857 273 5865 989
1986   896 2020 4745
1987   714 1107 5476
1988   593 1056 5012
1989   534 1062 5299
1990   451 1067 5270
1991   219 499 2138

Note: 1980 was a pre-production year.

For those looking to purchase an SEC there are numerous examples available. Many of the best rust free cars can be found right here in southern California. Although SECs are older vehicles, when new, they were exclusive vehicles with discerning owners. Many of these owners meticulously maintained their vehicles. "That" is the car you want. Nothing lasts forever, but a well maintained Mercedes-Benz may outlast you, which is all that really matters.

When shopping for one, keep in mind that these are 20 to 30-year-old vehicles. On a car of this age, one has to give serious consideration as to how much life is left in the powertrain. Fortunately, high mileage isn't an issue with a well maintained Mercedes-Benz V8. That is because the SEC was designed to run on the Autobahn at triple digit speeds for hours on end. The US, with our 65 MPH highways, presents these engines with a relatively unstressed environment. The single issue that comes to mind is the 380 V8. These engines originally had single row timing chains, which are known to fail at higher mileage. The other engines had dual row chains. Mercedes-Benz recognized this issue and offered a conversion kit that upgraded single row 380s to dual row units. At this stage, many of the 380's have been converted. Even so, anyone considering one of these cars should have the vehicle inspected. During the course of the inspection, the timing chains should be examined. If they are single row units, that should factor into the purchase.

The best advice I can give, is to have whatever you're considering inspected. Parts wear, things break, and some cars have not been as well maintained as others. No one wants to be left holding a mega-dollar repair invoice, and a thorough inspection is your best insurance against finding yourself in that situation.

After the purchase, come out to a few MBCA events. The SEC was the Mercedes-Benz flagship. It was a tour de force in terms of design, and it still retains an air of timeless elegance and desirability - and rest of us would like to see it.


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