1984 Mercedes-Benz 500SEL AMG V126
From Minis to McLaren F1s, George Harrison proved himself a petrolhead – but the car that held his interest longest was this AMG-styled Mercedes-Benz 500SEL V126. We take it for a drive to find out why.
Words RICHARD MASON
Photography JONATHAN JACOB
The 500SEL that transported ex-Beatles in the Eighties
George Harrison’s career gave him ample means to indulge his passion for cars. Besides the obligatory E-type and several Porsches, the Beatle became so fascinated with the construction of his McLaren F1 that the company gave him a staff canteen pass. However, out of all the cars he bought – his 1966 Radford Mini was officially a gift from manager Brian Epstein – the one he kept the longest is the Mercedes-Benz 500SEL AMG V126 before me. It remained in George’s custody from May 1984 until May 2000.
George’s SEL is a V126 – denoting its 140mm-longer wheelbase over a W126 saloon – making the car not only more spacious, but also more comfortable by minimising pitching motion on rough surfaces. Its looks have stood the test of time; designer Bruno Sacco still regards it as one of his best creations. That might be so, but tuners like AMG – at this point still an independent entity – saw opportunities to stretch the envelopes of aesthetics and performance further. The Affalterbach-based tuning house put soul into an otherwise conservative car, albeit one generally considered the best built of the time.
George’s love of Formula 1 took him to the 1983 British Grand Prix. There on display, registered ‘1 AMG’, was a silver Mercedes 500SEL AMG courtesy of the tuning firm’s UK agent, Stratton of Wilmslow. Roger Wood, former Stratton sales manager, recalls George’s secretary subsequently enquiring about an SEC version, but like most of George’s cars it had to be black. Because they were in short supply, the best Roger could offer was an Icon Gold SEC but George was insistent on black. Roger doesn’t remember how the SEC request shifted to an SEL; perhaps it was easier to source one in George’s chosen colour. Even so, Stratton had to go to Callenders of Glasgow, a Mercedes dealer, to obtain one, hence the Glasgow registration.
Stratton then gave it the AMG treatment, which on George’s car was full bodykit followed by dechroming and a repaint in black. The chassis received AMG’s two-inch-lower stiffened springs and Bilstein dampers. Completing the exterior package were some AMG Penta alloys shod with Goodyear Eagle tyres. The interior was retrimmed in black leather, the standard walnut veneer replaced by a black piano wood that also featured on the rear picnic tables. A smaller-diameter four-spoke AMG leather steering wheel was the finishing touch. Roger estimates the cost at about £10,000 – on top of the circa-£30k base car – and confirms George never had any engine modifications.
Two videos guarantee the SEL’s provenance. The first, from autumn 1991, shows George arriving at Bray Film Studios, near Windsor, to shoot a promo video for his December 1991 Japanese tour, sadly his last. A Japanese film crew captured George swooping into the car park amidst dust and scrunching gravel. Spotting them as he exits the Mercedes, George says, ‘Sorry it’s not a Honda.’ The second video, from 1994 and shown in The Beatles Anthology, depicts the SEL arriving at Paul McCartney’s Sussex farm. Out steps George and Paul from the front and Ringo from the back. This car is rock and roll history.
Mike Pickles is now the proud fifth owner. He’s loaned me the SEL after lavishing over £10,000 on recommissioning. Driving it is like playing one of George’s guitars. Something very personal, especially because the interior is as it was in George’s day. Opening the driver’s door, that ‘Honda’ video comes to mind. I see him opening the same door; I feel like an interloper. Settling behind the AMG steering wheel intensifies the feeling, because in the centre of the boss is a small Om Shanti emblem, representing peace in Hindi, reflective of George’s Hindu faith. Later, looking in the boot the CD disc holder has a yin-yang sticker on it. These symbols held deep meaning for George; they were windows to his soul, and also featured throughout his McLaren F1. There’s also a carphone nestling between the front seats; imagine the conversations it was privy to. It’s now a redundant analogue system, all the talking has stopped.
Driving this Mercedes is more than a road test of a fascinating car, it’s an insight into the character of its hugely famous owner. George craved privacy and seclusion and went to extremes to achieve that. Yet here, he took a relatively discreet saloon car and created a sinister monster that attracts no end of public attention, even with me at the wheel. George’s character is clearly one of opposites, and the SEL embodies that internal conflict. Designed as a state-of-the-art Mercedes flagship to discreetly ferry the elite in comfort, just look at it now. All black, crouching down looking more like an air-ride car on the enormous alloys. It’s a Mafia staff car, to quote its second owner, Harrison’s percussionist and film collaborator Ray Cooper.
Having acclimatised to the SEL’s visual impact, it’s time to find out what George would have experienced on the move. I adjust the electric seats using the unique-at-the-time patented door-mounted switches resembling the shape of a seat. Turning the ignition key, the phone gives a chirrup while the engine cranks a few times. The V8 fires up with a roar, subsiding to a muffled tick over; it’s something of anti-climax, given the SEL’s appearance. I slip the gearshift into ‘D’, and with light throttle the car responds effortlessly with its thrusting 299lb ft, which is fullon at 3000rpm. The floor-hinged throttle pedal is smooth and light, albeit with lots of travel, while the four-speed auto shifts unobtrusively. With the hushed exhaust this is a relaxing cruise, at least on smooth tarmac. Despite the darkness of the interior it still feels spacious in here, with good visibility. The driving position is comfortable and controls easy to reach, especially the indicators, wipers and headlamp flasher, all controlled on one stalk on the right-hand side. The instrument panel contains an ‘econometer’, adding to this car’s split personality.
If I adopt a press-on driving style, AMG’s suspension modifications restrain significant body roll. The Goodyears cling to the tarmac like chewing gum, making for heavier steering, compounded by the smaller diameter steering wheel. On poor surfaces the wheels tramline, made worse by the typically vague recirculating ball steering. On bumpy roads the AMG springs transmit levels of vibration that frankly don’t befit an S-Class.
However, on smooth roads the chassis provides reassuring composure. In the dry I’m able to enter 45-degree corners way quicker than looks possible, the suspension keeping the body level and stable. If I push my luck the SEL feels like it will understeer, with the weight of the engine making it nose heavy. If the need to brake hard and steer around an obstacle were to present itself, hopefully the ABS would come to my rescue.
Being the only George Harrison V126, caution is called for. All that cornering competency isn’t mirrored by the standard Mercedes seats which are springy and lacking support. They weren’t designed for this sharpened chassis. George could have had more supportive Recaros; maybe he thought them unnecessary because of the standard engine’s 231bhp? In conversation with Sir Jackie Stewart’s son Paul, who knows the car, he commented, ‘The car was simply a utility. It stood outside George’s Henley mansion in all weathers.’ Certainly the faded orange instrument needles point to an outdoor existence. In 16 years George covered just 32,000 miles – 2000 a year on average.
Bringing my mind back to the drive I floor the accelerator to see what this ‘shopping car’ will do. Despite a hesitant kickdown this is a helluva machine to collect groceries in. Dropping down a ratio to third, the car surges rapidly, suggesting that the published 0-60mph time of 8 seconds and a top speed of 127mph are realistic. Nevertheless the chassis is capable of handling more power; in that sense this feels like an entry-level AMG, but it’s certainly not a sheep in wolf’s clothing. The brakes are precise, inspiring confidence they’ll stop 3500kg of SEL.
The car’s owner-mirroring juxtaposition of character can also be felt in its driving experience. With tenacious grip this is a machine you can chuck around; that is until the SEL makes its dimensions felt. A 5.13-metre-long car going through a tight corner calls for an adjustment in driving style, particularly because of its length. It would be all too easy to clip kerbs with the rear wheels if you lapsed into absent-mindedness.
The obvious period rivals to the 500SEL V126 were the E23 BMW 7 Series and the Series III Jaguar XJ, although neither was as aerodynamically efficient and their engines couldn’t upstage the Mercedes 5.0-litre V8. Then there were the celebrity endorsements – in the Eighties the 126-series cars were an A-lister favourite. Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Michael Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Tom Jones and Freddie Mercury all had them, not to mention a galaxy of F1 stars. Anyone who went for the AMG engine upgrade on top of the body kit, suspension and interior upgrades was then in Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit territory, around £55,000. Of course the BMW and Jaguar attracted the attention of tuning houses too.
The Eighties was host to the peak of the tuning-house frenzy, when 126 owners were splashing cash on engine and suspension tuning complemented by lavish interior and exterior modifications. Firms like Gemballa and Zender created spaceship-like bodykits. Others like Styling-Garage were creating entirely new interiors and rebadging the cars as 1000SELs. In Belgium Duchatelet offered a menu of five upgrades under the Carat by Duchatelet badge – the most expensive of which added £53,000 to the price of the base car. Other stylists went even further, with Swiss firm Monteverdi basing its new Tiara saloon on the W126 platform; three were made. Against such a wild backdrop of tuner specials, this SEL AMG manages to look modest.
When George finally gave up his bespoke SEL, he passed it to long-time friend Ray Cooper and replaced it with a Mercedes-Benz CLK55 AMG, of course in black. Ray later sold the SEL to George’s guitar technician Alan Rogan, who after two years sold it to another musician, David Brewis. In 2018 David sold the SEL at auction for £43,400 including premium. Mike Pickles was the winning bidder. ‘I bought it via Paul Fareweather at Omega Auctions. I’d also bought the George Harrison Porsche 928 from Paul the year before. At the time I was planning a design museum and cars were to be a part of that. I imagined having the Beatle cars in the museum’s foyer as an attraction. Anyway, my dream of the museum hasn’t been realised yet. Maybe some of George’s financial good luck will rub off on me. Those George videos make all the difference to its provenance so I’ll keep it, whereas I sold the Porsche at Pebble Beach in August.
‘The engine has only covered 64,000 miles, maybe because of its poor fuel consumption that only a hugely successful rock star can afford! Next year I’m planning on a trip to Norway in it and will return via Hamburg as a homage to George.’
TECHNICAL DATA 1984 Mercedes-Benz 500SEL AMG V126
- Engine 4973cc V8, sohc per bank, electrical Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection
- Max Power 228bhp @ 4750rpm
- Max Torque 299lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission Four speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
- Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
- Suspension Front: independent, MacPherson struts, coil springs and anti-roll bar. Rear: multilink, coil springs and anti-roll bar.
- Brakes Servo-assisted ventilated discs all round with Bosch ABS
- Weight 3527kg
- Performance Top speed: 127mph
- Acceleration 0-60mph: 8.1 sec
- Fuel consumption 23mpg
- Cost new £49,000
- Classic Cars Price Guide £2800-£12,000 (standard 500SEL V126)
Despite George’s appreciation of privacy and sinister black cars, he curiously stopped short of tinting the SEL’s windows. Bodykit, Penta alloys and two-inch drop give the SEL a mean stance.
Piano-black picnic tables eat into that extra rear legroom Interior modifications include airbag-less four-spoke AMG wheel AMG suspension provides chuckability; standard seats not up for the party.
No AMG modifications here; a 109bhp upgrade to 340bhp would have cost another £13,000
‘Out steps George, Paul and Ringo. This car is rock and roll history’
Fresh from a £10,000 recomissioning, the SEL drives like it would have for the Beatles guitarist