Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice on the unwritten laws of 500SEL AMG ownership. For Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice, winding down after concerts involved high-speed, late-night blasts in his customised supercharged Mercedes-Benz 500SEL V126. Words Richard Mason. Photography Dean Smith.
HIGHWAY STAR Cover Highway Star Deep Purple legend Ian Paice on three decades of life with his meanstreak Mercedes-Benz 500SEL AMG 126-Series.
Trawling online classic car ads my attention is caught by a supercharged Mercedes-Benz 500SEL V126 with an AMG bodykit. Even more intriguing, it belongs to Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice. Having spent seven months driving the ex-George Harrison 500SEL AMG I’m keen to speak to the owner of another, and being supercharged it’s possibly the only one in the country. Incidentally, Ian and George were great friends. My curiosity is rewarded and I’m now standing in a farmyard in deepest Oxfordshire, to rendezvous with Ian.
Swirling dust on the unmade road alerts me to a black VW Golf, the rhythmic lash of its lights suggesting this is our man. Sure enough, Ian jumps out wearing a blue shirt and jeans, with hair in a ponytail. He mentions he’s busy, which is an understatement – he’s in the middle of a 110-concert tour taking in 34 countries that began in May 2017 and ends in Mexico in November 2018. It’s aptly named The Long Goodbye Tour.
‘I was flat-out approaching what was a gentle bend, but at 160mph it felt like a U-turn. I’d had fast cars before but this was a big fast car’
On the short drive to his house we pass through electric gates guarded by stone eagles and cruise up a long curving drive, eventually swapping tarmac for gravel. Entering a homely atmosphere of grandkids and toys, Ian directs me to a room decorated with gold discs. Deep Purple has sold over 100 million albums. Soon he returns with a cup of tea that I’m sure he’s brewed himself, such is his down-to-earth no-nonsense manner.
‘When I first passed my test I drove a Hillman Minx automatic – I thought it was better than walking while I waited for delivery of my Jaguar XJ6. Later I got a straight-six Aston DBS, but in Germany I was being blitzed of the road by Golfs. This great heavy lump with the underpowered engine, I hated the damn thing. I replaced it with one of the first XJ12s, simply fabulous. Driving that flat-out, six-up, was, shall we say, not good for your health. I got into Porsches and Ferraris but then eventually Rolls-Royces because I was going too fast – I needed something more sedate. Plus the heater in the Porsche was no good – what’s the point of paying all that money if you’re freezing?’
I ask if George Harrison’s V126 500SEL had influenced his purchase, especially with its extrovert AMG treatment? ‘Not really. Having been through all the sports cars and done the Rolls-Royce thing I decided I needed something with more room but more ire. In the early Eighties there weren’t many fast, dependable luxurious cars around – Mercedes-Benz had it completely bottled up then.’
Ian bought the car in late 1985 and sent it straight to Duncan Hamilton & Co for some upgrades, hence it not being registered until May 1986 with the local Reading plate C875 RJH. ‘It had twin reclining heated bucket seats, but otherwise it was a standard 126-Series Mercedes-Benz 500SEL. Hamiltons installed a rear entertainment system – I wanted a little Sony Video Walkman but they installed an eight-inch telly, which turned it into more of a chaufeur’s car. Two years later someone smashed a window while it was parked outside a studio in London and nicked the lot. It did me a favour – I could then replace it with what I wanted originally. Despite that and the rear bucket seats I hardly ever sat in the back. I was having too much fun driving it.’ And the obligatory boot mounted boomerang TV aerial? ‘When the Sony was installed it worked well enough from a small external aerial. I found at certain speeds there was slight noise created by the boomerang, so it went.’
Back to the heart of the car, the engine. Instead of supercharging it, why not go for a 560SEL like Paul McCartney? ‘Well at that time only a 500 was available; the 560SEL V126 (W126 SWB-version of 5.6-litre was not in production) came a year later. So to make it go quicker supercharging was the best option. Six weeks after delivery I was driving to Munich to do some recording. On the road from Munich to Innsbruck early one Sunday morning there was nothing about, I was flat-out approaching what was a gentle bend. But the G-force was such at 160mph it felt like a U turn. Even faster downhill, that much weight. I’d had fast cars before but this was a big fast car. Very different. I’d had several Rolls but they’re not fast – you ‘proceed’. Flooring the Merc’s throttle at 70 mph was like being in a jet.’
Speaking of which, why not fly to recording sessions? ‘There’s no point in having a 150mph car if you don’t sometimes go over 75mph. Otherwise you might as well have a Ford Fiesta. It was my toy, and I wanted to enjoy it somewhere where I wasn’t watching the mirror all the time. And it was a great deal of fun.
‘It doesn’t look like an accountant’s car. Probably back then people would see me but not necessarily recognise me, and just think I was a lucky gift with long hair who had a fast car. I used it regularly from 1986 until 2004, I was loathe to sell it so it just stayed in the garage after that. I knew I would never drive it again, but maybe guys tend to hoard things. That car relates to a period in time that I always go back to when I see the car.’
The Mercedes was no stranger to concerts, provided there was controlled parking. Surely after a gig the last thing Ian wanted was to drive home? ‘I’d have the car brought to the back door so that I could just get in and drive home, especially for UK concerts like Cardiff or Sheffield. A few miles from the venue I would pull over to change clothes. I saw no point in staying overnight in places I could get home from. I still do that to this day. I can come home, have a bath, relax with a beer, it’s like a night of compared with being stuck in a hotel. I’ve even done it from Lille – it was the last night of the tour, the overnight drive was fun.
I challenge Ian’s idea of fun – surely being pumped up with post-concert adrenalin and then driving is a hazardous combination? ‘If you’re on stage for 10 minutes there’s that rush, but after you’ve been onstage two hours you’re physically fatigued with all this sound in your head. Being in the car is a haven of quiet, like a retreat. It’s like after a long plane light, getting in the car seems quiet because your ears are knackered. So I keep the radio of, I’m in my own little bubble, I don’t have to talk to anybody, and I actually come down from that high very gently. For me it works great. At that time of night there’s little traffic, so I get home safely and peacefully. You could say I do it for health reasons!
‘The first time I drove the Merc to Germany I was stopped at the French/ Belgian border by French customs. With all the gear in the back it looked like a drug dealer’s car. They thoroughly checked the car and then made me strip. Then just as I was leaving, “Oh Mr Paice can we have your autograph?” No, sod of!
The colour creates some debate, ‘Bluey-greeney, I don’t know what you call it.’ The official name for it is 199-Blue Black. Opening the bonnet reveals a unique engine bay – it has extra plumbing for the supercharger, a smaller BMW air filter, a modified aluminium radiator header tank and tuned manifolds. This is a kit sold by Dutch firm Mosselman, comprising bespoke and of-shelf items, hence the air box being BMW. Hamiltons then fitted the kit making adjustments to the timing, fuel pressure and plugs.
‘Back in 1984 we had just reformed Deep Purple and we had a big injection of cash from the record companies. I’m not a frugal guy but I’m not stupid either. I deserved a toy and this was my present to myself.’ Ian recalls Hamiltons saying it made around 300bhp on the rolling road, 72bhp more than standard. The Stage 2 kit with more boost and a special exhaust had 340bhp.
In hindsight was it was worth £55,000 all-in when a Rolls was £15,000 cheaper? ‘Like most things, no matter how good they are, after a while you want to try something else. Although I had this lovely automatic car I fancied going back to a manual, so I got an Audi S4. Ten years on with so much traffic I want an auto again.’ So why is he parting with his toy? ‘I realised it was in a bit of a state – it had been sat there 12 or 14 years, even though every six months or so I would turn the engine over and charge the battery. No point putting it in drive because the oil seals in the gearbox had gone. I thought “we can’t have that”. So I asked Sebastian Durrant of Haileywood Specialist Cars to give it some TLC and make it go again. Afterwards he suggested I sell it because I wasn’t going to drive it again. I thought, who would want a 30-year-old car?’ We’ll find that out when it goes to auction in November, but in the meantime Ian is happy for me to go exploring the Oxfordshire back roads while he gets back to his world tour. Apart from a three-mile trip for its MoT, C875 RJH hasn’t moved in 15 years.
Opening the driver’s door, that familiar smell of old leather greets me. The lambs-wool overmats are sumptuous, with little sign of use – clearly this car was only used by one person. It’s pristine and barely run-in with 88k on the clock. Turning the key, the V8 responds with a whoosh then settles into uneven tick over, uncharacteristic of the 500. Will an ‘Italian Tune Up’ sort this out? Too early to say as I head out past the glare of the stone eagles.
At rest the supercharger is undetectable; even the exhaust is subdued. On the move the steering demands extra effort compared to a standard car, no doubt thanks to those non-AMG replacement tyres and wheels. Like any W126 it exudes presence, amplified by the 140mm-longer V126 wheelbase, and not even the black decor can shrink the cavernous interior. Usually it’s all about driving the car but in this case I can’t help wondering what it’s like sitting in the rear electrically heated reclining bucket seats, watching the TV. And this is the point – it looks like a limousine with panache, but when the power is applied and the bends tighten it’s anything but; think Eighties Porsche, albeit without the all-or-nothing drama of an Eighties turbocharged engine.
The lowered and stiffened suspension of Ian’s SEL is ill-suited to potholed British roads. Heading into deepest Oxfordshire the hard ride and bump-thump from the 18-inch wheels isn’t relaxing. But this car doesn’t want relaxed, it wants focus and commitment, offering exhilaration in return. It beckons you to explore its limits. Taking up the invite on B-roads with good visibility, it’s easy to push on, forgetting this is a large car. The supercar grip isn’t matched by the seat; this car cries out for Recaros. The suspension modifications render the optional hydraulic self-levelling rear suspension superluous, just unnecessary weight. Mercedes did a good job with the basic design, there’s no power-of oversteer.
Chuck the car at a corner and it hangs on until hitting a pothole. The ensuing jolt unsettles the Mercedes. Unnerving, because I sense the 1655kg weight could easily overtake grip yet it behaves with great poise. Braking hard for blind bends is like treading on a brick, lacking the progression and reassurance of a 560. Yes they work, but maybe the new pads need bedding in. But faced with road-greedy SUVs, the 1820mm-wide Merc feels Lotus Seven-low. Uneven roads feed back through the steering as tramlining tugs the wheels this way and that, needing constant correction to stay on course. The recirculating ball system feels woolly, particularly in the straight ahead position. It’s clear why Ian got his enjoyment on smooth autobahns. I’m in the wrong playground.
In normal driving there’s ample power at all times. On an open stretch of road I use kickdown but it’s not launch-control-quick until 2500rpm when the blower makes its contribution felt and the nose rises briefly before being neutralised by the self-levelling rear suspension. Cars behind that were close enough for me to read their registrations are now a dot.
Reminding me that this is C875 RJH’s first outing in decades, the engine hesitates. Has the ‘Italian Tune Up’ given it indigestion? Perhaps sediment in the tank has been disturbed, clogging the filter, hence the distress of the fuel pumps. Nothing for it but to quit while we’re ahead and return the car to Ian.
So does he really want to part with it? There are a few snagging issues but this car is nearly ready for its own comeback tour. Ian is resolute. ‘It’s still a lovely thing, I love the way it looks and if I ever thought I was going to enjoy it again on the road I would probably keep it. But I know I’m not. It’s time to kiss it goodbye. Let somebody else have fun with it or just look at it. Whatever they decide to do with it.’
What would he say to the new owner? ‘Have a good credit card for the fuel,’ Ian says with a chuckle.
‘No, it’s not that bad – 20 to the gallon. Enjoy it!’ C875 RJH comes up for auction on November 27 at the OMEGA Music auction (www.omegaauctions.co.uk).
‘Back in 1984 we had just reformed Deep Purple and we had a big injection of cash. The Mercedes-Benz was my present to myself’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1985 Mercedes V126 500SEL AMG Supercharged V126 (LWB)
Engine 4973 cc sohc V8, Paxton supercharger, Bosch KE-Jetronic electronically controlled mechanical fuel injection
Max Power 300bhp @ 4750rpm as tested DIN (231bhp @ 4750rpm standard)
Max Torque 368lb ft @ 3500rpm as tested DIN (299lb ft @ 3000rpm standard)
Transmission Four-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Steering Power-assisted recirculating ball
Suspension Front: wishbones, AMG coil springs, gas-filled dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: independent, semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, self-levelling hydraulic system, anti-roll bar
Brakes Servo-assisted discs, ABS
Performance Top speed: 153mph, 0-60mph: 7sec;
Fuel Consumption 20mpg
Cost new £55,000
Auction estimate £15-20k
Recomissioning Ian Paice’s Supercharged 500SEL
Sebastian Durrant of Haileywood Specialist Cars fires up his laptop to go through the work he’s done on Ian’s 500SEL 126-Series. ‘It had to be trailered here because there was no fluid in the auto transmission, and the brakes were seized up. We fitted new calipers to the rear and reconditioned those on the front because new ones aren’t available.
The rear suspension had dropped because the hydraulic spheres had perished and the pipes corroded. Both ball joints needed replacing, but we didn’t replace the springs – it’s still on the originals.
‘We used original Mercedes parts as far as possible. The water pump and radiator had leaks, and the fuel pipes were corroded and the sender unit not sending. We replaced the fuel pumps and had the bracket powder coated. The bonnet was removed to it new sound insulating foam because the original had dissolved. We replaced the supercharger tensioner bearing. All filters were replaced – the air filter is a BMW item because the Mosselmann kit used a modified BMW air filter box.
‘The washer bottle was jet washed because it had mould and its own little microclimate, horrible. All pipes and washer jets had to be cleaned out. The bodywork was cleaned and machine polished. Many nuts, bolts, washers and sundry items later it was finally on the road and running.’