The Collector Meet Neville Brown, owner of some of the wildest Mercedes tuner specials that you’ll ever see ‘The thrill is in the chasing down of unobtainium’ A fixation with overt German tuner specials means a never-ending hunt for obscure spare parts. Neville Brown has made that his lifeblood. Words Richard Mason. Photography Charlie Magee.
190E Brabus to 500SEC Hammer Inside an extreme Mercedes collection Meet the man whose garages are filled with weird and wonderful Mercedes
Says Neville Brown, ‘I just love modified cars. Unmodified cars bore me to death, but once they’ve got AMG, Lorinser, Koenig, or Brabus parts on them they’re like art to me; they intrigue me.’ Neville’s Mercedes-centric collection is a fusion of Teutonic, Middle- and Far-East flavours, with an American police car and a Ford Zodiac hot rod adding extra spice.
Neville has been collecting cars since he was 18, starting with Mini 1000s, an MGB then a Jensen Interceptor all in his first year. ‘I’m very influenced by other people’s cars. If I see something I like, I want one. When I moved out to the country and had space I could do more. I started obsessing about Mercedes SECs, but they had to be modified. It just went on and on and on.’
A pivotal moment was the discovery of Japanese modified classics. ‘They’re mad on cars, there are all these tuning shops. I went online and couldn’t believe what was out there. I’d never seen anything like it. I wish I had been around in the Eighties when all this was taking off, and I’d love to visit the Auto Fashion Factory in Yokohama. The things it was doing with Mercedes were just bonkers.’
Neville’s collection of car parts is equally impressive. ‘I’ve got sheds of stuff, I’ve lost track of it all – AMG spares still in their original Stratton wrappers, badges, wheels, TVs. All off Eighties cars.’
Neville’s cars are spread over a large site comprising timber garages that have grown with demand. Nearby a line of green opaque car storage bubbles conceal yet more exotica. Neville’s office is a time capsule with posters, signs, photos and models of cars and powerboats – another of Neville’s passions – all from the Eighties. With the tone set by the entrées, it’s time to explore the meat of the collection.
1990 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.6 ‘Brabus’ W201
Neville bought his first Mercedes when he was 25 years old, some 30 years ago, that sentimental link anchoring it in his collection. Inspired by a similar car Brabus had created for a senior executive, Neville got busy. ‘It has Brabus springs and dampers, uprated brakes with Tyrox discs all round shod with Brabus Monoblock wheels, and Brabus visual parts comprising bodykit and interior.
The wooden dash took me years to collect, so all the parts were in different shades. I took them to a wood specialist and showed him a picture of the dash in a Brabus catalogue. He recreated the exact colour, which is a Brabus light Zebrano.’ Neville has kept the engine standard, but like any classic car owner there is always one thing left to do – in this case fitting a Brabus exhaust.
1971 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
What’s this doing in a collection that could easily be mistaken for a satellite Mercedes museum? ‘It’s from my earlier youth when I was heavily into American muscle cars. I’ve had this one modified to 7.7 litres; Weslake Engineering did work on the cylinder heads. My biggest regret is not getting an automatic; this is a four-speed manual with a Hurst shifter. It’s not easy to drive – it’s more of a track car – although more valuable because only 885 were made.’ One to keep, then? ‘No, now it’s all sorted I’m happy to sell it.’
1987 Mercedes-Benz 1000SEC Widebody C126
‘This was my first modified Mercedes. I bought it as a genuine Widebody – for example the extended rear wings are steel, rather than the glassfibre of the replicas. It was supplied with correct AMG suspension, exhaust, steering wheel and dials by Normands of Bromley. I heard about it from Mercedes dealer Rose & Young of Redhill. I was always badgering the staff about AMG stuff and they began to take an interest in me. They mentioned a client had this car for sale although the wheels were scruffy. So I bought it and fitted 24 carat gold-plated wheels from a Saudi car.
‘The gold badging is typical of Eighties tuning houses giving names like 1000SEC or 10000SEC – nothing to do with the engine. This one is a standard 5.6-litre car producing 300bhp. For several years it was my daily driver to and from the station but then the collection expanded and I started using my Pontiac Trans Am Convertible to commute. After six years of it sitting around I’ve had it recommissioned by American Auto Parts – I’m ready to part with it because I have another Widebody SEC.’
1985 Mercedes-Benz 500SEC Hammer Widebody C126
I wonder why Neville has let one of the rarest Mercs on the planet become a haven for spiders, covered in dust. ‘Well, I bought it years ago planning to put the engine into a Mercedes SEL, would you believe. However, I then found another Hammer engine, so this wasn’t needed and has just sat. Obviously the market for these has now changed and taking the engine out would have been criminal. This is one of six right-hand-drive cars, basically sound, just in need of recommissioning.’ The SEC is on Neville’s ‘to-do list’ because he has an SEL with an identical engine to fettle, which will produce a matching pair – another of Neville’s passions.
‘AMG’s UK agent, Stratton, took delivery of six AMG 5.0-litre engines – the quad-cam 32-valve V8 produces 340bhp as opposed to the 228bhp of the standard 5.0-litre. One went into this car, one went into a W124 road-tested by Motor, another went into an SEL, then there were three others that we don’t know much about. On this car, Stratton fitted the engine along with a bodykit, suspension and a limited-slip differential, which was rare on an Eighties car. ‘The ‘Hammer’ name was coined by an American journalist who road-tested one saying, “It’s as subtle as a hammer.”’
1984 Mercedes-Benz 500SEC Gullwing Widebody Styling Garage Special C126
With its gullwing doors open, this black-over-white SEC is a showstopper. Neville takes up the story, ‘These cars were for Middle Eastern clients who liked hunting with birds of prey. The gear selector is in the shape of a falcon’s head. The idea was to drive along at 75mph with the doors up and the guy in the passenger seat would release the falcon, which would fly alongside. Remember, this was out in the desert, not Knightsbridge.
‘The total cost of this conversion was £170,000 on top of the basic £56,000 car. And this was in 1984. Styling Garage reckons 22 were made in various guises, some being sent to other stylists like Trasco Bremen for bespoke orders. With only 28,000 miles it’s like a new car and one of the few cars I’ve spent diddly squat on, apart from a few service items. There are some nice touches like hand-painted dials with gold needles, the speedo reading up to 350kph [217mph]. Two red buttons on the dash operate the hydraulic doors. The wheels were originally Remotec magnesium but they dissolved, so I replaced them with Werk 19-inch alloys with low-profile tyres. It drives really really well, straight, very firm, doesn’t tramline, and the exhaust has a lovely burble.’
1984 Mercedes-Benz 500SEL Styling Garage Special V126
Although it lacks the visual statement of its winged cousin, sitting in the Eighties opulence of the other Styling Garage SEC is like wearing an Armani suit with shoulder pads. It was a must-have car for Neville, considering his fondness of matching pairs. ‘This one is fitted with a Styling Garage bodykit and wheels, with Koni dampers. Inside there are picnic tables, side and rear privacy curtains, a fridge in the rear centre armrest, and above that a leather-covered cupboard for whisky glasses. The rear bucket seats recline individually.
‘Then there’s an Orion TV recessed into the front dash, controlled from a panel in the front centre console and fed by a boomerang antenna on the bootlid. A bespoke overhead console stretching the width of the roof houses a Clarion G80 radio, graphic equaliser, amplifier, joystick control and cassette deck. Anything that isn’t leather is covered in red suede, even the headlining. It has a falcon gear shift but the steering wheel is wrong – I need to find one to match the other car. My guess is these modifications cost nearly £100,000. This car went to Saudi Arabia first, then to Malaysia where it was used by a police chief. Then it was sold to my friend in Sweden, who in turn sold it to me. I’ve had it eight years. It’s all ready to run but I’ve never driven it on the road.’
2006 Ford Crown Victoria P71 Police Interceptor
Next is a near-unmarked police car previously used by a Massachusetts sheriff; a badge on the boot says ‘Police Interceptor’. So what’s the rationale behind this outlier? ‘I got this two years ago after I started reading about a US firm called ADTR, which specialises in tuning Crown Victorias – you can see where this is going! I have the original build sheet when it was bought for $25,000, and it includes many modifications like Kevlar bulletproof door linings, stab-proof metal sheets in the back of the front seats, and vinyl rear seats and floor coverings to make it easy to wash out. It also has the courtesy light delete so it wouldn’t attract attention when the door was opened.
‘I’ve made some cosmetic changes and I plan to fit more ADTR performance parts, but this is already a 150mph car; floor it at 100mph and it keeps on going. It has a police-spec 4.6-litre V8 engine with bigger intakes and other modifications including gearing; the springs are also tougher and dampers are stiffer, so it handles better. Then there’s an idler gauge to show how long the engine’s been running – these cars would spend hours with the engine idling during a stake-out because aircon was vital.
‘Enthusiasts are keen to buy these now the American police have switched to SUVs. It’s funny – when I’ve been driving it on the M25 people see it and sometimes they slow down. It’s as if they’ve watched too much American TV!’
1994 Mercedes-Benz E500 Limited W124
Next it’s back to Stuttgart specials and one that would give the Crown Victoria a run for its money. The E500 was hand-built for Mercedes by Porsche, but with no Porsche parts. It had shattering performance, with 60mph coming up in six seconds dead and a derestricted top speed of 178mph, so the chassis was strengthened and given lower, stiffer suspension to cope. It also boasted four Recaro seats and flared wheelarches.
But that wasn’t enough for Neville, ‘The Limited had a grey leather interior with a bespoke pattern on the seats and doorcards. I’ve had the car refurbished in the style of the Auto Fashion Factory of Yokohama, which was very influential with this type of car.
There’s a Raid steering wheel plus refurbished Birdseye Maple wood trim, and the plastic has been sprayed black. So this is how Auto Fashion would have done it, but I’ve had to have its stickers made here. I’ve also fitted an AMG ducktail spoiler, AMG wheels and gauges, and more powerful Brembo brakes from the special-edition R129 Silver Arrow. The car was imported from Japan two years ago, and I’ve had it a year. I’ve driven it a lot and it’s fantastic.’
1988 Mercedes-Benz C124 300CE Twin Turbo ‘Brabus’
‘This started life as a standard 300CE, which then had some Carat Duchatelet modifications. Later it had a Turbo Technics twinturbo package fitted by Mercedes dealer Hughes of Beaconsfield, which specialised in this £8000 conversion – not cheap but with a big boost in power from 180bhp to 307bhp. The car had also been lowered on Lorinser suspension, so it looked very cute. Wheels were standard but it had a quick-ratio steering box, probably the Sportline type. I’ve got all the Hughes bills so I know exactly what was done. I sourced the Brabus parts – wheels, rocker cover, stickers, bodykit – from Germany, and also found a new set of Brabus springs, dampers and exhaust sections. I’ve fitted a Brabus steering wheel and new dials – except for the one below the glovebox, which is the Turbo Technics boost gauge – but I left the Carat wood veneer in place; it has the company signature on the wood, which I quite like. I’ve even sourced the rear window sticker for the original suppliers Thompson and Taylor of Brooklands. Now she’s fully sorted and ready to go with 64,000 miles.’
What would he say to someone asking why it lacks a Brabus 3.6 engine? ‘It’s quicker than a Brabus, that’s what I’d say. The 3.6 is only 245bhp, so more than 60bhp down on this one.’
1984 Mercedes-Benz W123 ‘300AMG’
One car that generates more enthusiasm in Neville is the humblest of his collection, ‘It was originally a bog-standard 240 diesel, but at some point it was converted to a 3.0-litre M103 engine with the interior from a W126. The electrics were all bundled up and slung inside, the propshaft was too short – it was a complete nightmare. ‘We trailered it back here and set to work.
What attracted me to it was that the hard work, the engine conversion, had already been done. So we tidied up the electrics and installed the electric front-seat controls at the bottom of the dashboard. I fitted an AMG steering wheel and had all the wood trim redone in piano black, which is an AMG colour of the time. A departure was fitting a CB radio in a phone format – very rare but of the time. Then there’s the stereo linked to the four vintage Eighties Pioneer speakers on the rear parcel shelf – the rubbers had perished so I sourced a repair kit from Germany and had them rebuilt.
‘The black AMG side stripes were made for me by some guys in California. They normally do them for the coupé, but did a one-off set for me. I have photos of the saloons with the stripes, so they’re period correct. This car was always gold, although it has been resprayed.
‘The Hella spotlamps all work. I had some bonnet pins hanging around so I decided to fit them. Really I tried to use up as many of my parts as I could almost as a way of getting rid of them. ‘Don’t ask me what it’s like to drive because I’ve never driven it, but after today I’m going to get it insured and use it. It’s been a project of love.’
‘I’ve got too many – 31, madness. People say surely the Gullwing. It all depends what I’m focused on at any one time. Right now it would be the E500, it’s the most modern to drive, fun and quick. ‘But if someone came up with the money they could have the lot! For me the thrill is in hunting down obscure parts, and I’d happily do it all over again.’
‘I’d planned to take the engine out of the Hammer and put it into an SEL, would you believe’
THE COLLECTION IN FULL
1971 Pontiac Trans Am
1972 Ford Zodiac hot-rod
1980 Jeep Cherokee Chief Laredo 5.9
1982 500SEL Brabus supercharged
1982 190E AMG 2.0 Widebody
1982 190E Zender 2.0
1984 SGS 1000SEL
1984 SGS 1000SEC
1984 W123 AMG saloon 3.0
1985 AMG SEL
1985 AMG SEC Hammer
1985 500SL AMG
1985 C123 Lorinser
1987 560SEC AMG
1987 190E Cosworth Mosselmann Turbo
1987 190E Lorinser 2.6
1988 C124 300CE Brabus twin-turbo
1989 VW Golf GTI 16V
1989 W124 300CE Widebody
1989 300TE24 Widebody
1989 Range Rover Lichfield TVR Power 5.0
1990 190E Brabus 2.6
1991 190E AMG twin-turbo
1992 W124 400E AMG 4.2
1994 W124 E500 Limited
1994 W124 E320T
2002 ML55 AMG
2006 VW Touareg 5.0 V10 twin-turbo
2006 GMC Yukon XL
2006 Ford Crown Victoria police car
‘It was a must-have car for Neville, considering his fondness of matching pairs’
Neville’s tuner-car passion began 30 years ago with this Brabus-tribute 190E W201
Hen’s-teeth Hammer has been left to collect dust – but it could have been worse... 1000SEC badge is pie in the sky but 24 carat goldplated wheels are the real deal Trans Am is a carry-over from a previous fixation with US muscle cars... ...and has had its engine enlarged to 7.7 litres.
1000SEC badge is pie in the sky but 24 carat goldplated wheels are the real deal. ‘Brabus’ 190E retains its original 2.6-litre straight-six. Hen’s-teeth Hammer has been left to collect dust – but it could have been worse...
500SEC-based SGS Gullwing is believed to be one of a handful left in existence ...and gave it chrome wheels and a Mustang splitter Boomerang antenna for SGS 500SEL’s dashboard TV... ...and Maybach levels of amenity in the rear.
Ex-police Crown Vic was a 150mph car before Neville got his hands on it... The Styling Garage 500SEL was previously owned by a Malaysian police chief. The W123 is a homebrewed concoction of AMG, Lorinser and sundry components. Neville reveals remnants of a life before tuned Mercedes. C124 300CE was bought with twin-turbo upgrade. W124 Mercedes-Benz E500 Limited now sports an AMG ducktail spoiler