Sedanic Majesties We drive a pair of Mercedes-Benz V126s first owned by Rolling Stone and Rhythm King Bill Wyman. Will you be their next owner? On the road in Bill Wyman’s personal tour buses – a pair of Mercedes-Benz V126 S-classes. ‘I love them but they’re wasting their time in my garage.’ Former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman has decided to sell his two Mercedes SELs, and we drive them. Words Richard Mason. Photography Alex Tapley.
Bill Wyman’s Merc driven… and you can buy them. The 560SEL V126 (left) was first owned by Mick Jagger and then bought from him by fellow Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, who also owns the 500SEL V126 on the right…
F[/dropcap]inding and testing two Mercedes once the daily drivers of Bill Wyman and Mick Jagger is a challenge I relish. The internet grapevine tells me a fuel tank is needed for a Mercedes belonging to one of The Rolling Stones. In the last two years I’ve found Ayrton Senna’s and George Harrison’s Mercedes, so maybe it’s third time lucky – I know where to find a tank. Sure enough this tenuous thread leads me to Bill Wyman. Maybe it helps that I am the custodian of the ex-Harrison Mercedes-Benz 500SEL AMG V126, and Bill knew George.
With trust established, the deal is for me to drive to a farm in Suffolk and await instructions. Arriving beside a range of barns, all of 500 years old, a curly-haired chap beckons me. I follow his silver Volvo Bertone 262C along narrow lanes at a fair old clip, all the while thinking, didn’t David Bowie have one of those? We turn through a small entrance as an automatic gate glides open. A neat tarmac road leads us past a 13th century fortified manor house, Wyman’s UK home, complete with moat, to a long low garage with three sets of green double doors.
The cars I’ve come to see are both Mercedes V126 models, a 500 and a 560. The V code denotes the SEL, which has a 140mm longer wheelbase than the W126 SE version. Bill now owns both cars, although the 560 was bought new by Mick Jagger. By way of reciprocity I have turned up in George Harrison’s car. The V126 was clearly the rock stars’ car of choice – Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and Rod Stewart were also known to have owned them. My curly-haired guide turns out to be car restorer Tony Davey. He’s known Wyman for decades and worked on many of his cars, including a Citroën-Maserati SM.
Wyman will forever be known as being a key member of The Rolling Stones, although he left 25 years ago after 31 years with the band. Since then he’s expanded into some intriguing areas, including archeology and metal detecting. Now 81, he’s not only written a book on the subject, but also designed his own metal detector. Another of Wyman’s ventures is Sticky Fingers, an upmarket restaurant in Kensington. The list goes on – film scores, photography; he’s also authored seven books and kept a lifelong diary. And then there’s his own band, The Rhythm Kings.
Davey opens the garage doors. My gaze takes in cars dating back to 1970. Dust sheets galore attest to the fact that none has moved in a while, except for a silver 500SEL and a blue 560SEL. Even so it’s 25 years since the 500 was regularly used and eight years for the 560. Davey has been busy recommissioning both cars, hence the need for the tank. Despite my arriving in George’s SEL, Davey decides it’s safer for him to manouvre each car out of the garage. In the daylight the cars look superficially similar because they share the same body style. But there’s no hiding the eight-year age difference evidenced by each car’s characteristic stance reflecting different wheel dimensions, suspension set-up, and period body mouldings and bumpers. I know I’m going to have fun in the 560. It looks purposeful, poised with a perfect ride height on 15-inch, 15-hole alloys. Blacked-out windows add allure, complemented by pearl blue paintwork. Just two things are letting the side down – the tyres aren’t a premium brand, and the offside front wing and bumper colour doesn’t quite match the rest of the car. It must have been pranged, as indeed I will discover later.
By contrast the 500 is from an earlier generation, known as a ‘Gen 1’. It’s the first S-class to have plastic bumpers, albeit with chrome inserts, blending with corrugated side body mouldings, reminiscent of a Citroën H-van. Sitting on 14-inch Mexican Hat-style alloys diminishes its presence – for me they’re too small for a car of this size, especially one in a light colour. Not surprisingly these features never made it to ‘Gen 2’ cars. The 500’s paint is more faded than the 560 but these old Mercs have a wonderful ability to ‘come back’ with the correct treatment. Several AA badges add a certain domesticity.
My visit is much more than a critique of classic cars but instead to empathise with the owner about their sentimental value, and their place in rock history. I get to meet the former Stones bassist. Starting at the beginning I ask Wyman why he chose a 500SEL. ‘In March 1982 Mick Jagger’s right-hand man and purchasing supremo, Alan Dunn, suggested I buy a new or secondhand Mercedes-Benz 280SE. This was while I was in a studio in Ayers Rock, Australia working with the Stray Cats.’
Alan’s suggestion is not surprising – the 280SE had a great reputation. Performance is respectable, 0-60mph in ten seconds and a top speed of 130mph from 179bhp. But it’s not a rock star’s car. Only a 500SEL can provide that kind of presence and pace, its 5.0-litre V8 producing 228bhp, taking 1.63 tonnes to 60mph in eight seconds. Wyman’s 500 was delivered on Friday 12 November 1982. ‘I was over the moon,’ he says. ‘It was a wonderful car to drive, and almost drove itself. I would use it from that day on, to drive from London to my home in Vence, à la south of France.’
Bill has just one photo of himself taken on delivery of the car, but I have another photo with a chap beside him. ‘He’s the guy from the Mercedes dealer who delivered the car,’ says Wyman. ‘We are outside the garage at my house at the time, at 1a Mulberry Walk, Chelsea.’
Actually the car was being delivered by a close friend of Alan Dunn’s, Bill Fryer of WF Fryer Cars, an independent dealer based in London’s West End. SELs were always in short supply, so Bill’s car had come from Swindon and Mick’s from Southend. George Harrison’s was from Glasgow. Wyman immortalised the 500SEL in his autobiographical film Digital Dreams. It’s seen with headlights blazing near the old London docks, registration RMR 542Y. His 500 has one feature almost unique on any Mercedes. I didn’t see it at first, but the three-pointed star on the radiator has a thicker, wider base and looks as if it retracts. In the film it’s standard, so clearly something happened along the way. Wyman explains, ‘While parked in London, fans would steal the Mercedes star from the bonnet. I was continually replacing it.’ The vacuum-operated replacement is designed to retract into the safety of the radiator housing.
Bill continues, ‘It was my car for all occasions, including recording sessions in Paris and London.’ But the triple-digit odometer shows just 14,800 miles which doesn’t tie in with Bill’s description of extensive use. Then again, the leather interior is hardly worn so the mileage could be true. Bill provides documents revealing a speedo replacement and after some quick maths this suggests a realistic mileage of about 116,000.
The SEL’s top speed of 137mph came to Bill’s rescue on at least one occasion. ‘I had a crazy chase with the paparazzi from Vence, and lost them on the motorway to Monte Carlo,’ he recalls. Later, sitting in the amply sprung driver’s seat, it’s difficult for me to imagine a high-speed car chase. The interior oozes old-school charm. Zebrano wood veneer, still bright, complements the navy blue leather. The driver’s bolster has light wear, the carpets are still dark and even the carpeted rear foot rests are intact. Cargo nets on the seat backs complete the late Seventies feel.
Beside the rear electric window switch on the door is a second switch. I press it down, there’s a whirring sound in the boot and the rear bench seat reclines – a real party trick. Air conditioning, rear air vents and a sunroof complete the luxury package as judged by the standards of the day, although there are no airbags. Later a phone was added – no longer functioning being analogue. Imagine the conversations it transmitted.
All the while, Mick Jagger was strutting his stuff in an even more option-laden 560SEL, mechanically in a different league. ‘I bought it from Mick in 1993,’ Wyman recalls vividly – that was the year he left the Stones. ‘He must have liked it – he had it three years before he sold it to me, and he had a phone and TV installed. There are no photos of either of us with the car, unfortunately.’
Jumping from the 500 into the 560 it’s clear why Bill traded up. The seats are supportive and opulent, the cream leather gives visual comfort that the navy blue of the 500 can’t match. The burr walnut veneer on the dashboard and door caps is a rich tone that works well with the leather. Orthopaedic front seats are another comfort although I’m finding it challenging mastering the controls of the vacuum system. Eventually I find a supportive setting. The seats are electrically adjustable with a two-position memory. Incorporating the ‘Gen 2’ extra sound-deadening, the silence and stillness is like a library. Dark-blue tinted windows complete your seclusion from the outside world.
Front and rear seats are heated. The rear seats also recline but the seat belts aren’t reassuring in that position. The squab goes forward and the angle of backrest changes, making it more like a sofa. Just the right position to watch the TV from.
‘We had to remove the TV because it was constantly overheating,’ says Bill. ‘But the roof aerial is still fitted.’ A possibly superluous accessory was the snow chain switch. Its function is to moderate the traction control when snow chains are fitted. When you add in the map reading lights and fire extinguisher – useful for the telly – this car really has everything. Well, not quite; the 500 has an AA Home Start sticker on the rear window.
The car’s documents show Mick put about 40,000 miles on the clock and Bill’s added another 120,000. It too has had a speedo replacement. In the last seven years the car has done 35 miles. Why has it fallen out of favour? Bill’s entirely logical response, ‘I found it easier to travel in our four-door Mercedes ML320 with luggage and the new family. So I just garaged it. I now travel by train everywhere – I’m too old to drive everywhere now.’
So, why hadn’t he sold the 500 when he replaced it? ‘The prices offered for used cars in those days were pretty much an insult and so I kept it garaged, as I did with all of my Mercedes cars and my Citroen Maserati.’ This reminded me that Fryers had unsuccessfully tried to sell Mick’s 6.3 for Ј12,500 in 1986.
Eventually Mick took that car to the USA although it’s now back in the UK still sporting its original Hampshire registration, CAA 839K, and with 89,700 miles to its credit.
The retirement of the 560 was gradual. Even after Bill got the ML the 560 continued its transcontinental routine on the 900-mile run from London to Vence. As Bill says, ‘I was forever thankful for my decision to buy it as it was a dream to drive for 14 to 15 hours.’ In fact he travelled all over Britain, Europe and Scandinavia in it, on holidays, for weekend trips with the family, and to and from shows with the Rhythm Kings.
Two special memories stand out. The first, ‘It was this car I drove with Suzanne to the South of France to be married in April 1993.’ The ill-matching colour on the offside wing is the clue to the other memory, ‘It was on my way back from France to London – I drove most of the way. My security guy took over for me to have a nap and he fell asleep at the wheel. The car crashed sideways into a motorway barrier on the right. The doors and side of the car were damaged, but it was still possible to drive.’
Bill agrees I can drive each car, so I head out from the confines of his estate and find a disused airfield nearby for some high-speed runs. Driving them is a revelation. The easiest to live with is Mick’s 560, with its ASR traction control, 10mm smaller steering wheel, and powerful ABS progressive brakes. The potholed runway is all but dismissed by the 560SEL’s all-round hydraulic suspension. Dampers are adjustable via a switch above the aircon dial. The default setting is soft, but with a more sporty driving style this automatically stiffens. Pressing the switch also takes things into sports mode, and if the ride quality doesn’t remind you, a red indicator light in the switch surely will. Talking of reminders, there is an economy gauge in the main instrument cluster – a bit out of place in a car like this.
On the deserted runway at 75mph I try to sense if the suspension is lowering the car 24mm as claimed in the handbook. What is unmistakable is that the tyres are having a hard time. Meanwhile, the 560 engine delivers turbine-like push right through the rev range, making this car effortless to drive and wonderfully quiet on normal surfaces. Gearshifts are perceptible but that’s to be expected on these bullet-proof four-speed hydraulic ’boxes.
On a fast run through the lanes I keep reminding myself I have more behind me than in front. Such is the poise of the 560 it feels like a smaller car, but if the back end breaks away it will act like a massive pendulum that will take some catching. The car’s length and commensurately long wheelbase need accommodating on tight corners – it needs space, you’ll clout the kerb if you go in too tight. The suspension and ASR make this an easy car to hustle along, with responsive enough steering for a recirculating ball system. There’s little in the way of shock or vibration coming through the steering, but it feels a little remote.
I could get used to this. There’s no doubt this is still one of the finest saloons to come out of Sindelfingen, even 27 years later and with a six-digit mileage. It’s simply lovely.
If I had driven Bill’s 500SEL on 9 November 1982, when first registered, I would have been bowled over by its looks, its size and the aroma of its rich blue leather interior. It’s a tribute to Mercedes that a car launched in 1979 can still impress, even with those small wheels. The seats are large, springy and lacking lateral support, and the steering wheel is bigger than the 560’s. The cockpit feels so different from the car I’ve just exited. Starting the 5.0-litre V8 is a protracted affair, no doubt thanks to lack of use. Nevertheless it’s almost silent at tickover, with no hint of vibration or unevenness, which cannot be said of the 560.
Heading of down the muddy lanes the car feels lighter and less well planted on the road. The balance is similar, again with the feeling that there’s an awful lot behind me. Steering is light although it seems a little less connected than the 560’s, but we know recirculating ball systems lack feel.
The 500 engine doesn’t have as much torque but it’s adequate for brisk progress. Floor the accelerator and the nose rises in response to a 228bhp shove. It may lack the driver aids and creature comforts of the 560, and crucially the all-round hydraulic suspension, but the 500 glides along, and by the standards of the day it was among the best. I recall Bill saying he felt the car could drive itself, and I’m having the same experience. Of course comfort compromises handling, so it’s not surprising that when I start to press on the body rolls heavily, and the reserve fuel warning light is flickering as if to say ‘back of’. Damping feels stiffer although given this car’s lack of use the suspension won’t be at its best. Adequate brakes lack the reassurance of the 560’s which instinctively makes me cautious.
Comparing unfavourably a car that is eight years back down the road in terms of development cycle, and one that’s been standing for the best part of a quarter of a century, is not fair play. It’s simply a different car to drive. I know it will whisk me to the South of France given 160 litres of fuel and no paparazzi.
If you want to cross continents, the 560 will get you there in supreme comfort. If you want a retractable three-pointed star and the provenance bestowed by a rock star’s video then Bill’s 500 is the one. And both cars have spent many years in a warm garage away from the damp, resulting in robust bodywork.
The accident history on the 560 is apparent but it’s better not to change it because it’s all part of the provenance – which is especially important because Bill is selling both cars. But before they go to auction at the Omega Auctions sale in September, Bill is allowing them to be exhibited at Mercedes-Benz World in Weybridge, Surrey. It’s a free exhibition, just don’t pinch the star. I ask why Bill’s selling them now. ‘They are wasting their time in my garage after some great times,’ he says. ‘We’ve been to wonderful places together.’ What do you say to the new owners? ‘Take care of them just as I have – with love and affection.’