Dakar Dud: This Mercedes-Benz 560SEC Was Built For Off-Road Endurance Racing In The ’80s
Photography by Robb Pritchard
From certain angles this lifted beast of a Benz looks like something you might find on the set of a Mad Max movie, but in the mid 1980s this 560 SEC was built for nothing less than the legendary Paris-Dakar Rally. Like I hope you are, I was curious to find out more about this unique S-Class.
Hans Jurgen Rauch runs a sizable quad/four-wheeler dealership in southern Germany, and he doesn’t claim to be a particularly big Mercedes fan, nor is the Dakar his dream drive, but while browsing the internet one night he came across an online advert for this monster and something just clicked. The fact that he could find no history about it was more intriguing than off-putting, but he assumed that the seller in France would tell him all he needed to know, so after hooking up a trailer he drove to Paris to find out if that was the case.
The seller, who spoke no English or German, didn’t seem to know anything though, and the attempt at communication revolved more around the fact that the car was in nowhere near the condition as it was advertised as being in. “It was painted in nice rainbow colors,” Hans explains. “But he’d really ruined it by just putting filler in the damaged body above the paint! I’d driven a long way to buy it, so we argued with our hands for about three hours before he agreed to let me have a suitable discount.”
Once back at its new home in southern Germany, Hans wasn’t too sure what he was going to do with his new purchase; the more he looked it over, the more it became obvious it was a very serious build under the questionable exterior elements. “It’s clearly not just some weekend project. For a start there is a complicated second frame to mount the body to the G-Wagen chassis, and the body is made with GPK [similar to fiberglass] and is expertly done, as it looks exactly like a 560 SEC should, and that’s a very skilled job indeed.”
The aluminum roll cage is ASO standard, for the ‘80s at least, and the dashboard is adorned with a full range of antiquated navigation equipment… And so Hans has a choice; keep it stock and use it as a curiosity only to be driven in non-competitive meetings, or change the cage to a steel one, put FIA-approved seats in it, and use it in some rally raid events. “It would be great fun to do that in such a car, but to change it so much would take away a lot of its soul, so at the moment I am not sure,” he muses.
So far in the time he’s owned it, Hans and his son Roman have sorted the braking system out, as it had seriously corroded lines, and they also made a new exhaust as the old one had all but rotted out. They repaired the body, as it was rather tatty with the poor quality of earlier repairs. It now looks stunning in pristine white.
But despite many internet searches later, the only information they could find about the history of the car, apart from that it was made into a scale model, was that it was supposedly driven by Bruno De Montaigut with Richard Loze as co-driver in the 1987 Dakar, with the car painted in plain white with just a “Lui” logo on the side. The only photo was from the muddy prologue that was run somewhere on the outskirts of Paris, nothing from Africa, which suggests that something terminal happened to it not too far from home.
All the previous owner could add to that clipped history was that it was apparently a gearbox issue that forced them to pull out. Apart from the Dakar, it is known that the car did one other rally: nearly twenty years after its first outing, it was put into the pretty rainbow paint job and entered the Pharaons Rally in Egypt in 2006…
With the sleek body raised a couple of feet higher than the road-going version, it looks a little ungainly at first, but a turn of the key and it’s clearly a true competition car and not some wacky monster truck. The sound of the big V8 blowing through the silencer-free exhaust is just glorious, but so low-revving on idle that it seems lazy, more like an American truck than a performance car. The M117 V8 is either a 5.0 or a 5.6, it’s not so easy to tell from the outside, and is mated to a three-speed automatic that began its life in a 6.3L 450 SL. The axles are a pair of heavily reinforced G-Wagen units, and because it was built to go massive distances in the wilderness, this car has a huge 200L fuel tank where the rear seats would be in a road car.
The fire extinguisher could be authentic, as it has an expiration date of 1989. The air compressor for the diff locks is also something very antiquated. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The suspension was obviously made by someone who knew what they were doing though. In the days before coilovers, someone took a standard spring and fabricated a heavy duty double-shock mount above it. For the quick inflation of the large G-Wagen tires—important for when you come off gravel tracks into soft sand, and vice versa—there is no compressor tank. Instead, the chassis rails are hermetically sealed to act as reservoir tanks!
But as impressive as it is to look at, such a unique vehicle needs a test drive to fully appreciate. Getting in is as hard as most race cars for my 6’2″ frame, but I immediately noticed that the seating position is strange despite that. The bulkhead is right under the windscreen, and so with no footwell to speak of my knees were drawn right up. It was immediately uncomfortable to sit in, so I couldn’t imagine what two weeks of bashing through African deserts would have been like for the poor co-driver. For Roman too, the driving position was very awkward. Because of the position of the peddles, his knees were even more drawn up than mine, yet the steering wheel is set at the normal position so he had to almost lean forward with arms fully extended to reach it.
With more revs the engine sounds ready for some action but out on the gravel track around the back of the industrial estate it’s a rougher ride than any 4×4 I’ve been in before, and it feels like every bolt is loose. The steering seems very leery, the twin-shock setup is rock hard, and all the body panels rattle uncomfortably loudly. How anyone could have thought that this was ready for 8000kms of Africa I can’t imagine… and that might explain why the only action photo anyone could find online is from the Parisian prologue stage, not from Africa itself.
Not being road legal at the time, our test drive possibilities were limited to the rough private road. Roman put his foot down and the 1700kg beast built a bit of speed up and quickly the engine sound and the gravel blasting the underside and assorted rattles made conversation all but impossible. I glanced at the centrally-mounted speedo. Not quite 40km/h. Turning around for the return run Roman managed to get the back to slide out. At the strange angle he was sitting he couldn’t quite pull the heavy wheel fast enough though so gave up a long way before managing a power slide. It is built like a tank… it just seems a pity that it handles like one as well.
To take a look at the engine Roman pulled open the front clamshell. The whole front, from the lights to the doors is one single piece. I have worked for a few aftermarket tuners and know what it takes to make simple bumper mountings, so to create such a large piece, and one that even over thirty years later still looks as though it’s an original car, is a really remarkable piece of work.
Getting it road legal in Germany is going to be a hard job though. The last papers for the car are from 2006 when it did the Pharaons Rally, but they are pretty obviously fake and there are actually two different VIN plates on the bulkhead. All rally-raid cars need to be road legal as they have to drive between the stages… “We’ll have to see about that,” Hans responds.
The TUF, the German equivalent of the people in your country who tell you what can and cannot be driven with license plates on it, are notoriously tough on special builds like this Mercedes. “They need to know lots of details about the builder and the first registration papers, and because we have nothing we’ve been at a bit of a standstill…” Hans shrugs.
Perhaps he’ll find a friend who can squeeze it through the tests. Either way, it’s a neat piece of kit that while perhaps not the most successful or even auspicious project, is certainly worth preserving.