Classic Drive: George Harrison’s 1984 Mercedes-Benz 500SEL AMG
Baby we drove his car coast-to-coast across England
A 12-year-old schoolboy watched the 1955 British Grand Prix at his local racetrack in Aintree, Liverpool, where Stirling Moss piloted his Mercedes-Benz W196 to the win from pole position, taking the fastest lap of the day. From that race on George Harrison was hooked. Formula 1 was to become one of his lifelong passions, that, and being the lead guitarist in a certain rock band, The Beatles, of course.
As it turns out, Harrison was also apparently pretty passionate about go-fast Benzes. When I learned that my rock music memorabilia and classic car collector friend Mike Pickles had acquired Mr. Harrison's 1984 Mercedes-Benz 500SEL AMG and it was in wonderful state of preservation, I figured I'd ask Mr. Pickles if Mr. Harrison's car might be available for a road trip. He said it would. I'll give you one guess where I drove it to.
Looking at the equipment list, it seems Harrison ordered the car with the entire contents of the AMG catalog from Stratton's of Wilmslow Cheshire on the 23rd of May 1984 with a sticker price of 84,000 British pounds. Options included a wired-in cell phone (a real luxury in the early 1980s), spoilers, leather steering wheel, rear passenger picnic tables, and blacked out chrome trim. The car is said to have been Harrison's everyday transport and was often seen on the roads around Henley on Thames over 16 years and some 32,000 miles of ownership before he passed it on to fellow musician Ray Cooper. It even made a cameo appearance in the "Real Love" video featuring the three remaining Beatles in 1995.
Famous owner aside, the W126 S-Class—especially in 500SEL trim—was a high-status automobile, designed by a team headed by Bruno Sacco. Harrison no doubt relished the AMG-massaged, naturally aspirated 4973cc V-8 tuned to a reported 272 hp and 302 lb-ft of torque and a factory indicated top speed of 149 mph. My plan was to sample the car on a drive across England coast-to-coast, from the seaside town of Scarborough Yorkshire to the Fab Four's home city of Liverpool. Where else?
The genteel resort of Scarborough on the North Sea coast would have been awakened by the screams of hundreds of teenage fans when the Beatles played their first show at the Futurist Theatre on Wednesday, December 11, 1963, so it was from the neon lit seafront where I chose to start my adventure. Sadly, the Futurist had been demolished just weeks prior to my visit, nearly 55 years since that sold out gig. The following morning, I headed west over the North York Moors towards Liverpool, 156 miles via the M62 freeway but a fair few miles further driving the Merc over mountain passes and the twisty rural roads of Yorkshire and Lancashire.
The SEL is a big car to ascend the narrow Rosedale Chimney Bank switchback hill out onto the moors. Power is there in plenty from the big V-8 and its steering is precise if a little lacking in feel. Despite the AMG updates, there's a fair amount of body roll, which isn't helped by the polished black leather seats with no lateral support. After reaching the summit, the road straightens out and I was able to appreciate one of the delights of the North York Moors—purple heather in full bloom and a 180-degree panorama of Yorkshire, Britain's largest county—through a windshield with mercifully narrow A-pillars.
The only vehicle I passed was a team of gamekeepers in an old Land Rover preparing for the grouse shooting season on the Glorious Twelfth. Driving through the country town of Thornton-le-Dale, Mathewson's Classic Auctions just happened to have a 1984 380SEL on their forecourt. After making a U turn on the A170 we took a look at the standard car sporting blue velour upholstery, a lot of chrome, and rather strange hub caps adorning the stock steel wheels. One thing's for sure after taking a closer look at the 380: The AMG makeover did wonders for the W126.
Heading west, the road descends Sutton Bank leaving the North York Moors National Park and I pressed on towards another region of God's own country, the Dales—no less beautiful than the roads just travelled but completely different. By this time, I was becoming accustomed to the car's size. I had to pinch myself to think that I was sitting in the driver's seat and cruising along the highway where a Beatle had sat. I tuned the Blaupunkt Paris sound system to BBC 2 in the hope of hearing a Fab Four track as I didn't have a cassette to play in the period tape deck.
Needing a spot of lunch and some relief from sitting on the rather firm German seat for four hours, The Bolton Arms in the center of Leyburn provided an admirable English traditional ploughman's lunch. It set me up for the drive through the Dales National Park. The topography is one of high limestone fells (mountains) and deep dales (valleys) hence the locals describe a journey as 'up hill, down dale'. The area is one of my favorite parts of the UK, the country roads quite unique as the black top appears to have been poured over the landscape with little attempt to smooth out hills or corners. Added to the mix, almost all the roads have high dry-stone walls on both sides which makes for interesting driving in the big German sedan. The Mercedes handled well on its Goodyear Eagle 225/50R16 tires that made a low rumbling noise over the broken pavement, especially when the car was squeezed into one of the many passing places built in the walls for when you meet the inevitable tractor, milk tanker, or motor home.
Just about any road in the Dales will drive you through spectacular scenery. Piloting the car along the A684 to Hawes, I gazed at Harrison's Hindu Om charm fixed to the leather AMG steering wheel and through to the three large analog dials and really did feel a oneness with creation. Exiting the quaint village, I turned onto the B6255 which offered a rare straight section of uphill road. I flicked the gearshift to 2b and gunned the accelerator, shifting to third at around 35 mph and on to 60 mph. For a heavy automobile it felt adequately rapid. This would be my only drastic stint of driving as it's not a test car but rather a 34-year-old classic. More importantly, it wasn't mine.
Just like the landscape which changes in a few miles, so to can the English weather, and as I crossed the Pennines heading west the temperature dropped and the blue sky with fluffy white clouds became gray and overcast. I made a stop at the Ribblehead viaduct, built in 1870 to allow the Carlisle to Settle railroad cross Blea Moor. This 440-yard stone structure is a spectacular example of Victorian civil engineering which enhances an area of outstanding natural beauty. It was tea time and I bought a brew from the snack van. Sitting in the back of the car I tried to use the optional picnic table. AMG might have been a whizz at engine and suspension modifications but the ergonomics of the tables weren't great.
Crossing into Lancashire, traffic increased as I drove down the Ribble Valley and for the first time I cruised along motorways M6 and M58 in commuter traffic as I headed toward Liverpool's waterfront. I planned to stop at a few spots with a hint of Beatlemania. My first was a chance encounter in Croxteth, with its large street mural of the band painted on the side of a blue-collar terraced house and brick wall. Try as I might, I failed in my bid to maneuver the car past numerous obstacles and high curbs to park close enough to it for a photo opportunity. From there it was on to Penny Lane, which was not only the name for Beatles song but a statement of the lives of those young men who grew up in post-WWII Liverpool. I never made it to a Beatles concert, but most of the early pop music I grew up with was part of the Mersey Beat scene that centered around the band.
It was early evening by the time I pulled up on the aptly named George's Pier Head on the Liverpool waterfront. Most of the tourists were back at their hotels and the office workers in the Royal Liver building which overlooks the river Mersey were heading home in traffic so the place was deserted. The end of my road was a bronze life-size statue of the band by Andy Edwards funded by fans at the Cavern Club, commemorating the last show they played in Liverpool in 1965.
As my day-long journey ended, I wondered if Harrison had ever dreamt of buying such a posh set of wheels when he attended the British Grand Prix back in 1955. I know I never imagined traveling 337 miles on great roads through beautiful landscapes in his former automobile.
1984 Mercedes-Benz 500SEL AMG Specifications
|PRICE||(when new): $118,000 (est)|
|ENGINE||5.0-liter SOHC 16 valve V-8/272 horsepower, 302 lb-ft of torque|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan|
|L x W x H||203.1 in x 72 in x 56.7 in|
|WEIGHT||3,600 lb (est)|
|0-60 MPH||6.8 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||149 mph|