Pre-Merger Madness: Is the Market Acting on Impulse?

With a pre-auction estimate of $220,000 - $260,000, RM Sotheby’s advertised this 1990 Mercedes Benz 560SEC 6.0 AMG widebody for months prior to the Amelia Island Concours auction. On March 6th, 2020, the car set a new water mark high in the pre-merger widebody AMG market. Back in January, we wrote an article assessing the values of these specific cars in light of the two examples that RM Sotheby's sold. In addition, we couldn't help but mention that a replica widebody version of this iconic Mercedes with a stock M117 engine sold for $250,000 at Russo & Steele in Arizona. To be fair, while it was a replica, the car appeared to be built with extreme care and attention to detail, having been based on a 32k mile SEC. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to personally lay eyes on either of the two widebodies that RM Sotheby's sold last year. While the catalog photos always present an ideal image of the car, there's no way to get an honest assessment with 30-40 photographs or less, no matter how good the photography.

Getting a solid grasp on a car’s condition through photography is becoming more commonplace than it was a decade ago. Online auction sites are becoming more advanced and facilitating a greater number of sight-unseen car sales than ever before. Mostly through sheer quantity of photo, in some cases approaching 500, and lengthy videos attempting to immerse potential bidders in the reality of the car. Despite progress in transparency, the stark realization that what you see isn't always what you get becomes very apparent to some unlucky bidders upon receiving their auction darlings. This 1990 560SEC auctioned through RM Sotheby’s at Amelia Island this past weekend is a prime example.

Per RM Sotheby's description of this 1990 Mercedes Benz 560SEC 6.0 AMG, the car received a “panel-off repaint", wood restoration, and reupholstery of the Recaro seats. Other liberties were taken with accessories and details in the restoration. Immediately noticeable from the start, the clear side-markers up front gave the car a disappointing and unoriginal appearance. Thankfully, swapping back to proper deep amber corner markers is quick and easy; But the devil is in the details. Next, we couldn't help but take notice of the poor body and panel fitment. Most notably, the front passenger fender to hood line and front bumper to lower valance were not up to proper restoration standards and gave the feeling of a rushed completion. Missing the tag lights during tear down and the subsequent over spray were additional indicators of time having come up in short supply. On the plus side, both front fenders did have the AMG logo properly placed on the inside and were made of fiberglass.

While inspecting the trunk, a new rubber seal was poorly installed with half laying correctly while the remainder sitting bent and contorted in the channel. Tail light seals showed signs of significant sun damage and weathering, not careful storage and care. Despite a claimed 31k kms (19k miles) on the odometer, the car underwent a full repaint instead of saving the original paint. In addition, RM's description states new glass and all new chrome hardware was fitted as well. We can't help but wonder if the chrome was originally monochromed and painted as most examples were. Given the a la carte nature of pre-merger AMG’s, we’ll allow this detail some leeway.

The most alarming issue with the car aesthetically was the visible rust under the rear window seals of the car. All w126 era cars, especially SECs, were notorious for rust issues developing in that area. In many cases, the rust isn't visible unless you look up from inside the trunk. Unfortunately, it's only a matter of time before it spreads and begins to bubble to the surface. This is an issue that would not be left unattended during a glass out, trim off restoration.

The wheels were, as stated by RM, period-specific 3-piece AMG Aero III's by OZ Racing. Unfortunately, three of the four wheels had multiple lug hole cracks which is a common and well known issue with these wheels. Cracks were even visible in the one wheel shot provided by RM Sotheby's listing online. The one wheel that appeared crack-free unfortunately had paint chipped around the hub where a modern and incorrectly-sized center cap was forcefully installed; it's amazing the issues 2mm can create. The passenger rear wheel also had the appearance of having all of the wheel bolts in place to hold the pieces together, but one of the bolts was a dummy having no shank or nut on the back side (side note the poorly taped wiring coming from the fuel pump). Further inspection of the wheels uncovered wheel spacers used to push the wheels out, making them appear more flush with the enlarged fenders. AMG did produce widebody specific Aero III's, it's very disappointing this example did not come thusly equipped.

Inside the car, refinished wood grain and reupholstered Recaro seats looked fresh, but they had an untailored look along multiple bolster edges. We were already a bit disappointed these couldn't have remained original given that the mileage stated a low 31k kms (19k miles) on the 'refurbished instrument cluster,' as stated by RM. The wood grain did not match between doors, dash, and center console. The doors actually appeared to have an orange hue while the center wood pieces were dark and rich in color. To top it off, the wood seemed to have too much lacquer applied to even closely resemble a factory finish. The wood veneer along the driver side dashboard was warped and twisting already. The center console wood fit so poorly in the console that a wool-type of material was used to fill the void between the console and wood.

Under the hood we found the heart of the beast. This m117 engine fitted with dual overhead cams and bored to 6.0L was considered to be the king of the engine offerings from AMG at the time. Originally, the description read that the engine received a full rebuild at Mercedes AMG in Germany. An addendum was later added stating that wasn't the case at all. Instead, an “AMG Flying Doctor” from AMG was flown out to adjust the valves. The AMG valve covers are always eye candy when looking at one of these engines. More liberties were taken to custom paint the logo which seems to further take away from the originality of the car, however, we have run across other DOHC M117s with custom paintwork on the valve covers but with proper patina. With the help of some friends we were able to confirm during inspection that the car ran poorly on cold start and the AC was devoid of a charge. Rough running was likely at least in part due to all the intake manifold rubber bits being rock hard and surely allowing for unmetered air; an M117’s idle nemesis. It’s disappointing this wasn’t tended to by the Doctor.

A big wildcard for this car was it's claim of paperwork. Photocopies of the original AMG paperwork verifying the modifications received were stated to accompany the car. Unfortunately these were kept under lock and key so we did not get the privilege of sifting through them first hand, only photos of photocopies. Ideally, the original invoices from AMG would accompany the car. Still, almost none of the surviving pre-merger AMG cars have accompanying records and efforts made in sourcing copies from AMG today is utterly futile.

Some might consider some of the aforementioned issues to be minor, but when a car is setting auction records it should be able to hold up under greater scrutiny. If you were paying a record breaking $390,000 USD to purchase a speculation-worthy AMG, wouldn’t you want to know she was all that you desired and expected?

-Blakley Leonard, The MB Market

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