In the history of coachbuilding, Franco Sbarro has earned a special place. Inventor of the hubless wheel. Sculptor of wild body designs. Engineer of uninhibited speed and performance. If coachbuilding is an art form, then Sbarro is a great artist, expressing himself through automobiles that capture our imagination but also transform our notions of how they should look and work.
Italian-born and Swiss-bred Sbarro founded his company in 1971 to do just that. Over the years they crafted dozens of bodies, borrowing chassis and tweaking engines to create a unique vision. Coachbuilding allows for a manufacturer to build the cars of their customer’s dreams, without the cost associated with mass production. As such, all of their creations are produced in low quantities, making them even more rare and desirable.
Sometimes, though, coachbuilding isn’t just about innovation but inspiration and homage. That’s why Sbarro also builds high-quality replicas of classic cars like the BMW 328, Bugatti Royale, and Ford GT40. Although Sbarro’s designs are ultra-modern, he appreciates the classics too.
In the 1980s, something of a conundrum occurred in automotive manufacturing: Mercedes-Benz were building high-quality cars that were both modern and instant classic at the same time. For the ever-watchful eye of Franco Sbarro, these cars were ripe for the ultimate expression of gratitude towards Mercedes-Benz for their products.
Which brings us to his custom Gullwing 6.9. The first people of notoriety to customize the Mercedes C126 380-500SEC were Styling Garage out of Hamburg, Germany. Then, Sbarro debuted his legendary take at the 1983 Geneva Auto Show. These guys were the original “pimp my ride”. They were Europeans who loved European cars and wanted to add their own special touch. This usually called for extensive revisions of the interiors, exteriors, and engines.
For Sbarro’s 500SEC, he uses elements from not just one Mercedes-Benz, but two: the C124 coupe and W116 sedan. At first glance it appears to borrow more from the C124. The body is imposing to say the least. Sbarro has crafted entirely new sheetmetal in ways that Styling Garage did not.
The most striking aspect are the gullwing doors, a tribute to the classic Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing of the 1950s. These were popularized by the 300SL and have since become a trademark Mercedes feature, despite being used mainly on concept cars until their 2010 SLS. Sbarro's gullwings are made of plastic for easy lifting and less overall weight added to the vehicle.
The car has a unique roof that is lower than the C124. The trunk is higher, and the wheel wells are flared. Mercedes designs of the time featured an emphasis on horizontal lines, so Sbarro takes it new a new level. The whole front is covered in thin slats that hide the headlights and grille that are reminiscent of the rear of a Ferarri Testarossa. The lower panels feature horizontal groove lines too that mimic the iconic ribbed taillights.
Inside, Sbarro has completely reworked the interior, while retaining a Mercedes-Benz vibe throughout. The dashboard is from a W116 sedan. The steering wheel is unique. The center console houses climate controls and an aftermarket radio. The seats appear to be Recaro and are power adjustable from buttons on the seats themselves. Despite the ambition of the overall project, the interior is relatively modest and tasteful.
Underneath the hood lies an enormous 6.9-liter 8-cylinder engine, previously only available in the rare high performance W116 450SEL sedan from 1975-1980. Sbarro is a speed hound and wanted to put as much power in his creation as possible. The 6.9 put out around 286 horsepower, big for the time and still respectable today. It will easily move this thing along.
Most customers of Sbarro were royalty from the Middle East. This particular example was built for an Arabian princess before being owned by Celtics basketball player Dennis Johnson.
Cosmetically, the vehicle is in very good shape. It underwent a 5 year restoration and has been driven around 9,000 miles since. The paint is in good shape, with only some minor scratches and wear from typical usage. The interior is also in good shape.
Mechanically, the car starts, runs and drives fine, with no apparent issues. The owner has maintained it very well. The hydraulic gullwing doors open and shut easily. The car also has height-adjustable suspension.
Only 6 were supposedly built with this configuration, from a total of 28 including the later Biturbo. It could very well be the only one in the U.S. This is a rare piece of European coachbuilding history. The car is in good shape and should be ready to go. At the very least, it will be a big hit at the local car show and the cause of many scratched heads as people try to figure out what exactly it is.
The vehicle is being donated. Proceeds from the sale will benefit the Arthritis Foundation. The vehicle is currently located in Monroe, North Carolina. Click here to send an inquiry if interested.