Don’t fear The Dictator: when owner Charlie Deycon and his son Bash are in the neighbourhood, the only power being exercised is that of their mighty Merc’s V8 engine. Here, the father-of-two tells Charlotte Vowden how he’s using his eighties ‘baddie’s’ car to inspire the next generation.
With a few retrofit components Charlie Deycon’s imposing Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL is the ultimate family saloon car in disguise.
“My son Sebastian is my co-pilot, even though he sometimes falls asleep. Known as Bash, I bought the SEL two weeks after he was born with a view that it will be his one day. Fortunately, he’s turning into as much of a petrolhead as I am and although he’s only seven and a half years old he keeps reminding me that I’m the temporary custodian of the car. When he’s old enough, I hope the idea of turning up in something a bit different will still be his idea of cool; I imagine him using it to pick up a girlfriend or boyfriend to go on a date.
The Dictator, a 1981 Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL, is the car I always drew as a child, i.e. very boxy. He was named by friends I worked with at Aston Martin, it was between The Diplomat and The Dictator, but the more menacing sounding option won because back in the eighties it was the car that the baddies drove in Beverly Hills Cop and one of the Lethal Weapon films. The SEL became quite a conversation piece and one of my colleagues fired up the in-house laser engraving machine to make four door sill plaques bearing The Dictator’s name. It cost me £12 for all of them, but had I been an Aston Martin customer they would have been about £200 a pair.
The Dictator is a bit of a gangster’s car, it has a good side as well as a bad side, but only because of all the dinks and marks on his bodywork. It’s not a show car by any stretch – although I do try to keep our Boxer off the seats – it’s what I call a ‘ten yards car’ because as you get closer the patina of its 40 year life becomes clear. I don’t think a full re-spray would do anything other than turn it into something I’d be afraid to use and it would wipe away some of its history; there’s a dent on the back that happened when I reversed, very gently, into a fence post on Bash’s birthday three years ago.
One of the motivations for buying the SEL was that I wanted a car that people would look at and go, “oh that’s cool”, not “oh, you flash git”. I want people to appreciate it on the same level that I do, not to think that I’m trying to show off. The Dictator wasn’t expensive, it was £1,300 (after a bit of friendly negotiation) and I’ve spent far more money keeping it going than I did buying it. I’ve always liked 911’s but as I get older I’m less inclined to buy one because a £100,000 car would get a very different response: “ooh wow, that must have cost a lot” is not a reaction I aspire to.
Whether it’s a thumbs up, a wave or a flash of lights I can’t go out without someone acknowledging the SEL in some way and I love the positive impact it has on others. When I took it to a local primary school with the Silverstone Social club, I encouraged the kids to get in and pretend to drive; the owner of a Ferrari, understandably, wasn’t so keen. The kids had a whale of a time with The Dictator and although one of them turned on a rear reading light, which drained the battery, seeing that engagement made my day.
The SEL gets involved in things that an everyday car wouldn’t be part of, which has included two weddings and two proms – the Prosecco stain on the passenger seat just adds to its character and I haven’t charged a penny for it because sharing the car with others is important to me. At Halloween I’ve dressed him up using lights, pumpkins and hazard tape then driven him around the estate where we live, and when he turned forty on November 5th last year we had a big firework birthday party in his honour.
Occasionally, I get a bit dressed up too; I put on smart trousers, a jacket and a pair of brown leather driving gloves that I keep in the glove box. I have been mistaken by a small child as a chauffeur for the Queen, but I think it was the bonnet flags that prompted that – my wife tolerates the Dictator, but she thinks I’m a wally when I drive with the flags in place. I’ve got a few different designs but my favourite are the ones I found on eBay for £20. They’re genuine east German diplomatic car flags that were delivered in an envelope addressed to the official German democratic republic embassy residence in London – which sadly, doesn’t exist anymore. I save those for shows.
If you take a closer look at the Dictator’s snap-off Momo wooden steering wheel you’ll notice a plaque that commemorates my good friend Nik Greene who died recently, it reads “Nik Green forever riding shotgun”. He wrote a lot of books about the history of Mercedes and gave me so much support. Every time I check the time in the car, I think of him because when the SEL’s original clock stopped working Nik sent me a replacement as a surprise. He had a great sense of humour but told me off when I put a V8 badge on the dashboard, I removed it in the end, partly because of his sage words.
I’m the SEL’s fourth owner and want to hand it down to Bash in a decent condition. I spend a fair bit of time polishing and ceramic coating it, as well as hoovering the sheepskin mats, but my mechanical ability is fairly minor. I will continue to have it MOT’d to make sure it’s safe for the kids and feel I’m treating the car as it deserves to be treated; Mercedes built solid cars, The Dictator’s doors shut with such a reassuring thunk.
I’ve tried to keep it fairly original but have made some reversible changes, which include fitting 8×16 Zender Sport wheels with Pirelli tyres, H&R springs and Bilstein shocks. The Dictator sounds particularly glorious with the customised exhaust I’ve had installed; Bash knows when there’s a tunnel coming because I drop all four windows so we hear it roar.
When I get in the car, I feel different, it’s like stepping back in time and is very much a mindful exercise. I found a shopping list underneath the back seat which must have been there since it was quite new; someone was off to Selfridges to buy a very expensive pram.
I keep a 1940s drivers etiquette book that I inherited from my grandfather in the centre console alongside a really old copy of The Highway Code and I’m always on eBay looking for stuff that compliments the SEL’s overall look. Using a picture of an eighties tax disc that I found on Google I made one for the Dictator, and as it’s a 1981, it expires in 1982.
I rarely go out in the SEL without Bash because a big part of the experience is that father son bonding time and even when he has a little nap it’s nice because we’re together. Izzi, my daughter, is nearly 9 and although she likes to be a part of it, she’s not as enthusiastic as Bash. I’ve always been into cars, it’s within me and not something I inherited, so I’d never try to force that passion on the kids; I just want them to have the opportunity to feel how I feel. I taught both of them how to drive in The Dictator (on an industrial estate) but they didn’t quite grasp the urgency of how much the steering wheel needs to be turned.
The SEL has done 140,000 miles but I don’t know, don’t want to know, and don’t care how many miles it does to the gallon because it doesn’t matter. You only live once and I drive The Dictator to enjoy it.”
In memory of Nik Greene, “Forever riding shotgun”
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*Photography by Marek Jedrzejewski
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