Hiho silver: Generous amounts of chrome were en vogue when development work started on the W 116 series in the fall of 1966. Last things first. Let’s start with three numbers that really ought to appear at the end of our story: 1,742, 577, and 4,408. In fact they figure on the tachometers of the three protagonists of our tale when we return them to the stewardship of the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Fellbach near Stuttgart after our 250-km (155-mile) test drive.
There, the experts will prepare the W116 series 450SEL 6.9, the W126 series 560SEL, and the long-wheelbase S320 from the W140 series for another, shorter run – back to the nearby Mercedes-Benz Museum. These representatives of three S-Class generations have been part of the Museum’s collection ever since they came off the assembly lines – brand-new museum pieces, each standing for a slice of automotive history.
The elder statesman in our lineup is the 450SEL 6.9. The production run for this model started in May 1975, ended in May 1980, and comprised 7,380 units. In keeping with the tastes of the 1970s, our car, the last six-point-niner off the production lines, is finished in the colour “metallic champagne” that first became available in 1979. When we come back from our voyage of discovery, its six-digit tachometer reads 1,742 km (1,082 miles).
Like the frothy milk on a good cappuccino, the 286-horsepower 450SEL 6.9 topped off the W116 series that was launched in September 1972. In the wake of the oil crisis and the series of “car-free Sundays” that followed, the prospective clientele had to wait almost eighteen months longer than planned before they could take a seat in Germany’s most powerful post-war sedan – a high-performance, well-mannered limousine with a V8 engine that remained as discreetly in the background on the way to corporate HQ as it did en route to the opera. It took a hefty kick on the gas pedal – perhaps best performed on the autobahn – to transform its pianissimo whisper into a fortissimo roar and send the 6.9 surging to a top speed of 230 km/h (143 mph).
Design details: The 450 SEL 6.9 with burred walnut trim and a sleek wind baffle on the A-pillar. Width-ways: Double bumpers and big, wide headlamps and taillights. Functional looks in the cockpit of the 560 SEL, and a door-mirror design straight out of the wind tunnel. Flush fit: Headlamps and taillights blend in perfectly with the bodywork.
Almost every second buyer of a 6.9 demonstrated a distinct preference for under-statement, ordering their 450SEL without the prestigious model and cubic capacity badge on the trunk lid. Like a luxury watch discreetly secreted beneath a silk cuff, the flagship of the S-Class range was then disguised well enough for even connoisseurs to need a second look. Only the slightly wider wheels and fatter tailpipes gave the game away. The bodywork that graced the 6.9 was the same design as in the initial models of the Mercedes-Benz W116 series that made their debut in September 1972, when the entry-level version – the 280S – had just a six-cylinder carburettor engine developing 160hp. In the year in which the summer Olympics in Munich were marred by Palestinian terrorism and Richard Nixon was re-elected U.S. President, the W116 represented the state of the art in automotive engineering.
“We’re not dealing with a new model with minor refinements but with developments that take us into a new dimension of motoring culture, ride quality, safety, and performance,” explained the information brochure for the Mercedes-Benz sales force dated September 1972. “The letter ‘S’ has always stood for the top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz products,” the brochure continued, “and it will form part of all current and future model designations in this series. The range will in future be known as the ‘Mercedes-Benz S-Class’, a badge that distinguishes the models of this special, superior category.”
So it was that the name “S-Class” came into existence, a name with an ancestry that reads like the Who’s Who of post-war Mercedes-Benz luxury-class flagship models. In official parlance at Mercedes-Benz, the 220 model (W187, 1951 to 1954), whose freestanding fenders hark back to pre-war designs, was the founding father of the subsequent S-Class.
Other members of the family tree are generally held to include the sedans now known informally as the Ponton and tailfin Mercedes from the W180/128 series (1954 to 1959) and the W111/112 series (1959 to 1968) respectively, as well as the immediate predecessors of the S-Class, the cars of the W108/109 series (1965 to 1972).
Compared to the W108/109 series models, the new S-Class comes across like a gentleman who has exchanged his dark pinstripe suit for a more dynamic polo strip. Rectangular horizontal headlamps, huge taillights, and a flatter radiator grille are the most striking design elements that make the sedans of the W116 series look so decidedly muscle-packed, even at a standstill.
In technical terms too, the new S-Class set the standards. A revolutionary “double-wishbone front suspension with zero steering offset and anti-dive feature”, as the engineers call it, made for stoic straight-line stability, prevented excessive under-steer on cornering, and enhanced road- holding under braking. The new rear diagonal swing axle also improved handling – as it already had in the Stroke Eight models (W114/115), the 350SL roadster (R107), and the 350SLC coupe (C107).
A major improvement in passive safety was another key requirement in the specifications for the W116 series. Innovations which would shape the face of generations of vehicles to come included a fuel tank located over the rear axle to protect against impacts in a collision; a padded instrument panel with sunken switches; a four-spoke safety steering wheel with impact absorber and a broad padded boss; and a stronger passenger safety cell. Further details that illustrate the designers’ pursuit of perfection include taillights ribbed to prevent the accumulation of dirt, and baffle strips on the A-pillars to deflect the rain away from the side windows.
Not surprisingly, though, in the 6.9 it was above all the engine’s 286 horsepower and the mighty 550 newton-meters of torque (from 3,000 rpm) that fired up the automotive press in the mid-1970s. “World-beating Performance” ran the headline in the German magazine auto motor und sport in 1975 – and even today it is easy to see why they were so impressed.
Our own trip to the Daimler-Chrysler Research Center in Ulm, where the three S-Class cars were to pose for the photographer, provided plenty of evidence. The understated architecture of this corporate think-tank made the ideal backdrop for our three stars. On the winding climb up the Aichelberg on the A8 autobahn between Stuttgart and Ulm, a modest tap on the gas pedal was enough to send this two-ton limousine surging forward in the highest of the three standard ratios its automatic box has to offer. You lean back at ease in your suede armchair and keep a cool head, thanks to the air conditioning that also comes as standard, and let the hydro-pneumatic suspension protect you and everyone else on board against the vagaries of an imperfect road surface. The sound of the engine puts you in mind of Frank Sinatra’s suave, resonant tones as he belts out “My Way”.
Within the guarded enclave of the DaimlerChrysler Research Center in Ulm, the 6.9 remains the charismatic star of our S-Class trio. It’s that awe-inspiring combination of numbers on the trunk lid that has employees pointing their fingers and nodding knowingly as they pass by during a break. Only the initiated few would be able to tell their colleagues that the standard equipment on this model includes dry-sump lubrication and a differential lock, and that as of fall 1978, this and all other W116 models could be ordered with the global innovation of the day: the ABS antilock braking system.
Another aspect touched on by auto motor und sport in 1975 was average fuel consumption, which at 23.2 liters/100 km (10.1 mpg) might have raised a few eye-brows among the Ulm-based researchers. At the time though, even so soon after the oil crisis, this failed to cast even the slightest of shadows over the enthusiastic views of the automotive press, who couldn’t speak highly enough of the 70,000-deutschmark package that the 6.9 represented. “It is so good to find a car making its debut at this particular time that offers the most exquisite of motoring delights for the connoisseur – at whatever speed,” summed up Switzer-land’s Automobil Revue in May 1975. “The 6.9 not only confirms its makers’ optimism about the future, it also shows they have the courage of their convictions.”
Space travel: Extravagant volumes of space on the inside – a cool design language on the outside.
Head to head: The W116 and W126 feature a classic radiator grille, while on the W 140 the radiator is integrated into the hood.
Too much optimism seemed distinctly out of place, however, when it came to the development of the next generation, the W126 series – not least because the process of creating this S-Class model that was launched in September 1979 and built until August 1991 began in the fall of 1973, just as the oil embargo sent the western industrialized nations reeling.
Not surprisingly, the specifications focused on cutting weight, enhancing the aerodynamics, and cutting fuel consumption. So when the successor to the 450SEL 6.9, the 500SEL, appeared in 1979, it tipped the scales 280 kg (almost 620 lb) lighter than its predecessor but had to cope with a 46-hp drop in output. The fact that its top speed barely suffered is due to a Cd figure (Cx) of 0.36, which made it the aerodynamic world leader among luxury sedans in 1979. Among our trio, the W126 series is represented by the 560SEL, the flagship model that became available in 1985. This particular example was the last of its S-Class generation to be built in series production in Germany. In August 1991 it rolled straight from the assembly lines into the museum. Since then, this anthracite-coloured 560SEL has covered a grand total of 577 kilometers (359 miles).
Pioneering electronics: An ultrasonic parking aid (from May 1995) replaces extendable markers.
Compared to its bulkier predecessor it looks more like a top-class athlete – an athlete whose muscles are cloaked in a tailored suit. As such, this is the member of our S-Class trio that best meets the claim that a Mercedes-Benz should always be “trailing fashion within hearing distance”. Its timeless appeal kept the W126 series on the production lines for all of twelve years, during which a total of 818,036 units were built. That in turn makes it the most successful luxury-class series in the history of Mercedes-Benz.
The allure of the W126 lies not least in its understated design. Those huge chromium- plated double bumpers that adorned its predecessor are a thing of the past. In their place we find bumpers with a full plastic coating front and rear, with the front bumpers also helping reduce front-axle lift at high speeds. The elegant profile is marked by full-length protective polyurethane strips, initially in a ribbed design that only gave way to smooth versions in 1985.
On the inside, too, the W126 is a touch more reserved than its predecessor. The various controls are largely intuitive in design. The perfect example is provided here by the front seat adjustment feature, which was provided at no additional cost in the top-of-the-line 560SEL and 560SE models. The seats are adjusted by a switch in the door trim, shaped like a miniature seat and thus self-explanatory.
The major design shift in the history of the W126 series came in 1985, when the new-look model appeared on the scene at the Frankfurt Motor Show. With its smooth side strips, revised bumpers, and new alloy wheels, the design looked even more harmonious, while new six-cylinder engines and modified eight-cylinder units made their debut under the hood. Along with the driver airbag, which had been available since December 1980, customers could also order a front-passenger airbag as of September 1987.
True to the tradition of the 450SEL 6.9, from 1985 onward a powerful new eight-cylinder engine topped off the range of power packs for the W126. Until September 1988, however, this V8 unit remained the exclusive preserve of the long-wheelbase models.
The 560SEL was born at a time when the debate over exhaust treatment and catalytic converters was reaching its peak. In response, Mercedes-Benz offered a special “retrofit” version which was prepared for retrofitting a closed-loop catalytic converter and developed 272 hp (from September 1987: 300 hp). With the ‘cat’ installed, engine output dropped sharply to 242 hp.
Until September 1987, customers could also order an “ECE” version of the 560SEL that met only the emissions legislation applicable in Europe and developed 300hp. A closed-loop catalytic converter actually became part and parcel of standard equipment on this model in September 1986, although the retrofit version remained on sale until August 1989.
Compared to the 450SEL 6.9, whose sheer power was never curtailed by exhaust treatment measures, the 560SEL lacks that shot of savage supremacy that was part of the fascination of the six-pointniner. On the road it feels distinctly tamer and when it rolls on the power, it does so more discreetly. Only when the driver really boots the gas pedal can a V8 staccato be heard booming through from under the hood. Otherwise the engine is a model of good acoustic behaviour, thanks no doubt in part to the highly effective aluminum bulkhead between the engine and passenger compartments.
That said, the steering of the 1.9-ton 560SEL is a little more direct and not so light. With its taut settings, the running gear conveys a trace of sportiness at higher speeds, while the four-speed automatic transmission shifts almost seamlessly through the gears. The hydropneumatic suspension featured in the 450SEL 6.9 was only available as an optional extra in the SEL versions of the eight-cylinder W126 models.
On our way back to Stuttgart we also had a chance to drive the third S-Class in our trio, a model that made its debut in March 1991 and caused more of a stir than any other bearer of the “S” badge: the long-wheelbase S320 from the W140 series. In all, by the time it was discontinued in September 1998, the series ran to 406,532 units. Our silver model was the last of its breed to leave the production shop. When we hand it back to the Classic Center, the tachometer reveals that it has covered a lifetime total of 4,408 km (2,739 miles).
This, to date, is the biggest S-Class of all time, measuring 511 cm (16 ft 8 in) from nose to tail in the short-wheelbase version and 188 cm (6 ft 2 in) across, and standing 148 cm (4 ft 10 in) tall. It came onto the market at a time of political upheaval, when the downfall of communism set the mood across the globe. Modesty was en vogue, not opulence.
Not surprisingly, the W140 had a hard time of it. The new S-Class was said not to be environmentally friendly, and the payload was insufficient for a car of its size. The width was supposedly a problem, too, when roadworks brought lane widths down to two meters, and drivers’ nerves were said to be tested to the limit in garages and multi-story parking lots. The criticism flew thick and fast.
Today, 14 years later, it is hard to under-stand the critics. Even in downtown traffic the “long” 231-hp S 320 with a wheelbase 100 mm (4 in) longer than its standard counterpart feels remarkably easy to handle. During maneuvering the ultrasonic parking aid – which became available in May 1995, replacing the extendable markers at the rear which had been used until then – was a help but by no means essential. Also on the positive side, the magnificent sensation of space that driver and passengers can savour on long runs, while the world glides by on the other side of the double-glazed windows, makes the W140 series a real hot tip. Although judging by the deluge of readers’ letters agreeing with Till Schauen’s heartfelt opinion (in Mercedes-Benz Classic 1/2005) that the W140 must be rescued before it vanishes completely from the street scene, that tip may not be so hot anymore. It looks as if this particular S-Class is well on its way to becoming an acknowledged classic.
And indeed it should be, because the W140 series seamlessly took up the tradition of the S-Class and added a wealth of technical innovations. It was the first series with a flagship model powered by a 6-liter V12 engine that developed 408 hp and 580 Nm of torque. In another first, control modules handled the exchange of data in the engine and powertrain management systems that were networked by a common data channel. What is more, environmental protection and recycling played a key role in the development of this S-Class generation. The way the development engineers implemented the relevant requirements in the vehicle specifications brought praise from such prominent quarters as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which in 1992 presented the W140 series with its Stratospheric Ozone Protection Award. Other world firsts celebrated in the W140 series included the Brake Assist system (BAS).
But the holiest order for this S-Class generation was received in March 1997 when the Vatican ordered a custom-built long-wheel- base S 500 landaulet for Pope John Paul II, who personally took delivery of this car.
So what conclusions can we draw as we reach the parking lot outside the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Fellbach and the doors of our three S-Class models finally close behind us with that inimitable Mercedes-Benz sound? Taken head to head, the 450SEL 6.9 W116 was always going to be a shade more macho than the 560SEL, which draws its fascination from its elegant and timeless air of understatement.
The long-wheelbase S 320, by comparison, does justice to the comment that appeared in the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung when the curtain fell on the series in 1998: “This was a giant that had been taught to dance on tiptoe.” And of its future we can safely say that it is set to imitate its two predecessors by embarking on a career as a recognized classic – with all the typical virtues we have come to expect of classic S-Class cars from Mercedes-Benz.
Delicate design: Fuchs alloy wheels suited the W 116 model to perfection.
These alloys came out for the W126 in 1985 – the fans call them manhole covers.
The alloy wheels for the W140 looked less angular than those of its predecessor.
Family tree: The new S-Class (W221), which will make its worldwide debut at the IAA show in September, boasts a proud heritage. In official Mercedes-Benz parlan (1954 to 1959), the W111/112 (1959 to 1968) and the W108/109 (1965 to 1972). The three protagonists of our cover story are joined by the W220 (1998 to 2005) the luxury class W187 series (1951 to 1954) was the founding father of the subsequent S-Class. Our photo shows the other ancestors: (from the left) the W 180/128 300 (W 186/189,1951 to 1962) and 600 models (W100, 1964 to 1981) often seen on diplomatic duties are the fruits of a different tree.
Star entry: The three S-Class models made a brief visit to the test track at the Stuttgart-Unterturkheim plant, where our cover photo was taken.
Outstanding: The long S 320 in the background is higher and longer than its predecessors.
Side by side, despite its actual size the 450 SEL 6.9 (at rear) looks slim and slender.
Timeless: Bruno Sacco crafted the captivating lines of the W 126 with the protective side strips referred to by enthusiasts as Sacco bars.