Wandering star Mercedes-Benz 500SE W140 – Gatecrasher. Tasked with sneaking a 140-series 500SE – and extra passenger – to the launch of Jaguar’s then new XJ, one journalist quickly understood the scale of the challenge, for both himself and the Mercedes’ rival.
Car manufacturers don’t like their launch events being hijacked by rivals. By contrast, general : interest car magazines love it. Indeed those of us who write for them will go to sometimes extraordinary lengths to make sure that when we drive a brand new car, we have its closest rival stashed around the corner. That way we can do the popular back-to-back comparison tests. And the car probably most regularly pressed into service this way over the years is the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, largely because for at least a generation no other car has come close to rivalling it. It is the ultimate benchmark.
It was just such a job I was asked to do by my then bosses at Autocar back in February 1992. I was to drive a W140 500SE overnight to Biarritz in France, pitch it against the then new V12 version of the Jaguar XJ40, and then, as the test was on a Friday, drive home at my leisure over the weekend. In all ways but one it was a plum job. The fly in the flan was that Friday was also Valentine’s Day, I had a new girlfriend and she didn’t fancy spending it alone. So I decided to smuggle not only a Mercedes to the launch, but my lady too.
I love driving overnight. There’s an adrenaline buzz spiked by the darkness and deserted roads you rarely get in daylight, and I never feel tired. I set the cruise control for an unmentionable speed I’d never consider doing in France these days, sat back in that sumptuous leather chair and watched the Mercedes go to work.
Back then there wasn’t a car on sale that was as quiet and comfortable as this one, and even today I’d bet there are few that could beat it. It felt so solid it seemed I was driving a bank vault on wheels. And the weather was cold – cold enough for the three-pointed star on its nose to grow weird ice crystals as we circumnavigated Paris. I can remember wondering what on earth Jaguar would have to pull out of the hat even to get near the Mercedes. And ungentlemanly though it is of me to say so, I remember snoring coming from the passenger seat. A lot of snoring.
On arrival in Biarritz, we were instantly rumbled when I was caught filling up the Benz at the same station as Jaguar was using to replenish its cars, but the personnel took it well enough.
I thought perhaps this might be because they thought that their V12 XJ had the measure of the S-Class, but in fact they were just being hospitable. Later that day, the Mercedes duly kicked the Jaguar into touch.
I’m not quite sure how my companion expected to spend Valentine’s evening, but alone in a hotel room while I stuffed my face with a bunch of journalists downstairs was probably some distance from what she had in mind. Then again, we did get to spend two wonderful days wafting back through France, me pretending to be a 20-something plutocrat in my vast luxury limousine.
I think it was then that I realised the 140 S-Class was more than merely an effective machine tool. It was the product of a passion for engineering excellence, the like of which I’d not encountered in my fledgling career. And to this day, every time I see one I am reminded of that trip and how much I’d like to drive one again, just to see if all I thought about it at the time remains true.
As for my long-suffering girlfriend, she is now my far longer suffering wife and the mother of my children. I’m not saying Mercedes’ 140-series S-Class cemented our relationship, but the way the saloon carried us so effortlessly to the south of France and back to Blighty in less than four days certainly did it no harm at all.