First Of Its Kind/Last Of Its Kind: The Mercedes W126 – Part One

The car that would come to be defined as the quintessential S-class actually was a deeply conservative vanguard of modern engineering. However, its legacy was not to last.


A black wreckage with blown-off bonnet and deflated tyres, lying across a cordoned-off street. This is how most Germans of a certain generation remember the Mercedes W126, the S-class model of the 1980s.

In the autumn of 1989, Alfred Herrhausen, chairman of Deutsche Bank, as well as head of Daimler-Benz AG’s supervisory board, was killed on his way to work by the blast of a roadside bomb. Herrhausen had been one of the most influential economic leaders of West Germany, and certainly the most charismatic among them. A proponent of challenging concepts, he advocated the need for global corporate expansion, as well as debt relief for Third World countries.

Wreckage of Herrhausen’s W126, November 30th, 1989, Photo (c)

To him, these two, seemingly opposing stipulations were not contradictory. Obviously, Herrhausen’s mind was not focused solely on matters financial or even economic – here was a man who not only understood the process of globalisation and propagated it, but who also accepted the social and environmental implications it brought about. Herrhausen cared about ethics. No small wonder then that he intended to pursue a career as an academic in the philosophical field after his stint as the – alleged – primus inter pares at Deutsche Bank would have come to a close.

Alfred Herrhausen, Photo (c)

Intriguingly, the car that shall forever be linked to his assassination also stood for ideas that seemed conflicting. Like Herrhausen’s policies, the W126 incorporated thinking for a new era, a new (West) Germany. It therefore appears cynically appropriate that this dark event, which would cast its shadow over the country and its corporate elite – as well as the legacy of what would otherwise simply be known as the most successful S-class of all time – took place just before the dawn of the 1990s. A decade of torn down walls, Western complacency and Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the back of a W140 model S-class. A decade that would have likened itself to a rest period – or even the end of history, as announced by neo-liberal theoreticians – after all that stress of the first eight decades of the century.

Twelve years earlier, in 1979, the Western world wasn’t quite as cocksure about its prospects, as it was about to reach the end of what had been a most tumultuous decade. Many of the certainties that had been established in the aftermath of the Second World War had been shaken or, in some cases, shattered. All of a sudden, there was an understanding that there were Limits to Growth, which put the old higher, faster, stronger mantra into question. This kind of fundamental challenging of the Western lifestyle wasn’t limited to the circles of politicians, scientists and philosophers, but it was also very present at the research and development facilities of a company that prided itself – not without justification – as the ‘best automaker in the world’ back in the day.

Mercedes 600, Photo (c)

Up to that point, Mercedes-Benz’s modus operandi had been, for all its obsession with detail and quality, rather simple: more=better. The 600 limousine may have been the ultimate embodiment of the Swabians’ ethos, but it was so far beyond mere everyday road cars that its overall significance was substantially lessened by its rarity. The 600 was more car than anyone could ever possibly need, while the infinitely more practical, albeit hardly humble S-Class was the best car anyone could possibly need. And its W116 incarnation happened to be not exactly a wallflower either during its 1972-1980 tenure, most certainly not when equipped with a 6.9 litre variant of the 600’s mighty V8 engine.

Even though the W116 could almost be considered a compact car by modern standards, it actually had all the presence and glitz needed back in the 1970s to constitute a clear message: this was one mighty machine. Even in its most humble 280 S guise – and with no passenger wing mirror as standard equipment – it still had enough chrome make-up to impress and enrage both leftist students in their 2CVs and upstart salesmen in their BMWs. Not to mention Porsche 911 drivers, who just could not shake off that big Benz in their rearview mirrors, and were certain to pull faces once they had spotted the 450 SEL 6.9 badges – after having been overtaken.

The Mercedes W116, Photo (c)

But just like any other car, the W116 also had had to endure West Germany’s car-free Sundays at the peak of the first oil crisis. At this point, its illustrious image actually turned into a disservice, once left-wing terrorists started targeting the country’s political, as well as economic leadership. And just like the W126 after it, the W116 shall forever remain inseparable from another gruesome crime aimed at West German economic leadership: the kidnapping and eventual assassination of Hanns Martin Schleyer, head of the Confederation of German Employers’ Association, as well as the Federation of German Industries.

Site of the Schleyer kidnapping, Photo (c)

Incidentally, Schleyer happened to have been member of Daimler-Benz’s executive board before his career as an industry representative. Having been an outspoken national socialist during the war, as well as a fierce opponent of West Germany’s union movement, he made for an ideal target for left-wing activists. The ostentatiousness of the W116 in which he was being chauffeured about therefore only added to the image of Schleyer as ‘the ugly face of capitalism’. And the footage of his W116, riddled with bullets, surrounded by corpses barely hidden underneath blankets and the two /8 saloons acting as escort vehicles, left as much of an imprint on the West German public consciousness as Herrhausen’s W126 would a decade later.

Hanns Martin Schleyer, Photo (c) Konrad Adenauer Stiftung

The monstrosity of the images of both these criminal acts is all too apparent. Yet the underlying differences are curious insofar as the differing public images of both these leaders of industry somewhat resembled the divergent ethos of each generation of S-class. Like Schleyer’s public demeanour, the W116 presented itself as a blunt machine, which was all about conveying a sense of supremacy that took no prisoners.

The W126, on the other hand – far from being self-consciously demure – seemed to be taking in its stance a more measured approach to leadership. It did not confront in the same way as the W116 did and instead presented its power in considerably more modest a fashion. Just like Herrhausen, in a sense, for he was the first head of Deutsche Bank to admit that he was actually wielding any corporate power at all – and that it was how one employs said power that makes all the difference.

Of course, despite both these men’s involvement with Daimler-Benz’s fortunes, it is far too much of a stretch of the imagination to claim that either of them had had any influence whatsoever over the cars in which they met their fates. But both Herrhausen and Schleyer are acting as extreme examples of ways of thinking that were, if not prevalent, than at least latently exerting influence during the seventies and eighties, respectively. Ways of thinking that the engineering and design staff at Untertürkheim must have been aware of, so obviously mirroring their eras were the products of their labour.

Werner Breitschwerdt – head of Mercedes-Benz Research & Development. (c) Daimler AG

The changing attitudes of a changing world were also being recognised in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, where Mercedes engineers had been working on the W126 as the S-Class for the eighties since 1971. It was clear to the people in charge that this next S-Class would have to be substantially different to the car it was supposed to replace. It should, naturally, live up to the best car in the world moniker, but the means by which it set about achieving that very same goal were very different indeed.

Two men may be singled out among the hundreds – if not thousands – charged with developing the W126 as having the most influence on how the car eventually turned out. Engineer, Werner Breitschwerdt, was overseeing the W126’s conception. He set the parameters, among which lightness and efficiency were added to the core values of comfort, quality and safety that any top-of-the-line Mercedes had had to be in accordance with.

Bruno Sacco, Photo (c)

The W126 was also the premiere of Bruno Sacco as head of Mercedes-Benz’s styling department. It was also the first model to adhere to his horizontal homogeneity/vertical affinity ethos, by which each model of one generation would be closely related with one another, while keeping a certain amount of resemblance to the preceding model. This approach would result in a most homogenous line-up by the end of the decade, when the R129 SL model marked the next step in the evolution of the template established by the W126/201/124 core range.


Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

20 thoughts on “First Of Its Kind/Last Of Its Kind: The Mercedes W126 – Part One”

  1. Kris. Excellent – I’m looking forward to Part 2. It does bring up two asides.

    First, it’s notable that your piece shares posting today with a piece on contemporary megayachts. They show clearly how the thinking behind the W126 has little place in today’s world. Do people still exercise ‘badge delete option’ if they are specifying the top end model? Somehow I doubt it.

    Second, your point about the car being inextricably linked in German minds with Herrhausen’s death reminds me of other cars that, once their name is mentioned, will soon pop a gruesome image up in my mind. A Lincoln Continental Convertible, of course. There is the Mark 1 Vauxhall Cavalier in which Airey Neave died from an IRA bomb. A Citroen Traction Avant conjures an image of two soldiers ambushed during World War 2. And much as I find Facel Vegas glamorous, there is the image of the car in which Albert Camus died wrapped around a tree.

    Hmm. Maybe I’ll walk home tonight.

    1. I didn’t intend to overwhelm my homage to the W126 by mentioning the morbid context, but I found a certain poignancy in the parallels between the Merc’s engineering and styling and Herrhausen’s ethos. Both stood for a forward-thinking, measured approach that was far from the norm in what was a very stuffy country indeed back in the day.

  2. Great article, thanks Kris!
    It’s a pleasure to read these insights into what will always stay my favourite Mercedes.

    Coincidentally, my garage-mate recently bought an almost immaculate 126 for shockingly little money. I surely hope I will be granted a ride or even a few kilometres behind its steering wheel.

    1. Thank you, Simon. I too enjoy the – not particularly rare – sight of these cars on the road. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

    1. Too true. Trees are very unforgiving, even with the extra crumple zone of a ‘Clubman’ nose. The tree in question however is just fine.

  3. I’ll add Pio Manzu’s wife’s Fiat 500C. The car world might have been a very different place if he had taken his Dino that fateful morning in late May 1969.

    And also Mike Parkes’ Beta HPE.

  4. Really enjoyed the article. Do you really feel that it’s legacy was wiped out by that car bomb though? Surely it’s still the archetypal S-Class that people still think of and remembered as one of the last engineered to last Mercs? Still exudes style and class and although maybe of it’s time it doesn’t look out of place today. Maybe fresher than both the W140 and maybe even the W220. Can’t wait for part 2 (or even 3).

    1. I don’t think Herrhausen’s assassination overshadows the W126’s legacy – I merely tried to point out how certain parallels between the man and the car. Apologies for the misunderstanding.

    2. It was my fault really for going off on a tangent about death cars since I thought I’d wait until part 2 for responding specifically on the S Class. Actually I think the use of Herrhausen’s life and death was an excellent way of putting the W126 into the context of its period.

  5. great article, Kris. the W126 coupe is one of my favourite cars ever, so it would be great to see something about it on the next parts of the series.

    1. Thank you, Eduardo. Unfortunately, the C126 hasn’t been one of my priorities when devising this text, though I do agree that it’s a very pretty machine indeed. One day, though, someone will hopefully elaborate on what went wrong with its door handle.

      Still, I do hope you’ll have a look at part 2 once it’s online, nonetheless!

  6. Herrhausen’s W126 was not a normal car. It was the factory armored ‘sonderschutz’ version, hand made in a separate line in Sindelfingen, actually a very different car that just happens to look like a W126. Herrhausen, as well as his chauffeur survived the blast, unfortunately, he was not promptly assisted and bleeded to death from a leg injury.

    1. Well, yes, it was an armoured version of the W126, but I don’t think that hurts the analogy in any way. Jakob Nix, the chauffeur, also had a special Recaro driving seat installed, yet I’d still claim the car was fundamentally an S-class.

  7. Great article! Although not my type of car, I appreciate the quality of ’80-’90s Mercedes design and fabrication.

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