Conceived under a period of intense socio-political turmoil, the W126-Series S-Class proved tailor-made for the early 1980’s landscape.
The W126 was met with great acclaim when it was first unveiled in late 1979 and well into 1980. Auto, Motor & Sport, Germany’s major automotive publication, devoted a number of issues to the new ‘Best Car In The World’. In September 1979, Clauspeter Becker summed up the W126’s conceptual formulation thus: Bekenntnis zur Größe – which could be read as both a “commitment to size” or a “commitment to greatness”. This boastful title was however immediately followed by a paragraph explaining that development of the new S-Class had been dictated by tomorrow’s energy situation.
Therefore “the engineers at Daimler-Benz ought to do more than merely develop a car that could claim the status of a modern design for seven years. Their task was to construct a large car that would fit into a future shaped by scarcity of energy.” It was made clear by both the press and Daimler Benz’ marketing department that the development of this S-Class had been a much greater challenge and that the resultant car was therefore a dramatically larger step in engineering terms than any of the preceding model changes (even though its chassis was actually largely carried over from the W116).
At the core of all considerations had been fuel consumption – to such a great degree that the engineers’ decision to keep offering V8 engines for the top versions actually seemed risky to some. Mercedes countered these energy crisis-induced doubts by highlighting the fact that these new alloy V8 units were roughly the same weight as the company’s tried and tested cast iron straight six units (206 kg in the 500 model’s case).
Daimler-Benz – and consequently the German press – were equally proud of the W126’s superior aerodynamic qualities, as denoted by a drag coefficient of 0,36, which bettered the W116’s by 14% and was miles ahead of the competition at the time, as both BMW’s E23 Seven and Jaguar’s XJ saloon (the third series of which was unveiled at the same time as the W126) had been developed without much care for their wind-parting abilities. Due to the modern, but sensible appearance of this S-class’ body, Mercedes thought it appropriate to give special mention to the car’s concealed twin wipers (which established the Swabian engineers’ two-decade-long obsession with this particular component), as well as minimised panel gaps and drip rails as reasons for this respectable achievement.
Apart from these two breakthrough areas, the W126 improved on the traditional S-Class strengths: solidity and safety. Optional airbags and ABS were avant-garde symbols for the big Mercedes’ leadership in this area, but the W126’s superior crash performance – particularly with regards to offset, side and rear impact performance – was, at the very least, just as admirable. And all this despite the substantial weight loss compared with the W116
Reading through contemporary brochures and articles by the motoring press, it becomes glaringly obvious how much the zeitgeist of the late 1970s resembled the situation in which the automotive sector finds itself some thirty years later. However, one significant difference remains: Professor Breitschwerdt and his engineers were actually willing to sacrifice power outputs for the sake of efficiency. So, while today’s “downsizing” is usually limited to smaller engine capacities only, the thinking of the post-oil crisis times was that it was deemed sufficient if existing performance figures were met, rather than topped.
This meant that the new 500 SEL’s 240 hp were considered sufficient to act as replacement for the 450 SEL 6.9’s 286 hp, due to the W126’s lighter weight allowing for similar performance. All other V8 engines offered for the W126 were less powerful too, while also enabling similar performance. The straight six engines remained roughly the same as those fitted to the W116, but they too benefitted from the new model’s lighter body and improved drag coefficient. The five cylinder diesel engine specifically designed for the American market was offered for the new model generation, as well.
‘World Champion’ – the headline above Auto, Motor & Sport’s first review of the 500SE model in September 1980 left little room to interpretation. In his review, author Götz Leyrer praised the W126’s overall sense of modernity (which, to Leyrer’s eyes, made the W116 appear “borderline eccentric” in retrospect), but put a question mark behind the new model’s ability to match the 450 SEL 6.9’s for outright power – a difference of no less than two litres in capacity couldn’t, Leyrer asked, go unnoticed – or could it?
Thanks to the loss of some astonishing 295 kilogrammes in weight and superior aerodynamics, the new car actually bettered the 6.9’s 0-100 kph figure (7.8 seconds beating 8.2) and consumed considerably less fuel (a still substantial 18.1l/100km against the 6.9’s 23.2l/100km). The Jaguar XJ12’s and BMW 745i’s figures shown for reference also revealed the Benz’ advantage: both are more powerful and considerably thirstier, but could not beat or match the 500 SE’s acceleration or top speed.
This also happened to be the one area in which the 500 SE had to admit defeat by its 450 SEL 6.9 forebear: its maximum speed of 232.3 kph was exactly 1.8 kph short of the old model’s. And yet, although the predecessor might have topped it, the 500 SE actually beat its own official top speed of 225 kph – to which Professor Breitschwerdt only remarked that “they all run faster the 230 kph”. It is exactly this strange paradox of Swabian boastfulness through modesty that the W126 encapsulates like no Mercedes top model before or after it.
At no other point in time was the ‘less is more’ paradigm applied as consistently to a luxury car. That it wasn’t some outsider start-up that tried to break the mould, like Tesla’s model S decades later, but one of the proudest and most conservative business entities on the planet made the W126’s genesis all the more astonishing.