As the eighties progressed and those who could preferred to flaunt it, the W126 began to fall out of favour and, for the very first time, began to feel threatened.
The nature of the market during the late 1970s and early ‘80s played a crucial role in the unique process that lead to the W126’s creation. It is, for example, very hard to believe today’s clientele would accept a flagship modell with significantly reduced output figures compared with its predecessor – yet after a decade of fears of fuel shortages, even the most wealthy and conspicuously consuming of customers were willing to accept a certain amount of modesty.
But already by the time the W126 received its mid-life overhaul in 1985 – when customers had the newest mobile phones and flashy braces on their minds, rather than disconcertingly high fuel prices – Daimler-Benz took prestige thinking out of the closet once again and created the 560 model in order to keep the upper hand. This measure was undoubtedly caused by BMW’s looming V12 flagship, although no self-respecting Daimler-Benz employee would ever admit as much. But the symbolism was indisputable: within the timeframe of half a decade, the W126’s restraint had turned from a forte into a minor nuisance for its maker. Particularly as the big Benz now had, for the first time in the model’s history, a very serious opponent to contend with: the E32, BMW’s sublime second-generation Seven series. And it was not just this car’s V12 engine that was causing headaches at Stuttgart-Untertürkheim.
Just 25 years earlier, Daimler-Benz had been close to taking over what had been a failing local Bavarian car maker with a most peculiar model range. But in 1986, BMW’s ambitious CEO, Eberhard von Kuenheim, was determined, once and for all, to establish his company as a competitor at eye level with the formerly overpowering enemy from Stuttgart. To achieve this goal, he needed a luxury model that proved BMW could do more than just build dynamic, if ever so slightly rowdy executive saloons. The E32 was just that car: with its dynamic-yet-elegant Ercole Spada styling, a very capable blend of very good handling and sufficient ride abilities and high quality engineering, it posed a very creditable threat indeed to the S-class. There had been other contenders in the past, but never before had the Swabians explicitly experienced such fear that they might be demoted to second position. And to add insult to injury, BMW had an ace among its one-upmanship deck of cards: the first German V12 engine of post-war times.
Where the first Seven’s top engine, a thirsty turbocharged inline six unit, seemed to underline its pretender status, the E32’s motor managed to trump the 500 SEL in almost every area. Four more cylinders and a power advantage of 69 horsepower were just as good as any thrown gauntlet. In addition to those sheer facts, there was also the lure of the more sporting, dynamic image that the Bavarians had cultivated over the past two decades. To the technology-loving, image-conscious businessman of the 1980s, the S-class suddenly seemed like the car his father would choose. Even the German press, typically loyal to the three-pointed star and its cause, was suddenly rolling out the red carpet for the ascender from Munich.
There is no clearer an indication of how seriously Daimler bosses took the E32 than the breadth of the W126’s mid-life enhancements. One year before the BMW’s launch, the W126 received larger wheels, lost the ripples on its “Sacco planks” and gained a slightly weightier appearance. Its engines were also overhauled and the 560SE/SEL was added to the line-up.
By the mid-1980s, Mercedes engineers had already been hard at work on the W126’s successor, the W140, which would also feature a V12 of its own, that was intended to squash the BMW’s prestige engine. But the Swabians’ Endsieg was still at least five years off. Five years, during which the decision makers in Stuttgart just couldn’t leave the Bavarian challenge unanswered. Therefore the 500SE’s engine gained half a litre in capacity and 69 horsepower. The downsides to this – one must assume: somewhat hasty – procedure were a decrease in refinement and that version’s initial incompatibility with the optional catalytic converter. That proud Daimler-Benz’s undisputed top model, of all cars – and unlike the smaller engined versions – was unable to accommodate this increasingly common feature seemed rather embarrassing to some and plain ridiculous to others. It was two years later and after some careful tinkering, that the 560 model could finally be equipped with a catalyser (albeit at the cost of 21 horsepower).
So the battle for the title of Best Car In The World was on. And unlike in the past, when some markets favoured certain models for reasons the Swabians considered unsound – such as the British championing of the Jaguar XJ – the big Benz’ reputation was now being threatened by a challenger adhering to a set of rules and values very similar to its own. This was painfully reflected in Auto, Motor & Sport’s assessment in its September 1987 cover story. Author Werner Schruf was quick to award the 750iL the “heir apparent” title before, in what must come across as an almost face-saving measure, he went on to explain that in a “performance-orientated society that is ever eager to reach for something better” one could still drive a 560SEL “with peace of mind”.
The first reason for this judgement Schruf listed was, rather amusingly, the Mercedes’ higher price – as if it was proof of the car’s actual worthiness. Thankfully, he also found some more reasonable arguments on the Benz’s behalf, such as the V8’s superior low-end torque, which gave the impression of a more powerful car than the BMW (albeit at the price of rather poor refinement at high engine speeds). The W126 also benefitted from a more harmonious gearbox set-up, whose gearing, though too short for the author’s liking, still trumped the BMW’s overly long configuration. The Bavarian car’s insufficient climate control unit and inferior torsional rigidity were also mentioned as areas in which the older car could still more than hold its own. Yet the overbearing impression, despite the best of intentions by Auto, Motor & Sport to present the W126 in a soft, forgiving light, was that the S-Class was now firmly a star of yesteryear.
No matter whether comparing fuel consumption (15.5l/100km vs. 16.8), drag coefficient (0.34 vs. 0.36) or top speed (255 km/h vs. 242) – the BMW always found itself in front of the Mercedes by a short head. And the differences were even more drastic when it came to handling. Despite being the heavier car, the BMW didn’t leave the more understeer-prone, heavier-feeling and less stable Mercedes a chance. More surprising – probably not just for the avid reader, but also for the Swabian engineers – was the E32’s ability to better absorb small bumps, which would slightly unsettle the W126. The BMW’s not particularly modern chassis mercilessly laid the Mercedes’ suspension’s 1960s origins bare.
Considering this broad defeat, it didn’t matter that, when fully laden, the Mercedes might have gained the upper hand – if it wasn’t for its less comfortable seating. Its chassis betrayed the Mercedes’ age, there was no question about it. Werner Schruf summarised his view by focussing on the BMW’s strengths (among which, lest we forget, he did not even count the 8000 Deutschmark price advantage), before once again adding that “to be fair, the Mercedes doesn’t surrender easily for a seven-year-old car” and that it was “actually superior in a few points. Still: the BMW is clearly the more modern car”.
After this lenient, but nonetheless damaging judgement was made by no less than Stuttgart-based – and typically well-disposed – Auto, Motor & Sport, it came as little surprise that Britain’s Car magazine wouldn’t be much more gentle on the greying W126. Quite the contrary actually, as Car’s LJK Setright called the 560SEL “nothing more than a quite ordinary car – so ordinary that (he) could not take it seriously”. In Car’s December 1987 issue, Setright was given the title of chief justice, announcing the ultimate verdict on the perennial Best Car In The World question. In this trial, the eight-year-old Mercedes was pitted against the inevitable BMW 750iL, as well as Bentley’s Turbo R and Jaguar’s Series 3 XJ12 (which was also celebrating its eighth birthday – if one disregards the Series 1 twelve cylinder model’s launch in 1972 as the car’s actual birthdate).
Leading up to the legendary Setright’s assessment was a more cautious review and comparison of the four cars, courtesy of Car’s then-editor, Gavin Green. He noted the S-Class’ “standard interior”, which, although “beautifully made” and working “well enough”, he ultimately considered not “near as practically planned as the BMW’s” – in the editor’s view, a re-think of Mercedes’ ergonomics was “well overdue”. His praise of the 560’s V8 engine as a “smooth, well-developed unit (…) that has been impressive all its life for a big power spread and better than average economy” might have been seen as a saving grace. Green also noted that the Mercedes closely matched – and even bettered, in the case of 0-60 mph acceleration – the BMW’s performance figures.
Yet this positive interlude was quickly undermined by a criticism of the W126’s “wooden” throttle – which Green considered “a crying shame, because for discreet smoothness and power, the Merc’s V8 is every bit as good as the BMW V12”. Apart from this moderately positive judgement of its power unit, Green’s view of the W126 was, it must be said, a rather bleak one. He bluntly called it “the least accomplished of these (cars) on the road”, before finishing the presentation of his findings by calling the W126 “an unsatisfying car to drive”. His criticism was certainly rigorous enough even before he concluded that “they must be worried in Stuttgart”. Quite so.
Far from mincing his words in favour of a reconciliatory ending to his report, Green then went on to sound the death knell for the W126. In his conclusion (in which he called the BMW the best car “by conventional judgement”, but argued that cases could also be made for the Jaguar as the sensual and the Bentley as the quixotic choice), he stabbed the proud Swabian machine right at the centre of its three-pointed star, with these remorseless words: “The Mercedes we can dismiss. It just doesn’t have enough driver appeal. The wooden throttle and the cumbersome handling make this a real bookmaker’s car, for people who know they want a good, big and expensive machine. but don’t much care for how it drives”. Which certainly is not how the yuppie of the 1980s saw himself – and would not care for his car to be seen as such.
Even more damning were Leonard Setright’s views. Although he may have granted the Mercedes the virtue of a powerful engine, he immediately dismissed it for being a “thing” that is “utterly futile” at night due to its “abysmal” headlamps. In the same fashion, he went on lambasting the W126’s suspension – which had not been at the very top of Gavin Green’s list of objections – as “almost as disgusting”, due to the car’s “bumpy and pattery” ride quality, which, according to Setright, gave the impression “as though wheel and body movements had had to be confined by excessive anti-roll stiffness”, which had a “very inhibitory” effect on the driver. With “plenty of practice”, Setright mused, the Benz “could probably be taken by the scruff of the neck and flung about like any boy-racer hardware” – but even then, he countered, the driver would have to contend with “obscenely wide and laterally unsupportive seats (…) covered in leather imitation plastic so slippery that it might be undried eelskin” which could cause the occupant to “go submarining”.
The best car in the world was now seen as dismissible, futile, disgusting – or simply, and maybe most damagingly: ordinary.