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

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 facelift W126, Photo (c)

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.

This is how some tackled the W126 perceived lack of ‘road presence’, Photo (c)

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.

The first Big Beemer over which Stuttgart would lose sleep: the E32 Seven series, Photo (c)

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).

Note the subtle symbolism, Photo (c) AutoBild

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.

Mercedes-Benz’s lineup of the 1980s: too perfect to be exciting? Photo (c)

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.


Author: Christopher Butt

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

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

  1. I was looking forward to part 2. I enjoyed reading it and never realized the 126 was so poorly thought of by the motoring press of the time. The only one of those 4 cars I ever see on the road now is the Merc. I’m sure this is partly due to volume of sales but must also be a result of better build quality. I still see many being used as dailies but I can’t remember the last time I saw (the beautiful) E32 or especially an XJ12. Thanks for part 2(no chance of a final instalment?)

    1. Not that I see any of these cars much around here, it’s the Mercedes that is the most frequently spotted. 1979 Jaguars are non-existent.
      Setright spread that criticism on a bit thick. He misunderstood the way the S-class was not supposed to be ostentatious. It’s restraint could be mistaken for ordinariness.

    2. The W126 is not a rare care, that’s for sure. And most examples have obviously aged more gracefully than the competition, including the E32. These Benzes were simply built to a standard of their own. I’m glad they’re as ubiquitous also because that means I don’t feel obliged to take custody of one myself, which wouldn’t really suit me, despite the W126 being a very desirable machine.

      As a young boy, I was as guilty as everybody else of underestimating the W126’s aesthetic quality, but then again I was being taught all things automotive by a father who was very firmly in the BMW camp and liked to explain that any then-modern Mercedes was simply boring and for the elderly.

  2. I suspect to much chagrin…..

    I must admit I did have a soft spot for the wonderful creations that emanated from the houses of SGS (Styling-Garage), Carat by Duchatelet, Lorinser and Trasco during the period. The W126 was a prime host for the depiction of excess.

    I my defence, I was merely a youth at the time.

    Is my membership to this bastion in danger????

    1. Sanjay. We hope we’re a broad and tolerant church here …. probably with a few skeletons in our own cupboards. I can’t pretend I didn’t pass by the Rude Mercs emporium in London without considering a guilty ‘what if?’

    2. The 1000 SEL monicker one of the tuning outfits had the nerve to put onto a W126 variant alone would be sufficient to warrant this piece of automotive history a safe place in my affections. Will we eventually look at today’s Mansory excesses with a similar kind of mellowed irony?

    3. You are in good company. The W126 and especially the W126 Coupe was a perfect car for people with a ….different taste. Their owners spent a lot of money to make their 560 SEC look more individual. The result was, they all were undergoing nearly the same aesthetic surgery treatment….
      Here in Germany these cars were very popular in St. Pauli, as an expensive alternative to the Chevrolet Corvettes – before their owners switched to Hummer and other big SUV´some years later.

      To justify them (and you) a little bit, i have to say a modified Porsche of the 80ies was the worse crime:

    4. Uwe Gemballa eventually paid a very high price for his crimes, not all of which were of the aesthetic variety.

  3. I remember the V12 was necessesary for the E32-image, but more important for the sales were the brilliant and economic six-cylinders pushing the cheaper versions.
    So – combined with Ercole Spada´s brilliant design – the E32 was a very convincing car that could be chosen by heart or by brain.

    I think, the E32 did not only provoke some headaches in Untertürkheim, but also to Ferdi Piech – working on his S-class opponent, the quite vulgar looking but exclusively high priced Audi V8.

    1. Markus: you must be very, very fastidious. While the A8 is not an oil painting it´s not glaring; maybe it´s a bit busy or fussy in some details. What is it about the car you would change? If I squint I can almost seen some Granada Mk2 in there. Could you imagine the Ford Granada morphing into this if if had not gone down the aero route in 1986?

      The A8 is a rather plain car, really. Other people´s views are always fascinating.

    2. I can see what Markus means about the V8 (the A8 predecessor) and did indeed have something quite brash about it, mostly due to the after-market (BBS?) wheels fitted as standard on pretty much all of them.

    3. What I’d change on the V8 is definitely the wheelbase, which was already ridiculously short for the 100 one class below and doesn’t get more convincing with the bulky additions at the front and the back. Other than that, I’m fine with it, it’s a very calm and unpretentious design, if not exactly of upper-class refinement.

    4. I have a bit of a soft spot for the Audi 200 variant. Its stance is similar to the V8’s (which I consider appealingly planted in comparison with the standard 100’s), but it makes do without that grille, which looks a wee bit too facelifty.

      Mind you, the V8 came with lovely leather that seems to have aged very well indeed – at least as well as the W126’s. But that’s not enough to maintain a car that’s not only very obviously compromised, but also hideously expensive to service, thanks to Audi’s notoriously bad parts supply.

      My old man – a staunch BMW driver back in the day – used to drive a succession of E32s back in the day. The first, early production example, was quite a lemon, with bubbling dashboard and screen wash nozzles that proved useless in the Finnish winter, but he loved the car for its looks and engine alone. It’s also a car I’d consider a bit of a modern classic myself. I’d love a 750iL (to me, the E32 is the only Seven that looks better in L form) in a dark colour with the early salad bowl alloy wheels. In fact, I wouldn’t mind owning every European luxury saloon of the late ’80s. Would a fleet consisting of an XJ12, 750iL and 500 SEL be considered excessive or just daft, I wonder?

    5. Richard, are you referring to the Ay or Vee Eight?

      The two earliest generations of A8 I’d both consider worth my while. The first one for its very competent Warkuß soft design and, of course, Ronin fame, and the second one for its outstanding cabin, sublime (albeit unashamedly FWD/AWD) stance and very Schreyeresque detailing.

    6. The V8 was an Audi 200 with a lot of lametta and the Audi 200 was an Audi 100 of 1983 with a lot of lametta. Maybe interesting for people who like Audi and lametta, but not a serious contender of the luxury class.
      Well, this was quite popular in those days, the Opel Senator or the Alfa 90 or the Mitsubishi Sapporo were built from the same stuff. But only Piech tried to make a luxury car out of a large family car. Could this be a successful way ? Never!

      Audi did copy the E32 story with the first A8 a few years later. He was a lot more beautiful then MB´s W140, innovative (with the Alu.Space-Frame and 4WD) and cheaper to run than the Mercedes.

    1. The boxy Giugiaro one? Yes, but not at the top spot. The Okuyama Quattroporte V would find its way into my dream garage quite a bit earlier (and after a good struggle with a naturally aspirated V8 X351 Jaguar XJ).

  4. The Audi V8 is thus the rich man’s Opel Senator: a posh car built from a car from the class below. I hadn’t seen it that way before. Don’t you think adding 20 cm to the wheelbase of the 100 would have been quite straightforward?

    1. Perhaps it would have been a better idea to built an Audi V8 out of its successor and launch it some months earlier than the Audi 100.
      The V8 was a old-fashioned car already in 1988 and a lot more when Audi launched the new Audi 100 in 1990.,

  5. Markus: they were impatient. Perhaps they saw the vehicle as a chance to establish themselves in the market. Presumably it didn’t hurt sales. Some customers mightn’t have noticed the old foundations of the V8. I may have a review of it in my carchive.

  6. I thought the E32 was a Claus Luthe design? How much did Ercole Spada contribute? There’s definitely more Luthe than Spada in the design, at least to my eyes…

    I also think most car journalist make the mistake of looking at cars from an enthusiast driver perspective. Most journalists are more interested in how the cars compare dynamically. Less is said of the other sociological factors like cars as status symbols. And the W126 was definitely the car to be seen driven in in the 80’s. It was more or less the default limo option amongst the livery people in NY, like the Lincoln Town Car or the Cadillac Escalade today. Look at any pic from the 80’s, and people are being ferried around in a W126. I’d say it was more or less the only option for people who had their own chauffeur. And in that sense the E32 didn’t have a chance, it wasn’t even seen as a serious contender.

    1. Luthe was overall head of BMW’s design until his tragic departure in (I believe) 1992, so he was effectively supervising Spada, who is credited with the E32’s exterior design. In fact, BMW actually trademarked the L-shaped rear lights in Spada’s name.

      The W126’s cinematic career’s been particularly illustrious, as well: think of the stretched limousine convoy in Coming To America or the yakuzas’ rows of black Benzes in Black Rain. Bruce Willis also destroyed one in Die Hard 3 (an example with a lovely ‘Dattel’ interior, if I’m not mistaken).

    2. If you follow Luthes career, you see that he has a penchant for quite upright and top heavy greenhouses with lots of glass. From the NSU Printz over to the NSU Ro80 and K70, over to the facelifted BMW 3- and 5-series, over to the E32 7-series. The E32 is sleeker because it’s longer, but I’d say it’s very much done in the Luthe-style of design school. There’s a clear and very consistent line of thought throughout his career. Perhaps the details are Spada, I have no idea. But I’d say very much of the E32 overall shape and proportion looks very much like a Claus Luthe design.

    3. I’m not really trying to argue with you here, Ingvar, but I feel I need to make the distinctions between the jobs of the design director and the designers clear: the design director (Claus Luthe in this instance) is setting the aesthetic themes, which often also include ideas originating from the designers, and supervises the execution of them, which is carried out solely by the designers (or Ercole Spada, in the case of the E32’s exterior). Design directors don’t draw cars anymore, despite corporate PR’s attempts at conveying the image of the chief designer creating whole cars with pencil strokes.

      In the E32’s case, I’d call the creative process a happy marriage of different sensibilities. Spada’s work could often be a bit rough, featuring interesting, but occasionally sloppily executed ideas. Luthe, on the other hand, was a fastidious craftsman. I believe these two men’s talents complemented each other nicely, a bit like Spen King and David Bache’s had done two decades earlier. The E32’s successor – which was still created under Luthe’s watch – albeit not an unattractive car, lacked that special something that lent the ’32 its sparkle. This was arguably the component Spada had brought along.

      Your observations regarding Luthe’s aesthetic preferences are, of course, correct, even though I’d point out that the first car whose body-in-white Luthe could influence was the E30 – the BMWs he’d worked on before were still in some way based on Bracq designs.

      Whether it was Luthe who instructed Spada to cater for a large greenhouse we will never know, but it’s obvious that this component was also part of his considerations for the E34’s design:

  7. Briefly: I think Kris’s description is accurate. A succesful design requires a good judge such as Luthe and good proposals as from Spada.
    And isn’t that a very satisfying drawing? The boot looks a shade longer than the final car’s – and a bit flatter on top.

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