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

Driven to Write concludes its meditation on the definitive latter-day Mercedes, the W126 S-Class.

Stuttgart’s Finest, Photo (c)

Viewed with disinterest, it is surprisingly easy to come to this conclusion when judging the W126. Visually, it is far from stunning. Its vertical affinity, horizontal homogeneity-influenced styling (or rather: design) means it could easily be shrugged off as “just some Mercedes”. In terms of engineering, its focus on safety, solidity and efficiency also means it has never been at the forefront of performance data bragging contests, due to the lack of a V12 engine or an engine of almost ridiculous capacity at the top of the range. The W126 asks either for a conservative stance in the traditional sense of the word or an understanding of subtleties to be appreciated.

Bruno Sacco lent this S-class a form language that was extremely sober, yet distinguished by a surprisingly lithe stance and a roofline that, despite clearly conveying a sense of not being anything less than rock-solid, had a delightful elegance to it. Said roof, with its unusual angle of slope (the windshield appears to be more upright than the rear window) and delicately curved, yet solid C-pillar is somewhat reminiscent of the heyday of “Swabian” elegance of more than a decade earlier, when Frenchman, Paul Bracq, added grace to the impression of quality associated with Teutonic forms.

Sacco’s ideas were more technically-minded – some would say ‘colder’ – than Bracq’s and in keeping with the prevalent trends at that time – technological ostentatiousness and visual constraint – but he still kept and nurtured the idea of Mercedes as a car maker apart from the rest, as demonstrated not just by the traditional, self-cleaning ribbed tail lamps and panel gaps that were the envy of the rest of the industry.

His vision of Mercedes-Benz may not have been a romantic one, yet the car’s restraint is not just commendable, but endearing, in retrospect. The W126’s interior even keeps some of what could be described as a Swabian sense of pettiness, what with its oversized steering wheel, wide and deftly sprung, yet not particularly cosy seats and a dashboard that eschews the W116’s attempt at voguish flamboyance and instead tries to combine solid, matter-fact design with an air of luxury, thanks to a use of wood that still feels somewhat clumsy next to other prestige marque’s efforts in this area.

The W126 in administrative office spec, Photo (c)

The W126’s facelift only reinforced this overall impression: ditching the Fuchs Baroque alloy wheels in favour of the new, bigger Gullydeckel (manhole cover) design, as well as losing the rippled Sacco-Bretter and replacing them with smoother, more substantial looking cladding did make the S-class appear slightly heavier, but also cleaner. These considerably less fussy details almost appeared as though the car had always been intended to look that way – as if the abandoned adornments had been concessions to previous times (and W116 enthusiasts) that could finally be stripped off.

This tasteful simplification process was actually about to be continued by the next generation S-class, the W140. Unfortunately, that car’s form language would clash badly with the specification imposed upon it by the engineers of Untertürkheim. But for the time being – this time being the mid-1980s – the W126 was in full bloom. Yet the socially responsible luxury car, as envisaged by Werner Breitschwerdt and his legions of engineers and designers, was about to become a thing of the past. By the time it reached its twilight years, the S-class was to become the traditionalist’s choice, not the default choice for those who simply craved ‘the best there is’.

Luckily for Daimler-Benz, there were still more than enough of those loyal conservatives around for this state of affairs not to end in a disaster for the Stuttgart marque. Yet the lustre of omnipotence had faded. The second half of the 1980s would turn out to be the period when Mercedes’ domination of the luxury saloon market was broken for the first time. Stuttgart might have sniffed at the E32 Seven as the choice of the somewhat vulgar dashing entrepreneur’s choice, but that could not distract from the fact that the BMW was the car of now, while the W126, formerly the car of now and the future, suddenly stood for the past. While this obviously did not destroy the S-Class’ reputation or sales figures, it nonetheless ended an era of perceived invincibility.

‘Bullshit Castle’ at Stuttgart Möhringen – a corporate HQ to go with W140’s ambitions, Photo (c)

At the same time, the distinguished career of the W126’s father, Prof. Werner Breidtschwerdt, was coming to a bitter end. In 1987, after four years as CEO of Daimler-Benz, he resigned. Indisputably a brilliant engineer, Breitschwerdt had neither clout nor a lot of fortune as the head of a very contentious board of directors. Caught in a power struggle between finance director, Edzard Reuter – a confidante of Alfred Herrhausen’s, incidentally – and the director of Mercedes-Benz cars, Werner Niefer, Breitschwerdt failed to take decisive control over the behemoth that Daimler-Benz had meanwhile become. Edzard Reuter was appointed as his successor and pushed forward with his plans to evolve Daimler-Benz into a corporate group of “integrated technologies”. This effectively spelled the end of Daimler-Benz as a strictly engineering-led company.

But even though car journalists’ love affair with the S-class was obviously over, sales of the W126 did not implode in the wake of the BMW E32’s (and Jaguar XJ40’s) launch. A decrease of about 10.000 units compared with the W126’s sales peak in 1986 actually seemed rather buoyant. The new, powerful opposition was obviously not exactly crushing the S-Class – the Benz’ reputation and prestige seem to have been too illustrious and the W126 itself (despite the damning verdicts of Setright et al) still too competent for that to happen. But the S-Class was not quite in a class of its own anymore.

This situation, even though no-one would admit it, triggered a defensive reflex. “Mine is bigger than yours” was the order of the day, and Mercedes was determined to cater to this mantra. The oil crises were but faint memories and social stigmata of powerful, expensive cars had turned into prestige once again. As a consequence, its successor would ignore much of the ethos that had been at the very root of the W126’s conception. Gone was the self-restraint, replaced with an abundance of… almost anything. But above all: sheer metal.

The Big One, Photo (c)

When the W140 model S-Class was unveiled in 1991, it gave the impression of a car that was not ashamed, but proud of its girth and mightiness. Bruno Sacco and his designers may actually have clothed it in simple and tasteful shapes, but that made next to no difference when the car’s body was so obviously overwhelming its tiny-looking wheels. On the eve of yet another recession, the W140 did not appear terribly smart by literally putting the competition in its oversized shadow. Those in charge at Munich’s Petuelring were reportedly uncorking the Bolly once the W140 had been unveiled. Unlike the W126 – a car based on the thinking of the 1970s, which had the benefit of corresponding to the zeitgeist of the following half-a-decade, before somewhat falling out of favour – the W140’s conception seemed redundant immediately.

In Europe at least, it was like manna from heaven for the competition – though not because Mercedes engineers had developed a bad car. It was just the wrong car. As an overreaction to increasingly stiff competition and a (faddish) Greed Is Good spirit, Mercedes had developed the perfect car for a specific period of time that, as it happened, had just passed. But everything was not lost. The kind of money men personified by Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko might have learned some lessons of the art of understatement (or, in some rare cases, spent the early 1990s behind bars), but the streets were not on fire, as they had been fifteen years earlier. The spirit of restoration – as purveyed by the conservatives Reagan, Thatcher and Kohl – which had an ever-firmer grip on the Europe and the US, had made the West feel at ease with itself once more. The children that had been at war with the parent generation ten years before were now wearing cardigans and demonstrating against nuclear arms and dying forests, but at least they weren’t throwing Molotov cocktails anymore. Things, it seemed, had gone back to normal.

Hilmar Kopper, Photo (c)

The man who had by then taken Alfred Herrhausen’s post as head of Deutsche Bank was therefore considerably less hard-pushed – or willing – to question his own business, his ethics or himself. Hilmar Kopper, bullish son of a farmer, would later on gain notorious fame for coining the term that losses sustained by craftsmen and small businesses in the wake of the bankruptcy of one of Germany’s leading developers – which was existence-threatening to a great many of them – were nothing but ‘peanuts’, compared with the losses Deutsche Bank was facing. Kopper was not a man who had the time to muse about debt relief for Third World Countries or Karl Popper’s theories. And he is even more likely not to have given a damn about the statement of arrogance his new S-Class was emanating. He probably just appreciated the W140’s generous rear accommodation, just as Hanns Martin Schleyer may not have disapproved of the W116’s ostentatious double bumpers.

While its unloved successor was ridiculed by some for its size, hated by a few for the fact that Lady Diana Spencer met with the Grim Reaper in it and loved by others – especially once it was offered with a gargantuan six litre, 408 horsepower, 48 valve V12 engine – the W126 turned into a victim of its own success for the next decade-and-a-half. A total production of 818.066 units meant that the W126 was as ubiquitous a luxury vehicle as no other car of this price range before or since. The model’s high quality also resulted in a much higher survival rate than any of its predecessors’.

This sense of familiarity was further heightened by the implementation of Bruno Sacco’s vertical affinity, horizontal homogeneity ethos: due to the sales success of the W201 190E and W124 E-Class family, the Mercedes shapes of the 1980s had become almost too prevalent. A decade later, these stylistically similar ‘old cars’ were still around in their hundreds of thousands, which bred, if not contempt, than at the very least indifference. A return to more ornamental and fashionable styling was how Mercedes responded to this paradoxical problem. A general disregard for ‘those grandfatherly Mercs’ was the wider public’s reaction.

Only after the Mercedes marque had suffered from a number of incidents of previously unheard-of quality issues and two decades of aesthetic desultoriness does the W126 once again attract recognition for what it is: a staunch conservative that happened to be ahead of its time. A milestone Mercedes, as well as a milestone car.


Author: Christopher Butt

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

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

  1. Thank you for that excellent series Kris. We all have our own preconceptions of different cars and reasons why we like them. For me, Mercedes should be conservative, in the best sense, and that’s why I mourned the restraint of the W126 and sneered at its successors. But I’ve never really thought that deeply (or sympathetically to MB’s designers) about the reasons for this change of direction. I just assumed that Mercedes had had an inappropriate and escalating mid-life crisis. Your pieces have explained these reasons, putting them into an historical context.

    When the W140 was revealed, I remember following a new W126 up Park Lane and wondering if they’d got in quick to snap up the old model, rather than be lumbered with the slab-sided new one. I also thought that it would be a good idea to put away a couple of new ones for the future. I rather wish I’d actually had the money to do so.

    1. Thank you, Sean.

      Some particularly staunch S-class costumers actually did just that and got themselves the last W126s, as they didn’t like the W140’s size and social baggage.

      BMW’s E38 also benefitted from the Big Benz insofar as its discreetness was appealing to some former S-class buyers. My BMW-driving dad once had some business to attend at a Mercedes dealership, where he was told that they’d have ‘an alternative’ to his Seven series, to which he replied with a blunt ‘I don’t think so’. Astonishingly the Mercedes salesman then lowered his voice and murmured: ‘I agree.’

      Daimler-Benz was right in the middle of a process of immense change when the W140 came out, and its hubris reflects just that. Not that the resultant cars were actually bad, but the Mercedes boys were just a bit full of themselves at that point.

      Which probably isn’t as obnoxious as trying to rip off one’s costumers, as they did during the next phase of escalation.

  2. Really enjoyed the three articles Kris. I still remember my disappointment on first seeing the W140. I also remember seeing some early clay models of the 126 which were very similar to the 140 so it was a design that had been knocking around for almost 20 years. Surely it will only become more appreciated over the coming decades.

    1. Time has been kind to the W140. It looked comically large back in the day, but I know which car I’d choose if I had the choice between a pristine early 500/600 SEL or a modern W222. The wheels and track width will forever remain too small, but its otherwise calm and assured styling is really rather delightful in today’s baroque automotive landscape.

  3. Another W140 first was a TV ad. I’d never seen a TV ad for an S Class before – again it seemed somewhat of a brash thing to do. My memory of the ad was the car doing some nimble if undignified tricks on a wet road.

    Whilst looking for it, I also came across this ad – rather spooky in view of subsequent events. Or maybe everyone looked like that back then.

  4. The shock about the size and the rather unelegant design of the W140 was dued to the comparisons to the elegance of the W126 and dued to the political instability after the Gulf War and the fall of the iron curtain. Mercedes had the intention to build a car that was just simply bigger and better than a BMW 7-series or any other car in every sense. A wonderful task for the Mercedes people.
    For other regions in the world, like the US, the rich oil countries or Russia it was a perfect sized car.

    Remember Lexus, they were copying the W140 design several years later:

    1. The W140’s popularity in foreign markets has peculiar repercussions today: roughly a quarter of ‘140’s on sale in Germany today are Japanese re-imports.

      Back in the day, the W140 was exiled from Germany far quicker and in far greater numbers than its predecessors, with the Eastern Block being particularly keen on big second or third hand Benzes. Most of those cars have been modified or tinkered with, which leaves the Japanese cars as the most attractive non-domestic propositions.

      Today, I’d wager the W126 to W140 ratio is at the very least 5 to 1.

    2. Unusually for a Japanese design they copied wholesale rather than parts watered down. The previous car had its own identity. This one hadn’t. That was a loss of nerve.

  5. I recall reading about the W140 before its launch and thinking this car is going to change everything. Turns out it didn’t – the LS400 did that. However, it was a mighty car, in more ways than one.

    As indeed was its predecessor. The W126 remains the go-to Mercedes in my view.

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