First of Its Kind : Last of Its Kind

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

Image: (c)

A blackened wreck with a 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 called 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’.

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 require, 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 superior 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 – 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 elite. 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 monstrous 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 industry leaders 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 brooked no prisoners.

The W126, on the other hand – far from being self-consciously demure – seemed in its stance to take 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 acted 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, oversaw 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.

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 ‘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’s 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.

An S-class for each decade, Photo (c).

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 encapsulated like no Mercedes model before or after.

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.

The facelift W126, Photo (c)

As the eighties progressed however, amid those who could and 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 model 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 caused 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.

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”.

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

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 would be much less 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 lambasted 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 damningly: ordinary.

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 in retrospect, endearing. 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 would 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: sheet 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 so overwhelmed 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 reportedly uncorked 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.

Image credit: (c) mercedes4arab

Only after the Mercedes marque had suffered from a number of incidents of previously unheard-of quality issues and two decades of aesthetic desultoriness has the W126 once again attracted due 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 //

3 thoughts on “First of Its Kind : Last of Its Kind”

  1. Yes indeed, a very fine history of the ’80s S Class, with a generous helping of W116. Also, a take on politics and the start of rampant neoliberalism I had not read before, “restoration” not being the term I would use in hindsight. But then I don’t live in Germany either.

    I am struck by the ride height displayed in the first photo, which makes a Subaru Outback look low, and an Audi Allroad look like a track racer. The W126 seems as ready to attack a goat track as the autobahn.

    By great good fortune, my experience of the W116 was of the 450 SEL 6.9 which was enormous and hardly a compact at 5.3 metres length. Here’s another long read of a 40 year old one on a trip which I find engrossing:
    The W 116 had a propensity for the sills to severely rust revealing the inner structure. I was always amazed that one particular local example continually passed its annual inspection. Presumably the sill was adjudged to not be a structural member.

    The BMW 750i was certainly the thing among the thrusting new entrepreneur class of this area when it first appeared. I met an owner at our hobby gatherings who said he was glad that it could limp to the dealer on one bank of the V12 because it went into limp mode far too often. I think the W140 brought some strayers back into the fold, and the Seven of any stripe is rare to this day in my area, whereas S Class presence is noticeable.

    Speaking of the W140 – has anyone found an example where the right rear door fits properly? Every single one I ever saw was misfitted, including a 5 litre example I spent some time in. It also had extremely slippery seat coverings quite noticeable on cornering, but went very well in an antiseptic way, not helped by austere interior design.

    So yes, all things considered the W126 was the sort of quiet type that never looked overly aggressive and just got the job done for the 1980s. Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing.

    The 1991 book “The Machine That Changed The World” from MIT, showed up Mercedes Benz as by far the least efficient producer of cars, with the largest re-work area and outmoded quality control concepts, and threw Daimler into a tizzy. The W126 was produced under the old system, the W140 straddled the changeover period, which led ultimately to a disappointing series of cars in the ’90s as the company struggled to become more efficient. Reliability seemed to suffer. It’s one thing to embrace the logic of needed change, quite another to implement it.

    The premium car market in the nineties around here was blindsided by the Lexus LS400 and later and additionally the SC300/400. Panel gaps and straight panel fitment from Germany were handily eclipsed, viz the W140 rear right door. The V8 was really smooth, the finish exemplary, the durability and reliability eventually legendary. The Siebener suffered much more in our market than the W140 did, old money buying Mercedes from habit. The Seven was chased away for over a decade until Toyota began serious navel-gazing and tried to produce “performance” variants with little success, now followed by the whatever they think it is ugly prow.

    So, whether accurate or not, my remembrance is that the W126 was the last of the old breed, the old way of doing things, the linear thought process. I was myself embroiled in the design of a quality assurance accreditation protocol for electricity meter accuracy from the mid nineteen eighties to early nineties. The change was from a system where every meter was individually checked by government inspectors i.e. quality control, to one where statistical methods and procedures were employed and only random samples actually checked, i.e. quality assurance. The process has to be under control. The process is documented and auditable, and not affected by supervisors having a bad day and deciding to change things on a whim. Tesla is a regression to such thinking of the industrial past, a process out of control.

    But the change to statistical process control was the step change Mercedes undertook, a mammoth undertaking. It had to to remain competitive to the Japanese in world markets. And that was where pure vehicle engineering became secondary to the requirement for a company-wide process for the design and fabrication of vehicles.

    I believe that one cannot look back at older vehicles from those swiftly changing times in production methodology to also see what drove future profitability forecasts once the W140 was in development. The place must have been in turmoil.

    With a friend of mine champing at the bit for an E53 straight-six coupe, rejecting all S Class variants as excessive and plump, I have been helping him go over the rather disappointing reliability reported for the new E, let alone those of the abysmal C Class and GLC. One wonders if Mercedes has a firm grip yet on modern engineering design and production. It looks like lease time for my friend, rather than the 15 years of 2000 BMW 528 ownership he enjoyed.

    1. Thanks for that. Alas the C&D link is not available in our region. It is a side-effect of the new net privacy laws, I gather.
      What is behind M-B’s quality problems?

  2. It is true that Mercedes had a large area for rectification work on their production site. The bigger the car and the better equipped the more time it spent there until it was declared ready for delivery. Some cars spent more time there than on the actual production line, particularly after the W126’s production start, which was anything but smoothly. Early W126s suffered from teething troubles with sunroofs falling on passengers’ heads, water ingress at rear screens, noisy seats and all kinds of electrical gremlins. It took Mercedes about a year and innumerable hours of rectification time to sort hat out.
    Japanese “right first time” production methods weren’t established in Europe at that time and the transition was painful not only for Mercedes.

    At that time Mercedes had a special order department that would make by hand just about anything at customer’s wish and everything that was ordered more than six times was considered as standard option and didn’t count for the statistics of that department.
    Even by applying these counting methods every sixth Benz had some kind of special equipment, most of them being individually shaped orthopaedic seats or rear benches with all kinds of consoles and communication equipment like mobile phones filling the boot.

    At the time of the W126 Mercedes also designed all parts of a car themselves, the W140 being the first Mercedes with headlamps designed by Bosch or Hella and not by Mercedes, but that only came after the MOPF that also saw the car lose its retractable aiming aids on the rear wings.

    Mercedes stressed the downsizing of the W126 a lot, but German media and the buying public saw the W126s as what they were: bigger engined successors to the W116. 380s and 500s sold in numbers similar or greater than the 350 and 450 W116s. Benz made around 100,000 examples of the 500 which hardly puts it where the 6.9 was with 6,700 examples. These numbers were roughly met by the 560 of which a bit over 10,000 were made.

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