Der Zenit (Part Two)

Mercedes-Benz would never build another car like the 1991 W140 S-Class.

1994 Mercedes-Benz W140 S-class (post-facelift)

European automotive industry watchers, motoring journalists and the public were amazed that Mercedes-Benz could launch such a large and profligate flagship in the teeth of an economic recession and growing environmental concerns. Journalists’ preconceptions and reservations about the size of the W140 were, however, seriously challenged when they drove the new S-Class. While they had expected that it would be beautifully built from the highest quality materials and would ride supremely well, what surprised them was that it handled with extraordinary agility for such a large car.

Mercedes-Benz had developed a modified version of its multi-link rear suspension and a new double-wishbone front axle, and both were mounted on separate sub-frames, to insulate the body as fully as possible from road noise. To this end, in the early phase of the W140’s development, Rudolf Hornig and Wolfgang Peters had experimented with using a separate perimeter chassis for the car. It was envisaged that the body would be flexibly suspended on the chassis, its movement electronically controlled. However, after eighteen months, they realised that the arrangement would be too heavy and the reliability of the control units could not be guaranteed, so they reverted to traditional subframes instead.

Notwithstanding highly complimentary road test reports, there remained more than a little disquiet amongst potential customers in Europe concerning the acceptability of the W140. Moreover, the car was launched in the midst of the early 90’s economic recession and was priced at up to 25% more than its predecessor. Early sales were disappointing. Corporate would-be buyers that comprised the greater part of the S-Class customer base did not want to be seen flaunting wealth in a time of economic hardship, so many simply held onto their W126 models for longer.

If Europe, and Germany in particular, had reservations about the new S-Class, the North American market, where it was merely large, greeted it with enthusiasm when it arrived in August 1991. Likewise, the Asian and Middle Eastern markets, where the car was appreciated for the undoubted prestige its size and presence conferred on its owners. Sales did pick up and production totalled 406,710 over its seven-year life, around 15% fewer per year than its predecessor.

Apart from the additional safety technology added to the car during its production life, there was only one facelift, in April 1994, when the car received clear rather than amber front indicators and slimmer tail lights.

1991 Mercedes-Benz W140 S-Class interior (c)

One tragic event that gave the W140 much unwanted publicity was the car crash on 31st August 1997 that claimed the lives of Diana, Princess of Wales, her partner, Dodi Fayed, and the chauffer, Henry Paul. Diana’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, survived with serious injuries. The car was being driven at high speed through the Pont de l’Alma Tunnel in Paris as Paul attempted to evade paparazzi on motorbikes. He lost control of the car and it slammed into a supporting column in the central reservation of the tunnel.

An inquest revealed that Paul had drunk a large quantity of alcohol earlier in the evening and was under the influence of prescription drugs. None of the car’s occupants had been wearing seat belts and it was alleged that the car had been previously repaired after a major accident, although it is unclear whether this had any significant effect on the outcome. This event, however unpleasant it was for Mercedes-Benz, probably made little difference to sales and the W140 would be replaced just a year later.

The W140’s production life was possibly shortened by early buyer resistance and, in consequence, the accelerated development of its successor(1). That said, there may be a more obvious reason for what appeared to be its premature demise: as the 1990’s progressed, there was a marked shift in philosophy within the company.

Mercedes-Benz had always prided itself on the engineering excellence of its vehicles, which were built to the highest standards, rather than to a price. The W140 programme had taken eight years and allegedly cost over $1 billion, inflated by the costs and delays related to the early perimeter chassis experiments, late decisions to develop V12-engined and SWB variants, and the fact that the car contained a great deal of new and untested technology. This had all translated into the steep rise in the car’s price over its predecessor, which was another drag on sales.

This, and the error concerning the W140’s payload, led to the departure of Wolfgang Peter, while Werner Niefer retired in May 1993 after fifty years with the company(2). Jürgen Hubbert, then head of the passenger car division, was passed over for promotion to chief executive of Daimler-Chrysler, another victim of the W140.

Niefer’s replacement was Helmut Werner, who was required to pursue a different strategy for the company, dictated by its parent, Daimler-Benz. Daimler recognised that, in Mercedes-Benz, it had the strongest and most prestigious automotive brand in the world, but it wanted to leverage the brand much more aggressively and profitably, by expanding the range of models it offered and by accelerating and streamlining the development process. There would be no more excellence-at-any-cost programmes such as the W140. Instead, spending would be optimised for maximum return. Future vehicles, while still expected to be class-leading, would be engineered with cost firmly in mind.

This change of mindset and strategy was driven by Edzard Reuter, Daimler-Benz’s CEO from 1987 to 1995(3). Reuter was determined to turn Daimler into a broad-based global technology company, so went on an acquisition spree, buying aerospace, defence, railway equipment, household appliance, electronics, software development and financial services companies. Reuter’s interest in Mercedes-Benz was largely as a profit generator to fund these acquisitions. Bearing this in mind, it is perhaps surprising that the W140 project had not been compromised before the model was launched.

By 1995, Daimler was haemorrhaging cash and, following a torrent of criticism, Reuter was replaced by Jürgen Schrempp. Schrempp set about repairing the damage, with a promise to maximise shareholder value, which still required Mercedes-Benz to wring as much profit as possible out of its business.

1998 Mercedes-Benz W220 S-Class (c) carsbase

The 1998 W220 S-Class successor to the W140 was evidence of Mercedes-Benz’s new pragmatic, profit-driven approach. While only 55mm (2”) shorter than the W140 in LWB form, its curvaceous, informal and fashionable styling, attributed to Steve Mattin, was far less imposing than its predecessor. Bruno Sacco was still nominally head of styling and would remain so until his retirement in 1999, but his influence had waned considerably after he had been shunted sideways following the W140’s poor initial reception.

Sacco’s vertical affinity principle, whereby a superseded model should not be rendered stylistically obsolete by its successor, was discarded in favour of something that was dramatically different. When the first images of the W220 began to emerge, they actually caused an increase in orders for the W140 from those who had grown to appreciate its qualities.

The quality of the W220 was of a lower order than its imperious predecessor. The interior materials and finishes were markedly inferior. Moreover, the car was filled with innovative electronic and computerised systems that were often temperamental and unreliable. It suffered from a number of mechanical frailties, notably with the air suspension and self-closing doors. The accelerated and cost-controlled development process and leap in technology the new model contained was asking for trouble, and fate obliged.

1991 Mercedes-Benz W140 S-Class (c)

The last traces of excellence at any cost in design and engineering at Mercedes-Benz died with the W140 and we will never see it again. It may have been respected rather than ever loved, but the W140 represents something special, perhaps unique; a car designed truly without compromise.

(1) Although six or seven years would be the life cycle for future S-Class generations.

(2) Sadly, Rudolf Niefer would spend only four months in retirement before dying from lung cancer.

(3) Reuter’s pursuit of breakneck expansion and concurrent cost-cutting was his response to an analysis of Daimler-Benz by management consultants McKinsey, undertaken between 1983 and 1993.

Author’s note: My thanks to contributor Christopher Butt for his assistance in researching this piece. Christopher has written an excellent and beautifully illustrated meditation on the W140 on his own website, which may be found here.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

55 thoughts on “Der Zenit (Part Two)”

  1. Weren’t there diesel versions of the W116 and W126 in the US and Canada?

    1. Noted, thank you gentlemen. I wonder why? North America is the last place I would have expected diesel engines to be offered in a luxury (or any) car, given the relative cheapness of petrol, then and now.

    2. Daniel, it’s a good question.

      I think (though I am not certain) that diesel was a point of difference for German ‘sedans’ in North America at that time. VW also offered a diesel Passat and there were diesel Audis.

      These cars were a lot more expensive than domestic competitors (and the Toyotas and Hondas which were then made on US soil). Many Americans do huge mileages in their cars so the extra economy from a diesel engine would pay off in time.

      Oddly, diesel is now having something of a minor resurgence in SUVs and trucks in North America, with various models from the Big Three now offering this option.

    3. Large capacity diesels were a US speciality during the second half of the ’70s – a response to the oil crisis. Hence the availability of diesel-powered W116 and W126 variants (and even Cadillacs) at a time when this kind of engine would’ve been considered an utter affront by European S-class owners. Even Jaguar considered fitting a VM Motori-sourced diesel to the XJ during the early ’80s, but quickly decided against it.

      If memory serves, W140 was the first luxury saloon that was officially available in Turbodiesel guise in Europe.

  2. Good morning, very interesting series Daniel. Just two thoughts on the W140:

    1. I think the problem with the W140’s styling is not so much its height, although Daniel’s Photoshop proposal does improve it, but rather that the W140 was the first MB without a continuous shoulder line. The flat flanks of the W140 break the imaginary line between rear wing, doors/side glass, and front wings. This might not be a problem in a smaller car, as in MB’s own C-Class W202, itself a mini W140, but in sush a big car it makes it look flabby and disjointed.

    This is what I mean. Notice on this W126 the uninterrupted reflection from front to rear, which keeps all parts of the body united as a whole and in doing so, gives the design considerable strength:

    Now think of all the MB saloons before the W140 and after the Ponton. They all had an uninterrupted shoulder going along the entire length of the car.

    2. I think the W140 was the first MB that was unnecessarily complex and electronic. It’s the complete opposite of the ethos of the W116 in which the luxury was in the materials and execution and not in the bells and whistles. I remember a quote that I think was attributed to a MB engineer that went something like “…if the driver can’t operate a window lever maybe he shouldn’t be operating a car…”. An extreme position, of course, but the W116 and even the W126 had manual windows in their basic versions, while the W140 had electric headrest adjustment as standard, and I think also electrically adjusted interior rear view mirror, to name just a couple of examples of unnecessary complexity. Like someone said in the previous posts, a high mileage W116 or W126 is not a crazy proposal, whereas a similar W140 might ruin you!

    1. Good morning Cesar. Good point about the shoulder line, which is very important to the look of the W126. That’s a wonderful photo of the car, but surely it’s slightly elongated? (The wheels look slightly oval-shaped to my eyes.)

    2. Adding complexity is all fine and dandy, but nobody assures it will work fifteen twenty years down the line, not even Mercedes during those years.

      I own a 17-year old Mini Cooper, electric everything. 17 years down the line, none of the electrics work. The sunroof don’t work, the electrical windows don’t work and there’s no manual override. I bought the car for 3000 euro and I was quoted 1500 euro to fix the windows and 15oo euro to fix the sunroof by BMW. What happened to winding the windows down? What happened with built in redundancy like here’s a fucking crank for you when all the electrics are fryed?

    3. The W109 300 SE 6.3 and the subsequent W116 450 SEL 6.9 provide a counterpoint to this argument that Mercedes were previously averse to technically ambitious and complex solutions. However it seems that unlike those cars, W140 suffered from mission creep, and from trying to serve too many masters. Those two cars were able to stave off BMW’s attempt to create the “ultimate” sport sedan because there was another Mercedes for monarchs and dictators, the W100 600. W140 however was tasked with filling both roles.

      W140 also faced competition from not only BMW, but also Bentley, Jaguar, Toyota, and Nissan whereas the earlier Mercedes “muscle car” Q-ships were largely unchallenged. The Lancia Thema 8.32 exemplifies how W140, while agile for its size and heft, would never adequately fill the shoes of the W100 600 limousine at the same time as the 450 SEL 6.9, which performed better in many metrics than a contemporary Ferrari 308.

      How had Mercedes managed to afford to produce both the 600 and the 6.9 simultaneously, resulting in nearly universal agreement as to who made the very best cars in the world, and then failed to directly replace both cars? In the interim, they left a vacuum which allowed others to claim the territories they had worked so hard to establish and own. W126 was certainly a contender for “best car in the world” because of its build quality, but its dynamic attributes were soon equalled and in some cases surpassed.

      W140 was in a sense doomed before its development even started, it was tasked with fulfilling too many divergent goals and roles for a single vehicle program.

    4. A very good argument, gooddog.

      One should keep in mind that Daimler-Benz was an extremely wealthy enterprise. Despite a large manufacturing and r&d cost base, profit margins were extraordinarily healthy, as MB only started offering any kind of discounts during the late ’80s (and even then 3% off were considered excessively generous). Before that, one had to pay list price, which could be 30% or more above what the competition was asking for, without any extras – yet there still were waiting lists for models such as W123.

      One of the main worries that resulted in Daimler-Benz changing its ways was, quite ironically, related to the vast cash reserves that had been amassed since the days of chairman Joachim Zahn. Despite long-term shareholders such as the Flick family providing considerable stability in terms of ownership, some parties inside the Daimler-Benz organisation began to worry that those reserves would make them an appealing target for a hostile takeover – which only the likes of GM or Ford (or perhaps GE) could afford. To fend off this (theoretical) threat, Edzard Reuter et al started spending much of that cash, rather than keeping it.

    5. It is impossible for me to forget the rumours that were repeatedly published in Car and other journals during the run-up to W140 that Mercedes might use the Maybach name for the V12 variant. So someone at DB had a good idea (Dr. Z,perhaps ?). As they say in comedy: “timing is everything”.

  3. All that effort and expense and they blew it with the chronic misalignment of the centre console and centre air vents above. That would bother me every time I sat in this car. What were they thinking?

    1. Do you remember when Mercedes had different shaped wing mirrors on each side of the car? And they refused to include electronic adjustment of the driver’s side wing mirror, because they had perfected the little manual joystick adjuster instead? I think this came from a similar ultra-rational mindset… don’t worry about the symmetry, it just works better this way.

    2. My W201 had those asymmetric door mirrors. The passenger side mirror was almost square in shape, narrower and (I think) deeper than the driver’s side mirror.

    3. Here are some aftermarket bright metal covers for the W201’s door mirrors, which show how different the shapes were:

    4. Hi John. Here’s the misalignment you are talking about:

      The vents are so far off-centre that it looks intentional, so it doesn’t bother me. If they were almost, but not quite aligned to the centre console, that would!

    5. Misalignment by 10 centimetres? I take it you’re joking.

      Both R129 & W140 shared the asymmetrical dashboard, which was introduced on the grounds of ergonomics.

      The asymmetrical wing mirrors lived on for a few years after Mercedes had abandoned them – for none other than Ferdinand Piech introduced them at VAG, where they were featured on models like the Golf IV and Passat B5.

    6. The mirrors were asymmetrical for reason of aerodynamics. The square passenger side’s mirror has a smaller frontal area than the one on the driver’s side and to make best use of the reduced area it is square instead of rectangular.

    7. Never mind the air vents – what’s going on with the centre armrest ? Is it wood or plastic – looks like the latter. Why isn’t it leather ?
      My last Mazda had a larger door mirror on the drivers’ side. I spent a lot of time on German ebay trying to find a small r/h one in the right spec to match my passenger side mirror.

    8. The armrest is an aftermarket item. Maybe it’s a German thing, as I’ve seen similar fitted to several Jaguar XJ S3s.

    9. That aftermarket armrest is hideous! Who would do that, and why? There is a reason that surface is padded… a human’s elbow isn’t.

    10. Apparently there were attempts made to try to address the aesthetic qualm that John has raised. However, the solutions shown below appear fussy to me, and they infringe on the passenger side knee space. The bottom picture, when compared to the similar treatment found on the B3 Passat and Corrado suggests that large gauges (and a correspondingly large steering wheel, so as not to block them) were prioritized.

    11. The position of the air vents has always bothered me, so you’re not alone, John. In fact for this reason alone one of my friends got himself a Lexus LS instead of a W140.

  4. Just a point on the accident involving Princess Diana; there was a sole survivor, a body-guard seated up front who was the only occupant of the car wearing his seat belt. Who knows, had Diana and Dodi Fayed been wearing their seat belts might they too have survived?

    1. Hi Chris. Yes, the bodyguard, Trevor-Rees Jones, survived, albeit with serious injuries. Accounts differ as to whether or not he was wearing a seat belt.

  5. A range of turbodiesel engines was offered in Europe on the w140. Not sure about other markets.

    1. Noted, thank you John, and text updated accordingly.

  6. Did the W140, the R129 (1989 SL) and the BMW E31 (1990 840/50) all have their sales expectations hobbled by the same circumstances? They were all developed over a long time but launched within less than 2 years of each other, just as the wind changed direction. As well as a recession there was the little matter of German reunification; which brought home the vast gulf in living standards between East and West Germans, something which people on both sides were aware of as an abstract concept, something they could see on television for example but now they could see it in each other’s streets and all three cars exaggerated this gulf even more.

    Talking of gulfs it was also the time of the first gulf war, the first big allied campaign in generations and the first regional war since the collapse of the USSR, with consequent anxiety about how “New” Russia- v. Much an unknown quantity at the time- would respond. People weren’t inclined to splash the cash. While some may read these events as the causes of recession I see them as supplementary in this case and they help to explain the mood of the time.

    Regarding mood I distinctly remember reading think-pieces in broadsheet papers at the dawn of the 1990’s about how the new decade would be vastly different to the robust and assertive 1980’s. Some even reckoned it would be I quote a more “Caring sharing time”. It turned out nothing like that of course and I don’t recall this fluffy optimism been shared be ordinary people but it was another of those incremental factors that made the new trio from MB and BM appear- in 21st century argot- “Tone deaf”. Too big, too brash, too complex and although it isn’t obvious to us now living in the era of cars that look like they’d eat your dog, too aggressive.

    All that’s before I even remind you that W Europe was going through one of it’s periodic moments when public and politicians agreed on environmental concerns. Britain’s Green party cleaned up in the European elections, the first Earth Summit was being planned and the first world leader to endorse the risk of global warming was… Mrs Thatcher. Oh and the European Commission had taken a sudden lurch to the left with the appointment of Jacques Delors who believed that the pro business institution (As seen by Britain’s left) should be instrumental in building a more “Social (Sic) Europe” . Not an era to launch a new businessman’s express!

    Considering the era it’s testament to how outstanding those three cars are that they sold any at all.

    1. A great description of the political and social environment into the W140 was launched, thank you, Richard.

    2. I’d agree with this assessment regarding E31 and W140, but R129 was well received and sold accordingly. Moreover, apart from an increase in physical size, it was considerably more ‘modest’ a piece of design than R107 had ever been and hence, I’d argue, quite in keeping with the spirit of times.

      E31 and W140 both stood for a certain corporate hubris and excessive engineering. But the Achter was very well received with regards to its style, at least initially. However, in the words of a former Porsche designer: ‘It was the prettiest car on Earth for a year, and then everybody forgot about it.’

  7. By the way, if developing a car took a short time, then it would be understandable to be confused about the mismatch between the W-140 and the market conditions it encountered on launch. About the only legitimate point to make at the launch was something like, oh dear, what a pity the market changed so much between the start of the project and the time of its launch. Anything else would be a bit daft. It very definitely was not Mercedes fault the world suddenly altered so much.

  8. “Instead, spending would be optimised for maximum return.” This is the dunder-headed side of capitalism. If we look at the most extreme expression of this attitude you find companies that expand and implose, hurting customers, the staff and society on the way down. The wierd thing is that M-B was doing incredibly well with its “best possible and be conservative” approach. It´s not like they needed to change. Today Benz have a huge range of cars and in no way retain that almost supernatural superiority. None of what they make is bad – it´s that it´s not special. I am pretty sure they´d make as much money now with a range half the size with an extra dollop of real quality thrown in.

    1. The underlying problem is the way return is measured for quoted companies, a combination of dividends paid and the appreciation in the company’s market value (i.e. its share price). Theoretically, the latter should be the present value of future prospective earnings and asset values, but the short-termism of many stock market participants can cause significant distortions. Consequently, many decisions are taken, not to generate real long-term value in the company, but merely to inflate the share price. The problem us exacerbated by many senior managers having employment contracts whereby the bonuses they are paid are explicitly linked to the apprecuation in the share price.

    2. Daniel: I don´t for a minute think anyone who proposed paying senior staff with shares imagined it really meant that they´d take care of the company in the long term. However, that is the argument put forward and swallowed, bait, cord and weight by the regulators. I believe Warren “Coke and fries” Buffet has said as much. I do accept it´s difficult to know how to police remuneration. My own view is that the boards should include all stakeholders: shareholders, management, unions and an independently appointed casting vote. The management would keep labour in check and vice versa and the company can and shareholders can keep an eye on each other. I don´t believe senior managers should own any shares in the company they work for for the simple and obvious reason it is as likely to promote short termism as to promote long-termism. Perhaps a workaround is that the shares can´t be sold for seven years leaving the company. But what if they die after retirement and before the shares are cashed? Well, take early retirement then. If you like your job you will stay on and if not, leave early.
      I am nothing short of brilliant.

  9. Salut la compagnie.
    En France, la W140 a été mal perçu … la presse l’appelait le blockhaus du Furher !
    Mais faut reconnaitre que coté qualité, c’etait vraiment top.

    Une belle video récente de toute la gamme Serie S de Mercedes :
    (Vous pouvez activer les sous-titre an anglais)

    Translage Google :
    Hi everyone.
    In France, the W140 was badly perceived … the press called it the blockhaus of Furher !
    But you have to admit that on the quality side, it was really great.

    A nice recent video of the entire Mercedes S Series range (1965-2021):
    (You can turn on English subtitles)

  10. The MIT book I’ve mentioned and Andrew Miles reviewed, “The Machine That Changed the World” came out in 1990, shortly before the W140’s introduction.

    To Mercedes’ utter dismay, they were exposed as the world’s highest cost producer to the other car manufacturers. That is why they felt they had to change, beyond whatever Reuter was up to on the financial front. Maybe the customers didn’t care at the quoted here 30% surcharge, but the other manufacturers were awarded free knowledge of the rather dire situation of a competitor. The laughable sight of the vast rework areas at the end of the line conducted by chaps in white lab coats fettling what should have been a perfectly made machine the first time around in assembly, exposed both a high cost environment, and proved Mercedes did not have its manufacturing and assembly process under control. And was thus a weak competitor particularly to the likes of Toyota. And could be subject to takeover where someone else could soon whip the enterprise into shape.

    Something had to be done. I am quite unsure whether Mercedes ever embraced proper statistical quality assurance or even understood it for years following 1990, but they pretended they did. A company-wide embrace of the system would include the philosophy and design of the product in the first place, the way its constituent parts were to be consistently manufactured, and finally the way it was assembled so that further errors could not occur. If all these areas are attended to and religiously kept to, then rework after assembly is not required. This is the critical point of proper process control, and why Toyota had such a cost advantage in those days. They knew what they were up to on all fronts.

    By contrast, here we are shown these diligent W140 designers trying out this or that concept as they wasted money coming to a conclusion. What’s more, a proper QA process would NOT allow some exec decide at a late date that the W140 needed more headroom, forcing a van-like look head on. Interference from executives is not part of, say, an externally auditable ISO 9000 QA written-down process. But the leaders at Benz and indeed VW were swashbuckling types not that different from Detroit, whose personal word was law. And they cost their companies fortunes on a whim. It’s disorganized and completely inefficient. No wonder German cars were and still are regarded as unreliable everywhere but in Europe where some indefinable magic is attributed to German engineering as if none could be better.

    So the warbling about the W140 being designed and made without regard to mere money is only partially true. It was cobbled together without regard to money is more like it. Let’s get real here, folks. It’s obvious that you have no idea of the difference between quality control which is fixing things after they’re made, and quality assurance where each part of an agreed-upon process is followed to make an error-free product in the first place. I’m amazed I have to say this thirty years on, but the ethos obviously hasn’t seeped down to the masses.

    Mercedes’ schizophrenic following models were the result of their at least attempting to bring in Mark 1 quality assurance in the early 1990s. No more rework areas allowed meant initially bad quality because problem areas before that point had not all been addressed in the ongoing changes. It was just assumed that things had been “done” properly. Sure, cheaper materials also played a part, and goofs like making wiring with bio-degradable insulation were silly as the whole enterprise underwent major upheaval to reduce cost from the way things had been done for decades.

    Why is this all so hard to appreciate? Buy and read that book to get yourselves started. You’re not seeing the woods for the trees. Or as my favourite philosopher manufacturer in another field used to say: “You don’t understand what it is you don’t understand”.

    1. Bill: 30 years later the cars made using the supposedly superior systems are almost all gone and the supposed Stuttgart rubbish that was subject to end-of-line corrections is still around and in demand. I haven´t seen a Toyota Cressida for about five years; I haven´t seen a 1989 Ford Granada for god know how long. But I expect to see a 220 E or 1987 S-class pretty much any day and aren´t unusual. Mercedes made a tonne of money and the customers loved the cars. After the company took on board the critiques the product quality took a nose dive, they made their first losses (huge) and embarked upon the destructive take over of a zombie firm that didn´t want to be taken over.
      There was some room for improvement at Mercedes in the 80s, of course; revolution is never an improvement (except for whoever gets to take over the king´s throne). They panicked.
      Regarding Mercedes reputation abroad, it mirrors the reputation of American cars over here. Only the Japanese have managed to avoid this situation – everyone likes what they make. In Europe Mercedes seem to do the job pretty well and, I would guess, most American made cars meet the expectations of their market (I think… Curbside Classics has some tales of Detroit woe that to me exceed the worst European horror stories).

    2. Ah, Lord Zeus, we were expecting you… so good of you to stop by and gracious as ever I note…

    3. My goodness, Bill, I really feel your pain tonight. Your exasperation with the inferior “masses” (That would be us, apparently.) who are intellectually stunted and incapable of achieving your level of all-knowingness is palpable and raw.

      It must be desperately lonely up there on that cerebral pinnacle you occupy, with only your certainties for company. I suppose we should be grateful that you haven’t given up on us entirely, but still occasionally deign to yell down at us from on high to put us straight. Undeserving of your attention though we may be, we are truly blessed to have your wisdom bestowed upon us in such a forthright and uncompromising way.

      As ever, thank you, sincerely.

    4. Bill: please excuse Daniel and Eoin. I have asked Simon Kearne to have a little word with them. What they meant to say was “We are unable to entirely agree with the point you have made but thank you for taking the time to comment”.
      I have heard from a reliable source that both of them have been up late repainting the DTW archive chambers, arguing with Miles Gorfe about his use of the UG car park to store spares for his Consul, disposing of Simon´s empty bottles and typing up correspondence to various car clubs upset at our irreverent approach to Ferrari, Porsche and Fiat.

    5. I am looking at a borrowed copy of “The Machine That Changed the World”, and like all books it promotes undeniable biases, such that I found myself needing to ensure that my knowledge that it was Henry Leland, and not Henry Ford who built the first cars which used interchangeable parts. It didn’t take much digging to uncover that Eli Whitney had explored this concept but it was actually realized by clockmakers and others well before the automotive age. That someone reading this tome with no background information would be led to assume that Ford invented parts interchangeability just underlines that multiple sources and multiple viewpoints, even concerning objective facts are preferable.

      Now I will continue to read about Toyota (plot was spoiled but that’s OK), unless I pick up my copy of David Halberstom’s “The Reckoning”, written around the same time which chronicles that it was Nissan who led Japan’s postwar ascension by directly employing Dr. Deming himself.

      Lately I’ve been watching teardown videos by Sandy Munro, another firsthand disciple of W. Edwards Deming. One might suppose that from Munro’s point of view, Mercedes’ flexibility in changing W140’s roof height well into the development process exemplifies laudable lean and agile design principles, or as he calls it “continual” (in situ) rather than mere “continuous” (generational) improvements. For myself, the result still pleases me (all 1990’s greenhouses seem relatively tall compared to modern designs) and increases my respect for Bruno Sacco’s design work.

    6. One of the things that bugs me in practise about the Agile Manifesto is that it is as non-prescriptive as possible, by design. This is important and necessary in principle, as the whole point of agile methods is to prioritise results over artefacts and processes. However, this non-prescriptive nature allows stakeholders to hear only those parts of the Agile ideal that suit them. Thus developers tend to think it means, I don’t have to write documentation (it doesn’t), and product managers are apt to believe substantial last minute changes should not only be possible, but almost desirable (doesn’t necessarily mean that either!)
      As for M-B, I can’t help thinking that they could have adopted and adapted Lean methods to their own needs so as to be able to build to the same standard as before significantly more effectiently. It would have been painful, but it could have been done.
      Whether our culture in 2021 would appreciate the values of the old Mercedes way of doing things sufficiently for the business to remain successful is another question. I’m not completely convinced of it…

  11. What I learned about the W-140 is that moving the vents to the centre means a smaller binnacle. There are alot of dials on that thing as it is. What do they show? I like to think the dial that forces the off-centre vent is the tyre temperature gauge, the boot volume gauge and the washer fluid consumption rate. The dial on the other side shows the time in Japan, the outside air humidity and brake service interval to four decimal places.

    There must have been a bigger reason than a dial face to justify such a design choice.

    The designers tried to make the central vents look separate by making a “box” around them and connecting it to the right side vents.

    If you look at the IP as a whole it´s not so bad. I have made a rough sketch of what a centralised version might look like. The binnacle needs to be reworked (smaller).

    1. Hi Richard. I’m with Christopher on this issue. The vents are not ‘misaligned’, they’re asymetrically placed and unrelated to the centre console. If they were just slightly off-centre, they would annoy me, but not in this case.

      Perhaps a more satisfactory solution might have been to hide the vents behind a full-width grille, like that on the current Audi A4:

      (The A4’s centre console is a mess, however, bearing no relationship to the dashboard.)

    2. The instrument binnacle was so large because for whatever reason Mercedes decided to have the fuel gauge and clock as separate instruments. in the W124 the solution was much more elegant with a small clock in the rev counter and the fuel gauge in the same instrument as the dials for water temp, oil pressure and that silly fuel consumptometer with only three instruments instead of five.
      For ages Benzes had oil pressure gauges but no rev counter because the latter was considered an unnecessary distraction for the driver – just as Mercedes refused to fit five speed gearboxes because these were considered too complicated in use. But then they fitted those silly consuption gauges that do nothing but show you how far you pressed the right hand pedal.

      The A4 B9’s centre console doesn’t look disconnected from the dashboard, it is. These two parts to not meet and there’s about ten centimetres of vertical gap between them with just a row of switches dangling from the underside of the dashboard. The full width grille is a nod to the 100 C2 which also had it. In the old 100 it was functional over the whole width whereas in the B9 it is just a decorative element with outlets at the usual places.

  12. European cars are expensive to maintain on the road. Repair and service bills are high mainly because original parts are almost a necessity. Third party parts simply don’t work or if they do they cost about the same price as the originals.
    With japanese cars even cheap third party parts, more often than not, do the trick. They are engineered in such a way as to withstand the wrongdoings of any mediocre repair shop. Even cheating in oil change terminals can be forgiven.
    Mercedes used to be a low maintenance brand, an exception! Robustly build, like a tank., if you could afford a new one then you were set for an easy life after.
    All that was before W140! With this last true S class, the rich owner was, or should be, ready for extremely high repair bills.
    And after W140? Then came the nightmare for all Mercedes Benz owners.
    A last word about maintaining and repairing a european car in the US! IT DOESN’T WORK.
    Imperial vs metric tools, no after market parts, import taxes all over the place, not many qualified and specialised technicians! Remember that most of the japanese cars sold in the US are made in the US, so all the network providing parts, technical know-how and all around support is right there!

    1. Constantinos, that is all true, but your last contention doesn’t explain the ascension of the Japanese makers in the 1970s, before Honda’s Marysville plant (or Swindon, for that matter) came online. Also I recall my first sight of a Mercedes straight six taken out of the vehicle, such simple castings and stampings, nothing exotic like the tiny Ferrari V8, I learned an important lesson there. W123 was bulletproof in the US too, btw.

    2. I think you raised some interesting points. My impression is that foreign manufacturers who succeed in the US invest in well-supported dealer networks. The attitude of the factory to supporting dealers and dealing with warranty issues when they inevitably occur is a key factor, and Asian brands are very good at it.

      Toyota’s, etc, are very reliable; however, the support the dealers get in heading-off issues is also very good.

    3. Well, I would say that in Europe aftermarket parts for most European cars are plentiful and affordable; it´s Asian cars who have the problem in this matter. I owned a Nissan Primera and a Honda Prelude, and my father a Kia Carens II (terrible car, by the way); very few aftermarket spares, so you had to go original, and the price in the dealer was eye watering, a lot more expensive than original parts for European cars. Truth is, I didn´t need to buy a lot of them…

      For years the price of parts, servicing and repairing in franchised dealers have been a deterrent for Japanese cars sales, at least in Spain.

  13. I forgot to say that I don’t live in North America. All I know about it, true or false, is from information coming from inhabitants of this far away continent! Different lands, different ways, different minds!
    It broadens our perspective, deepens our thinking, provokes our opinions,
    It drives as to write.

    1. In 1991 Audi presented their AVUS show car with W12 in three cylinder banks.
      Nobody knew how serious Fugen Ferdl was about this engine configuration and Mercedes didn’t want to be tricked out by a competitor as they were with the BMW V12 so they had to build their own W engine.

    2. So the Audi W12 is contemporary with the (Mazda) Amati W12 ?

  14. b234r, you have a fair point about expensive japanese original parts in Europe. In RHD countries though there is usually an abundance of imported japanese used cars and, as one would expect, a variety of aftermarket parts.

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