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