Meet the new Grandmaster.
They called it the match of the century, an East versus West showdown to elect a new Grandmaster, to be decided in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik. Over a tense series of matches from July to August of 1972, Brooklyn-native, Bobby Fischer sensationally became not only the first American, but the first non-Russian to win the World Chess Championship since its 1866 inception. A momentous year in many areas, 1972 would also bear witness Volkswagen’s Beetle outselling Ford’s Model T, the first model line to do so, while the last men to set foot upon the moon’s surface, NASA Astronauts, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt splashed down to earth that December.
Anything but strangers to the arc of history, in September 1972, Mercedes-Benz would redefine the luxury saloon, producing a model line which would not only become (for many) the last word in upmarket motoring, but the first of an enduring line of benchmark cars against which everything else would be judged. The S-Class.
Throughout the late ‘Sixties, the elegant and understated W108/9 saloons had been Mercedes-Benz’s premier-class offerings. But with the requirements of the United States market paramount to the Swabian carmaker’s sales ambitions, ever more onerous impact and emissions mandates began to weigh heavily. Not that Mercedes were slouches in these departments, for under the inspired leadership of eminent engineer, Béla Barényi, Sindelfingen were leaders in occupant and vehicle safety research.
A good many of the S-Class’ (dubbed W116 internally) safety features, especially those within the cabin would be inspired by the Mercedes ESF 13 prototype, a fully realised study into passive safety, presented at the International Safety Vehicle Conference held in Washington DC during the Summer of 1972. But primary safety too was prioritised, W116 featuring zero-offset steering, to counter sudden deflections or a change in road surface under braking and a progressive anti-dive suspension geometry, which was proportional to the braking force and could vary the degree of resistance to help counter brake dive.
W116’s suspension design was a step forward from its predecessor, its double wishbone front end being similar to that of the acclaimed C111 prototype, while at the rear, a semi-trailing arm system replaced the low-pivot swing axles of old. It was reported that Mercedes engineers chose not to isolate the front crossmember with a rubber mounted subframe because they concluded that to do so would be detrimental to the car’s impact-absorbing qualities. Safety concerns would also lead them to ensure that the roof pillars could support a load of ten tonnes.
A hugely impressive motor car, the S-Class was viewed (in Europe at least) as being largely in a class of one, a matter reflected in the W116 being awarded the European Car of the Year award in 1974. Mercedes themselves appeared to be in accord, proudly stating, “Mercedes-Benz vehicles have already reached such a high level of technology that any further real improvement seemed almost impossible. But with the S-Class, tangible improvements have been made. In developing these models we have reached the physical and technological limits of current automotive engineering. Higher standards are inconceivable at the present time”.
While undoubtedly a technical tour de force, where the Swabians were less successful was in matters of aesthetics, the W116 never quite coming across as anything less than heavy-handed and broad-beamed. Combining design elements first seen in the previous year’s R107 SL/ SLC models, the S-Class was modern, imposing, unmistakable, yet to many eyes, somewhat indelicate – especially with the longer wheelbase bodyshell.
Inside, the W116 cabin offered its occupants unrivalled protection with Sindelfingen’s most up to date safety cell, generous interior padding and deformable surfaces. The beautifully finished cabin decor however, which Mercedes characterised as “practical elegance” was decidedly on the austere side of the luxury coin, so while all the modern conveniences were present, the Mercedes philosophy of driver alertness and the avoidance of distraction meant that functionality and ease of use would over-ride anything of a more frivolous nature. Luxury for luxury’s sake was therefore tantamount to heresy. A hairshirt then perhaps, but one that would conceivably take you to the moon and back.
This certainly appears to have been the slant taken by US imprint, Car and Driver in 1973, who dispensed praise for the S-Class’ many fine qualities, but criticised Mercedes heavily for sacrificing passenger comfort and noise suppression over safety and dynamic concerns. In the UK however, Car magazine who set the first-principles Mercedes against its only natural European predator, viewed the 350 SE as being the Jaguar XJ12’s equal in areas like quietness and ride comfort; the very aspects about which its American counterparts were least enamoured. Conversely, while Car and Driver made little mention of the S-Class’ styling, apart from suggesting that it too had been sacrificed at the altar of safety, Car on the other hand were more overtly critical.
A dry-sumped 6.9 litre super-saloon could be described as many things, but austere was certainly not one of them. Having shoehorned an enlarged version of their already legendary M100 V8 unit into the W116 body, which coupled with Mercedes’ own design of fully hydropneumatic suspension, Sindelfingen’s engineers created a car like no other. If the standard S-Class was, as Car magazine described it, “a vehicle of major significance”, the 450 SEL 6.9 was, in the words of LJK Setright, “one of those rare cars that are so good of their kind that you cannot get anything better”. Mercedes built the Soixante Neuf in relatively small numbers from 1975, but it would become the defining W116 model, and from 1978, would stop equally as well as it went.
Following his sensational victory over reigning chess champion, Boris Spassky, the 1972 Grandmaster would not survive first contact with the fame and adulation that awaited him. His once rigorous, logical mind would descend into increasingly erratic and wildly provocative statements and actions. He never defended his championship, and lost his battle with deteriorating mental health in 2008. Meanwhile, for Astronauts, Cernan and Schmitt, like all former moonwalkers, life back on the good old world would prove something of an anti-climax. Stars must fall.
Rigorous logic was also the leitmotif of both Mercedes-Benz, and its own 1972 grandmaster. The W116’s crushing superiority may have carried all before it, yet Sindelfingen engineers in their pursuit of “perfection down to the smallest detail” neglected a more nebulous quality – warmth. And it was perhaps this deficit which would over time undermine the 116 against more frangible rivals.
By 1979, the W116 had become perceived as something of a barge, and somewhat unusually for Mercedes, its rather overwrought appearance was deemed increasingly to resemble one. Nevertheless, between 1972 and 1979, when it was superseded by the even more impressive W126 model, 473,035 W116s were built – a phenomenal number considering its price, corpulence and the relative affluence of customers during those volatile times.
Class will out.
 A W116 innovation was the positioning of its fuel tank, which was sited in a protected position above the rear axle. The fuel filler neck was also deformable, to avoid breakage. This would become universal auto industry practice.
 The 1972 ESF 13 was followed by the ESF 22 (1973) and ESF 24 (1974), both of which were W116-based. Further studies would follow; Mercedes-Benz continuing the ESF programme to this day.
 The long wheelbase body was enlarged by 100 mm. Introduced with the 450 model, the SEL body was later rolled out across the entire S-Class range.
 Car and Driver were less than impressed with the S-Class as a luxury vehicle, stating for instance that… “the ride is exceptionally harsh for a sedan“. They went on : “The Mercedes transmits not only roughness to the interior but substantial amounts of noise as well.” They concluded, “we can only question certain priorities…” before going on to point out that the 450 SE “…in no way imparts the sense of luxury.” They concluded that its predecessor was the better luxury car.
 Car’s Ian Fraser had this to say: “Although the Merc’s body shape is new, and practical in all respects, it’s hardly likely to have people flinging themselves about in a frenzy of ecstasy upon first sighting it“, going on to suggest that ” to look like a Mercedes can be a goal in itself.” Fraser was also less than enamoured with the W116’s cabin, suggesting that “it looks somehow to have been cobbled up.” Incidentally, the W116 was apparently the last Mercedes design to have been styled under the supervision of Friedrich Geiger, prior to his retirement.
 In 1978, the fully electronic Bosch ABS anti-lock braking system was introduced on W116 as an option.
 Efficiency this time would be the Mercedes-Benz watchword. The W126 series saw the S-Class truly come of age.
 The very last W116 (believed to have been a 300SD model) emerged from the Sindelfingen production tracks in 1980.
Engines: W116 was introduced in Europe as the 280 S (carburettor), and 280 SE (fuel injection); both using the 2.8 litre Mercedes M110 twin-cam straight six. The 350 SE was fitted with the M116 3.5 litre V8 unit (also fuel injected). In 1973, the M117 4.5 litre fuel injected V8 was introduced as the 450 SE and SEL. (The 450 model was standardised for the US market from launch). In 1978, a 3.0 litre 5 cylinder turbocharged diesel model was introduced into the North American markets to help Mercedes conform to Corporate Average Fuel Consumption (CAFE) regulations. As US fuel prices rose and austerity bit, this would prove an astute move on the Swabian’s part.
Sources: Car and Driver August 1973/ Car Magazine (November 1972/May 1973/June 1975)/ Mercedes Classic/ w116.org/ 500sec.com/ Mercedes-world.