"Engineered like no other car in the world" was the marketing slogan Mercedes used for the S-Class though most of the 80’s. However unlike most marketing spins that greatly exaggerate products abilities, this slogan was actually speaking the truth. The name “S-Class” is an abbreviation of the German word "Sonderklasse" meaning “special class” or “class of its own”. The S-Class designation was first officially used in the 1973 model year for the W116 series of automobiles that were produced from 1973 to 1980. In the past Mercedes-Benz was well known for over engineered products and quality that was second to none. Because the S-Class was the top range in the line the vehicles were engineered without regards to cost. Mercedes-Benz attention to detail and over engineering of the smallest details has won over many buyers, so many in fact that the S-Class is the best selling luxury sedan in the world. This philosophy continued until the late 1990’s when Mercedes bought Chrysler and the company slowly lost its way and quality and engineering became secondary to sales volume.
Today I am looking at the S-Class produced from 1979-1991. Known as the W126 within Mercedes-Benz, this big Benz has a well deserved reputation for luxury and durability. The W126 had the longest production run of any S-Class generation before or since. It was also the most popular with consumers as well. Almost 900,000 of these sedans and coupes were produced over its life span. That is staggering considering that this was a range topping model and being a Benz, not all that cheap either. Not only was it popular with well heeled buys but it was very popular with dignitaries and heads of state. The S-Class is so popular that 97% of the world’s governments have them in their fleet. If you owned your own country, you probably had a W126 S-Class or perhaps a fleet of them. And if the population of your country didn’t like you Mercedes offered the S-guard package complete with bullet-proof glass and armored body panels. And you could opt of a stretched limo version so that you could bring along your military guard. In the 80’s and well into the 90’s you were a “somebody” if you were riding in a W126 Mercedes.
The “common” buyer had plenty of choices when it came to buy a W126. You could chose from a “short” wheelbase SE, a long wheelbase SEL if you wanted a gas powered sedan. If you wanted diesel sedan that would last you a thousand years you had a choice of two wheelbases as well with the SD and SDL. Or you if you were a drug dealer you could opt for the SEC coupe which had a big enough trunk to carry your stash of heroin and the speed to out run the fuzz. And if that wasn’t enough choices Mercedes seemed to offer any engine that was available on the planet. That might be a slight exaggeration but you could have a 5 cylinder turbo diesel with 123bhp all the way up to a big 5.6 litre V8 with 275bhp and about a million different 6 cylinder variations. Through the years the W126 was produced there were about 26 engines for all the markets around the world. With all the body styles, lengths and engine choices, combined with the encyclopedia sized colour, trim and options lists the buyer was able to have exactly what they wanted. The vast array of choices, unmatched luxury, bullet proof reliability and rock solid build quality made the W126 an unparalleled success.
The S-Class I was able to get my hands on was a very low mileage all original 1983 300SD finished in a white and silver exterior with blue leather interior. This vehicle is a virtual time capsule with only 63,000 miles on the clock and immaculate finishes from the factory. You could easily be fooled into thinking that the car just rolled off the line and is a testament of just how well this vehicle was made and the quality of materials used. After 27 years the car is still flawless, simply amazing for a vehicle used daily. Because the W126 was produced in the era before Mercedes-Benz went insane and started to name their vehicles with just random letters and numbers with absolutely no meaning at all, we are able to decipher the specification of this particular car. The “300” refers to the engine size, a 3.0 litre 5 cylinder in this case. The “SD” is in reference to the body style and fuel type, a short wheel base diesel sedan. Now I realize that this is not the model of W126 that a typical enthusiast would even care about driving. And I’ll admit at first I was not excited about driving this car. In the past I have been a passenger in many W126’s, usually the all out powerhouse 560SEL or SEC coupe, so I was not exactly thrilled to drive a 123bhp diesel shorty. This car is the wet dream of every taxi driver in Budapest, how could I get excited? Not only was it a diesel, it was a 1980’s diesel, bleh! Slow, rough, noisy and stinky are things I associate with diesels from the 80’s, not seamless, smooth powered luxury. A good car for a retired taxi cab tycoon perhaps? We’ll see…
The styling of the W126 was revolutionary for Mercedes in 1979 when it was introduced. This S-Class was designed to be aerodynamic and efficient. It was to be the basis of design for the rest of the Mercedes-Benz lineup for the 1980’s. At first some were not thrilled with the new styling. The new car lost the traditional big chrome bumpers and large slab sided look that was synonymous with big Benz’s. Personally I love the styling, it’s a modern classic and combines aerodynamics with classic chrome trim and trade mark large up right Mercedes grill perfectly. The coupe is especially pretty and the short wheel base sedan is my other favorite and looks just right in white. The SEL just looks a smidge too long in my opinion, as if it was hung up from its rear bumper and left out in the sun just a bit too long causing the car to stretch from the weight of the engine up front. Open the driver’s door and you immediately understand why Mercedes was the standard for quality. From the precise operation of the door handle to the vault like thunk when you close the door, you know that care was taken building this German tank. And remember this is after 27 years of use! Inside quality and luxury abound. The smell of the rich leather is intoxicating and the real wood trim adds warmth, the switches feel solid and the carpeting is lavish. And those seats! No one makes a better front seat in the business; whoever designed those seats deserves a statue of themselves in from of Mercedes-Benz headquarters in Stuttgart, marvelous! The ambiance of the interior is hard to explain and one that Mercedes just can’t match today, a shame really. I even like it in blue and I hate blue interiors.
Start the 300SD and you hear the muted clack, clack, clack, and feel the slight vibration of the inline 5 cylinder diesel. Not the silky smooth quite I associate with an S-Class, not bad mind you, but not up to the standards of the gas powered models. Outside you definitely know it’s a diesel! Open up the sunroof and windows and that racket makes it way inside. It makes me want to shout out to the world “Why, oh why did you put a DIESEL in this car!” Now I am waiting for the real disappointment as I slide the big Merc into gear, I just hope that this will not taint my view of W126’s forever. Stepping on the throttle I expect more noise and molasses like acceleration, but wait, something extraordinary happens. Immediately, the engine smooths right out, quiets down along with a thrust of acceleration and a whoosh from the turbocharger. We are not talking about neck snapping acceleration here, the V8 versions will pull away from this car with ease. However; you aren’t going to get embarrassed pulling away from the lights either, the turbo diesel’s 181lb-ft of torque saves the day. Certainly not what I was expecting from a big diesel powered sedan. Could I be wrong about this car? I’m never wrong about a car… But I could be with this one.
As I pull up to a stoplight the rattling and vibration return as if on cue and causing curious stairs from neighboring motorists. They all must be wondering how much it will cost to fix that expensive Mercedes engine not knowing that the clanking sound is normal. Once the light turns green and the throttle is again applied the 300SD pulls away with smooth authority and an audible whoosh leaving me to exclaim to the driver behind me “Eat my diesel fumes Corolla!” Cruising around there is little difference between this and the gas powered models besides the occasional noise from the turbo and puff of oily smoke when you nail the throttle. It’s only when you come to a stop do you know you are in a diesel. Suddenly it occurred to me why a diesel makes so much sense in this car. S-Classes are world renowned for their long distance cruising ability at a rapid pace. With the ability of chassis, an interior to coddle you, not to mention those amazing seats, combine that with the efficiency of the diesel and its legendary reputation for longevity and you have the ultimate road trip vehicle. This car will eat away at as many highway miles you care to throw at it, and many people have, hundreds of thousands of miles in fact. All without a glitch, this is what makes the W126 so amazing and popular in its day. Even today it is more then capable at keeping up with modern rivals.
Driving the W126 makes you realize just how much Mercedes lost their way in the 1990’s. With the pressures of the Japanese invading the luxury sedan market, the Chrysler purchase debacle and delusions that they could do no wrong Mercedes vehicles suffer and lost that something special and engineering excellence that made the vehicles so great. In today’s world of rapidly fluxing market trends and rushing vehicles to market I doubt that Mercedes will be able to equal the W126 S-Class, but then again I could be wrong, but I’m never wrong, right?