Originally Published November 30, 2018
Mercedes Benz has established a reputation for quality, refinement, and performance. I should know, my dad drives a C350. No model better embodies these virtues than the flagship S class. Since 1954, it has been transporting titans of industry and heads of state in sumptuous comfort and state-of-the-art-technology. Let us take a tour of the story of this greatest of luxo-barges.
In 1954, Mercedes introduced the 220a, the first of their “ponton” models. In 1956, it was replaced by the 220S. This first S class was not much of a flagship, being overshadowed by the 300 Adenauer models. The 2.2 liter engine produced just 100 horsepower and could only get it up to 99 mph. The price, inflation adjusted, started at just $32,000, that’s less than today’s C class. It didn’t even look too distinctive, being visually similar to the taxicab 180. Mercedes at this time was still a curiousity in the United States and had to sell through Studebaker-Packard dealerships. Something I didn’t know when I started this diary, the S actually does literally stand for “special”, or Sonderklasse. But it’s hard to argue this first S class was particularly Sonder.
In 1959, the W111 “fintail” arrived. Even Mercedes joined the tailfin craze, although they weren’t anywhere near Cadillac’s vulgarity. Mercedes claimed they were to assist with parking. Sure, Jan. This shape would survive until 1968. Performance was still not much to write home about, the most powerful engine offered made just 120 horsepower. The S-Class was still overshadowed by a more opulent Mercedes, the 600 Grosser with its central hydraulic system.
In 1965, the W111 shed its tailfins and became the W108 (although the W111 soldiered on for another 3 years). Power was up, the most powerful model in 1965 had 170 horsepower and could go 120. But in 1967, Mercedes put a 6.3 liter V8 under the hood. It produced 247 horsepower and could hit 137 mph. The S class was now a true Autobahn cruiser.
The W116 of 1972 was a seminal car for several reasons. To start with, it was the first to be advertised as the S class. Second, it officially became Mercedes’ flagship with the end of the old Grosser. Thirdly, it established a design language that would continue into the 1990s. Finally, it marked the moment when Mercedes overtook Cadillac as being the top echelon of automobiles. This S class offered many novel safety features. It had front and rear crumple zones and a padded dashboard and steering wheel to soften any impacts. In 1978, it offered anti lock brakes. Mercedes claims they were the first with ABS, and they’re a bunch of bald-faced liars. The Jensen FF and Chrysler Imperial offered them earlier.
The ultimate S Class was the 450SEL 6.9. It had a 6.9 liter V8 with 286 horsepower (250 in US emissions choked spec) and could get to 60 in 7 seconds. It also had a sophisticated air suspension system that could raise and lower the ride height and smooth out the roughest roads.
With the W126 of 1979, Mercedes wanted a more fuel efficient luxury sedan for a post-oil crisis world. The new S class was much more aerodynamic than its predecessor and, thanks to the use of high strength steel, lighter too. The 6.9 was not directly replaced, the largest engine offered was a 5.5 liter V8. The W126 truly established the S-class’ trend of introducing innovations that would soon become commonplace on ordinary cars. It offered airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners, traction control, automatic climate control, and heated seats with 8 way adjustment.
The W126 has an interesting place in American automotive history. For a while, the most powerful S class in America was the 380SE with an underpowered 3.8 liter 6 cylinder engine . This did not meet up to Americans’ demands for power. As a result, many had European 500SEs imported with a more powerful 5.0 liter V8. This gray import market grew massive and Mercedes dealers started a massive lobbying campaign to get Congress to shut the door. This is why you cannot personally import a foreign car unless it’s more than 25 years old. Once the 560SE arrived, the power situation was solved.
The W140, introduced in 1991, is considered the last of the “overengineered” Mercedes Benzes. Mercedes had an incredible reputation for quality. Some diesel powered taxicabs were able to go 1 million miles. But this led to problems. Mercedes’ reputation for bank-vault durability allowed them to justify charging much higher prices than competing luxury cars. But then, Toyota brought their exceptional quality to the luxury field with the Lexus LS400, which was far less costly than the S class. The W140 was supposed to go on sale in 1989, but Mercedes’ tendency to dot their i’s and cross their t’s meant it wouldn’t be ready until 1991. This meant they were releasing a brand new luxury sedan in the middle of a recession. As a result, Mercedes started to cut corners, prices fell and reliability suffered, they did not want a repeat of the W140 blunder. This made the 3 pointed star more accessible, but less exceptional.
Anyway, the S class continued to be groundbreaking. The W140 offered side airbags, electronic stability control, dual pane glass, heated power mirrors that could be folded at the push of a button, 12 way adjustable seats with 3 position memory, a power rear sunshade, rain sensing wipers, parking sensors, GPS navigation and even voice controls. It was also the first S class to have a V12 engine, a 6 liter that produced 400 horsepower. In 1994, Mercedes reorganized its nomenclature. The “S” moved from the end of the model name to the front where it stands today and extra letter denoting body style were eliminated (500SE became S500). This was needed as their lineup expanded dramatically during the 90s.
With the W220 in 1998, the S class got smaller and lighter, but was actually more spacious inside. It also marked a break with the old styling language. The space age gadgets continued to pile on. There were 8 airbags, keyless ignition, an optional 7 speed automatic transmission, computer controlled suspension, self closing doors and trunk lid, and a cruise control system that set itself at the road’s speed limit. It was also the first S class to offer 4MATIC all wheel drive.
Germany was gripped by a brutal horsepower war in the 2000s. The result was the S65 AMG, which had a twin-turbo V12 making 604 hp and a terrifying 738 lb ft of torque. On the negative side, the aforementioned cost cutting took its toll, Mercedes ceded its crown in the reliability race to Lexus. Also, the controls got complicated with the new COMMAND system for controlling audio, navigation, and climate.
With the W221 in 2006, Mercedes reached far back in its styling, as can be seen with the fender flares. It offered a more sophisticated active suspension system that could keep the S class level in corners. This allowed it to handle like a sports sedan while riding like a magic carpet. It had active cruise control which used radar to keep it a set distance behind the car in front. It offered blind spot detection, traffic sign recognition, 9 airbags and a system to monitor driver drowsiness. The most campy feature, though, was the optional infrared night vision system. In 2009, a hybrid, yes hybrid, model joined the lineup. It wasn’t very powerful, but it was the only S class to avoid a gas guzzler tax. In Europe, they even offered a diesel hybrid model, perfect for rich people who didn’t want to feel guilty.
The W222 replaced the W221 in 2013. It offers heated armrests, a fragrance dispenser, a head-up display, and a new version of the COMMAND system with a touchpad that allows you to draw letters to input data. It has what Mercedes calls “Magic Body Control”, using cameras to sense road imperfections and adjust the suspension accordingly so you won’t notice any speed bumps or expansion joints. It has no less than 500 LEDs in the headlights, taillights, and interior. If you drift out of your lane, it will steer you back in, a big step forward in driverless car technology. There are also advances on the powertrain front. A plug in hybrid version is available, which offers 14 miles of electric only range. This means that you can take all your Chauffer driven commutes without creating any pollution. A new 9 speed automatic transmission came for 2018. With all this, the S Class seems in no danger of losing its status as the best car in the world that money can buy.
In 2015, Mercedes revived the old Maybach name. Maybach was once Germany’s Rolls Royce in the interwar era. In the 2000s, Mercedes revived the nameplate for their own line of super-luxury cars, but they never competed well and it was dropped. The Mercedes-Maybach S Class is longer than even the long wheelbase S class models and is meant to compete with the Rolls Royce Phantom and Bentley Mulsanne.
The S class has evolved from its fairly humble origins to become the ultimate in luxury, technology, safety, and performance. Few people have the means to buy it, but for those lucky ones, it is worth every penny. It is the worthy flagship for the most famous luxury automaker.