Originally Posted December 31, 2018
Today, Mercedes Benz is known as a maker of solid, high performing, and quite expensive cars. Along with Audi and BMW, it is merely one of the Big 3 German automakers that completely dominates the market for luxury cars. But, there was a time when they stood head and shoulders above everyone else.
As Mercedes entered the 70s, things looked good. It was arguably around this time that the company had overtaken Cadillac as being the upper echelon of cardom. The days when they had to sell to Americans through Studebaker-Packard dealerships and when many rich Europeans had Cadillacs imported was long over. Janis Joplin was not singing “Oh lord won’t you buy me a Cadillac”. Richard Nixon was one of the few heads of state to still be driven in a Cadillac. The word was out: Mercedes was now the car to have.
The first new Mercedes of the decade was the R107 SL in 1971. The R107 would go on to be the longest produced Mercedes in history, only going out of production in 1989. Its restrained good looks gave it appeal to many wealthy professionals, Bobby Ewing driving one in Dallas. The R107’s look, with the large wraparound turn signals, the headlights that integrated seamlessly into the grille, and with the ribbed taillights designed to keep them clean, would be the company’s standard design language that would last into the 90s.
It should be noted at this point that Mercedes only had 4 lines of cars at this point, and the 600 Grosser is one that can be virtually ignored after 1970. The only 3 that mattered were the S class, E Class, and SL.
In 1972, Mercedes introduced the newest version of the S class, and it was a seminal car for many reasons. It officially marked Mercedes’ rise to the top and it was the first to be advertised using the famous S Class name. The most powerful version was the 450SEL 6.9. A 6.9 liter V8 was pretty big even by American standards and was absolutely enormous by European standards, where a 1.8 liter 4 cylinder was considered big. The engine produced 286 horsepower, which mean 0-60 in 7 seconds and a top speed of 140 mph. The 6.9 got a special air suspension to keep it level on all surfaces. Mercedes claims the W116 was the first car in the world with 4 wheel antilock brakes. Mercedes is full of shit; the Jensen FF and Chrysler Imperial beat them to it by a huge period of time.
In 1976, Mercedes redesigned their entry level car with the W114 being replaced by the W123. Most E Classes are not icons, but the W123 is the exception. It is well remembered for its bank-vault like durability. Diesel powered cabs have been able to go over 1 million miles. And in fact it’s the diesel powered versions that are best remembered, especially in the US, as only diesel powered versions were sold here from 1982 to 1985.
Of the 29 variants of the W123 that would be offered, perhaps none were more groundbreaking than the wagons. Introduced in 1978, it was Mercedes’ first ever factory built wagon. Despite their seeming ubiquity in The Brady Bunch and National Lampoon’s Vacation, station wagons were very much a niche product that never came close to achieving the type of market share that SUVs do today. And they were considered to be spartan workhorses, so having a station wagon with the 3 pointed star was one of those moments that forced everyone to look up at the sky for the airborne pigs.
In 1979, Mercedes decided to offer its legendary reliability to the West German army with the Galendewagen (Cross Country Vehicle) or G-wagen. I have no doubt that such a vehicle would have survived a nuclear explosion with minor scratches. While not as ubiquitous as Jeeps, Land Rovers, or Land Cruisers, it still sold 50,000 units in 10 years. The most famous model was the glass domed one delivered to the Vatican for use by Pope John Paul II.
For 1980, Mercedes redesigned the S class. The W126 was smaller and more aerodynamic than its predecessor, making it more fuel efficient and therefore suitable for a world hit by the energy crisis. The W126 included a long list of standard and optional features that were space age then but are ubiquitous now including: anti lock brakes, air bags, traction control, heated seats, and fully automatic climate control. The 6.9 was dropped, the most powerful engine ever being offered was a 5.5 liter V8. The 500SE has an interesting place in American automotive history. For a time, American buyers were stuck with a gutless 380SE as the most powerful S class offered here so they chose to import the more powerful 500SE. This cut into official sales so badly that dealers formed a massive lobbying effort and successfully convinced Congress to ban gray imports. This is why you cannot personally import a car unless it is more than 25 years old. Mercedes eventually offered the more powerful 560SEL, rendering the problem null. When the Grosser was finally killed off in 1981, the S Class officially became Mercedes’ flagship.
In 1983, the W123 lost its status as Mercedes’ entry level car with the introduction of the 190. It competed with the Audi 90 and BMW 3 series and was the original “Baby Benz”. Its most innovative feature was a multilink rear suspension which offered better ride and handling. The 190 was a major sales success and helped broaden the company’s appeal.
In 1985, the W123 was replaced by the W124. This is my personal favorite E class from a looks perspective. I can’t think of any car that wore the “aero” look so well. Despite being extremely aerodynamic, with a drag coefficient as low as .28, lower than a Ford Taurus (.33), it was never accused of looking like a jellybean. It included clever features such as a single windshield wiper that would extend itself at the top of its arc so it could cover a wider area. Station wagons could be had in 5 or 7 passenger variants and had self leveling rear suspension. This was the first E class to offer all wheel drive.
At this point, Mercedes Benz was simply on fire. Nothing could topple them. We all think of Mercedes as expensive now, and they are, but they are generally in line with other expensive luxury cars. In the 80s, however, customers had to pay a significant premium over a BMW or an Audi. But for the extra money, they were getting a car that was “overengineered”. It assured 10 years of trouble free driving, and that tank-like durability meant you’d get more of your money back when you sold it on. Mercedes was a company that did not employ bean counters. It was practically company policy that every engineer and quality inspector had to suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder. Every single car they built was engineered to perfection like a Swiss watch, no matter the cost. But this business model of quality over quantity would show some cracks as the decade ended.
In 1989, Toyota chose to bring its magical levels of build quality to the luxury field with a new brand named Lexus and a car called the LS that was aimed squarely at the S Class. The LS offered Mercedes-like quality for much less money. This sent alarm bells ringing in Stuttgart.
In 1990, Mercedes finally got around to replacing the R107 with the aero-smooth R129. The new SL was more powerful and all versions offered a removable aluminum roof.
The troubled launch of the W140 S Class proved to be the last straw to management for overengineering. The car was supposed to be launched in 1989, but was delayed until 1991. This meant Mercedes was launching a brand new luxury barge in the middle of a nasty recession.
And this was not exactly a case of right car, wrong time. The W140 was absolutely enormous, bigger in every dimension than the W126. Even its designer, Bruno Sacco, was not happy with the result, saying it should’ve been 4 inches lower. It was 800 pounds heavier than its predecessor and prices were up by 25% over the year before. This is all a shame, because there was much to like about the W140, it had dual paned glass and adaptive suspension, it also offered Mercedes’ first modern V12 engine. Later models even offered electronic stability control, GPS navigation, and voice control. But the debacle convinced management to do things differently from here on in, the bean counters were brought on and corners were cut. Prices fell as the 3 pointed star became more accessible but less exceptional.
In 1993, Mercedes reorganized its nomenclature with all the letters moving in front of the numbers indicating engine displacement.
To give you an idea of how confusing the old layout was, here’s how it worked
-If there was only an E, it could either be a W124 or a 190.
-If there was only a D, it was either a W124 or a 190, but with a diesel engine.
-If it was a station wagon, a T was added
-If it was a coupe, a C was added
-If it was an S class, an S was added
-Long wheel base S classes would have an L added
-If it was an SL roadster, there would be no E or D, so the 450SL was a roadster while the 450 SEL was a long wheelbase sedan
With Mercedes planning on a massive expansion of its lineup with the compact SLK roadster and the M class SUV, the simplification was needed.
The first car to receive this new naming scheme was the all new C-class, which replaced the 190. It is widely considered a low point for Stuttgart. The car failed to excel in any particular area, was not a big leap from the 190, and generally could not justify its high price. But, Mercedes fanboys could just explain this away as being the Baby Benz, noting that the core of Mercedes’ lineup was not affected.
But then the rot hit the E Class hard with a redesign in 1995. Besides the controversial quad headlight design, the most notable change in the W210 over the W124 was the feeling of cheapness with lower grade trim pieces. The W210 was also beset by reliability issues including rust, head gasket failures, and suspension trouble. But the W210 felt cheaper, because it was cheaper. Its price would slowly fall into line with the BMW 5 Series and Audi A6, and this cut price Benz was rewarded with a handsome increase in sales. That’s not to say this E Class was a bad car, in fact, Consumer Reports ranked it as the greatest car they tested for 5 years. But it was official: the Mercedes Benz Golden Age was over.