Mercedes-Benz S-Class: A look into its chequered history

Automotive journalists are a rare species who, despite doing a seemingly similar job of driving and testing automobiles, come out with starkly different opinions about the same automobile. But, if there is something that they all unanimously agree to, it ought to be the choice of "the best car in the world". Never a point of debate, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class has held onto this unofficial title ever since it made its debut. For decades together, spanning across a series of generations and withstanding a gamut of competition from Cadillac initially, BMW and Audi afterwards and Lexus of late, the S-Class has always been the benchmark against which the automotive industry is measured.

We wouldn't be exaggerating if we advise you to sit in an S-Class today to know what features would be available in our family hatchbacks and sedans a decade down the line. Such advanced has been the engineering aspects, safety features and creature comforts in every generation of the S-Class.

When the next generation model of such an automobile is making its debut in the next few days, it ought to be celebrated. What better way to mark the occasion than looking back at the history of the car itself? That's what we have set out to do. The origin of the S-Class is always debatable. But, to keep things simple, we would restrict this post to models that were officially designated as 'S-Class' and skip those that are considered to be their ancestors.

W116 Series (1972 - 1980)

In September 1972, Mercedes-Benz presented a brand-new premium-class vehicle to the public that, for the first time ever, was officially labelled 'S-Class'. In many ways, this was a ground-breaking model for Mercedes-Benz, one that brought the company's focus on safety to the forefront.

The W116 Series boasts of several 'firsts' in the passenger car industry including padded door trim, heavily padded safety steering wheel with an impact absorber, wind deflectors in the A-Pillars that also served as channels for dripping water in case of rain, wrap-around indicator lamps for better visibility from the sides and ribbed taillights that could prevent soiling in the recessed surfaces. From 1978, a sensational technical innovation called "Anti-lock Brake System (ABS)", that was developed jointly with Bosch, was offered in the W116 S-Class models. Most of these so-called 'premium' features are now standard in even the most affordable hatchbacks.

After a production run of 473,035 units, the last of the W116 S-Class models rolled out in September 1980.

W126 Series (1979 - 1991)

At the IAA in Frankfurt in September 1979, Mercedes-Benz unveiled the successor to the W116 S-Class sedan that was internally designated as W126. This series is instantly identifiable as these cars were the first Mercedes-Benz model ever to have plastic bumpers instead of the metal bumper bars that was the norm then.

That's not all, the W126 S-Class models were the first passenger cars to meet the frontal offset crash criteria, having withstood an offset crash test at a speed of 55 km/h. If it was ABS for the industry in W116, it was the "Supplemental Restraint System (SRS)" in the W126. Though Airbags were introduced by other manufacturers, it was Mercedes-Benz that integrated them with the seat belts and the pre-tensioners, forming a restraint system. At one point, the W126 S-Class had variants powered by a massive 5.6-liter engine (560 SEL and 560 SEC) that were good for 300 hp of power and were the most powerful Mercedes-Benz models on sale.

In just over 12 years, a total of 818,036 units of W126 S-Class sedans were sold to customers, making this the most successful S-Class ever.

W140 Series (1991 - 1998)

In March 1991, a new generation of S-Class internally codenamed W140 made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show. More than anything else, the W140 S-Class will always be remembered for growing enormously in size, in specifications, in features and, of course, in cost as well.

Flagship variant of the W140 S-Class (600 SEL) had the distinction of being powered by the first series-produced 12-cylinder engine in the history of Mercedes-Benz with specifications that read 6.0 liters of displacement, 408 hp of power and 580 Nm of peak torque. With a price that was almost 25% more than its predecessor, the W140 S-Class boasted of features such as double-pane window glazing, self-closing boot lid and doors, power windows that could detect obstacles, power mirrors that could not only open and close but also capable of adjusting the angles with the touch of a button and rear parking markers that extend out from the rear fenders once the reverse gear is selected. In 1996, yet another innovation was gifted to the automotive industry with the introduction of "Brake Assist" system that was able to recognize panic braking and boost brake power, thus shortening stopping distances. Think of it, a premium hatchback like the i20 now comes with these features and much more. 

Another significant occurrence with the W140 series were the new model designations introduced by Mercedes-Benz that put the class of the car ahead of the numbers. For instance, the 500 SE became the S 500 and the new naming nomenclature remains unchanged to this day.

Despite such big innovations, just 406, 532 W140 S-Class sedans were produced, which is just half of what the W126 series managed.

W220 Series (1998 - 2005)

Making its debut at the Paris Motor Show in 1998, the W220 S-Class marked a departure from the boxy styling that the S-Class traditionally had. Despite being smaller than the W140 series, the W220 S-Class somehow managed to offer similar interior space to the occupants, thanks to some brilliant packaging.

What didn't change though was the practice of introducing technical innovations, with the W220 S-Class boasting almost 30 such features. It included the DISTRONIC autonomous intelligent cruise control, navigation system with integrated congestion warning, AIRMATIC air suspension system, Active Ventilated Seats with fans inside for circulating air through pores, a cylinder shut-off system called Active Cylinder Control in the S 500 V8 variant and the fantastic PRE-SAFE preventive occupant protection system that's capable of recognizing an impending accident and prepare the vehicle accordingly. The W220 Series also had the AMG touch with a 6.0-liter, 612 hp, V12 twin-turbo engine that made the S 65 AMG variant not only the most powerful S-Class ever, but also the world's most powerful production sedan.

Such technical innovations meant that the W220 S-Class sedans took a hit in their reliability ratings, with fans across the world remarking that the W140 S-Class was the last of the traditional-virtued Mercedes-Benz models. In its 7-year life span, a total of 485,000 units of the W220 S-Class sedans were produced.

W221 Series (2005 - Present)

Making its debut at the 2005 Frankfurt Motor Show, the W221 series replaced the W220 series. Just like its predecessor, this series is also produced only in sedan body-style as the coupes are labelled under 'CL' nomenclature. Unlike its predecessors that were either over-engineered and expensive (W140) or lost out in reliability (W220), the W221 struck a perfect balance in terms of design, engineering, size and cost.

Despite being bigger than the W220 series, usage of aluminium in the hood, trunk lid, doors and front fenders meant that the W221 S-Class models weren't as heavy, thereby reducing fuel consumption and increasing agility. As usual, high-tech features like LCD instrument panel, Night View infra-red camera for spotting objects in the dark and advanced versions of Brake Assist Plus, DISTRONIC Plus and PRE-SAFE systems ensured that the S-Class remained at the top of its game. Though a number of power-train options including Hybrid and Diesel variants were offered, the strikingly quick S 65 AMG, capable of accelerating from 0 to 100 km/h in just around 4.2 seconds remains the hot favourite amongst enthusiasts.

The W221 S-Class continues to rule the world of luxury cars to this day, but it is not going to last long. Once the next-generation model (internally code-named 'W222') debuts, the W221 S-Class series would slowly be pulled out of production lines, making way for the more promising, more pleasing and, quite possibly, more technology-laden W222 series.

Here is a teaser picture of the W222 S-Class released by Mercedes-Benz. Though a fully revealing picture and the full brochure of the new S-Class has already leaked online, we wouldn't want to break the ice until the company does it themselves. Wait for it!

Now that you know all about the S-Class, don't forget to remember this car the next time you encounter an ABS-enabled panic stop or enjoy the comforts of a rear parking sensor with display in the center console. Just like most others, we at Anything on Wheels just can't wait to get behind the wheels of the W222 S-Class, but let's see if we have the fortune of doing so.

Data Sources:

* Daimler Press Release "The Mercedes-Benz S-Class: Always impeccably dressed" dated May-2009

* Mercedes-Benz Facebook Page


  1. This is a great article, thanks for posting this. It is good to know about the history of S Class.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Thanks to the popularity and fan-following of the S-Class, this post has garnered more than 450 hits in our Facebook page and above 75 views in the blog, all in less than 24 hours.

  2. Why don't Indian companies make such luxury (or super) cars?

    1. All said and done, the S-Class is manufactured by the company that invented the automobile. Expecting Indian companies to make such a car is not right, given that they have started out just two decades back.

    2. You do have a point, but the Mexican company Mastretta started 2 years back and their first product is a Sports car.

    3. Frankly, we know the level of engineering finesse that the Indian companies are capable of now. With the acquisition of JLR (Tata) and Ssangyong (Mahindra), both of them have started their next phase of growth. They would be moving up the automotive ranks in the next decade or so. Or, that's what we hope.