There are more expensive, more luxurious, sumptuous even, large saloon cars on the road and in garages around the world.
But nothing has succeeded and makes a statement as big and bold as Mercedes-Benz’s flagship model, the S-Class. How successful has the S-Class been since the first of the breed appeared in 1951? Try four million sales globally, making it easily the biggest selling, large luxury saloon in history.
While the ancestry of the model dates back to 1951 with the original Mercedes-Benz 220, its lineage can be traced back all the way to 1903 to the Mercedes (note, no ‘Benz’ yet, that came later in 1926) Simplex 60. Its formula of comfort and luxury in a car capable of gobbling up kilometres with ease stands true to this day. It is, in every way, the progenitor of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
There followed a succession of luxury saloons, each iteration an improvement on the breed. But it wasn’t until 1930 that Mercedes-Benz released what it dubbed the ‘flagship’ of the three-pointed star’s range.
The Mercedes-Benz ‘Großer Mercedes’ (‘Grand Mercedes’), also called the Model 770 (internal code W07) served as an automotive statement, according to Mercedes-Benz. Powered by a supercharged 7.6-litre (7655cc) inline eight-cylinder engine, the Großer was used almost exclusively by heads of state and giants of industry.
German Reich Chancellor Paul von Hindenburg had one. So too Japanese Emperor Hirohito. Even the head of the Catholic church, Pope Pius XI was driven around in comfort and style in a Großer. And then there was arguably, the Großer’s most infamous owner, Adolf Hitler.
The outbreak of the Second World War put the skids on development and Germany’s subsequent defeat at the hands of the Allies meant manufacturing took a back seat as the conquered country rebuilt post-1945.
But, all that changed in 1951 when Mercedes-Benz released the Model 220 (W187). Powered by a 2.2-litre inline six, Mercedes-Benz’s first all-new engine in 10 years, the Model 220 range included a saloon, a coupe and cabriolet, a tradition continuing through to this day.
The original 220 was replaced in 1954 by another Model 220 (internal code W180) which improved on comfort and refinement to unprecedented levels. With a 170mm added to the wheelbase, 70mm of which translated directly into the cabin, second row passengers were treated to more room than ever before while the inline six-cylinder engine was good for 63kW.
In 1956, the Mercedes-Benz 220S joined the luxury range, the first instance of the ‘S’ nomenclature, although the range was still not officially called 'S-Class'. It featured an uprated, twin carburettor, six-cylinder engine (78kW). The regular 220 was fed by a single carby.
External styling tweaks included chrome strips running along the front guards and doors, while the bumper featured a new chromed single-piece design, as against the 220’s three-piece bumper.
The SE badge appeared soon after, adorning the bootlid of the 220 SE in 1958. The ‘E’ stood for einspritz (injection) denoting the model’s direct injection of fuel delivery as opposed to the carburetted system of other models.
The all-new ‘S’ class (W111) debuted in 1959, sprouting a longer wheelbase and, perhaps taking its stylings cue from America, fins! Dubbed Heckflosse (German for fintails), the W111 series grew in length and interior spaciousness, underscoring its status as a large, luxury saloon. Those fins, more than just decorative, were actually (and officially) marketed as ‘guide rods’, to assist with parallel parking.
In 220 trim, motivation initially came from the incumbent 2.2-litre inline six-cylinder engine, producing 71kW and capable of propelling the big Merc to a top speed of 160km/h.
The 1961 model years brought the introduction of the 230 series of 'S' class models, as a replacement for the 220 range. Powered by a slightly larger 2.3-litre inline-six with twin Zenith carburettors making 89kW, the more powerful Big Benz had a top speed of 176km/h and could complete the sprint from 0-100km/h in 13 seconds.
Under the skin too, the new 'S' saw some firsts, not just for Mercedes-Benz, but for the automotive sector in general, the large saloon the first production car in the world to be built incorporating ‘crumple zones’ and a rigid passenger safety cell.
The 230 range was joined in 1961 by the 300 SE, the top-of-the-line sedan brimming with tech (such as air suspension). A Mercedes-Benz developed automatic transmission came as standard too (it was optional on models further down the range), as did power steering.
Powering the 300 SE was a fuel-injected 3.0-litre in-line six pumping out around 117kW and pushing the luxury Benz to a top speed of 180km/h.
Long wheelbase variants could be optioned too, adding 100mm to the wheelbase, providing even more in-cabin space. Eventually, these models would adopt ‘L’ in their naming patters – 300 SEL, as example – but that didn’t occur until 1965.
As with the previous generation, this gen of 'S' also came in Coupe and Cabriolet body styles.
In production from 1959-71, the last hurrah came in 1968, with Mercedes-Benz throwing everything at the 300 SEL 6.3. As the badge suggest, this long-wheelbase variant was powered by a 6.3-litre V8 borrowed from the Mercedes-Benz 600. With astonishing outputs of 184kW and 500Nm, the 300 SEL 6.3 was the world’s fastest four-door production car at the time. The sprint from 0-100km/h was dispatched in just 6.6 seconds while top speed was rated at 220km/h.
This car also spawned a high-performance model, when a small specialist tuning house, took a 300 SEL 6.3 and turned it into something else again inside their workshop located at Burgstall an der Murr, near Stuttgart.
With engine capacity now increased to 6.8-litres and a commensurate power bump to 315kW, the Rote Sau (Red Pig) contested the Spa 24-hour race, finishing second overall, putting the small tuning house on the automotive map. The name of the tuning house? AMG Motorenbau und Entwicklungsgesellschaft mbH, a bit of a mouthful. You’ll probably know it better by its simple three-letter acronym, AMG.
The S-Class came of age (and gained a name) with its next generation, the W116, the first S-badged Merc to be given the official ‘S-Class’ title.
Bigger than its predecessor, the W116 mirrored the styling of the more compact W123 series, the progenitor for today’s E-Class. It was the last Benz designed by Friedrich Geiger, whose career with the three-pointed star began in the 1930s, the first car from his pen the gorgeous 1933 Mercedes-Benz 500K.
The new sonderklasse exuded modernity and masculinity, while its sheer size spoke of spaciousness and comfort. A choice of six- and eight-cylinder engines greeted customers with the carburetted 280 S, fuel-injected 280 SE, and the long-wheelbase 280 SEL all powered by Merc’s M110 2.8-litre straight six.
V8 power came via either a 3.5-litre unit (350 SE, 350 SEL) or for those needing more power, Merc’s 4.5-litre V8 (M117) with 165kW, for the 450 SE and 450 SEL variants. The 450s also underwent a makeover inside, with plusher materials and even more creature comforts, befitting a flagship model.
Mercedes-Benz wasn’t quite done with the W116 though, and halfway into its life-cycle gave the world one of the greatest large sedans of all time, rolling the 450 SEL 6.9 off the production line in 1975. Powered by a stonking 6.9-litre V8 with 210kW and 549Nm, the 450 SEL 6.9 was also a technological showcase for the German brand.
Sitting on self-levelling hydropneumatic suspension, not only did the 450 SEL 6.9 offer astonishing performance, but also a ride commensurate with its lofty luxury leanings.
The W116 line also introduced a raft of safety features, including, from 1978, anti-lock brakes, the first production car in the world to feature the now mandatory system.
A diesel variant entered the range too, the 300 SD, powered by a 3.0-litre inline-five turbo-diesel, the first series production car to feature such motivation.
In all, Mercedes-Benz shifted nearly half-a-million W116-generation S-Classes, the bulk of sales made up of 280 SE (150,593) and 280 S (122,848).
The next generation W126 S-Class made its debut in 1980 and went on to become the biggest-selling S-Class in the history of the nameplate. By the time production of the W126 ended in 1991, Mercedes-Benz had sold 892,123 of the large luxury car, including 818,063 sedans and 74,060 coupes. It was, by every measure, a resounding success.
Large, imposing, luxurious and crammed with safety technology, the W126 was the measure against which all other luxury sedans were judged.
Safety firsts included (optional) airbags for the driver and passenger, anti-lock braking, seatbelt pretensioners, traction control system and front and rear crumple zones with deformable plastic bumpers that could absorb low-speed impacts (such as parking) undamaged.
Inside, a climate control system (as opposed to regular air-conditioning) kept occupants comfortable as did optional heated seats while puddle lamps made their first appearance.
A range of six- and eight-cylinder petrol engines were available across the range, including the bulletproof 2.8-litre inline-six, a 3.8-litre V8 and a 5.0-litre V8 with 177kW and 402Nm. Additionally, Mercedes-Benz continued to offer turbo-diesel power with the 300 SD.
Available in sedan, long-wheelbase sedan and the gorgeous range of coupes, the W126 has become a modern day classic.
The same can’t be said for the succeeding model, the slab-sided and heavy W140 S-Class. Still, what it lacked in visual charisma, it made up for levels of luxury and equipment few others could match.
Mercedes-Benz also introduced a V12 option into the range, the 6.0-litre unit (M120) making 300kW and 580Nm, helping hurtle the luxo-barge from 0-100km/h in 6.3 seconds.
Further safety advances included the addition of electronic stability control (ESP), a Mercedes-Benz innovation that has since been licensed to other manufacturers around the world. Side airbags made their first appearance as did brake-force distribution while in 1996, rain-sensing wipers were also added to the S-Class.
The slabbiness of the W140 made way in 2000 for the altogether sleeker-looking W220 S-Class. Ushering in the new Millennium, Mercedes-Benz again used its flagship sedan to showcase technological advances and refinements.
Radar-based cruise control, electronically controlled air suspension, the COMAND screen-based display system (a precursor to today’s ubiquitous infotainment set-ups), and Merc’s Pre-Safe occupant protection system which aimed to protect occupants in the event of an impending collision all made their debut in the W220. So too, Merc’s 4MATIC all-wheel drive system.
A comprehensive suite of engine choices was headlined by the 5.5-litre, twin turbo V12 which now made 365kW and 800Nm although those outputs were eclipsed by the 6.0-litre twin-turbo V12 found under the bonnet of the heavily fettled S-Class Coupe, the AMG S65 with its, quite frankly, astonishing numbers of 450kW and 1001Nm.
Other notable debuts included the first S-Class to wear an AMG badge, the S55 sedan with its 5.4-litre V8 making 265kW and 530Nm.
Where the W220 was fractionally smaller than the W140 that preceded it, Mercedes-Benz returned to unashamed in-your-face dimensions with the W221 which made its debut in 2005. More muscular in its visage, especially around the back, the W221-gen offered a host of engine choices including petrol, diesel and for the first time, a hybrid powertrain with the introduction of the S400 Hybrid, the first luxury car with such technology and the first series production car to utilise lithium-ion batteries.
Safety advances meant the S-Class was brimming: lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, and a speed limiter joined the incumbent suite of safety tech while infotainment came to the fore, with a new 8.0-inch screen running Merc’s proprietary COMAND system including satellite navigation.
Analogue instrumentation made way for a digital driver display while inside the cabin, leather, aluminium and wood trim further enhanced the S-Class’s luxury credentials.
The hero cars of the W211 S-Class were the S63 and S65 AMG variants powered by a twin-turbo V8 and twin-turbo V12 respectively. With 0-100km/h times in the four-second bracket, Merc’s luxury sedan had the ability to turn into a raging chimera, with a throaty roar that could awaken demons.
Over 500,000 W221 S-Classes rolled off the production line from 2005-13, a success by any measure.
Generation W222 started rolling off the production line in 2013 and raised the bar yet again, in terms of technology. Improved vehicle dynamics, thanks to Merc’s Magic Body Control (MBC) system worked by reading the road ahead via windscreen mounted cameras, and adjusting the adaptive suspension accordingly.
Inside, nothing was fake. If it looked like leather, it was leather. Similarly, if it looked like metal, it was metal.
Technology continued to advance apace, too, with upgraded infotainment and driver displays and even more active safety smarts.
The model range again included sedans, coupes and cabriolets, with a choice of V6, V8 or V12 engines. Hybrid technology continued to be offered as well while diesel options also included a hybrid for the first time.
AMG too, had its way with the S-Class, with S63 and S65 variants available. In February 2019, however, Mercedes announced the W222 generation S65 would be the last of breed, celebrating the nameplate with the S65 Final Edition, a limited run of just 130 examples. Its demise is also likely to spell the end of Merc’s V12 engine, a victim of ever more stringent emissions targets.
On 2 September, 2020, Mercedes-Benz unveiled its newest-generation flagship S-Class, the W223 series, a range that does not include a coupe or convertible but will welcome an all-electric variant, the Mercedes-Benz EQS, from 2021.
One can only wonder what the engineers and designers of the original sonderklasse would have thought of a flagship, luxury sedan powered by electricity. But, while the method of motivation might be ever-changing, one thing has remained constant, the S-Class sitting atop the large sedan tree, a technological showcase wrapped in a package that simply says ‘luxury’.
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