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Mercedes-Benz S-Class: A history of innovation

Merc's flagship saloon has always been at the forefront of technology.

When Mercedes-Benz took the covers off its all-new S-Class, it came as no surprise that the large, luxurious sedan was brimming with technology. After all, Mercedes-Benz has made a habit of showcasing the full impact of its engineering know-how with every new generation of S-Class, often with world firsts.

This all-new S-Class is no exception with innovations like the first forward facing airbags for outboard rear passengers and an even greater degree of rear-wheel steering, giving the big Benz a turning circle of just 10.5 metres, the same as an A-Class hatchback. You can read more about the raft of new S-Class’s innovations here.

Bit what came before? To paraphrase, ‘what has the S-Class ever done for us?’

Here then, are some of the best innovations to have emerged from Merc’s flagship Sonderklasse over the decades.

Crumple Zones

It seems almost incongruous now, but once upon a time cars were manufactured to be as rigid as possible. And that meant they were pretty lethal in an accident, with the softest part of the car usually the occupant. With all that energy having to go somewhere it was the people in the car who bore the brunt of an accident, often with fatal results.

But that all changed in 1959 with the Mercedes-Benz 220, commonly known as the ‘fintail’. It was the first car to feature not only a safety cell, but also front and rear crumple zones which were designed in-house by Mercedes-Benz engineer, Béla Barényi. Designed to quite literally crumple in the event of an accident, Barényi’s design, which Mercedes-Benz patented in 1952 (patent number 854157) divided the car into three sections: the passenger safety cell, rigid and non-deforming, bookended by front and rear crumple zones.

The design incorporated longitudinal members straight through the middle of the W111, forming a rigid safety cell along with body panels. The front and rear supports were curved, and in the event of an accident readily deformed, absorbing and dissipating the energy created by the collision. Ground-breaking stuff in 1959, even more so when you consider Barényi had been working on the concept for Merc since the 1930s.

Adaptive Cruise Control

It’s commonplace now, found even in some of the cheapest new cars on the market, or at least as an option. But rewind to 1998 and it’s a different story. That year, Mercedes-Benz debuted what it called Distronic Cruise Control in the new W220 S-Class.

Radar-based adaptive cruise control wasn’t a Mercedes invention and had been around for a few years when the W220 S-Class was launched. It was actually Mitsubishi who pioneered the technology, its lidar-based system first appearing in the Japanese-market only Debonair. Toyota offered a similar ‘distance control’ system in 1995 in its full-size Japan-only Celsior sedan.

But, what they couldn’t do and what Mercedes-Benz brought to the table was a system that not only detected traffic ahead and adjusted the speed of the S-Class accordingly, it was also the first system to be able to bring the car to a complete stop and then move off again without any input from the driver. ACC with stop&go function, in other words.

Electronic Stability Control

Traction control had been around since the 1980s, but unlike stability control systems, it was only designed to adjust throttle inputs to maintain wheel traction under hard acceleration. It was not designed to help prevent lateral slippage.

Fast forward to 1995, and Mercedes-Benz, working in collaboration with Bosch, offered what it dubbed Elektronisches Stabilitätsprogramm, or ESP for short, in the W140 series S-Class. Basically, the system compares the direction the driver is intending to take (by measuring the angle of the steering wheel) and compares it to the actual direction the car is taking. The system determines this through a variety of measures including lateral acceleration, the rotation of the vehicle, or yaw, and the individual road speeds of the car’s wheels.

If the ESP system detects a loss of control, it will intervene by applying brake pressure to individual wheels while also reducing throttle inputs to help maintain control of the vehicle.

Its commonplace now, mandatory in some countries including Australia, but it first appeared in Merc’s flagship S-Class.

Soft-closing doors

Okay, maybe not a technological breakthrough, but the W140-gen S-Class was the first to feature what is now a pretty common feature on modern luxury cars – the soft-close door. Debate rages around whether Mercedes-Benz or BMW was the first manufacturer to offer the lazy function (because closing a door is hard work after all), but in Merc trim, it made its debut in 1991 as an option. Mercedes threw in a soft-closing bootlid as well, for good measure.

Double-glazing

A luxury sedan needs to offer a serene and calm environment for its occupants. It’s no good filling the car to the brim with all the trimmings, only to have the outside world filter through to the cabin thanks to a lack of noise isolation.

Mercedes-Benz’s solution to the problem was double-glazed windows. Borrowing the idea from the housing industry, the Mercedes-Benz W140 S-Class offered the innovation in 1991. Simply, the Merc’s glasshouse was created by bonding two panes of glass together with an adhesive, this reducing noise while also improving insulation, meaning your luxury limo remained nice and toasty in winter or cooler during those hot German summers.

It’s a common feature on many luxury cars today.

Anti-lock brakes (ABS)

Mercedes-Benz wasn’t the first manufacturer to offer the ground-breaking safety technology, but it was the first to market with an electronic ABS.

Mechanical systems had been developed for the aviation industry as early as the 1920s and made their first appearances in the automotive sector in the 1960s, with the Jensen FF utilising a mechanical system. But it proved unreliable not to mention expensive.

The early ’70s saw a swathe of American manufacturers – including Chrysler, Ford, Lincoln, and Cadillac – offer mechanical ABS but it was in 1978 that the game changed, the Mercedes-Benz W116 S-Class available with an optional electronic ABS, developed by Bosch. Today, ABS is mandatory on cars around the world and who knows how many accidents its prevented (or mitigated) and how many lives have been saved.

Pre Safe collision mitigation

Mercedes-Benz rolled out its patented Pre Safe occupant protection system in 2002, midway through the W220 S-Class’s life cycle.

According to Merc, the designer of the system, Karl-Heinz Baumann, looked at biology textbook belonging to his daughter. He saw pictures of a cat mid-fall, turning its body and stretching out its legs, preparing itself for landing.

Mercedes-Benz’s Pre Safe basically anticipates a crash and activates measures to protect occupants inside the car. These include pre-tensioning seatbelts, closing windows automatically, inflating seat bolsters, and automatically adjusting the seats and headrests.

More recent developments include autonomous emergency braking, rear-end collision detection and Pre Safe Impulse which uses the seatbelts to pull passengers further away from the point of impact during a crash.

Crash testing, using dummies, has revealed the seatbelt tensioning function can reduce stress to the head and neck area by around 30 to 40 per cent, in certain instances.

And, like so much of the technology that makes its first appearance in Merc’s flagship saloon, Pre Safe has trickled down the range and is available even in the entry-level A-Class.

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