The End Of History
The Mercedes-Benz S-class (W140) is the ultimate Swabian engineer’s car. In every sense of the word.
Any show of force is usually driven by a combination of hubris and a latent sense of insecurity. After all, despots don’t hold a parade because they simply want to show that their armed forces are merely intact. They want to show their enemies, their own people and themselves that they’ve got more than it takes.
In similar fashion, the W140 generation of Mercedes’ genre-defining S-class saloon wasn’t about the mere continuation of a successful product line, but a statement of automotive might. And while describing the executives at Stuttgart-Untertürkheim as despots would obviously be wrong on a great many levels, they actually found themselves in a similarly aloof position, as far as their company’s success, reputation and wealth were concerned.
The ambitious/hubristic nature of the W140 was partially a consequence of the Zeitgeist prevalent during which this particular S-class was conceived. Any notions of self-doubt that might have plagued the west in general, and West Germany in particular, during the 1970s had been replaced with neoconservative bravado. The critical introspection that had helped shape the W126 S-class of 1979 had been succeeded by a swagger founded upon a belief in the merits of limitless consumption.
There are no other production automobiles of this period in which this thinking manifested itself more poignantly than the W140 S-class. During its decade-long development process, the W140 gradually turned from an decidedly aerodynamically-formed, efficiency-focused design into a portly limousine of sober grandeur.
Rather than to just continue in the same vein as its (highly successful) rationalist W126 predecessor, W140 was supposed to be a statement car in the sense - if not in in the spirit - of the unparalleled 600 Limousine, albeit adapted to a contemporary definition of automotive superiority. Given the generally bullish economy of the 1980s and the levels of wealth this entailed, not to mention the lack of humility the prevalent ‘more is more’ ethos brought about, it appeared to be certain that the W140’s crushing sense of competence would be appreciated by the markets.
Coinciding with the fall of the Berlin Wall and, eventually, the Iron Curtain as a whole, the W140 was the car that marked ‘the end of history’, as proclaimed by neoconservative figurehead, Francis Fukuyama. The west had won. And there was no better symbol of its superiority to accompany this ultimate victory than the ultimate S-class.
For the W140’s market launch, the usual marketing tools obviously wouldn’t do. Instead of the regular, Cokin-filtered promotional video, only a film shot in the exotic Showscan process (which consists of 60, rather than the regular 24 frames per second in high-definition quality) was deemed good enough for this S-class. That there were few projectors capable of actually projecting Showscan footage probably was less of a concern than the knowledge that one was employing the best photographical method to depict the mighty new Benz.
However, hiding behind this overbearing sense of arrogance and pride was a deep-rooted unsettledness that had hitherto been utterly alien to the engineers, stylists and executives at Stuttgart-Untertürkheim. Because, for the first time since its inception, the S-class wasn’t without peer. Despite being officially considered an upstart pretender, BMW’s acclaimed E32 Seven series of 1986 had been a significant blow to a company that previously only had to match its own ambitions. The S-class had been challenged, and Mercedes was now aiming for no less than the Endsieg.
So it was a combination of engineering prowess, coupled with hubris and insecurity, that drove the overall conception of the W140, yet the story behind its styling process is a markedly different one.
As alluded to earlier, the stylists working under adept Mercedes-Benz chief designer, Bruno Sacco, were originally aiming for shape that embodied aerodynamic efficiency, rather than outright opulence. Yet over the years, that brief was changing, with W140’s sheer size eventually evolving into a statement of blunt superiority. Years later, Sacco would openly admit that he was overruled when it came to W140’s dimensions - especially its height - by the engineering department. Yet, despite having semi-withdrawn from project W140, he appears to have still taken care that the car maintained the disciplined style of its forebears as far as its detailing was concerned - if not its overall proportions.
Given the loud, busy styling that defines luxury class saloons more than 25 years after W140’s unveiling, the uncluttered, calm appearance of this S-class certainly astonishes. Its exterior, penned by Frenchman, Oliver Boulay, will always suffer from its slightly bloated size, which isn’t helped by wheels that are a few inches too small in diameter and a rear track whose lack of width is only exacerbated by the car’s wide, flush (rather than stepped, as with all other S-classes) C-pilar. Yet, if one disconnects the Mercedes’ overall stance from its detail design, there are quite a few pleasures to be found. For this is a car that embodies quality like few others - not in the Rolls-Royce idiom of handmade craftsmanship and the abundance of lush, natural materials, but as an expression of utter solidity through the use of the most appropriate, rather than the most noble of materials.
Early, non-facelifted W140s exude quality by virtue of their deep paint, the carefully chosen, unobtrusive, yet highly sophisticated radii of their sheet metal and the properties of the materials employed, such as the clean, bright lamps or the delicately glossy strips of anodised metal.
Such strips are even used in ways that appear to be counterintuitive to W140’s overall ethos. Unlike today, when lashings of chrome are the bluntest - and least imaginative - of cyphers to signify luxury, the W140 actually features thin slivers of chrome to surround its (double-glazed, hence lusciously reflexive) side windows. The better part of the window surround is occupied by inconspicuous frames made of anodised metal, which betrays the faint traces of Swabian pietism the W140 cannot quite shake off.
The sheetmetal - of which there is plenty, of course - may appear unadorned at first, but actually subtly conveys an image of a form that’s been cast in one solid piece, rather than numerous sheets of metal cobbled together. The thin, body-coloured frame of the W140’s grille - which was originally supposed to be reserved for the V12-engined model variant, but turned into a regular feature due to Bruno Sacco’s insistence - is another example of this, as it adds to the impression of solid homogeneity. It also happens to be one of the most significant alterations carried out on one of the most significant grilles of the automotive realm - similar, perhaps, to the modernisation Rolls-Royce’s Parthenon grille underwent on the 2010 Ghost model.
Unlike future generations of S-class models, the people behind the W140 typically went for the proven, sound and solid option, rather than what may have appeared to be most advanced. This led to rather odd details, such as the extendible pylons at the edges of the boot, which are, of course, made of metal, but supposedly ended up being the butt of jokes of engineers at Munich’s Petuelring - just like the Mercedes’ analogue mileage metre, incidentally. In both cases, the Bavarians had gone for a more modern, electronic option. And no mention of the W140’s highly advanced CAN-BUS electronic architecture could change the perception of the Benz being somewhat more ‘low-tech’ than it ought to have been by that point.
Both the doors’ ‘soft close’ operation and the boot’s retractable, and therefore always clean, handle (made of metal, of course) were examples of an engineering integrity that was both bordering on overkill, yet appeared strangely old-fashioned at the dawn of what eventually turned into the digital age. The W140 obviously was a ‘money is no object’ creation, but where that money was spent suggests a mindset that can safely be described as ‘conservative’. This, after all, was the product of a Daimler-Benz AG that would be infuriated if anyone had the sheer nerve to associate it with with the unworthy likes of, say, Chrysler.
One look at the W140’s thick door makes it clear that this car is as massive as it is substantial. The controls are of the typical Mercedes fare of the time - there’s just more of them, as there are so many features included. The instruments are perfectly legible, yet lacking any of the digital gimmicks that were so popular at the time. Few automobiles have ever attempted as insane a balancing act between rationality and megalomania as the W140.
Mostly rational, definitely traditional Swabian engineering and design values are present in the rest of the W140’s cabin, too. All materials were made to last (and did so), with ergonomics and comfort placed higher on the agenda than matters of fashion or ostentatiousness. The W140 didn’t aim to be a German Rolls-Royce, it didn’t pretend to be the product of a manufacture where boffins in leather aprons were busy polishing chrome air outlets or veneer fillets. When Mercedes-Benz were at their best, the best materials weren’t the most impressive ones, but those that had proven to be most pleasing and most reliable in actual use. Therefore, despite first visual impressions and an overbearing conception - not to mention the plain silly electric adjustment for its interior rear view mirror - the W140 isn’t about pretence or pretensions.
Despite all of its excellence, the W140 is usually considered a failed car. The S-class to end all S-classes arrived right at the cusp of a recession, not to mention amid a ‘Wind Of Change’ that didn’t just bring about the end of the Cold War, but also challenged the ambitiousness and conspicuous consumption of the’80s. With unemployment figures rising, the drifting Generation X appearing and a general awareness of environmental issues at the forefront of social movements, the W140 wasn’t met with appreciation and admiration, but irritation, if not downright hostility.
Particularly in its home country, where it would serve mountainous chancellor Kohl as official motor for a great many years, the W140 still awaits full rehabilitation. Even though today’s luxury cars are not just physically larger, but also considerably less sensibly styled than the W140, it is this generation of S-class that remains tainted by an anti-social stigma. It was this S-class that forced motorail train wagons to be widened; it was this S-class that was first to not fit inside a ready-made garage. All these factors combined led to most W140s getting sold eastwards at some point, which renders it one of the rarest of S-class models on German roads today. Sometimes, being the ultimate iteration comes at a very high price.
Despite solid, albeit hardly exceptional global sales figures, Mercedes-Benz and the car’s creators would have to pay a price, too. For W140 turned out to be the last indiscriminately engineering-driven of S-class models; the last of its kind for which money was no object. This change of paradigms began as early as with W140’s mid-life facelift, when certain components were substituted by new parts that were of obviously inferior quality.
But it wasn't just the engineering ethos that had changed in the aftermath of W140's tumultuous launch, but Mercedes-Benz design, too. For it is obvious that a shift of power took place at some point during the early 1990s, when Bruno Sacco's 'vertical affinity/horizontal homogeneity' design philosophy was overruled in favour of 'design freedom', which eschewed the stringent, rational form language Sacco had so painstakingly nurtured in favour of a more trendy, much less profound approach.
When the W140’s successor, the W220 model, was eventually unveiled in 1998, it hence appeared to be the exact opposite of the ultimate S-class: its appearance was fashionable, if not particularly classy; cost-cutting measures were shockingly obvious in areas, such as material and long-term build quality. It’s electronics were highly advanced, but hardly the epitome of reliability. In short, the W220 wasn’t a car that was designed and built to last. It was very much a car that was about pretence. Of course, it was also a smash success.
To add insult to injury, the W140’s chassis later on even got to live on underneath the hilariously vulgar, exceptionally nouveau riche body of the new Maybach models, with which the company that had by then transformed into DaimlerChrysler fooled itself into believing to be in a position to conquer the super luxury market in the same way as it had done with the mighty 600 limousine. Of course, the Maybach saloons failed miserably at this task, falling not only miles short of the 600’s elegant stateliness, but even failing at matching the W140’s serious stature (despite both cars having been styled by Olivier Boulay). If the W140 was an exercise in hubris, the Maybach must be seen as an act of outright self-delusion. Which hardly acts as vindication, but certainly helps putting things into perspective.
In the context of today’s automotive world, the W140’s sins certainly ought to be forgiven. It isn’t just that its fall from grace has purged it of its hubristic nature, but that it’s redeemed itself since its original unveiling, particularly in terms of its aesthetics. The ultimate S-class can therefore boast a quality that none of its successors can hope to attain in the foreseeable future. It’s not might, power or even longevity. It’s genuine stature.
Recommended Reading: Excellent photos of the W140's design process can new viewed at Car Design Archives
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