Thirty years ago, in 1991, the S-Class, model series W 140, celebrated its premiere at the Geneva Motor Show. This was an S-Class that hardly anyone had expected, because it set completely new standards in terms of design, comfort and safety features. So it was hardly surprising that the media and the public flocked to the Mercedes-Benz stand.
Even in the weeks and months following its world premiere at Lake Geneva, the new top model remained in the limelight. An S-Class as a TV star? This was nothing really new in either the US or Europe. But the fact that this luxury model, that became the namesake of an entire segment, made it into the evening news as the main item so soon after the market launch was more than unusual.
The images of the dark S-Class at the train loading point in Niebüll, for traffic to the North Sea island of Sylt, went through the media. The new top model from Sindelfingen was apparently too wide to make it onto the Sylt shuttle. The story has often been quoted, but was, in reality, a hoax. In fact, the luxury model was not too wide at all, not least because of its folding exterior mirrors; only the tyres were at the limit for the guide rails, just as with some other luxury models, until the railway trucks were converted.
Indeed, the W 140 model series set the new standard for what was possible in terms of automotive engineering in the early 1990s. In 1991, the new S-Class generation was the yardstick for cars in the luxury class; for many, this is still true today. It was not as if the predecessor model, the W 126, had not been a success during its production period, which began in 1979 – quite the contrary. And the classic design of the 126 still enchants fans of the star brand all over the world to this day. But with its W 140 model series, Mercedes-Benz moved into a completely different league, both technologically and stylistically.
The 1991 S-Class, with its distinctive boxy shape, inside and out, and its high-tech equipment, was – more than any other model from this Stuttgart-based manufacturer – the benchmark for what was possible on four wheels. To this day, such equipment details as the chrome “sights” of the original generation that can be extended when reversing, the power closing aid for the boot and the double glazing installed in a car for the first time are legends of automotive engineering.
Under CEO Werner Niefer, the S-Class not only featured safety and comfort details that no one had previously thought possible, but also a charismatic presence that was more than ever a testament to its time. At the beginning of the 1990s, anything seemed possible, and it was not only in the USA that the term “the sky’s the limit” was aptly applied. The W 140 with its self-confident design, eye-catching light units at the front and rear and corresponding proportions was worthy of the phrase. And, at last, there was a Mercedes-Benz with an image-boosting V12 powerplant, which was felt to be the epitome of automotive engineering. Numerous improvements in detail and the positive sales figures of the previous generation, the W 126, meant that the development team was ultimately able to spend almost two years longer than planned.
The new S-Class, which was 5.11 metres long in the standard SE variant and 5.21 metres as the SEL, was not launched as planned at the 1989 Geneva Motor Show or the IAA, but only hit the market in 1991.
For the first time in a Mercedes-Benz model, a future-orientated CAN bus system was installed to network all the electronic components. In addition, from the 1995 facelift onwards, there were further advantageous features such as the navigation system, the Auto Pilot System APS; the Electronic Stability Programme ESP; the Parktronic parking aid, which replaced the telescopic guide rods; the Linguatronic voice control system and, from 1997, the emergency call system TELE-AID. Just before that, such safety details as the BAS brake assistant, automatic seat belt height adjustment, side impact airbags for the driver and front passenger and xenon headlamps with automatic headlamp levelling had been introduced in the context of technical improvements.
The flagship model and definitive proof of German engineering quality was the top-of-the-range 600 SEL, with its naturally aspirated V12 engine producing 300 kW / 408 PS and a massive 580 newton metres of torque. It was hard to believe at that time, but with a torque of 500 newton metres, much of the power was available even at low revs of 1,600 rpm. Anyone who was not aware what relaxed nonchalance paired with absolute serenity while driving a car actually meant needed to try it and today, 30 years after the car’s world premiere, enthusiasts are still thrilled by the engine with the internal designation M 120 E 60. The catalytic converter had a capacity of an impressive seven litres, which reduced the additional consumption to a minimum. The most popular model was the equally legendary 500 SE/SEL, whose four-valve M 119 E 50 engine produced an impressive 240 kW / 326 PS, which was considerably more than the few twelve-cylinder engines offered by the small group of competitors.
In addition to the two flagship models 500 SE/SEL and 600 SEL, there were also the smaller V8 engines in the 400 model series and the entry-level models with six cylinders, which were offered as 300 SE, 300 SE 2.8 and later as S 280 and S 320, depending on the international market. Later, the S-Class of the W 140 generation also became available in Europe for the first time as a turbodiesel, because the 300 SD/300 SDL had previously been offered almost exclusively in the USA, especially in California, in the W 116 and mainly W 126 generations. It was now possible for cost-conscious frequent drivers, in particular in the markets of Southern Europe, to opt for particularly economical models such as the 300 SD, S 300 TD and later the S 350 TD with diesel technology.
Of the total of 406,717 S-Class of the W 140 generation, 28,101 were diesel versions.
The imposing outer appearance of the W 140 model series assembled in Sindelfingen was reflected at the same superb standard on the inside. Seating comfort deserved to be described as unrivalled, as did the interior spaciousness provided in the SEL variant. On request, there were not only fully electric leather seats, but also a system of individual seats in the rear with electric blinds all around.
It was not only actors, presidents and kings, but also chauffeur-driven businesspeople who benefited from the front passenger seat that was adjustable from the rear, retractable folding tables, one or two radio telephones and even a fax machine in the centre armrest. The separately controlled climate system in the rear could be supplemented to include a TV set or a refrigerator, among other things. People in need of protection ordered the new S-Class as a special protection version with B6/B7 heavy armour or even as a Pullman variant. A particularly exclusive alternative was the open landaulet version for the Vatican and His Papal Highness John Paul II. Even before its 30th birthday, the W 140 was a much sought-after young classic. The eight-cylinder versions of the 500 SE/500 SEL and the later S 500 are particularly popular with classic car fans. In the coming years, more W 140s will become eligible for an H (“historical”) registration plate, making them fit for the future.