Advanced culture in the S-Class.
Once upon a time there was a S-Class.
Behind the hill rises Hohenzollern Castle. In the valley below are the villages of Hechingen and Bisingen, which, in the dramatic morning light, look a little like hamlets from the Middle ages. It is truly fairytale scenery. The idea is a tour through the country of poets and thinkers – through Germany. In an automobile that, at the time it was created, represented radical progress. In a car which inspires that longing for a time gone by that was, if not better, surely less complex; a longing that emerges when one occasionally feels bulldozed by the speed of the present day. In a Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6.9.
The 450 SEL 6.9 in metallic blue stands on a hill. Elegant in form, powerful in presence, classic in appearance. The most statuesque version of the series 116 measures more than five meters in length. This saloon car, launched in 1972, was the first Mercedes-Benz officially to bear the designation S-Class.
What are immediately apparent the first time you look at it are, first and foremost, the well-balanced overall format, the harmonious rhythm of the generous window surfaces and slender centre pillars, the elongated bonnet and the notchback that looks not in the least bit bulky.
Inner values with constancy.
The door falls closed with a rich thunk – the kind generated only by a volume free of cavities. The amazing first impression from behind the wheel – isn’t it great how the position of the various levers is instinctive, even decades later. The travellers immediately sense a feeling of homely familiarity. This top model of the S-Class already comes with air conditioning. As well as an amazing level control that can be used to raise or lower the entire car. This is where the proverbial luxury-class-feeling is augmented by the combination of, at times, anachronistic materials: velour-upholstered seats, dials in varnished cherry wood, a headliner made from light, perforated leather. The smell inside this mother of all young classics has notes of fuel, and sparks associations with a well-kept ship’s cabin.
A cathedral out of steel.
The engine springs to life without hesitation. First, the car rumbles on idle. Then the saloon purrs off – in automatic, of course. From the Swabian hills to the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, to Sankt Goarshausen to be precise – better known for the Lorelei. The star is polished. The sideward view is open. The dictate of an ever more aggressive design language had not yet reached the world of the saloon car in the 1970s. The 450 SEL 6.9 cruises effortlessly to the non-autobahn 100 km/h speed limit without batting a clutch. In addition to all the massive leaps in safety, the S-Class was in fact built to be a very fast car.
Eight cylinders with a displacement 6.9 litres; it is a cathedral of steel under the bonnet, able to deliver virtually any power requirement on demand. To put it in figures – 550 Nm of torque at 3,000 rpm.
Magic time travel.
“The air is cool and it darkens … and calmly flows the Rhine; the mountain peaks are sparkling … in the sunny evening shine.” rhymes Heinrich Heine in his song “The Lorelei”. It is one of the most well-known poems from German Romanticism. It is almost impossible to escape the magic of the rocks on which the maiden is supposed to have combed her golden hair, while distracting boatmen from the dangerous current with her song, here at the narrowest and deepest part of the Rhine. The romanticism of a trip through Germany in the classic S-Class ambience is a journey back in time that also gives the driver pause for thought on the future. This S-Class is, in fact, not only the first modern vehicle of the luxury class, but also the last analogue vehicle of that class.
A winding road somewhere in the middle of Germany, in Hessen. A little heavier on the pedal, the 6.9 lifts off and presses the captain gently into the soft seat. The set-up, however, is extremely grippy. The road cruiser carves its way smoothly through the tight bends, accelerating effortlessly out of the corners. The threespeed automatic transmission attained top marks at the time, and still fits very well to the still powerful engine. Presently, the engine sharpens its tone with the burst of speed on the short straight. But even then, the unflustered feeling of gliding calmly through space remains undisturbed. As the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper wrote: The hydropneumatic suspension remains to this day, with its 38 lines, countless connectors and seals, a masterpiece of complex technology.
And when you maintain a virtually constant horizontal level when driving through bends of various radii, it becomes clear just how radically advanced this classic actually was in due time.
A new mind.
And then we have almost reached Dessau, the penultimate destination on our journey. It is a place that fits very well with the spirit of the creator of accomplished automobiles: the historic Bauhaus, where art and craft once came together. “The ultimate goal of all visual artistic activity is construction,” wrote Walter Gropius in his manifesto. A new spirit that must also have driven the makers of the S-Class in the 70s. A 71, Thüringen. The journey through time is speeding up. This is where you really have the chance to drive. Drive, drive, drive on the autobahn! From north to south, from east to west. The V8 has dry-sump lubrication, like a race car, and propels the saloon car so fast that it took until 1977 to dare send it to the USA, which was not exactly speed-friendly at the time. Later, the S-Class was voted the world’s best automobile more than once on the international stage.
The young-classic feeling.
We reach the bridge across the Werratal, where the landscape transforms into a moorland of hills and valleys. Franconia’s deciduous woodlands give way gradually to the coniferous forests of the east. The young-classic feeling.
An almost forgotten and yet incredibly modern car feeling that accompanies us via Dessau to Berlin – to the capital city, where you can let the most recent past roll by in the slow flow of city traffic.
Metropolis of the visionaries.
Checkpoint Charlie. The Brandenburg Gate. The SEL 450 6.9 glides along quieter than a maglev train. We pass the university founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt; his brother alexander, the great naturalist and world explorer, driven by a visionary spirit.
A spirit that has influenced the feel of this journey at least as much as the romantic glimpse in the rear view mirror.