Musings on the Past

40 years ago, the most successful Mercedes-Benz S-Class debuted

Amidst the flurry of new production-ready metal that was rolled out for the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show, Mercedes-Benz managed to wow the crowds with the unveiling of its futuristic Vision EQS concept sedan.

Many interpreted this concept as a glance into the future of what an all-electric S-Class would look like, although the EQC’s existence as an SUV in the framework of Mercedes-Benz’s naming convention does make one wonder if a conventional sedan would even result at all. But that is altogether another kettle of fish that is not worth revisiting here.

Mercedes-Benz VISION EQS

What is important is that the EQS is an impressive collection of new-age tech and features, as befits any Mercedes-Benz headlining show concept, though much of the emphasis seems to be on its aesthetic qualities rather than any practical applications. What isn’t mentioned in the excitement is that the EQS’ debut marks 40 years since the debut of the company’s most successful S-Class iteration, the W126. 

From its launch at the 1979 Frankfurt Motor Show, many thought that the W126 wouldn’t amount to much. Observers of the day saw it was more of an evolution of its predecessor than a complete reinvention of the class. Despite its looks and the way it drove, which didn’t deviate too far from its predecessor, the W126 featured a great deal of reengineering behind the scenes and sported marked improvements in aerodynamics, crash safety, and along with a noted reduction in weight.

While its introduction wasn’t any sort of watershed moment the W126 would go on to surpass its predecessor, no just in terms of lifespan, but in production numbers as well. Where other S-Classes had a standard seven-year lifespan, the W126 was kept in production for 13 years, during which a staggering 818,036 examples were made, nearly doubling its predecessor’s 473,000 build count. S-Class production numbers wouldn’t surpass the region of 400,000 until its third successor wrapped up production in 2014 with a reported 516,000 production figure. 

In retrospect, many rosy-eyed observers nowadays look back at the W126, and its immense popularity as a high-water mark in the Sonderklasse’s illustrious history, the pinnacle of its kind, the greatest of all time. Though its success might have more to do with the era from which it came, rather than purely the result of its technical merits. 

That being said, things weren’t off to an optimistic start for the W126. In 1979 much of the developed world was shocked by the Iranian Revolution that destabilised oil prices, which was followed by an economic crisis in 1980. As bad as it looked, these two events were rather shortlived and paved the way for the W126’s eventual rise. 

The oil crisis, while not as severe as the infamous 1973 oil crisis, once again put the fear of the fuel shortages back in the minds of consumers, which worked well for the W126 with its advances in aerodynamics, lighter weight, and fuel efficiency. Secondly, the 1980’s economic crisis prompted politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to enact policies that would eventually spur an economic boom that sustained itself through the mid-1980s to the early-1990s. This, of course, minted plenty of customers looking for a luxury car with the right badge and credentials. 

It wasn’t as though the W126 was jockeying hard for market share, this was the early-1980s, and any well-heeled customer wasn’t exactly spoilt for choice. Over in Europe, the W126’s only real competition was the ageing Jaguar XJ, the first-generation BMW 7 Series might be a peer in its technical sophistication but wasn’t quite an equal in brand prestige, while Audi was still a struggling carmaker yet to make its breakthrough into the upper-crust of society. 

As for the crucial North American market, the region’s ruddy and cumbersome luxury models didn’t put up a fight in attracting the nuevo-rich of the era, who themselves, were easily swayed by the S-Class’ combination of European chic, sophistication, and quality. All things considered, the W126 had it easy, especially considering how the follow-up act went. 

In 1991, the W126 was replaced by the slab-sided W140, to which Mercedes’ engineers went a little overboard with its luxury appointments. Double-glazed glazed glass for optimum sound insulation, retractable rods that provided guidance when reversing, and even an electrically adjustable rear-view mirror, Mercedes certainly weren’t joking when the behemoth that was the W140 was meant to be a “new superlative”. 

Certainly, when the W140 came out it upped the game by a huge margin, but it had to because in the intervening years since the W126’s introduction the market had changed. BMW’s 7 Series had morphed into a worthy contender, Audi had built its technical repertoire and showed signs of promise with its flagship V8 model, and not to mention Lexus had established themselves in a surprisingly expedient and unexpected fashion. Mercedes-Benz no longer had the market to themselves, and to top it off, it came out right in the middle of another economic recession. 

These factors combined meant that even with all its opulence and gadgetry, the W140 never could live up to its predecessor’s success. By the end of its seven-year run, only 406,532 W140s were produced, less than half of the W126.

While it could be argued that from an annual basis the W140 equalled the W126’s track record, considering that the predecessor was produced for twice as long the W140’s, the W126’s popularity remained robust throughout its lifespan despite few tweaks or changes, evidence that Mercedes-Benz had hit on the right formula for the era with the W126. 

What is certain is that nearly two decades on since production ceased, the W126 remains one of the most robust of the Sonderklasse family tree. It was the last of the last luxury cars that relied on its mechanical qualities rather than resorting to the clever sleight of hand electronics now deliver.

Coming from an era of long-lasting and overengineered mechanical components, coupled with the limited application of electronics without being over-reliant on it, meant that many W126s has outlived the overly-complex W140s and the poorly built DaimlerChrysler malaise-era W220s. Because of these qualities, the W126 remains as relevant and as enjoyable as it did when it debuted 40 years ago, and considering just how reliably many examples continue to run these days, it is likely that it will remain that way right up until the hypothetical production EQS will see the light of day. 

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