W 126 (1979 – 1991)

  • The most successful premium-class saloon in company history
  • The Mercedes-Benz S-Class widely considered the best car in the world
  • Maximum comfort and outstanding safety

In September 1979 Mercedes-Benz presented the new S-Class from the W 126 series at the International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt/Main. It proved an instant success, and over its entire production period became one of the most commonly registered of premium-class vehicles worldwide. It was produced for twelve years until 1991 – an unusually lengthy period. Production statistics illustrate the success of the series. In the US, the impressive figure of more than 127,000 vehicles from the W 126 series were registered (as of September 2009). In the European markets of Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands combined, the figure was just under 28,000 units.

380 SE, 1979

This also underlined the longevity of this series. Mileages running to several hundred thousand kilometres were not uncommon. All parts were designed for heavy duty use and a long service life. Many customers kept their W 126 vehicles for many years, appreciating the series’ constancy and reliability – even today. An important role here has been played by the unparalleled life cycle support, for virtually every part is still available today through the Mercedes-Benz service organisation. All this makes the S-Class from the W 126 series a truly sought-after classic. Examples in exceptional condition are on display at Mercedes-Benz Young Classics in Stuttgart, where on a regular basis a number of vehicles are available for purchase or hire.

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is considered by many to be the world’s best car. Offering superiority in every detail, comfort even on long journeys is taken for granted. One contemporary chronicler wrote of the 126 series: “Meticulous craftsmanship and impeccable technology, reliability, durability and an undemanding nature, superior performance and unbeatable handling characteristics, with effortless user-friendliness, maximum interior safety on the one hand, and self-evident prestige on the other – all these factors, uniquely combined, provide the hallmark of this simply first-class automobile.” This characterisation still holds true today.

The W 126 series was a perfect concept down to the last detail. This began with the design, which integrated lines of new objectivity that still appear modern and presentable even today. It was the first time that a Mercedes-Benz passenger car had no bumper bars in the classic sense, but instead generously proportioned, plastic-coated bumpers integrated seamlessly into the front and rear aprons. Broad plastic rub strips running along the sides created a visual link between front and rear ends, positioned at bumper height between the wheel arches.

The design also reflected a feature of the day, for one of the most significant design elements of the new S-Class was its reduced aerodynamic drag – part of a series of comprehensive measures to improve fuel consumption. Optimised in the wind tunnel, the body was designed by adhering closely to the laws of aerodynamics, resulting in a much lower drag coefficient of cd=0.36 compared with the W 116 series (cd=0.41). This, in combination with the use of weight-reducing materials, meant fuel consumption could be cut by approximately 10 percent compared with the predecessor series.

380 SEL, US model, 1982

Moreover, the body was designed in line with the latest findings in safety research. Thanks to new design principles, the passenger compartment from the W 126 series was the world’s first production vehicle capable of withstanding an “offset crash” at impact speeds up to 55 km/h (34 mph).

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Safety was in any case – typical of the brand – a central topic at Mercedes-Benz.  Airbag and belt tensioner were available for the driver in the W 126 series from 1981 onwards, and following the model refinement package of 1985 an airbag was also introduced for the front passenger. Three-point seat belts were available on the rear seat bench. Although these features are nowadays commonplace throughout the car industry, they were absolutely innovative at the time and served to demonstrate the innovative strength of the Stuttgart brand. Automatic locking differential (ASD) and acceleration skid control (ASR) helped guarantee optimum power transmission whatever the road surface, thereby providing an added safety bonus.

300 SDL TURBODIESEL for US market

The range of models available was comprised initially of seven vehicles and two body variants. In addition to the normal version, a lengthened variant was also available, as had traditionally been the case with premium-segment saloons for generations. The customer had the choice of four engines, ranging from the 2.8-litre six-cylinder carburettor unit with 115 kW to the 5.0-litre V8 light-alloy engine with direct fuel injection and 176 kW. Once again a diesel version of the W 126 version was produced exclusively for export to the US, the 300 SD Turbodiesel, which later became the 350 SDL.

Engine of the 560 SEL

 

A comprehensive model refinement package was carried out in 1985. In addition to a facelift that involved primarily the bumpers, protection side mouldings and wheels, the main focus was on restructuring the engine range. The most spectacular newcomer was a 5.6-litre eight-cylinder unit which generated 200 kW/272 HP.

300 SE after the 1985 facelift

The S-Class from the 126 series saw the introduction of the closed-loop catalytic converter. This was optionally available from 1985 and standard-fit equipment from September 1986. Until mid 1989 the customer had a choice, however:  he could either order the so-called “catalytic converter retrofit version,” which was delivered without catalytic converter and oxygen sensor, but with the multifunctional mixture preparation and ignition system. These “retrofit versions” could be equipped with the closed-loop catalytic converter without difficulty at a later date.

560 SEL

The sum of all these details made the Mercedes-Benz S-Class from the W 126 series a highly desirable vehicle – even today. At the same time it was one of the most successful premium-class series in the history of the company. During the twelve-year production period, a total of 818,066 saloons left the production workshops in Sindelfingen. The second-hand market is therefore well stocked – putting the special experience of driving a Mercedes-Benz S-Class as a young classic easily within reach.

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