The tradition of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Oct 19, 2017

What makes a vehicle the epitome of the automobile in its time? The Mercedes-Benz S-Class and its predecessors have been answering this question since the early years of the brand’s history. The tradition of luxury models from Mercedes-Benz has continued uninterrupted since 1951, but executive and luxury class saloons were already firmly established in the model range long before the Second World War. The latest generation in this unique tradition is the new 222-series Mercedes-Benz S-Class (combined fuel consumption: 12.7-2.1 l/100 km combined CO2 emissions 289-49 g/km*). Following an extensive model facelift with numerous innovations, it has been on the market since summer 2017.

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class follows a long and rich tradition that goes back to the beginnings of the Mercedes brand at the start of the 20th Century. Luxury, comfort and safety: long before the official introduction of the model designation S-Class in 1972, cars in the executive and luxury class have been the main emphasis in the product portfolio of the Stuttgart-based brand.

With every generation of its flagship models, Mercedes-Benz gives convincing answers to the wishes and requirements of the time. Every single model in the history of the S-Class makes its mark on the automobile development of its time with individual strengths, and is therefore also a reflection of its era. To summarise the importance of this development heritage, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class and its preceding model series have always been the epitome of the automobile.

Outstanding in the sum of all its qualities

Thanks to innovative technology, outstanding comfort and trailblazing safety systems, every generation of the flagship model from Mercedes-Benz sets the example for automobile development throughout the entire industry. Many technical features that Mercedes-Benz offers in the S-Class for the first time in a regular production model are subsequently not only used in other Mercedes-Benz model series, but also adopted by other car manufacturers.

This leadership role is a constant in both the past and present of Mercedes-Benz. There is probably no other model with which the brand is more strongly identified than with the S-Class. In the sum of its attributes it is the lodestar for the Mercedes-Benz brand and the entire automotive world.

The world’s bestselling car in the luxury class

The S-Class is the embodiment of luxury class travel in a Mercedes-Benz: it is the automotive essence of a lifestyle marked by the highest expectations in terms of mobility and individuality, and stands for achievement and good taste. It is not for nothing that the S-Class in all its forms, from the saloon to the Mercedes-AMG performance models, the Coupés and the Cabriolets, is time and again perceived as the best car in the world. Indeed since 1951, when production of executive class saloons recommenced after the end of the Second World War, Mercedes-Benz has sold just under 4 million luxury class saloons worldwide. This makes the S-Class and its predecessors the most successful model series in this segment.

The current 222 series has continued this success story since its market launch in 2013. In 2016 it was once again the world’s bestselling luxury saloon. To date Mercedes-Benz has sold well over 350,000 examples of this S-Class generation. The facelifted 222-series S-Class was introduced in summer 2017 (combined fuel consumption: 12.7 -2.1 l/100 km combined CO2 emissions 289-49 g/km*).

Unrivalled tradition since the early years of the brand

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class has an unrivalled tradition. Because cars in the luxury class have been the mainstay of the product portfolio since the beginnings of the Mercedes brand at the start of the 20th Century. Mercedes-Benz dominated the executive and luxury class segment right from the start, and has left its mark on automobile development in every era like no other brand.

From the W 187 to the “Ponton Mercedes” (1951 to 1959)

The direct line of S-Class succession began in the post-war period with the Model 220 (W 187), with which Mercedes-Benz reoccupied the luxury class segment in 1951 – six years after the end of the Second World War and following the first phase of reconstruction. In 1954 this was followed by a completely new model with the same model designation. The new Model 220, also called the 220 a (W 180) internally, was the first Mercedes-Benz six-cylinder model with a self-supporting design. Its modern and spacious “ Ponton” body provided a previously unknown level of comfort. With the introduction of the revised and more powerful Model 220 S in 1956, the letter “S” became a permanent feature in the nomenclature of the Mercedes-Benz luxury class, and emphasised the special status of the six-cylinder “Ponton” model. 1958 saw the debut of the 220 SE (W 128), an even more powerful variant of the luxury class model thanks to petrol injection. As in the new variant of the prestigious Model 300 saloon (known in-house as the 300 d, W 189) introduced one year before, this output and efficiency-boosting technology took the form of manifold injection.

From the “Fintail” to the high-performance saloon (1959 to 1972)

The “Fintail” models 220, 220 S and 220 SE (W 111) introduced in 1959 received their nickname from the discreet fintail that embellished the rear wings – officially these were known as “guide rods” in view of their function as a parking aid. The new luxury class generation was a very special milestone in automobile history, as this was the first time the safety body with crumple zones and a rigid passenger cell invented by Béla Barényi was incorporated into a series production model. Presented in 1961, the 300 SE (W 112) as the top model in the series featured an air suspension system and the automatic transmission developed by Mercedes-Benz as standard equipment. In 1963 the long-wheelbase version of this model founded a new tradition in the luxury class saloon portfolio of Mercedes-Benz: the 100-millimetre longer wheelbase gave passengers in the rear significantly more legroom and travelling comfort. The 108 and 109-series saloons that replaced the “Fintail” models in 1965 impressed with their timeless, elegant design and generously dimensioned window areas. Alongside the models with a conventional steel suspension – internally assigned to the 108 series – there were air suspension variants (109 series) which were also available with a 100 mm longer wheelbase right from the start. The 300 SEL 6.3 presented in 1968 was a particular highlight. The new top model in the series was equipped with the powerful V8 engine of the high-end Mercedes-Benz 600 saloon, and together with outstanding comfort and luxurious appointments it delivered sports car-like performance.

Automobile trendsetters: the model series 116 and 126 (1972 to 1991)

The model designations of the succeeding 116 series presented in 1972 expressed what had already been the norm at Mercedes-Benz for decades: the luxury class saloons with the “S” in their model designations were now officially named the “S-Class”. The new designation went hand in hand with a host of innovations that set new standards in terms of safety and comfort. The comprehensive safety concept included e.g. a collision-protected fuel tank, a four-spoke safety steering wheel, anti-soiling side windows, large headlamps, prominent direction indicators and dirt-repelling, ribbed rear lights. 1977 saw the start of the diesel era in the luxury class with the 300 SD, though initially only in the North American markets. The luxury diesel was also the first series production car with a turbodiesel engine. From 1978 the S-Class became the world’s first series production car to be available with the anti-lock braking system (ABS), which ensured steerability even under emergency braking. A world sensation at the time, this trailblazing innovation is now a standard feature in all vehicle classes. The S-Class underlined its status as the measure of automobile engineering, and made its model designation a generic term for high-end cars.

The technology transfer from the S-Class to the other Mercedes-Benz model series and to the products of competitors as the automotive state of the art was systematically continued over the subsequent period, and made the S-Class a true trendsetter. The 126 series introduced in 1979 was the automobile engineering debut for the airbag in 1981, and it is now a central element in automobile safety. Other features of this S-Class generation were its aerodynamically optimised contours and the systematic weight reduction for lower pollutant emissions, e.g. using new light-alloy V8 engines. The 126 series also made its mark with respect to design: it was the first Mercedes-Benz passenger car to dispense with traditional chrome bumpers, replacing them with deformable plastic bumpers that could withstand low-speed parking impacts undamaged. Initially perceived by some as plain and lacking in appeal when it first appeared, the design of the 126 series was soon seen as timeless and elegant.

Luxury in best form: the model series 140 and 220 (1991 to 2005)

In 1991 the 140-series S-Class appeared as the new top-of-the-range Mercedes-Benz. Its developers set their sights on maximum comfort, achieved partly with generous dimensions and double-glazed windows for optimum noise insulation. This was the first time a series production Mercedes-Benz car was equipped with a V12 engine, in the flagship 600 SE and 600 SEL models. The power range began with the 300 SD Turbodiesel, which now also made the luxury class diesel available in markets outside North America. This generation of the S-Class also introduced a trailblazing safety innovation into automobile engineering: the Electronic Stability Program ESP®, which became standard equipment for the V12 models in 1995 and optional for the V8 models. In the following year Brake Assist BAS was also added.

When it was time a model change in 1998, the new 220-series S-Class featured a rather understated exterior. Among the key development aims were further weight reduction and a further increase in safety and comfort. Despite dispensing with the weight-intensive double-glazing, the new model generation offered further improved comfort due e.g. to the new, electronically controlled AIRMATIC air suspension, the control and display system COMAND and the innovative proximity cruise control system DISTRONIC. The Active Body Control (ABC) suspension available from 1999 reduced body roll tendencies and allowed a previously unprecedented level of handling refinement. The interior design, which was for the first time closely coordinated with the exterior, ensured a high-class ambience in the S-Class. Customers with sporty ambitions were catered for by the S 55 AMG: for the first time an AMG model officially appeared in the S-Class price list. In autumn 2002 the regular top model without the AMG badge, the S 600, benefitted from a power increase that for the first time reached the magic output threshold of 368 kW (500 hp). At the same time a further trailblazing innovation had its debut in the 220 series: the preventive occupant protection system PRE-SAFE®. By virtue of this system, the vehicle autonomously initiates measures to protect the occupants as well as possible when a collision threatens. As part of the model facelift, Mercedes-Benz also offered the S-Class with the intelligent all-wheel drive system 4MATIC for the first time.

Continuity in innovation: model series 221 (2005 to 2013)

The 221 model generation presented in 2005 combined an expressive exterior with a luxurious interior. The Controller of the further improved COMAND system allowed rapid and intuitive operation of the increasingly complex functions and menus. The pioneering technical innovations included Active Night View Assist and the further improved proximity control system DISTRONIC PLUS with Brake Assist Plus, which were extended to become PRE-SAFE® Brake with autonomous partial braking in 2006. Further assistance systems such as Blind Spot Assist, Lane Keeping Assist and Speed Limit Assist further relieved driver stress, bringing the Mercedes-Benz S-Class another step closer to the vision of safe, accident-free driving. This generation of the S-Class also set new standards in driver fitness safety.

The upgraded generation of the 221 series appeared in 2009. The S 400 HYBRID was the first car in the luxury class with hybrid drive, and the first series production car with a lithium-ion battery. Masterpieces of efficiency were introduced in 2010, in the form of the S 350 BlueTEC as a diesel variant and the S 350 and S 500 BlueEFFICIENCY with economical yet powerful direct-injection petrol engines. In early 2011, Mercedes-Benz for the first time introduced a highly efficient four-cylinder engine into the S-Class in the S 250 CDI. Its diesel power unit allowed fuel consumption figures at the level of a compact car, with commensurate performance and ride comfort. This generation of the S-Class was also highly successful: all in all, almost 550,000 221-series saloons left the production lines in Sindelfingen up to May 2013.

With the S-Class into the future: model series 222 (since 2013)

From 2013 Mercedes-Benz took the many generations of evolutionary continuity in the executive and luxury class into the future with the 222-series S-Class. This set new technical standards, e.g. being the first car in the world to dispense entirely with light bulbs and use only economical LED technology for both the exterior and interior. Particularly high efficiency was ensured by modern drive units which also included hybrid technology.

The S-Class has especially become the modern guiding star in automobile development thanks to the Intelligent Drive system. It is under this name that the Stuttgart-based brand groups all its networked safety and driver assistance systems. Intelligent Drive makes driving a car more safe and comfortable than ever before. It also includes assistance systems that relieve driver workload and allow semi-autonomous driving. Back in August 2013, on the historic Bertha-Benz route from Mannheim to Pforzheim, the S 500 INTELLIGENT DRIVE research vehicle demonstrated what the future of autonomous driving might look like thanks to such networked technologies: its systems were able to cope with the highly complex requirements of an autonomous journey along country roads and through city traffic. A further, major step towards autonomous driving was taken by the next development stage of Intelligent Drive in the facelifted model variant of the new 222-series S-Class (combined fuel consumption: 12.7-2.1 l/100 km combined CO2 emissions 289-49 g/km*) presented in summer 2017: Active distance control DISTRONIC and Active Steering Assist now support the driver even more conveniently when keeping a safety distance and steering.

For example, the S-Class automatically adjusts its speed on bends or when approaching junctions and roundabouts. This is possible because further improved camera and radar systems monitor the surroundings, and for the first time also incorporate map and navigation data into the calculation of driving behaviour. Via the display in the instrument cluster and the head-up display, the driver is at all times kept informed of the assistance functions that are currently active. The innovative Mercedes-Benz Intelligent Drive system is modular in structure. Standard equipment in the new S-Class includes Active Brake Assist, Cross-Wind Assist, ATTENTION ASSIST, Traffic Sign Assist, the occupant protection system PRE-SAFE® and the new PRE-SAFE® Sound.

The roots of the S-Class

The unique tradition of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class did not start with the Model 220 (W 187) in 1951, but has roots that go much further back – right to the origins of the Mercedes brand at the start of the 20th Century. One early and very telling example is the Mercedes-Simplex 60 HP presented in 1903. The brand’s top model at the time is a particularly spectacular exhibit in the Mercedes-Benz Classic collection: it is the elegant and luxurious touring car once owned by Emil Jellinek, who not only left his mark on and decisively influenced the early years of the Mercedes by giving it its name.

In the following years the product ranges of the Mercedes and Benz brands always included several executive and luxury class models. Even though open touring cars were by far the most frequent body form during this time, the more powerful models in particular were also available as luxurious saloons for the ultimate travelling comfort.

This picture changed in the mid-1920s. In the light of increasing motorisation and traffic density, with which the development of the road network was unable to keep up, safe handling, a comfortable interior and the best possible protection from wind, rain and dust became increasingly important. Saloons and Pullman saloons gradually took over from the open touring cars. Important models in the executive and luxury class in this era included the supercharged, six-cylinder Mercedes 15/70/100 HP and 24/100/140 HP cars that appeared at the end of 1924. In 1926 Daimler-Benz AG emerged as a result of the merger between the previously separate companies founded by Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, and in 1928 the model range saw the addition of the Nürburg 460 (W 08) as the first Mercedes-Benz production car with an eight-cylinder engine. With continuous improvements thereafter, it remained in the model range until 1939, last known as the Model 500. From 1926 the entry-level segment in the Mercedes-Benz executive class was the six-cylinder 12/55 HP, which was developed further until the appearance of the Mercedes-Benz Mannheim 370 (W 10) in 1931. In 1933 this was followed by the Mercedes-Benz 290 (W 18) as a fundamentally new design, which was replaced by the Model 320 (W 142) in 1937.

Flagship saloon cars

Alongside executive and luxury class models, Mercedes-Benz has always offered automobiles that go a considerable step further as well. These not only meet the highest expectations with respect to safety, comfort and style – in keeping with their status as the absolute flagship model, their exquisitely luxurious ambience and particularly generous spaciousness, they are above all tailored for personalities who also take the need or requirement for prestige into account in the choice of their vehicle. The Mercedes-Benz “Grand Mercedes” presented in 1930, also known as the Model 770 (W 07), was a model in this category. Powered by a large, supercharged eight-cylinder engine, the flagship model in the Mercedes-Benz model range served as an automotive statement above all for crowned and uncrowned heads of state as well as prominent personalities in industry and the financial world.

The “Adenauer-Mercedes” (1951 to 1962)

After the Second World War, Mercedes-Benz reentered the top-class segment. The Model 300 (W 186) had its debut in 1951, together with the Model 220 (W 187), at the first International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt/ Main. When it made its appearance, the new Mercedes-Benz flagship model was the fastest German production car, with a top speed of 160 km/h. At the same time the “Three-hundred” was the first prestige limousine from post-war German production, and like no other model it stood for the return of Germany to the international stage. Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer received one of the first examples as his official car in December 1951, and always had himself chauffeured in the Model 300 thereafter. Accordingly the top model was soon nicknamed the “Adenauer Mercedes”. In 1957 the Model 300 was thoroughly revised and given the in-house designation 300 d (W 189). The “d” stood for the fourth version (after the 300, 300 b and 300 c). A higher engine output was ensured by petrol injection, and for the first time this was no longer direct injection, but manifold injection. The longer wheelbase and spacious bodyshell enhanced comfort, as did the optional power steering or the air conditioning system – both of them features that were by no means the norm at the time. The air conditioning, called a “cooling system” at the time, was priced at an extra 3500 DM – at the end of the 1950s a complete Volkswagen “Beetle” cost only a little more.

The legendary Model 600 (1963 to 1981)

One and a half years after the last “Three-hundred” left the Sindelfingen plant in March 1963, a new flagship model from Mercedes-Benz had its debut at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt. The Model 600 (W 100) was superlative in every respect: Its 6.3-litre V8 engine allowed very respectable performance figures and a top speed of more than 200 km/h. The greatest possible ride comfort was ensured by an air suspension system, an automatic transmission from in-house production and power steering. Unrivalled comfort hydraulics allowed adjustment of the front seats and rear bench seat, opening and closing of the doors, the boot lid and the optional sliding sunroof, and opening and closing of the side windows. The five to six-seater version with the normal wheelbase of 3200 millimetres was mainly ordered by very discerning private customers. In addition Mercedes-Benz offered a seven to eight-seater version with a 700-millimetre longer wheelbase, which was above all used as a state und prestige limousine. This was also available in a Landaulet version. In June 1981 the last of a total of 2677 examples of this legendary luxury saloon was produced and handed over at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Sindelfingen. It was driven directly to Untertürkheim, where it was assigned a place of honour in the company’s vehicle collection.

Exquisite and luxurious: Mercedes-Maybach

A good 20 years later, Daimler once again occupied this segment. From 2002 to 2012, this high-end luxury saloon – the Maybach 57 and Maybach 62 – was built to the individual wishes of its demanding customers in the custom shop in Sindelfingen. Since 2014 the Mercedes-Maybach S-Class (X 222 series) has continued this strong tradition into the future. It combines the very latest technology, for which the S-Class has always been known, with the luxury of a classic chauffeur-driven saloon of the utmost refinement.

The Mercedes-Maybach S-Class is 200 mm longer than the S-Class with a long wheelbase (V 222). This above all benefits the passengers in the rear. They are seated on two individual Executive seats, where they can enjoy the comfort of the world’s quietest series production saloon. In 2015 Mercedes-Maybach presented a second model, the 6.5-metre long S-Class Pullman with an opposed seating arrangement behind the glass partition, a more than 100-millimetre greater vehicle height and a wheelbase of 4418 millimetres. With further vehicles such as the Mercedes-Maybach 6 study (2016) and the Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet study (2017), as well as the G 650 Landaulet (2017), Mercedes-Maybach continues to stand for cars with extraordinarily luxurious concepts that go even beyond the S-Class.