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The History of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class from 1951 to 2005

This week on TestDrive we’re taking a look at the Mercedes-Benz S-Class all the way back from 1951 until 2005. Sonderklasse translates from German to Special Class in English, which elegantly fits this vehicle.

The predecessors to what we now know as the S-Class begin with the 220 model known internally as the W187 when it was unveiled in April 1951 at the Frankfurt International Motor Show. The 220 came with a 2.2 litre six-cylinder overhead camshaft engine which produced 80 horsepower. Because of this staggering amount of power this vehicle was fitted with duplex brakes. Mercedes-Benz’ chief engineer at the time claimed this engine was perfectly balanced, benefited from a vibration damper, and was cradled gently in the chassis by large rubber pads to help it operate silent without vibration at any speed. The 220 was produced as a sedan, a convertible A, and a convertible B. In November 1953 a coupé style was added and became the most exclusive, and expensive version.

As the W187 ended production, Mercedes-Benz began work on what would be know as the Ponton model. Daimler-Benz introduced the new 220 model sedan in March 1954 with what they called a decidedly modern overall design. The six-cylinder Ponton bore the internal designation 220 or W180 and used a self-supporting ponton-type body structure welded to the frame, or more commonly known today as a unibody structure. The convertible variant was introduced in September 1955 and went into production about a year later.

As you would expect with a flagship Mercedes-Benz, the W180 was used as testing bed for new technology. A new single-joint swing axle, which had a low pivot point was put into service on this vehicle, the first for a Mercedes-Benz production passenger car, as this rear suspension design had been developed for the W196 Formula One racing car.

In Mach 1956 Mercedes-Benz introduced the successors to these first six-cylinder models. The 220 S received the internal designation of W180 II and was very similar to the 220, but brought along two compound carburetors which bumped power up to a staggering 100 horsepower.

The other vehicle announced at the same time was the W105 which bore the designation 219 and was considered to be the less prestigious counterpart to the 220 S.

In August 1957 a new hydraulic-automatic clutch named “Hydrak” was introduced for both of these models. The Hydrak combined a hydraulic clutch for moving off, a conventional single-plate dry clutch for engaging and disengaging during gearshifts, and a freewheel clutch to overrun the hydraulic clutch.

The first 220 SE model was presented to the public in September of 1958 which brought over a lot of the same kit as the 220 S but was fitted with a direct gasoline injection engine, and boosted power up to 115 horsepower. This vehicle came with the W128 internal designation.

The second preceding S-Class generation was known as the Fintail for their distinctive tail fins adapted from American influence on contemporary tastes. The first vehicles were announced in August 1959 with new six-cylinder models known as the 220 b, 220 Sb, and 220 SEb, and had the internal designation of W111. A coupé variant of the 220 SEb arrived in February 1961, along with the convertible in September 1961.

One of the major innovations with this generation was passive safety. They were the first productionc cars to feature the Barényi-pateneted rigid passenger cell which included front and rear crumple zones. Interior safety was also improved with a padded instrument panel with some of the controls being recessed, and a padded steering wheel. Another safety innovation on the W111 were safety door looks which would help with safety in the case of an accident.

August 1961 saw the introduction of a new premium-class model, the 300 SE which introduced a new four-speed automatic transmission, newly developed power steering, and standard equipment like an air suspension and a dual-circuit brake system with disk brakes at the front and rear which were firsts for a Mercedes-Benz passenger car. The 300 SE received the internal designation of W112.

Mercedes-Benz unveiled the long version of the 300 SE at the 1963 Geneva Motor Show, adding 100mm of extra wheelbase, adding more rear legroom and entry width for the rear doors. The long 300 SE also had an optional partition wall and electrically operated diving screen.

The W108 and W109 ran from 1965 until 1972, and were a continuation of the premium-class model generation. Models included the 250 S, 250 SE, and 300 SE and were presented in August 1965, succeeding the fintail models. While this generation was largely based on the outgoing one, a new 2.5 litre engine was developed by increase the bore and lengthening the stroke of the previous 2.2 litre models. The fuel injection models were improved, and the 300 SE dropped the standard air suspension, and adopted the same hydro-pneumatic compensating spring on the rear axle found on the 2.5 litre models.

In March 1966 the W109 was introduces as the 300 SEL, a 100mm wheelbase extension on the W108 giving extra rear seat legroom to passengers. The SEL received the air suspension as standard equipment, which is why it received it’s own internal designation code.

A top end model was introduced in March 1968, known as the Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3 which featured the same V8 engine and automatic transmission found on the Mercedes-Benz 600 which gave it top-class sports car performance at 250 horsepower, 369 lb-ft of torque and could achieve 0-100km in 8 seconds. Despite the fact that the 6.3 cost twice as much as a 280 SE at the time, Mercedes-Benz was able to sell 6,526 of these.

In the fall of 1969 the 300 SEL’s 2.8 litre six-cylinder was dropped in favour of the larger 3.5 litre V8 which produced 200 horsepower. From March 1971 onward this engine was used in the 280 SE 3.5 and 280 SEL 3.5.

Another notable addition to this generation was the option of armour plating. Up until now the only vehicle Daimler-Benz rated as bullet-proof was the Mercedes-Benz 600, but with increased demand from federal agencies for armoured versions, 28 280 SEL 3.5 models were outfitted with armour plating for West German foreign missions.

The W108 and W109 ended production in September 1972 with 383,341 vehicles built.

The successor to these was the W116, the first vehicle to be officially known as the S-Class. The first three models were the 280 S, 280 SE, and 350 SE presented in September 1972. The 280 S came with a dual overhead cam six-cylinder M110 engine which we saw in the 1976 Mercedes-Benz 280 we featured a few years ago. A larger V8 engine was also offered later with a 4.5L V8 which was found in the newly announced 450 SEL.

New standard features found on the W116 included a double-wishbone front suspension with zero offset steering, and anti-dive control, along with a number of safety improvements such as the repositioning of the fuel tank for better protection in the event of an accident, adding heavier padding to the instrument panel, a four-spoke steering wheel with impact absorber, and an even stronger passenger cell with a stiffened roof-frame, high-strength rigid roof and door pillars, and reinforced doors.

Like with the previous generation, a new top-end trim was added in May 1975 as the Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6.9 which used a new 6.9 litre V8 engine developed from the highly successful 6.3 litre unit we saw before. It achieved a mind boggling 286 horsepower, 405 lb-ft of torque. The hydro-pneumatic suspension added a self-levelling feature, which was a first for a Mercedes-Benz passenger car. Other special equipment included top-range central locking, air conditioning, and a headlamp washer wiper system. Again this 450 SEL 6.9’s price tag was incredible, costing twice as much as a 350 SE, but Mercedes-Benz managed to sell even more than the previous generation’s 300 6.3 with 7,380 units produced.

In May 1978 Mercedes-Benz added the first diesel engine to the S-Class with the new 300 SD, and attracted just as much attention as the 450 SEL 6.9 did. The 3 litre 5 cylinder engine was given a turbocharger and produced 115 horsepower and was offered exclusively in the United States and Canada.

In the fall of 1978 after a collaboration with Bosch and Daimler-Benz, the first every anti-lock brake system, or ABS, was offered in the W116 S-Class. This technology can be found in almost every single car made today.

W116 production was gradually phased out between April and September 1980 as the W126 began production after being unrelieved at the Frankfurt International Motor Show in September 1979. 473,035 W116 S-Class models were produced.

We’ve had the pleasure of featuring the W126 Mercedes-Benz S-Class several times on TestDrive, including the 1988 560SEL and the 1991 300 SE. The W126 initially launched with seven models with four engine options. The long wheelbase S-Class increased the wheel base an additional 40 mm over the 100 mm increase we’ve seen previously, giving even more rear seat legroom and door entry width than before. This generation Mercedes-Benz started to focus on fuel economy through the use of weight-reducing materials and an aerodynamic body that was optimized in the wind tunnel.

The two V8 models increased displacement while using a light-alloy crankcase. The new 5 litre V8 replaced the 4.5 litre, and a new 3.8 litre light-alloy engine was developed based on the old 3.5 litre cast iron block V8.

The chassis design was essentially the same as the W116, but it featured a new diagonal swing-axle rear suspension with the double-wishbone front with zero-offset steering. The new W126 was the first production car to meet the new frontal offset crash criteria.

In 1981 a coupé was offered equipped with the V8 only. This vehicle was famously used in the critically acclaimed and beloved Patrick Swayze film “Road House”. These engines underwent emissions and consumption improvements that included modified valve timing camshafts, air-bathed injector valves, and electronic idle speed control. In September 1985 the facelift W126 was unveiled which included exterior visual changes to the bumpers and side moulding, but also increased the standard rim size from 14 inches to 15 inches, allowing for larger disc brakes.

The engines were all overhauled, along with the introduction of the legendary 5.6 litre V8 found on the 1988 Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL we drove. It produced 272 horsepower, along with a high compression model which boosted power to 300 horses. This engine was available as the 560 SEL long wheelbase sedan and the 560 SEC coupé.

The W126 also included optional closed-loop emissions control systems with three-way catalytic converters.

Mercedes-Benz was caught off-guard in 1987 when BMW introduced their 750i and 750iL V12 models, and as a reaction higher-performance variants of all V8 engines were introduced. Mercedes-Benz increased compression ratios to 10 to 1 and additional measures were taken to help improve engine performance up to 10 percent.

The 1991 Geneva Motor Show would be home to the unveiling of the next generation Mercedes-Benz S-Class, when in March the new W140 was announced. Production for the consumer W126 ended between August and October 1991, with armoured models continuing for another 6 months. The 12 year production run for the W126 ended with 818,036 S-Class models, 97,546 of them equipped with a diesel engine, making the W126 the most successful S-Class generation in the history of the company.

The W140 S-Class was met with some criticism at the time, and throughout the decades. Some felt this generation was the beginning of a shift towards cheaper manufacturing and cost-cutting measures that would be seen over the next 15 years. The vision of the next-generation S-Class was to create a more aerodynamic vehicle while respecting the practicality buyers had come to expect.

The long wheelbase version once again adopted a mere 100 mm improvement over the short version. 4 engines were available at launch, with the M119 5.0 litre V8 being the only carryover from the W126. The top-end engine for the W140 was the introduction of the first production V12 engine in a passenger car for Mercedes-Benz, as we saw with the 1997 Mercedes-Benz S 600. It produced 408 horsepower, 428 lb-ft of torque.

While the interior of the W140 was heavily based on the preceding W126, the technology and features offered on the new S-Class were truly class-leading. Double-paned soundproofed glass was a new innovation fitted to the W140, along with power-folding mirrors, Parktronic ultrasonic parking sensors, heated windshield washer system, four-zone climate control, GPS navigation, Electronic Stability Program, Brake Assist, side airbags with seat occupancy sensors, and rain sensing wipers were available, many of which are features we take for granted today in consumer cars.

We went into great detail on the W140 and the S 600 specifically on our episode of TestDrive Spotlight and I highly recommend watching that to learn more about the third generation Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The W140’s production run ended in September 1988 after the W220 was unveiled at the Paris Motor Show, with 406,532 W140 S-Class models produced, only 28,101 of those were diesels.

The W220 is another S-Class we’re very familiar with here at TestDrive. We’ve had the pleasure to feature a 2000 S 500, 2004 S 430, and a 2003 S 55 AMG. The W220 is the first S-Class generation to receive a proper AMG version after the acquisition of the company by Damiler-Benz, but also the first to be completely built under the new DaimlerChrysler merger of equals. While many again saw this generation S-Class as an opportunity for Mercedes-Benz to cut costs, it was once again the benchmark for a luxury class full-size sedan on the international stage.

When it launched the W220 was offered in two body and three engine variants, the long wheelbase version gaining an additional 120 mm over the short version, along with the S 320 V6, and S 430 and S 500 V8s. The S 500’s engine featured a new cylinder deactivation that would temporarily cut down to 4 cylinders to help with fuel consumption.

In 1999 Mercedes-Benz announced the S-Class coupé would be sold for the first time under a separate vehicle nameplate, the CL-Class. It featured standard tech like Active Body Control which used sensors to adjust the hydraulic cylinders on the axels to compensate for almost all rolling and pitching motion of the vehicle body while moving off the line, cornering, or braking. The CL launched with two engines, the CL 500 V8 and CL 600 V12.

The S 600 was launched later in 1999 along with two common-rail diesel injection models.

Even though the W220 was approximately 300 kilograms lighter than its predecessor, Mercedes-Benz was able to focus and enhance passenger safety by introducing window airbags, which we now know as side curtains, airbags were fitted to the doors, seat belt force limiters were added, the front passenger airbag was upgraded two a two-stage gas generator, and an automatic front passenger/child seat recognition system.

Other innovations and technology found on the W220 S-Class included standard AirMatic air suspension, a newly developed four-link front suspension, electronic stability control, and speed adaptive cruise control known as Distronic. Other notable features included ventilated seats, automatic massage function, the Cockpit Management and Data System, or COMAND, Pre-Safe preventative occupant protection system, and the first time 4Matic four-wheel drive had been offered on an S-Class.

The W220’s production ran until late 2005 with a total of 484,683 sedans sold, the most popular version was the S 500 long wheelbase accounting for 108,823 units. The C215 CL-Class sold 47,984 units during it’s production run, with the vast majority being the entry-level CL 500. You can find out more about the W220 Mercedes-Benz S-Class by watching the various episodes we’ve done on them over the years, the most recent being on the 2003 Mercedes-Benz S 55 AMG.

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