Many cars boast attractive and exciting designs upon their introduction, but within a few short years become old news in the face of the new kids on the block. Some cars are able to prolong their appeal, courtesy of sheer luck, minor styling tweaks, or competitors’ mishaps. Then there are a select few that can go on for seemingly forever, never loosing their sense of style even after they end production. The second generation (W126) S-Class is one of those cars.
Appearing in late-1979 as a 1980 model, the W126 was an evolutionary styling update of the vintage-1972 W116, but its seemingly minor styling advancements did wonders for Mercedes-Benz’s largest car. Its aerodynamic enhancements gave the car’s already elegant proportions a sleeker, more graceful silhouette, especially in long-wheelbase versions. In all versions, it was certainly a big car, yet it managed to look far leaner and athletic than most cars its size.
Benefitting from the Eighties’ surge in consumer culture, the W126 quickly earned its place as one of the decade’s ultimate status symbols. It conveyed wealth and power without being overly flashy (as a little flash was always appreciated). It was luxurious, with plenty of creature comforts and high-quality trimmings, but not stuffy. Just watch any ’80s film or TV show. Every doctor, dictator, drug dealer, diplomat, stockbroker, lawyer, wealthy business industrialist… basically anyone who was rich and important drove one of these. This wasn’t just the flagship of Mercedes-Benz, this car was the flagship of the 1980s. They could’ve driven a more prestigious Rolls-Royce, or a more exotic Ferrari, but there was something supremely perfect about this car.
Furthermore, the W126 was sold for twelve model years, right up through 1991. By contrast, most S-Class generations are sold for at most eight years, seeing total sales between 400,000-500,000. With total sales reaching nearly 900,000, the W126 managed to sell roughly 100-percent more examples in only 50-percent more time. Even in its final years, with newer competitors such as the BMW E32 7-Series, Lexus LS400, and Infiniti Q45, the big Mercedes was always a fashionable choice in this class, and this was backed by its impeccable engineering and competitive powertrain, luxury trimmings, and safety features.
Today, these cars are viewed with as much admiration and prestige as they were when new. For cars this age, there’s still a high percentage of well-cared for examples left on the road, even in the Northeast like this one I photographed on the first nice day of spring in Cohasset, MA. Depending on condition and model, examples can easily sell in the $12,000-$15,000 range, and often significantly higher. By no means the cheapest cars to maintain, with proper care and maintenance, these S-Classes can still run and look like new.
The W126’s longevity is a true testament to Mercedes-Benz’s unrivaled engineering and perfectionist attitude during this period. Unfortunately, as the W126’s run was coming to an end, changing market conditions would not allow Mercedes to continue its practice of prolonged development cycles for new models in the sake of over-refinement. As a result, corners would be cut for the following W140 S-Class, a car met with considerably less praise. With its development running over budget and behind schedule, the W140 would ultimately be deemed by many as overkill, facing sharp criticism for being too big, too costly, and having too many finicky technologies that would often prematurely fail.
While subsequent S-Class generations have come and gone, the W126, with its stellar reputation and timeless elegance, has gone down in history as the best S-Class and possibly the greatest Mercedes of all time. To quote the lyrics of the Tina Turner song released the same year the W126 ended production, “Simply the Best”.