Tokyo is 9400km away from Stuttgart and 10,300km away from Detroit, so both of these big beauties traveled about the same distance to end up next to each other. From this peculiar vantage point then, are these two cars’ obvious differences somewhat offset by their curiously similar fundamentals?
I encountered this unlikely pair sitting pretty, right next to a specialist garage that I pass by every once in a while to see if they have anything interesting. They usually do, but didn’t that day, at least not inside. The action was all outdoors this time, fortunately. I found the cars as night fell, but returned early the next morning – luckily, they were both still there.
So how can this massive hunk of chalk compare to the big block of cheese next to it? First, the differences. Chevy is and always was the bottom rung of the Sloan ladder, GM’s bread-and-butter. Sure, they have their own high-priced specialty models, such as the Corvette, but in the world of family sedans, Chevrolet was always the volume leader, not the luxury brand.
Mercedes-Benz, especially the top-of-the-line S-Class saloon, is automotive royalty. Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz founded the two halves of the company – and pretty much invented the modern motor car. Legends of automotive history such as Wilhelm Maybach, Ferdinand Porsche, Rudolf Uhlenhaut, Béla Barényi and Paul Bracq each contributed to keeping the marque at the very top of the heap for almost all of the 20th Century.
So of course, these two didn’t retail for the same price. The contrast would have been starkest in the US, I bet. The LS Brougham retailed at $17,525 in 1990, though one could easily add $2000 with the “preferred equipment group” that looks to have been added to this car.
The 560 SEL was somewhere north of $75,000 in 1990 – not even close to the same league. I have no idea how much these two cost in Germany or in Japan when new, but there was just no world in which the S-Class and the Caprice were in the same price range.
Technically, these two big berthas also have different approaches. Mercedes were proponents of the IRS since before the war and gradually switched to unit body construction for all its models in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The Caprice, on the other hand, still made do with a live rear axle and a separate chassis – a positively antiquated design by this point in time, even if Ford stuck with it for another couple of decades after that.
Interior-wise, the Mercedes is all about durability and austere elegance. The wood is genuine, the corduroy-like seat fabric is ribbed for everyone’s pleasure and the layout is über-functional.
In the Caprice, it’s still the late ‘60s. Column shifter and bench seat – even if said bench is upholstered in the finest maroon imitation leather GM harvested from their imitation cows, and faux wood straight from the refinery. The deep pile carpet matches the rest, at least.
Ok, but just pretend you don’t know anything about cars for a minute. These two barges, on a surface level, have quite a few points in common. Both are large four-door saloons with stonking great fuel-injected V8s driving the rear wheels via a 4-speed automatic gearbox. The sizes are close, too — sort of. The Chevy is longer by a good 25cm and wider by 10cm, but the Benz, in this SEL guise, has a longer wheelbase by 10cm.
And even style-wise, the comparison is fair game. Both cars were designed and born in the ‘70s, lived through the entire ‘80s and passed on – the Caprice in early 1990, the Benz a year later. Neither was made to be a particularly cutting edge design, by any stretch of the imagination. Stand-up hood ornament? Check and check.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever experienced the Brougham LS, but I’ve definitely had a few rides in an ‘80s Caprice. I distinctly remember the last time, which was a taxi in Geneva (the only place in Europe where that would be conceivable) just over a decade ago. Just like floating on a cloud, it was.
And I did experience a W126 fairly recently – it was back in 2013, when we just moved to Rangoon. The car was an older 500 SE, not the long wheelbase 560 SEL we have here, and it was quite a bit worse for wear. But the 30-plus year old S-Class still navigated those terrible Burmese roads like a trooper.
Honestly, from a rear passenger’s perspective, the Benz and the Chevrolet offer a comparable experience. At most, the seats are softer in the Caprice and the legroom better in the Benz. The style and ambiance are quite different: the Brougham is all gingerbread, while the W126 is more on the pumpernickel side of the bakery scale. But the end goal of separating the car’s passengers from reality by way of an elaborate and (very) heavy cocoon is entirely similar.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that anyone could ever fail it see the difference between a GM full-sizer in the fullness of Broughamitude and the oldest carmaker’s finest Autobahnpanzer. There might be some remote tribes deep in the Amazon or Papua New-Guinea who would not recognize the Mercedes grille for what it is, but even folks who have no clue about anything car-related can usually figure out that marque.
In the end though, the Chevy is probably the easier of the two to live with. It’s less prestigious, less modern and much less quick than the S-Class, but it’s also much cheaper to keep on the road and just as comfortable. Plus, it’s not something you see everywhere and every day, especially in this fancy trim, whereas old Mercs are almost common. I’m pickin’ the Brougham on this lot.
CC For Sale: 1989 Chevrolet Caprice Classic—Almost the Last Box, by Daniel Stern
COAL: 1986 Mercedes Benz 560SEL – The Banker’s Hot Rod, by Importamation