Luxury vehicles have been a Mercedes-Benz staple since the early 20th century. Discounting pre-WWII models, from 1951, when production resumed, it has sold more than 3.5 million of its range-topping saloons, which makes the latter the best-selling luxury vehicle in the world.
As you’ve probably already guessed by now, we’re referring to the S-Class, although this designation, an abbreviation of Sonderklasse, which is German for “in another class”, wasn’t officially applied until the 1972 model.
The S-Class and its predecessors have not only being the pinnacle of Mercedes’ efforts but it has also pioneered technologies, especially in the safety front, that have then spread to the rest of its models.
What follows is a short history of the S-Class and its predecessors that, for half a century, have defined the full-size luxury saloon segment.
From Start to Ponton: 1951-1959
Today’s S-Class can trace its ancestry back to the type 220 with the internal designation W187, which was launched six years after the end of WWII and the first part of Germany’s rebuilding. The W180 that replaced it three years later, although officially bearing the same name, was also known as the 220a and would become famous as the Ponton thanks to the design of its bodywork.
In 1956, a revamped type 220 received the “S” suffix that indicated its more powerful six-cylinder engine and would become a permanent fixture of the top-end Mercs. The following year, the 300 d (W 189) luxury limo was introduced and was followed in 1959 by the 220 SE (W 128), which was a more powerful version of the 220 S thanks to the addition of fuel injection.
Focus on safety and comfort: 1959-1972
Although they were meant as a functional feature, to aid parking, and were officially termed “sight lines”, the fins on the rear wings of the W 111 series 220, 220 S and 220 SE that were launched in 1959 earned them the “fintail” nickname.
This was the first time that a production car’s bodyshell incorporated crumple zones. Furthermore, the 300 SE (W 112) that was launched in 1961 featured air suspension and a new, Mercedes-Benz-developed automatic gearbox. Two years later, its long-wheelbase version (an extra 10 cm/3.9 inches) that offered more space for rear passengers kicked off a new trend for luxury vehicles.
The 1965 models were available from the start in two versions, the 108 series with conventional steel springs and the long-wheelbase 109 variant, which was fitted with air suspension as standard.
A V8 from the 600 saloon was added in the engine line-up in 1968 for the top of the range 300 SEL 6.3, offering sports car performance in a luxury package.
The S-Class, Episode One: 1972-1980
The all-new S-Class was the first production model to be fitted with an anti-lock braking system (ABS), a safety feature that would later become standard in all cars. It also featured a four-spoke safety wheel, a collision-proof fuel tank, dirt-deflecting side windows and taillights, and larger headlamps.
The North American market 300 SD was also the first diesel luxury saloon, while in 1978, the S-Class became the first production car with a turbo diesel engine.
Introducing the Airbag: 1979-1991
It was also the first Mercedes model to ditch the traditional chrome bumpers in favor of plastic, deformable ones that could withstand parking dents.
For the second iteration of their range topper, Mercedes designers produced an aerodynamic shape and engineers developed new, light-alloy V8 engines.
Enter the ESP and the V12: 1991-1998
While the base model was powered by the 300 SD turbo diesel, the 600 SE and 600 SEL top versions of the new S-Class were the first to host a V12 engine under their hood.
Once again, the three-pointed star introduced an important safety feature: the electronic stability program (ESP), which was standard on the V12-engined models and, from 1995, became an option on the V8s. Last, but not least, in 1996, the S-Class gained a brake assist system (BAS).
Master and COMANDer: 1998-2005
The new S-Class came equipped with the new, electronically controlled Airmatic air suspension that offered supreme comfort, the Active Body Control, which reduced body roll when cornering and the optional 4MATIC all-wheel drive system.
The Distronic proximity-controlled cruise control and the COMAND control and display system were further novelties. The most important safety innovation, though, was the Pre-Safe system that was introduced in 2002 and increased passive safety by automatically initiating safety measures, such as adjusting the seats and seatbelts in case it detected a possible collision.
At the same time as the Pre-Safe was introduced, the S 600’s output was increased in 2002 to reach the 500 PS (493HP) barrier for the first time; those not satisfied with its power could opt for the S 55 AMG.
Active Safety Bonanza and Green Credentials: 2005-2013
The Night View Assist enabled the driver to “see” in the dark, the Pre-Safe was upgraded to include a partial auto braking function and the (self-explanatory) Blind Spot Assist, Lane Keeping Assist and Speed Limit Assist massively improved active safety.
Environmental issues that, in recent years, have increasingly concerned the automotive world were tackled with the S 400 Hybrid, the first production car with a lithium-ion battery, the S 350 BlueTEC “clean” diesel and the S 350 and S 500 BlueEFFICIENCY low-emissions petrol versions.
From early 2011, a four-cylinder turbo diesel was added in the form of the highly efficient S 250 CDI. Its average consumption of 5.7 lt/100 km (41.3 mpg US) made it the most frugal luxury saloon in the world, while its 204HP and 500 Nm of torque enabled it to accelerate from a standstill to 60 mph (96 km/h) in 8.2 seconds and reach a top speed of 240 km/h (150 mph).
You can watch the history of Mercedes' full-size luxury model in the video that follows below the break.
By Andrew Tsaousis