Mercedes-Benz has one aim when it comes to its range-topping S-class – to make the best car in the world.
That’s no mean feat, but as the automotive industry has witnessed time and again over the years, with each new Mercedes S-class variant comes innovative technology never before seen on a car. The S-class has always been a game-changer. So where did it all begin?
The Mercedes S-class DNA can be traced back to 1951, when at that year’s Frankfurt motor show the German car maker introduced the svelte W187 220 and the W186 300 models. Available in saloon, coupé and cabriolet styles, the 220 was powered by a 2.2-litre six-cylinder overhead cam unit producing 80bhp.
In grander 300 guise, an 113bhp 3.0-litre inline-six propelled the car onto a top speed of 100mph – cementing the 300 as the fastest German production car at that time. Technical highlights included a safety door lock to prevent doors from bursting open and electronically operated torsion bar suspension to compensate the height of the rear wheels under heavy loads.
In 1954 the W180 220 series debuted. Nicknamed “Ponton” for its markedly round, slab-sided design, the 220 showcased an innovative single-joint swing axle for improved safety and comfort, an automated clutch, manually controlled fuel injection and even separate heaters for driver and passenger.
Five years later and the ‘Fintail’ Mercedes-Benz W111/112 arrived in five versions, from 220b to leading 300SE long-wheelbase form. The W111/112 took safety to a whole new level; boasting the world premiere of front and rear crumple zones, the first Mercedes-Benz car to feature disk brakes all-round, while an injury-reducing interior brought to the forefront three-point seat belts, a padded steering wheel and wedge-pin door locks.
In 1963 Mercedes-Benz unveiled the colossal W100 600 limousine, available in short-wheelbase and long-wheelbase ‘Pullman’ versions. Embellishments such as air suspension, hydraulic appointments all-round and a 247bhp 6.3-litre V8 shifting the hefty 2600kg body gave the 600 an air of supremacy, proving immensely popular with political figures and celebrities during its time. Production ceased in 1981 with 2677 examples built.
Two years after the debut of the 600, Mercedes-Benz launched the W108/109 saloons to replace the previous generation ‘fintail’ version. The W108 line, which included the 250S, 250SE, 280S, 280SE and 280SEL were larger than its fintail predecessor it replaced. The W109 was identical to the W108, but featured an extended wheelbase of 115mm and self-levelling air suspension. Its success as a “premium flagship” car convinced Daimler to add a long-wheelbase car to the model range and from that point on, all future S-class models would feature a long-wheelbase variant.
In 1966, company engineer Erich Waxenberger had a brainwave: extract the 247bhp 6.3-litre V8 unit from the 600 limousine and shoehorn the lump into the W109 body – thus creating the Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3. The result was a nigh-on two-tonne saloon with enough performance that left Porsche 911S owners on an autobahn looking flat-footed. The 0-62mph sprint dispatched in an eye-popping 5.7 sec and onto a top speed of 143mph. Even Mercedes-Benz’s tuning subsidiary – AMG – got in on the act, producing a fettled 6.8-litre V8 420bhp version nicknamed the “Rote Sau" or Red Pig, which went on to finish 2nd at the Spa 24 Hours in 1971.