“The truth will come out,” Road & Track wrote in the June 1973 issue, “so here it is: The Mercedes-Benz 450SE is the best sedan in the world.” To which most readers would have responded: “Like, duh.”
From the viewpoint of 2022, the 1973 to 1980 “W116” generation of Mercedes’ large sedan is even more impressive. It was the first production car outfitted (beginning as an option in 1978) with modern electronic, four-wheel, multi-channel anti-lock brakes, the first turbocharged production Mercedes, and a pioneer in such vital areas as deformable crash crush structures. But beyond that, it was the car that changed what America expected a luxury to be. And it was the first car to be known as an “S-Class.”
Go back to 1972 as Mercedes was preparing to launch the W116 as the short wheelbase 450SE and longer wheelbase 450SEL. At the time, many Mercedes dealers were still small shops or afterthought adjuncts to domestic brand stores. Mercedes had an impressive engineering and racing history, and a mighty reputation for impregnability, but it was still a marginal player in America. Luxury cars back then had vinyl tops, “carriage lights,” hoods long enough to be rated a par five by the PGA, and velour upholstery that could have been ripped out of a New Orleans bordello. Lincolns, Cadillacs and Chryslers ruled America.
There was, however, a subtle demographic change going on as the 1970s hit their stride. The generation that was too young to have fought World War II, but too old to have been born during the Boomer generation after the war, was heading into their 40s. That’s when professional success is embedded, prosperity becomes a thing that demands expression, and an appreciation for transcendent quality develops. Plus, they didn’t fight the Germans and their kids were usually too young to be drafted for military service in Vietnam.
“The best does not come cheaply,” R&T’s writer continued. “The 450SE and the stretched (3.9-inch longer wheelbase) SEL list for $13,491 and $14,698 respectively at press time. But that includes just about all items imaginable – air conditioning, power steering, four-wheel vacuum-assisted disc brakes, AM/FM stereo, power windows, a central vacuum locking system that locks all doors trunk and gas cap lid when the driver’s door is locked, radial tires, and even a first aid kit.” Okay, the 1970s did lack imagination. “About the only option on the SE is leather upholstery (standard on the SEL, by the way) for an additional $376.”
In that first test, R&T measured the 450SE steaming to 60 mph in 10.6-seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 17.5-seconds. It pulled 0.70G on the skidpad and returned 13.0 mpg.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics online inflation calculator, $13,491 in June 1973 is the equivalent of $88,243.65 in April 2022. The 2022 S500, if there are any out there in the current constrained market, starts at $111,100 not including the mandatory $1050 destination charge.
Though it looks bolt upright to today’s eyes, the W116 was amazingly sleek compared to previous large Mercedes sedans. It came from the studio Friedrich Geiger as he was nearing retirement as the head of Mercedes design. Already famed as the man who drew the fabulous 540K sports car in the 1930s, the original 300SL in the 1950s, and who led development of the “Pagoda” W113 generation roadster’s styling in the 1960s, the W116 may have been the most influential design of them all.
Expanding on themes established by the R107 SL roadster that debuted in 1971, the W116 used a squatter grille than previous Mercedes sedans, longer horizontally positioned headlights and fluted, wraparound taillights designed to shed mud. The trunk surface was flat, the greenhouse generous and this sedan was a sensation in the world luxury market. It set styling themes for Mercedes that would last into the 1990s – and some would contend up until now. The beloved 1977 to 1985 W126 E-Class sedan was basically a scaled down W116.
But more than Mercedes design trends, it would also change how American cars looked.
Ford’s 1975 Granada and Mercury Monarch compacts were designed to recall the W116’s design aesthetic. It was such an obvious crib of the Mercedes that Ford made the comparison shamelessly explicit in a series of ads and TV commercials.
Beyond that, Cadillac came up with the 1975 Seville to take on the Mercedes as an “international size” alternative. That the Granada was mostly old Falcon bits underneath, and the Seville a stretched Chevrolet Nova, didn’t seem to matter. Both were big sales hits. And they were followed by dozens of euro-look sports sedans from every U.S. brand.
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One rarely discussed element of the W116’s impact was Mercedes-Benz’s embrace of product placement marketing at the time. Working with the Los Angeles firm Vista Group (which also put Burt Reynolds in a Trans Am for Smokey and the Bandit), the W116 was placed as an aspirational luxury car in dozens of TV shows. In the golden age of TV detectives, it was what the rich dudes drove on The Rockford Files, Charlie’s Angels and Starsky & Hutch. It was J.R. Ewing’s first car on Dallas. It played guest roles on everything from The Fall Guy to The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman. Yes, the W116 was a great sedan. It was also a great sedan that was brilliantly, relentlessly and ubiquitously marketed.
Initially, the W116 was only offered in the United States powered by 4.5-liter, SOHC V8 rated at 180-horsepower lashed to a three-speed automatic transmission. For 1975 it was joined by a version powered by Mercedes’ 2.8-liter straight six going off at a wheezy 120-horsepower equipped with a carburetor and that rose to 142-horsepower when fitted with fuel injection starting with 1977. All W116s would be longer wheelbase versions starting with the 1977 model year. There was, though, more to come.
The two most fascinating W116s were the turbocharged 300SD diesel and the epic 6.9 sedan that appeared for 1980.
After being hit by the fuel crises of the mid- and late-1970s, Mercedes felt it necessary to offer the S-Class with the company’s five-cylinder, 3.0-liter diesel engine. But the diesel five only made 80-horsepower in the E-Class 300D. Hardly enough to move a car as thick as the W116. So, taking technology developed for the C111 speed record car, Mercedes hung a turbocharger on the five and boosted output to 125-horsepower and put it in the big car. It was still slow.
The 300SD was the first turbodiesel passenger car and Mercedes’ first turbocharged production car. Turbodiesels would, until recently, come to dominate the European market. And every current new Mercedes that has an internal combustion engine is turbocharged.
The photos featured here are of a 300SD photographed near my home in Santa Barbara, California. No one was sleeping in it. Which is nice.
The 6.9 wasn’t slow… at least by the standards of 1977 when it finally made it to America two years after it had go on sale in Europe.
“Except for the vagaries of international monetary fluctuations, the 6.9 might have made it to this country for $23,000 or so, but inflation, the strength of the Deutsche mark and the relative weakness of the dollar and everything else have combined to dictate that your own personal 6.9 sedan will cost you $38,230 f.o.b. New York,” wrote Car and Driver’s David E. Davis, Jr. for that farm-friendly almanac’s July 1977 issue. “For your money, you’ll get, perhaps, the ultimate manifestation of the basic Daimler-Benz idea of how automobiles are supposed to be designed and built—the best Mercedes-Benz automobile ever sold.”
“The 6.9 is meant to be the flagship of the entire Mercedes-Benz fleet,” continued Davis. “Beneath the surface there are all kinds of fascinating bits of technica curiosa. A dry-sump engine, for instance. Self-leveling hydropneumatic strut suspension, à la Citroën, for another. Specially modified three-speed automatic transmission, beefed up driveline and a very sophisticated Watts linkage applied to the already superior Mercedes independent rear suspension to enhance anti-dive and anti-squat performance on hard braking and acceleration.”
“The 6.9 feels more nimble, more agile than any other Mercedes we can remember. The new suspension, combined with the extra power of the 417-cubic inch engine makes it possible to toss the big sedan around like a bug-eye Sprite. It accelerates 0–60 in a little over seven seconds and has a top speed of nearly 140 mph. It is rock-solid and practically silent on the road, at any speed, and the engine’s mind-range performance makes serious high-speed mountain driving a positive joy.”
Today, 250 horsepower seems tame. Particularly in a car that C/D weighed at 4390-pounds. But 0 to 60 mph in 7.1-seconds was screaming 45 years ago.
The last of 473,035 W116s was produced in 1980. That’s a lot for a car so expensive.
In many minds, earlier big Mercedes sedans are more visually appealing and later ones, like the W126 models of 1981, have developed massive reputations that exceed that of the W116. But it’s the W116 that set the standard. The one that enabled Mercedes’ growth in America up to the block-long dealership palaces of today. It never raced much and has largely been overlooked as a collector vehicle. But no Mercedes was more important than the W116 in establishing the brand.
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