Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Some time over the course of the last 30 years, whether we’ve been aware of it or not, our collective understanding of what a luxury car is has changed. Modern luxury is now a multi-tasker. We’d expect not just a bill of materials which can and will be obnoxiously described as “sumptuous”, but also as “space-age”. Press releases now are peppered with the word “composite” nearly as many times as they use various permutations of “dynamic”. It must be both a fortress of solitude and also a WiFi hotspot that’ll pull 0.9G on Michelin Pilot SuperSport 4S with a sport mode that makes everything incrementally worse.
Of course, this has produced some compelling results – engineers have made moon shots with computing power several orders of magnitude lower than what is required to pull out of the paddock at the Nürburgring in a S8. Much like film technicians toiling for years to create cameras that eliminate lens flare only to now have special effects wizards add it back in post-production, modern automotive engineers have done such a superb job isolating the cabin from the 500+ horsepower mounted just ahead of the firewall that user experience nerds now have to artificially pipe that noise back into the cabin via the speakers.
And there are some automotive Reaganomics at play here – what was groundbreaking north of $100k around the time Pets.com imploded is now standard issue in a Mitsubishi Mirage. This sort of trickle-down options list has seemingly sparked an arms race - and so now you’ll find all manner of connectivity, power, scent management, and Level 3 automation of the driving experience itself permeating the upper echelon.
It’s maddening trying to keep up – cars just 5 years out of spec, once upon a time marking a period that would necessitate only a mid-cycle refresh, now feel dated and soaring past their sell-by date. If you’ll permit me to work in another tortured film reference here, it’s like watching Star Wars next to The Transformers: it’s the same genre, but the pacing has been picked up so dramatically its astonishing we’re all still keeping up. I’ll make the case that there’s nothing out there on 4 wheels that better embodies this change in direction than the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the standard bearer for standard bearing. I can do you one better and pinpoint the year that the last snowflake fell and started the avalanche from stoic isolation to sport-mode simulated athleisure: 1998.
The reason why is probably better the subject for some epic, 18,000 word non-fiction Raphael Orlove historical retrospective on the relationship between German union and familial industry plutocrats in the late 1990s – but it’s a free country so here’s a wild guess with zero evidence to back it up.
I’d reckon it’s somewhat a factor of Moore’s Law speeding up processing power, economies of scale making that computing power cheaper to implement in mass-manufactured items, and falling interest rates both broadening appeal to a larger mass-market while simultaneously shifting the market focus from buying to leasing. Mix in a merger (“of equals”, with bold and italicized quotations marks in size 72 font there) with Chrysler and dead in the heart of the dot-com boom you’ll find the W220-chassis S-Class.
There is much that has been written about the W220 generation - which ran from 1998 to 2005. Much like the transition from the 2001 to the 2002 BMW 7-Series or the 1997 to the 1998 Porsche 911, there was a stark difference in quality over the course of a single generation. I could bore you with more details, but I’ve already mentioned interest rates and chassis codes, so here’s a little anecdote that rather efficiently communicates the gravity of this change: the reboot of Maybach in 2002, Mercedes’ attempt to sell you $300,000 ($426,000 in inflation-adjusted 2020 dollars) and 6,000 lbs of S-Class, was not based on the W220, but rather the prior generation W140.
The W220 is now a dreadfully cheap machine to purchase with a somewhat Kafkaesque maintenance record. A general manager at one of our local independent European shops (ugh another anecdote) once told me he turned down service for a customer with a CL65 that munched a turbo because the repair costs were more than the value of the car. What felt like a quantum leap from the Teutonic bank vault of the W140 has decayed and depreciated. And while the direct descendants of the W220 all the way to the otherworldly S-Class you can go grab at your local dealer today for a 96-month lease have been and continue to be the absolute bleeding edge for automotive technology, in the progress they’ve sacrificed some element of future-proofing.
Because of – rather than despite – a space program's worth of processing power, the modern S-Class has traded advancement for timelessness.
Which is precisely what I’m drowning in with this 1986 Mercedes Benz 560 SEL.
If I had to sum up an immaculately maintained SEL, it would be deliberate to a degree that makes the same vintage 911 look haphazard in its design and rushed in build quality. Engineers not tasked with ensuring the infotainment system was integrated to rapidly and securely update its firmware via 128-bit encryption instead devoted their time to fastidiously studying ways to isolate the driver from any discomforts behind the wheel, primarily by adding mass to every control surface, panel, button, switch, and textile. According to my research, both the W126 (sedan) and C126 (coupe) were offered with a manual transmission, but given the weight of the steering, I suspect both options had an exceptionally small take rate from the dealer as attempting to modulate the clutch required an amount of force that would snap a driver’s tibia and fibula clean in half.
All this accumulated mass gave the car gravitas, both literally and etymologically. It’s an overwrought cliché to describe how much German doors elicit the sensation of a bank vault – and since I imagine you’re neither a branch manager at a regional bank nor a doomsday prepper, that’s not doing the experience any justice. So how about some new tortured imagery?
Opening and closing the door feels like you’re moving a car battery on an air hockey table, and the latching mechanism feels like a 3-pointer that goes in from well past the arc without touching the rim mixed with the moment you notice that your turn signal is in exact sync with the car in front of you.
The 560 SEL is a scrapbook filled with hundreds of these tiny moments. In driving it on the highway, there is a quiet that sneaks up on you like walking outside late on a cold fall evening during the first real cold snap after a blistering summer to realize that all the crickets and cicadas have been silenced until spring. The suspension pummels highway extensions with the same weighted cushioning as a comforter on a Saturday morning when you woke up thinking it was Friday but after checking your cell phone and managing to not wake your dog up, you drift right back into unconsciousness. There’s more excessive suffocating imagery, but you get the idea.
What doesn’t strike you is the age of the damn thing, which, as of this writing, is 33 years old. All credit here must go to the current owner, who has done his due diligence in buying one. The car is not something you could use to render a Pixar movie – the Becker Grand Prix cassette deck and self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension weren’t even state-of-the-art in 1986. But the car just oozes a sort of decadence that would have been decried from the other side of the Berlin Wall when the car debuted in 1979. This car does not creak or rattle – in part due to good custodians over time – but every surface and panel feels like they either used better adhesives than were known to the rest of the automotive industry for another 20 years or torqued everything down another quarter-turn.
The styling is conservative – certainly not what you might consider as “pretty” – but it qualifies as handsome, well-proportioned if not slightly imposing for the time. The beauty in an older Mercedes tends not to fade, sort of an automotive Paul Rudd, which, as you take in the rest of the car, does not appear to be accidental.
It’d be silly to complain about the new S-Class. And it’d be doubly so to have some self-righteous “BACK IN MY DAY” or “HAS MERCEDES LOST ITS WAY?” hot take scalding your precious eyeballs right now. Frankly they’re right where the market says they should be. Modern luxury buyers have a longer list of demands than they did back in the Carter administration. And that’s okay. Most everything the S-Class does better than anything else not just in its segment, but than any other segment.
But what it means is that obsolescence arrives sooner. The faster the pace of development, the more likely the car becomes a snapshot of exactly the year it left the factory. We are as far away from the debut of the W220 now as the W220 was from the W126 – and here’s a tiny taste of just how long ago that feels:
Look, finding Whitney Houston cassettes to feed a tape deck is a bit easier than finding compatible DVDs for a W220’s navigation system. Imagine now trying to update the firmware on a 2019 S550 in the year 2039. Again – I don’t want to be some sort of Luddite Millennial (too late?), but it’s quite the mental exercise to conjure what the world would be like where the sort of attention to connecting the driver to the road and passengers to the outside world was once again turned to isolating and coddling them.
This W126 didn’t have to rely on electronic integration to impress buyers – all it had to do was be an exceptionally well-engineered collection of German clichés. But it still drives and feels the way it did when it got off the boat.
Anyway, the earth is moving faster now, and you can use your smartphone to reserve this car on Turo here in Dallas. It’ll be a lovely throwback for you – possibly the classiest way to move about the Metroplex without some lane assist chirping in your ear and vibrating the lumbar support every time you creep up on someone to use that second set of horns under the hood kept for special occasions. And maybe spare a lazy thought for what luxury used to be.