1986 Mercedes S Class 420 SEL Extended Wheelbase Saloon
Al Castro's picture

The W126 1986 S Class: the Mercedes that Came Closest to Being a Cadillac

A friend of mine was gracious to lend me for a week his 1986 Mercedes Benz W126 420 SEL saloon between airport transfers while visiting his adult son in Arizona. The American sedan may be dying, but not the European saloon. Long Live the Mercedes Sonderklasse!
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I’m taking a short break from electric and autonomy to do a TGIF report on a Throw Back Thursday to gasoline with an old school car I borrowed from my friend: an old girl, a Mercedes W126 S Class.

I often tell people that as long as there’s a 747 airframe that calls itself Air Force One, if that 747 is the Reigning Queen of the Skies, then the Mercedes S Class is the Reigning Queen of the Roads, and six successive generations of her older sisters and their Ponton and Fishtail ancestors helped her ascend to the throne and to keep her there. As the ancestors and different generations merged into the crown, the one that held court the longest and was the most successful model was the second generation W126 car that had the longest production run of any S Class in the series, and was the last S Class before the reunification of Germany. It also was the car that bought on the many standard safety features we see in many cars today:

  • The W126 is the longest production car to hold title as S Class from 1979-1992.
  • The W126 was manufactured from 1979 through 1991 with a mid-cycle update.
  • The W126 line featured improved aerodynamics and enlarged aluminum engine blocks.
  • Coupé models based on the S-Class were reintroduced with the W126 (380/500 SEC).
  • Succeeding the roadster based coupes, the W126 introduced a two-door variant, the SEC coupé.
  • Although the top of range Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 of the previous generation was not directly replaced, the W126 carried forward the hydropneumatic suspension of the 6.9 as an option on the 500SEL.
  • The W126 S-Class received a mid-cycle update in 1985 with exterior modifications and engine upgrades occurred.

Units Sold, Titles, Honors, and Accolades

Total sales of the W126 S-Class sedans reached 818,036 units, with an additional 74,060 coupes sold.
In Australia in 1981, the W126 S-Class won Wheels magazine's Car of the Year award.

First for Safety Features:

  • In December 1980, the W126 introduced a driver side airbag, as patented by Mercedes-Benz in 1971.
  • Patented passenger side airbags (in 1988).
  • Seatbelt pre-tensioners.
  • Traction control.
  • It was the first production car to feature an airbag as standard, and as late as 1991 there were only a few other manufacturers in Europe who offered an airbag.

Additional First to Features:

  • The interior featured additional courtesy and reading lamps.
  • Heated seats.
  • A more advanced climate control system.
  • A four-speed automatic transmission was standard.
  • A new cruise control system was offered as well.

What is it:

A 1986 Mercedes Benz W126 420 SEL Extended Wheelbase Saloon, made by Daimler Benz AG at the Sindelfingen Final Assembly Plant in West Germany. It’s a toasted metallic gold on tan leather interior. He extended wheelbase was optional in North America for this generation model.

Condition of the Car

Immaculate. The car is in pristine condition at 174,000 miles. Although the first few years of its life was governed by a successful ambitious man who cared for the car part love and part anal retention, you can tell its overall life was not just about good maintenance, this car was and still is very much loved. Although it’s not available for sale I believe, this is the kind of car you want to find online in places like eBay, Auto Trader, Hemmings, BringATrailer, even Craigslist.

Other than corner bumper wear, there’s not a scratch on the car. Light patina on the rear chrome boot handle, some spots on the roof, are the only mars I could find. There’s no curb scrape on the chrome rims.

Everything basically works except the heater, which you don’t need in Los Angeles. Sometimes in the 85° weather I had to shut off the air conditioner as it was getting too cold in the cabin, something I rarely if ever complain about with a/c. My friend told me you have to jiggle the in-dash ignition key if the a/c blower doesn’t come on. Not yet for me.

The ABS light comes on at times during a driving cycle and off others. The brakes do give me light ABS feedback once in a while which I think is a good thing. Thank goodness it hardly rains in Southern California, otherwise it’s not a national emergency to tweak the ABS. This is a big and heavy car and you feel that feedback when you brake, I haven’t felt that since the police department was using those Arlington Texas Chevy big bubble Caprice (Shamu Chevy) wagons as patrol cars back in the 1990’s. You had to brake firmly if you didn’t time the process right. So you don’t want to delay brake even though it’s four wheel disc. Otherwise this car’s mechanic is tweaking the ABS anyway.

The car recently went through a crisis of having a mystery electrical short. The car would suddenly black out like a drunk that needs 28 days. I could tell it was irking my friend because it was making the car so unreliable that it may not be worth being a daily driver anymore. It took another visit or so, but my friend tells me the mechanic finally localized it to fix it. Whew. German U-boat back in commission.

The theft deterrent system is an outdated Viper alarm whose sound is reminiscent of the howling alarms of the 1980’s we used to put up with at night. It brings back memories of barking dogs.

Don’t let the lambswool front seat covers fool you. I pulled them back to look under them. Because the interior is so immaculate, I have permanently cancelled all liquid consumption in this car. There are no cup holders not even in the back seat. So 1980’s German!

Who’s Owned it:

Although the car has been titled three times in her life, it’s really been a two owner car, the first man who bought the car new, and the brothers who bought it from him and owned it since. The brothers together make what is regarded in LA peer circles as a prominent and well respected and liked law enforcement/corporate security family here in Los Angeles. Of the two brothers, the one I know well is a friend of mine in the true sense of the word. He lent me his prized car of the several he has. Enough said.

When they were younger men they used to run a detailing business to meticulously detail the car for the original owner. The old girl the Mercedes is now, is the polished result of that meticulousness, which has paid off. As my friend texted me:

“That girl [the Mercedes] and I have history. I used to detail her when she was brand new back in 1986, my brother had a detailing business and we would go and wash that car in rub it out in detail it once every month. My brother ended up buying it from the original owner back in ‘92 so I know the full history on that car.

“The gentleman who purchased that car was an upper middle-class black man, he made his money in real estate. He lived in an [African American] upper middle class community called View Park, California. . . He had a wife, no children, and his cars were his babies. He was very meticulous with that car. Every time we detailed the car he went over it with a fine tooth to make sure we did not miss anything.

“Sadly to say about two years later at the age of 55 ironically he was going to the LA Car Show and he had a massive heart attack at the car show and died at the event.

“Five years prior to the gentleman having a heart attack my brother purchased the car in 1992 and sold the car to me in 2016. Maybe three people have ever sat in the backseat. You can see how immaculate the interior is.”

You now have a sense of the history behind the car to now know: please do not ask me if the brothers would give the car up for sale, unless you’re willing to pay an insane price. It’s become something like a family heirloom. If you see the pictures I took here and on my social media accounts you’ll understand why.

A Bit of S Class History

Although not officially named the Sonderklasse, which in German means “special class,” it also is referred to as “specially outfitted” class. It was titled this designation with W126’s predecessor, the W116 which was the official first S Class sedan, in 1972. Somewhere along the way she lost that label to just be known as S Class. This is the equivalent of styling a Royal Court Holder as “Your Most Imperial Majesty,” to a courtesy style of just “Your Majesty.” Whatever you call her, after that, just say “ma’am,” as she’s still a Royal.

And the Royal Mercedes S Class DNA goes back for decades right after the war to the 1950’s, with the “Ponton” and “Fishtail” models that carried the top of the line through the late 1960’s. The Ponton and Fishtails refer to the back fenders that we’re either like wide gaited pontoons or sleek Cadillac fins but not so over the top like Harley Earl’s.

While Volkswagen after the war worked its way into the North American market by working the market from the bottom up with Type 1 and 2 Beetle and Bus, at the turn of this century it reached upmarket with the luxo VW Phaeton. Mercedes worked upmarket with S Class ancestors, and then downward over the decades to bring on Baby Benz 190, 240 beforehand, and 300 that morphed into C and E Class, to the tiny Smart vehicles we have now along the way.

S Class sedans of the 50’s through 60’s were a metamorphosis of learning curves. It really wasn’t until around 1965 with the W108 and the 1966 introduction of the Rolls Royce competitor the W100 600 Pullman that Mercedes started to realize that to get serious in the American market you need to stop putting 4 and 6 cylinder engines in your big cars while Olds, Buick’s, Caddy’s, and Lincoln Mercury’s have big block 8’s in theirs.

And man, when Mercedes finally got it, though some of that was about making money in the American market first so they can afford to get as fancy as the Americans, did Mercedes and the S Class ancestor take off. In 1968 the W108, which was the bridge between the Fishtails and the first S Class for real, the 300 SEL 6.3 borrowed the 6-litre V8 from the W100 600 Pullman to offer a truly high-performance luxury sedan.

This is when and where Mercedes Benz the luxury performance brand was born. The 1972 W116 high-performance, limited-production 450 SEL 6.9 sealed that deal. Back in the day that was considered an exotic car, like a Jaguar XJ V12 “Double Six” saloon, and that grey market boxy English Jeep thing they called a Range Rover.

The W126 series premiered in September 1979, launching in March 1980 as an 1980 model and late 1980 as a 1981 model in the US and Australia. It replaced the W116 line, the first official car styled as the S Class.

When Ordered New

Although assembled in different plants around the world, most of the S Classes that come here are from the storied Sindelfingen plant in Germany where the E Class is made. All S Class workers are actually E Class assemblers, since the profit margin for S Class isn’t much, the flagship halo is made in limited numbers and by appointment only. It is an honor to assemble an S Class and the Daimler cream of the crop are hand selected to perform the task. Lincoln are you reading this?

This is where the “specially outfitted” title comes from. When an order is taken from a dealer, the factory tries to match a car they already planned to assemble with the customer’s tastes. They look on the assembly schedule they were anticipating assembling, to see if there’s a car that matches as closely at least most of the colors and options to build from there. They can even bespoke the car without going crazy Rolls Royce Bentley style for simple things not on the options list like a fridge in the back seat if you want. But that takes extra time.

The customer is informed of the progress from assembly to shipment by phone. When I ordered an S Class back in 2009, the plant managers would call me to tell me when they were about to start assembly, when assembly was finished, when they would take the car to the test track before shipping, when they put it on a boat to ship it, when it arrived, when it was test tracked in New Jersey, and when they put it on a car carrier for dealer delivery. One call each time. Then the dealer called me to pick up the car. One S Class I once ordered before this one, the salesman came to my office with it to drop it off and introduced it to me.

The W126 Driving Experience: Old School Cadillac Mercedes Style

This 1986 Model is not the sleek athletic W220, W221, and W222 I’ve driven over the recent years. The W126 is a completely different kind of S Class from back in the day.

After dropping my friend off at LAX bound for home in Hollywood I first noticed the gigantic steering wheel in front of me. Inasmuch as I’m familiar with late and early century W200 Mercedes products, I’m also familiar with Crewe Rolls Royce Bentley products 1970’s and on. This huge thick 4 spoker airbagged steering wheel reminds me of the standard thin black two spoker inside a Crewe Silver Shadow or Spur, pre-airbag. It gives the term land yacht some meaning.

And what a boat she is. With a firm grip on the wheel, this car can handle, but is less about high speeds on the autobahn or at Nurburgring, and more about the option of going on a high speed straight away on an American interstate. On a race circuit, W126 will do fine on the Mulsanne Straight at LeMans. But that’s it; her heavy girth and Cadillac floatness can make her veer off in a sharp curve right off the race track into a crash eventually if the driver doesn’t know what he’s doing. With that big steering wheel she’s like steering the Titanic but with a larger rudder. She has the 4.2L V8, not the 5.0L, so she jump to warp, just give her time. She won’t break speed records, but she’ll get you to warp speed on her time schedule. And she can be fast.

And while she’s getting you there, relax, sit back, wish you were in the back seat instead, and enjoy the ride. This car can go fast, but wants to take her time and show herself off, and she’s far from being an AMG variant, and she really doesn’t mind or even care she isn’t. The 420 SEL has a floaty kind of ride, in the Cadillac direction, but not as anesthetized. You get some feedback on what’s going on under you, but floaty enough to remind you that you’re inside an executive saloon made for the heads of industry and state back in the 1980’s, and this car carries her head office heritage with pride.

From the braking required to stop this car to the numbed steering to throw it around corners, to the speed bumps you hardly feel, this is as close to a Cadillac Mercedes ever got, in a good way, and they did a good job in their interpretation. This car was made for Europe and especially for North America and Daimler carefully listened to what their American customers wanted at the time.

Even the highway cruising hum of the V8 reminds me of my late grand uncle’s brand new 1976 Coupe deVille, you know, the one with the square headlights when they refreshed the Caddy lineup before downsizing, when he’d take us out on the highway. That quiet Caddy 500 cubic inch moan is as relaxing as the quiet 4.2 liter one with a German accent. They almost sound the same.

You can tell over the progression of the generations of new models where Mercedes was with technology. The windshield is not as raked as newer models are, and what I love about this car is that expansive massive hood that lays in front of me with that Mercedes Tri-Star of a hood ornament prominently leading the way.

The last time I had this experience was with my first car I ever owned that my dad gave to me, a 1972 Plymouth Fury III hardtop with a hood so large you can change into a bathing suit and do a jacuzzi in it. I truly do miss the hood ornament. All my Cadillac’s had them that Cadillacs don’t anymore, the last car with a hood ornament was my 1991 Mercury. And it was that car that I see so much of in the W126 that I miss my Grand Marquis, and I’ve fallen in love with W126 as a result. I’m starting to convince myself that the W126 was the gussied up version of my Grand Marquis for the European market. High quality leather instead of velour.

And that gets me to the fit and finish of this car. My Rolls Royce experience taught me that there are two different kinds of squeaks and rattles in a car. There’s the kind that something is wrong and about to fall apart. Then there’s the kind to remind you that the assembly was more about bolting than welding. It‘s about parts that were made before CAD and computer modeling. That the assembly was more about being hand crafted and built by humans than robots. And those were the same kind of squeaks I feel in the W126 like I feel in a Silver Shadow. I find myself smiling as I go over speed bumps and ruts to hear that long extended wheelbase roof above me gently bend side by side or to and fro’ and the dashboard attached to the shell’s firewall to occasionally give feedback so I’m reminded this car is long and big. This is how the car has held up after all this time. This is what it was like to drive a car new back in the day . . .

Photo Credits: All done by me at Griffith Park in Los Angeles.

I thank my dear friend for borrowing his car. Now let me tell you all what a real friend is:

“A real friend walks in when the rest of the world walks out . . .”
-Walter Winchell

What do you think of my Throwback Thursday in a Mercedes? Let us know below!


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