July 7, 2022

Each carmaker has its moonshot. Volkswagen wager the farm on an air-cooled folks’s automotive; Porsche threw the cube on a sports activities automotive with the engine within the improper place; Tesla staked its future on an electrified Lotus chassis—and through the manic Eighties, Mercedes-Benz got down to reimagine the platonic best for luxurious sedans. As soon as BMW escalated the eminence of its E32 7-Collection with a V12, Mercedes was left with no alternative however to engineer a flagship of magnificence just like the world had by no means seen. Enter the 140 Collection S Class.

When Extra Was Extra

Mercedes-Benz’s final one-upmanship was a product of unchecked extra. Sizzling on the heels of the classically stoic 126 sequence S Class, Benz dumped a billion bucks into growing the all-new 140. Produced between 1991 and 1998, the blocky mannequin grew to become greater than a retort to archrival BMW. It was a center finger to mediocrity. The large-bodied flagship launched a slew of firsts together with double-paned glass and self-sealing doorways, to not point out stuff you by no means knew you wanted, like a motorized rearview mirror and retractable metallic masts to shepherd the automotive’s ginormous rump into parking spots. 

As a man whose fledgling automotive years transpired throughout this golden age of overengineering, übersedans just like the W140 have been extra than simply vehicles: they have been larger-than-life proclamations tied to yakuza, mobsters, and heads of states. This was very true for range-topping V12 fashions, whose mystique attracted an ever extra outrageous clientele. However the aura of grandeur trickled down to each variant of the in any other case identically-styled lineup. Don’t imagine the hype? Take into account the tragic case of Princess Diana, whose premature demise was met in a 6-cylinder S280. No disgrace in her dying recreation (although she may need nonetheless been with us had she been sporting a seatbelt). 

Quick ahead three a long time and the 140’s visible presence doesn’t appear any much less imposing because it did through the Clinton period. However truly, the big-boned Benz’s fame finally grew to become cheapened by the easy inevitability of depreciation. As values slid through the years, subsequent homeowners skimped on the maintenance required to maintain the mannequin’s advanced programs working as they need to. That straightforward statement lured me into believing I might cheat the percentages by shopping for what seemed to be the last word second-hand W140. 

(Low-Greenback) Goals Come True

Road parked vehicles with ‘For Sale’ indicators merely don’t occur within the tony SoCal neighborhood of San Marino. However one weekday morning I noticed a roadside 1993 Mercedes-Benz 400 SEL completed in Good Silver. Primarily based on my chat with the vendor’s daughter, this instance seemed to be the mannequin of diligent stewardship. It was owned by the stereotypical little outdated girl from Pasadena, an actual property agent who stopped driving the outdated boat when she moved on to a brand new V12-powered S Class. This 90,000-mile instance was perennially garaged and appeared to have lived a life most 30-year-old vehicles would envy. The proprietor, clearly respectful of the Benz’s gravitas, stated she solely hand-washed it, an assertion confirmed by its shiny, swirl-free paint. Certain, there have been a number of nicks right here and there. However there have been additionally nifty particulars that exposed a pampered existence, like floormats over floormats in to protect their satisfying pile. 

Regardless of its lackluster power-to-weight ratio throughout my take a look at drive, it struck a nerve. Not solely did it appear weirdly substantial and effectively put-together, it drove with the unwavering certitude of a cruise ship. There have been a number of small points together with entrance doorways that wouldn’t self-close, a non-op stereo, and the fear that current time period storage may unleash some unexpected repairs. However the Benz’s placid highway manners impressed me to maneuver in on the beast. After some haggling, we lastly agreed on a value, which labored out to be lower than the Government Rear Seating bundle on a brand new Mercedes-Maybach S580. $5,000 for the entire rattling automotive.

As a result of all the things is best on Monoblocks (and the factory-issued chrome 16” wheels have been extra the unique proprietor’s style than mine), I instantly tracked down a set of real 18” AMG wheels for my new acquisition. Manufactured in Austria, variations of those O.G. hoops have graced all the things from to the mighty AMG Hammer to a more moderen reissue on the GT63 S Coupe. On the 400 SEL, they’re a logical complement the large sedan’s flat silver surfaces. However as a result of the second-hand wheels got here wrapped in low-profile Michelins that made the physique look even bulkier, I phoned the oldsters at The Tire Rack and sought their substitute recommendation. We settled on a set of Continental ExtremeContact DWS06s and organized a cellular installer to return out and swap rubber (full disclosure: the tires have been offered freed from cost). Although the 255/45-18 fitment was formally permitted for the automotive, the entrance tires ended up rubbing in opposition to the wheel effectively throughout low-speed turns. Tire Rack labored on an answer and dispatched a staggered set of Vredestein Hypertrack All Seasons by way of one other cellular set up, which solved the problem.

Studio Reference

As somebody who spends inordinate quantities of seat time in new press vehicles, every slicker and sexier than the final, the pristine W140 had a novel enchantment to me that was a siren name I simply couldn’t shake. I beloved the retro restraint and the way its understated styling minimize by the visible noise of contemporary visitors. The 400 mannequin additionally averted a number of potential drawback spots, significantly the self-leveling and adaptive hydraulic suspensions of the five hundred and 600 fashions. In my thoughts, ’90s-era Mercedes sedans have been like a top quality pair of studio reference audio system: no boomy bass, no brassy treble, simply an evenly modulated equalization that quietly units a normal for excellence.  The automotive can be a sanctuary of tactile satisfaction— the graceful cool really feel of chromed metallic on the within of the door deal with, the polished sheen on the b-pillars, the supple ply of the seat hides; even the air-con vents are actual metallic, making each touchpoint really feel substantial. To lean on an oft-used cliché, no person builds vehicles like this anymore. However as I might quickly discover out, not all that glitters is polished aluminum.

Whac-A-Mole of Repairs

As a result of a number of upkeep information (and a slew of Costco tire receipts) solely traced again a portion of the Benz’s sub-100,000 mile historical past, I indulged in a full spa therapy routine. Steering fluid, coolant, brake fluid—you identify it, I had it flushed, modified, refreshed. Subsequent, analysis into the non-op stereo and recent valve cowl gaskets to get rid of some oil seepage. Bose amps in ‘92/’93 S Lessons have been notoriously problematic, as they packed crammed 7 amplifier modules and over 80 capacitors, transistors, and resistors into its black rectangular casing, whose circuits are inclined to corrode over time. A little bit of analysis led me to a dude in Texas named Lenny who rebuilds dangerous amps for a fraction of their $1,200 substitute value. This was a very satisfying restore, as the choice to a four-figure substitute would have been to discover a fashionable head unit which, as any self-respecting snob will agree, merely doesn’t look as cool as a manufacturing facility Becker unit with a cassette deck.

Pulling the large silver sled into the driveway elicited the predictable disdain from my spouse, who, to place it politely, couldn’t see the enchantment of my brutalist German sculpture. However our first lengthy drive collectively was gratifying: A 100-mile drive to Orange County and again on a scorching Saturday afternoon. She beloved its hushed freeway consolation and appreciated the icebox-cold A/C. However she couldn’t recover from its big-bodied boxiness. “You don’t have to have a look at it from the within,” I reminded her. Hassle was, it introduced inescapable acreage of sheet metallic when parked. Aesthetic squabbles apart, the Benz carried out flawlessly … till it didn’t.

You haven’t lived till you’ve tried to push 4,400 lbs of German metallic by a busy L.A. intersection; God bless the stranger who helped me heave the rolling two-ton heap of heavy metallic Sacco. The failure to proceed occurred to happen blocks away from Herbert, my grumpy Mercedes-Benz mechanic. Herbert has a prescient expertise for sussing out points in outdated Benzes. Proving that he’s as a lot a affected person as a health care provider, his day by day driver is a spick and span W140 S600 with over 300,000 miles on the clock. Absolute hero.

“It’s worthwhile to come see this,” he known as, after spending a while below the hood. “I’m in Pasadena, do I actually should drive throughout city?” I replied. “Completely,” he insisted. Later that afternoon I used to be watching a litany of alerts and codes from an OBD reader. No bueno. Enjoyable reality: Mercedes-Benz engineers launched the world’s first chlorofluorocarbon-free air-con system into the 140 with overtures in the direction of environmentalism. Not-so-fun reality: in an act of uncharacteristic shortsightedness, in addition they included different eco aware options like a wiring harness fabricated from soybeans (see, rich drivers wish to save the earth too!) With extended engine warmth comes the inevitable degradation of wiring insulation, in the end producing haywire indicators that befuddle the automotive’s advanced electrical system. Sourcing and changing my 140’s wiring harness was solely the beginning: it additionally ended up needing a brand new throttle physique and switch fee accelerator sensor, which unfolded right into a gas strain regulator and energy steering management unit substitute.

After an ongoing interval of swashbuckling electrical gremlins, I lastly returned to driving the large Benz. And as soon as once more, it hit me what an enormous hunk of automotive the S-Class is for a single individual to wheel round city— was this actually a automotive for me? However when the spouse was using shotgun with our 10-year-old within the distant again seat, the 140 was in its zone, masking lengthy distances like a somber sitting room on wheels. Regardless of its satisfying heft, the specter of dearer repairs made me surprise if I ought to brace for extra monetary ache. A lot had been addressed, however I harbored a low-grade anxiousness about what may fail subsequent, together with the notoriously pesky HVAC evaporator unit which requires a labor-intensive dashboard-out process to make issues cool once more. And therein lay the stress between the easy pleasure of swinging open that weighty door and settling into its minimalist microcosm of Zebrano and leather-based, and questioning if the large lug was going to let me down once more. The wifey continued with the side-eye whereas sometimes conceding that the S-Class gives sanctuary throughout lengthy drives throughout city. “The dictator automotive does have some redeeming qualities,” she would admit after climbing out of plasticky six-figure press automotive that didn’t really feel fairly so strong. And that’s what I saved coming again to: beautiful little particulars that delivered small glints of satisfaction, producing a form of quiet admiration for a 30-year-old automotive artifact regardless of its copious flaws.

12-Cylinder Epilogue

As soon as the expense ameliorated over a number of months, the sting of the 140’s restore payments finally dulled. The frenzy of injury management appeared to have labored out the kinks from long-term storage. However as a result of automotive masochism by no means dies, my consideration wandered to a different relic that’s been on my buying checklist for a while: similar period V12-powered coupes.

Not lengthy thereafter, I found a 1994 S600 coupe in San Diego that was completed in Spruce Inexperienced Metallic. Just one in fifteen 140 sequence vehicles produced was a coupe, fewer have been V12s, and even fewer got here in shades apart from somber greys and blacks. Following a pre-dawn prepare journey down the California coast, I grew to become the third proprietor of a two-door land yacht with a chonky highway presence and an eye-watering urge for food for premium unleaded. 

Weirdly, my spouse doesn’t appear to thoughts the coupe. In actual fact, she form of loves it, in a method makes me ponder what bizarre science can remodel a automobile from unlovable to beautiful by merely trimming 2 doorways and including 4 extra cylinders. As with all issues classic, nostalgia’s enchantment is countered by the truth that it may all go spectacularly south. Roulette is a part of the deal. However in a world the place even fashionable econoboxes are annoyingly good, typically the pale grandeur of one other period outshines the predictability of at this time.

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