Sweet W116: We Take a Spin in the First-Gen Mercedes-Benz S-class ""
Posted on: July 31, 2017

Mercedes W116

On the occasion of our first drive of the revised 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-class, we also were afforded the opportunity to drive an example of the first Mercedes to use that model designation, a W116 version, and the contrast was marked. A shiny, well-sorted car from the factory’s Classic Center in Stuttgart, the W116 our hosts rolled out was an 350SE from 1979, a car from late in the production run that in its home market stretched from 1972 until 1980. Looking dapper in understated dark-blue metallic with generous chrome accents and MB’s classic color-matched wheel covers, the 350SE also sported a matching dark-blue interior with houndstooth-checked cloth upholstery.

In many ways, the W116 represented a leap into the modern era, with pull-type exterior door handles, bucket seats bisected by a center console, the familiar gated floor shifter for the automatic transmission, power windows, and—most welcome on a blistering hot summer day—working factory air conditioning. The huge steering-wheel rim of wrinkly black vinyl was a Benz mainstay for years; its extra-large diameter was designed to provide the driver additional leverage should the power assist fail.

The 350SE indicates a 3.5-liter engine in this example, this being from the days when the model designation still related to engine displacement. Under the hood was a V-8, smooth-running although with a rather lazy idle—it spun so slowly that it seemed almost on the verge of stalling, yet it never did.

Mercedes W116

When stirred, however, the engine could get this stately sedan up and moving. The three-pointed star at the end of the hood would rise in response to a determined prod of the accelerator. Body roll is generous, but even after nearly four decades, the big Benz exudes a hewn-from-metal solidity that many of its contemporaries lacked. We would have driven it happily all the way to Bonn, perhaps to take a meeting with German chancellor Helmut Schmidt—were he still around.

The sensation of driving—or even that of being in a moving vehicle—is so much greater here than it is in today’s car. The latest S-class, its vast, pillowy cabin suffused with computer screens and colorful mood lighting, is nearly capable of driving itself. It feels as if the model is taking another historic turn, one in which autonomy and isolation rise to the forefront. The W116 S-class was all about making the best-driving luxury car; the new S-class seeks to be the best possible luxury conveyance for an era in which driving is perceived more as a chore than a joy.

Mercedes-W116-REEL

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