Even as a Cheap Used Car, the W140 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Feels Special
My decades-old Mercedes turned out to need a huge dose of maintenance, but that didn’t deter me from buying another one almost immediately.
Every carmaker has its moonshot. Volkswagen bet the farm on an air-cooled people’s car; Porsche threw the dice on a sports car with the engine in the wrong place; Tesla staked its future on an electrified Lotus chassis—and during the manic 1980s, Mercedes-Benz set out to reimagine the platonic ideal for luxury sedans. Once BMW escalated the eminence of its E32 7-Series with a V12, Mercedes was left with no choice but to engineer a flagship of magnificence like the world had never seen. Enter the 140 Series S Class.
When More Was More
Mercedes-Benz’s ultimate one-upmanship was a product of unchecked excess. Hot on the heels of the classically stoic 126 series S Class, Benz dumped a billion bucks into developing the all-new 140. Produced between 1991 and 1998, the blocky model became more than a retort to archrival BMW. It was a middle finger to mediocrity. The big-bodied flagship introduced a slew of firsts including double-paned glass and self-sealing doors, not to mention stuff you never knew you needed, like a motorized rearview mirror and retractable metal masts to shepherd the car’s ginormous rump into parking spots.
As a guy whose fledgling automotive years transpired during this golden age of overengineering, übersedans like the W140 were more than just cars: they were larger-than-life proclamations tied to yakuza, mobsters, and heads of states. This was especially true for range-topping V12 models, whose mystique attracted an ever more outrageous clientele. But the aura of grandeur trickled down to every variant of the otherwise identically-styled lineup. Don’t believe the hype? Consider the tragic case of Princess Diana, whose untimely demise was met in a 6-cylinder S280. No shame in her death game (though she might have still been with us had she been wearing a seatbelt).
Fast forward three decades and the 140’s visual presence doesn’t seem any less imposing as it did during the Clinton era. But in actuality, the big-boned Benz’s reputation eventually became cheapened through the simple inevitability of depreciation. As values slid over the years, subsequent owners skimped on the upkeep required to keep the model’s complex systems running as they should. That simple observation lured me into believing I could cheat the odds by buying what appeared to be the ultimate second-hand W140.
(Low-Dollar) Dreams Come True
Street parked cars with ‘For Sale’ signs simply don’t happen in the tony SoCal neighborhood of San Marino. But one weekday morning I spotted a roadside 1993 Mercedes-Benz 400 SEL finished in Brilliant Silver. Based on my chat with the seller’s daughter, this example appeared to be the model of diligent stewardship. It was owned by the stereotypical little old lady from Pasadena, a real estate agent who stopped driving the old boat when she moved on to a new V12-powered S Class. This 90,000-mile example was perennially garaged and seemed to have lived a life most 30-year-old cars would envy. The owner, clearly respectful of the Benz’s gravitas, said she only hand-washed it, an assertion confirmed by its glossy, swirl-free paint. Sure, there were a few nicks here and there. But there were also nifty details that revealed a pampered existence, like floormats over floormats in to preserve their satisfying pile.
Despite its lackluster power-to-weight ratio during my test drive, it struck a nerve. Not only did it seem weirdly substantial and well put-together, it drove with the unwavering certitude of a cruise ship. There were a few small issues including front doors that wouldn’t self-close, a non-op stereo, and the worry that recent term storage might unleash some unforeseen repairs. But the Benz’s placid road manners inspired me to move in on the beast. After some haggling, we finally agreed on a price, which worked out to be less than the Executive Rear Seating package on a new Mercedes-Maybach S580. $5,000 for the whole damn car.
Because everything is better on Monoblocks (and the factory-issued chrome 16” wheels were more the original owner’s taste than mine), I immediately tracked down a set of genuine 18” AMG wheels for my new acquisition. Manufactured in Austria, versions of these O.G. hoops have graced everything from to the mighty AMG Hammer to a more recent reissue on the GT63 S Coupe. On the 400 SEL, they’re a logical complement the big sedan’s flat silver surfaces. But because the second-hand wheels came wrapped in low-profile Michelins that made the body look even bulkier, I phoned the folks at The Tire Rack and sought their replacement advice. We settled on a set of Continental ExtremeContact DWS06s and arranged a mobile installer to come out and swap rubber (full disclosure: the tires were provided free of charge). Though the 255/45-18 fitment was officially approved for the car, the front tires ended up rubbing against the wheel well during low-speed turns. Tire Rack worked on a solution and dispatched a staggered set of Vredestein Hypertrack All Seasons via another mobile installation, which solved the issue.
As someone who spends inordinate amounts of seat time in new press cars, each slicker and sexier than the last, the pristine W140 had a unique appeal to me that was a siren call I just couldn’t shake. I loved the retro restraint and how its understated styling cut through the visual noise of modern traffic. The 400 model also averted a few potential problem spots, particularly the self-leveling and adaptive hydraulic suspensions of the 500 and 600 models. In my mind, ’90s-era Mercedes sedans were like a quality pair of studio reference speakers: no boomy bass, no brassy treble, just an evenly modulated equalization that quietly sets a standard for excellence. The car is also a sanctuary of tactile satisfaction— the smooth cool feel of chromed metal on the inside of the door handle, the polished sheen on the b-pillars, the supple ply of the seat hides; even the air conditioning vents are real metal, making every touchpoint feel substantial. To lean on an oft-used cliché, nobody builds cars like this anymore. But as I would soon find out, not all that glitters is polished aluminum.
Whac-A-Mole of Repairs
Because a few maintenance records (and a slew of Costco tire receipts) only traced back a portion of the Benz’s sub-100,000 mile history, I indulged in a full spa treatment regimen. Steering fluid, coolant, brake fluid—you name it, I had it flushed, changed, refreshed. Next, research into the non-op stereo and fresh valve cover gaskets to eliminate some oil seepage. Bose amps in ‘92/’93 S Classes were notoriously problematic, as they packed crammed 7 amplifier modules and over 80 capacitors, transistors, and resistors into its black rectangular casing, whose circuits tend to corrode over time. A bit of research led me to a dude in Texas named Lenny who rebuilds bad amps for a fraction of their $1,200 replacement cost. This was a particularly satisfying repair, as the alternative to a four-figure replacement would have been to find a modern head unit which, as any self-respecting snob will agree, simply doesn’t look as cool as a factory Becker unit with a cassette deck.
Pulling the massive silver sled into the driveway elicited the predictable disdain from my wife, who, to put it politely, could not see the appeal of my brutalist German sculpture. But our first long drive together was gratifying: A 100-mile drive to Orange County and back on a hot Saturday afternoon. She loved its hushed highway comfort and appreciated the icebox-cold A/C. But she couldn’t get over its big-bodied boxiness. “You don’t have to look at it from the inside,” I reminded her. Trouble was, it presented inescapable acreage of sheet metal when parked. Aesthetic squabbles aside, the Benz performed flawlessly … until it didn’t.
You haven’t lived until you’ve attempted to push 4,400 lbs of German metal through a busy L.A. intersection; God bless the stranger who helped me heave the rolling two-ton heap of heavy metal Sacco. The failure to proceed happened to occur blocks away from Herbert, my grumpy Mercedes-Benz mechanic. Herbert has a prescient talent for sussing out issues in old Benzes. Proving that he’s as much a patient as a doctor, his daily driver is a spick and span W140 S600 with over 300,000 miles on the clock. Absolute hero.
“You need to come see this,” he called, after spending some time under the hood. “I’m in Pasadena, do I really have to drive across town?” I replied. “Absolutely,” he insisted. Later that afternoon I was staring at a litany of alerts and codes from an OBD reader. No bueno. Fun fact: Mercedes-Benz engineers introduced the world’s first chlorofluorocarbon-free air conditioning system into the 140 with overtures towards environmentalism. Not-so-fun fact: in an act of uncharacteristic shortsightedness, they also incorporated other eco conscious features like a wiring harness made of soybeans (see, wealthy drivers want to save the earth too!) With prolonged engine heat comes the inevitable degradation of wiring insulation, ultimately producing haywire signals that befuddle the car’s complex electrical system. Sourcing and replacing my 140’s wiring harness was only the start: it also ended up needing a new throttle body and turn rate accelerator sensor, which unfolded into a fuel pressure regulator and power steering control unit replacement.
After an ongoing period of swashbuckling electrical gremlins, I finally returned to driving the big Benz. And once again, it hit me what a huge hunk of car the S-Class is for a single person to wheel around town— was this really a car for me? But when the wife was riding shotgun with our 10-year-old in the distant back seat, the 140 was in its zone, covering long distances like a somber sitting room on wheels. Despite its satisfying heft, the specter of more expensive repairs made me wonder if I should brace for more financial pain. So much had been addressed, but I harbored a low-grade anxiety about what might fail next, including the notoriously pesky HVAC evaporator unit which requires a labor-intensive dashboard-out procedure to make things cool again. And therein lay the tension between the simple pleasure of swinging open that weighty door and settling into its minimalist microcosm of Zebrano and leather, and wondering if the big lug was going to let me down again. The wifey persisted with the side-eye while occasionally conceding that the S-Class offers sanctuary during long drives across town. “The dictator car does have some redeeming qualities,” she would admit after climbing out of plasticky six-figure press car that didn’t feel quite so solid. And that’s what I kept coming back to: lovely little details that delivered small glints of satisfaction, producing a sort of quiet admiration for a 30-year-old automotive artifact in spite of its copious flaws.
Once the expense ameliorated over a few months, the sting of the 140’s repair bills eventually dulled. The frenzy of damage control seemed to have worked out the kinks from long-term storage. But because automotive masochism never dies, my attention wandered to another relic that’s been on my shopping list for some time: same era V12-powered coupes.
Not long thereafter, I discovered a 1994 S600 coupe in San Diego that was finished in Spruce Green Metallic. Only one in fifteen 140 series cars produced was a coupe, fewer were V12s, and even fewer came in shades other than somber greys and blacks. Following a pre-dawn train ride down the California coast, I became the third owner of a two-door land yacht with a chonky road presence and an eye-watering appetite for premium unleaded.
Weirdly, my wife doesn’t seem to mind the coupe. In fact, she kind of loves it, in a way makes me ponder what weird science can transform a vehicle from unlovable to lovely by simply trimming 2 doors and adding 4 more cylinders. As with all things vintage, nostalgia’s appeal is countered by the reality that it can all go spectacularly south. Roulette is part of the deal. But in a world where even modern econoboxes are annoyingly good, sometimes the faded grandeur of another era outshines the predictability of today.