Welcome to Parallel Parables, a new series that serves to showcase cars parked parallel along the streets of, primarily, New Orleans, Louisiana. Century-old architecture means most of the cars in town have no garages to call home; an eccentric population ensures that cool cars roam the streets. Oh, why “parables”? Because these are the cars you should be driving.
Crumple zones. Disc brakes. Anti-lock brakes. Airbags. Electronic stability control.
Walk into a new car dealership, and every car will have crumple zones, two airbags, and discs on at least the front wheels. Further, save the barest of Hyundais, most of the cars are going to have ABS, and by 2012 all passenger vehicles sold in the United States will require electronic stability control. These are systems most of us take for granted, but while they’re par for the course today, driving has not always been so easy. As you dive deeper into the history of the automobile, you’ll notice that among the first to offer what we now consider basic safety features was the Mercedes S-Class.
This iteration, known by its chassis code W116, was the first Mercedes to officially bear the “S-Class” name. The name S-Class had been used unofficially before then, though; the name itself is a shortening of the German “Sonderklasse“, meaning “special class” or, loosely, “in a class of its own”. And it was–the top-line Benz had always been engineered without regard to cost, affording it build quality and reliability that was unsurpassed in the industry. This trend continued (along with the consequent delays and going over budget) until the launch of the W220 in 1999, which was notable for earning Consumer Reports‘ lowest possible reliability rating of “Poor”. Well done.
For this reason, the W116 was and still is extraordinarily popular with leaders, administrations, and warlords in Africa and the Middle East. No self-respecting president would choose anything else, because the S-Klasse is the only car that could break through a crowd of millions, retrieve you and a dozen of your closest advisors, run down thirty of your most fervent opponents, get you to the palace in time for dinner, and bring you to the politburo meeting the next day.
The 450 SEL was Mercedes-Benz’s flagship at the time. “SEL” designates the car’s class and fuel injection (Einspritzung) and a long wheelbase, respectively. More importantly, the “450” denotes the engine’s approximate displacement in centilitres–in this case, the car is motivated by a 4.5L V8 pushing 190 horsepower, highly respectable for its time. Even more respectable was the 222-horse rating the engine bore when unrestricted by American emissions standards, the horses that carried both Deutsche Bank executives across the Autobahn and Robert Mugabe across seas of dissidents, all in the utmost comfort.
Even more respectable was the 450 SEL 6.9–its motive power was provided by a 6.9 litre V8 which was rated conservatively at 286 horsepower and 405 ft-lb of torque. Allow me to reiterate: four hundred and five foot pounds of torque. That is enough to make not only the 4200-pound car but also entire political regimes leave town without a trace.
Even though those numbers were down to 250 hp and 360 ft-lb for the American market, the 6.9 was still the first production car to offer a fully electronic four-wheel multi-channel anti-lock braking system. It was the first S-Class to offer the hydropneumatic suspension developed by Citroën, begetting handling comparisons to cars as tossable as the Mini.
That’s pretty impressive, considering this car looks about as long as an aircraft carrier.
Seriously. You could fit the entire Serbian consulate in that back seat. Not to mention every political dissident you could fit into the trunk without even bothering to dismember them. And, hell, it can cross the Kalihari Desert.
Yes, you could just buy a Camry and be done with it, but the Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL is more comfortable, more powerful, faster, better-looking, more reliable, and gets better fuel economy.
Wait, that last part, that’s not right. The 450 SEL nets an estimated 12.4 miles per gallon. But when a good example can be had for well under five grand, you’ll have to suffer for quite some time to make that difference up.