Classic Review: 1972 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Classic Review: 1972 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

There is plenty of chrome on the classic W116 S-Class, but it has nothing to do with Google. By Brenwin Naidu. Pictures by Waldo Swiegers…

It is safe to say that the definition of luxury in automotive terms has evolved. Weight, length, cosseting materials, large engine displacements and swanky trims account for half the story. These tenets have made way for indulgences of a more technological kind. Think intelligent infotainment systems that respond to hand gestures, in-car concierge services that can book maintenance visits and semi-autonomous paraphernalia.

How could we gloss over that last one? Indeed, many top-tier offerings are replete with setups that render the person behind the wheel a mere supervisor of proceedings.

Let me point out, as Captain Obvious, that the 1972 Mercedes-Benz S-Class features none of these goodies. Any keyboard anorak worth their pound in data will know series codes off-hand and the version pictured here, designated W116, was the first to officially wear the Sonderklasse title.

If your German is rusty, that means the most special model in the product line-up — a range that was sparse compared to the assault of vehicles served by the brand today.

And while it is fashionable, in 2018, to wield a penchant for the coolness of yesteryear, sitting in the classic 280 S makes me think that upscale motoring back in the day must have sucked. For starters, there is no place to store my iPhone.

There are rotary dials for the air-conditioning, fascinating twisty devices which seem to adjust the windows and a little aperture that only accommodates cassettes.

But closing any of its heavy doors may require two hands. Occupants are sealed in a bunker of leather, chrome beading and wooden accents. And since smoking was a pastime once recommended by doctors, rear passengers received their own ashtrays in the door pockets. In fairness, this S-Class genesis was not as rudimentary as we are suggesting. By the standards of the day anyway.

After all, the 280 S was the entry-level model in the range, with the stretched and extravagant 450 SEL taking the top spot. You could have power windows and a driver airbag. It was also among the first cars to be offered with anti-lock brakes.

Perhaps the only thing the W116 and its contemporary forebear, the W222 have in common is the retention of a traditional hood ornament, which is quite rare to see these days. Given that pedestrian safety standards have blasted such items to the storage room.

If you plan to walk without looking left and right, take hollow consolation in the knowledge that the spring-loaded, three-pointed star is designed to bend back in the misfortune of contact.

Much like the classic 280 S did in its heyday, the S350d alongside it represents the most accessible point into new S-Class ownership. Take “accessible” with a pinch of salt, since prices start from upwards of R1 634 211.

Just hand the salesperson a blank cheque, rather, because you can sprinkle a dazzling amount of optional kit over the standard dish. Ours features heated, ventilated seats with a massage function that rubs, kneads and tickles four privileged passengers. Jubilant conclusions indeed. The only piece of analogue equipment is the little timepiece in the middle of the fascia, a charming nod to when sundials were de rigueur.

Piloting the W116 is a hands-on experience, as you appreciate its vastness and sheer heft. But the modern car requires a little less from its helmsman.

Go for the Driving Assistance package and your S-Class will (almost) drive itself. It will track steady on straight roads, steer around gentle bends and initiate lane-changes. Try to dupe the system by leaving the wheel and a warning will chime gently.

Ignore it and the vehicle will slow to a complete stop, in the assumption that you dozed off in the middle of your mobile deep-tissue therapy session.

Yes, the wholesome hallmark of over-engineering seen in classic Mercedes-Benz products is bound to induce nostalgia.

But when faced with the option, most would go with the air-conditioned seats of the W222 over the sweaty buttocks bound to ensue from sitting at the tiller of that W116.

New trumps old in this comparison.