Ever wonder why the W140 was so big?
W140 Chief Engineer Wolfgang Peter coauthored a book titled "The Challenge: Accelerating the Mercedes-Benz Brand." In the book, he describes the development of the W140. The W140 became so big partly because he was 6'3" tall! Here's an excerpt (My apologies if this is posted somewhere else or if this is old news).
CONCEIVED AS THE ULTIMATE SEDAN offering unrivaled comfort, outstanding technology and trend-setting occupant protection, the new S-Class with the series designation W140 was intended to be nothing less than the crowning glory of the passenger car range. True to Daimler-Benz tradition, it also had the mission of paving the way for new technologies and serving as a declaration of war on the challenger, BMW. As with all Mercedes, the creation of the W140 began with a seat mockup, a sort of three-dimensional caliper rule which designers and engineers use to gauge and adjust the ability of their concept to meet the needs of the vehicle occupants. The year was 1987 and key Mercedes decision-makers -- chief engineer Wolfgang Peter and car line manager Rudolf Hornig -- were trying out the mockup to evaluate the freedom of movement, practicality and sense of well-being afforded by the design. Both men stood some 1.90 meters tall [6 foot 3 inches].
Bruno Sacco had come up with a sporty, dynamic design for the new S-Class. Inspired by the Jaguar XJ, it was positioned to challenge the sporty image of the BMW range. As a precautionary measure, the seat mockup for this design was equipped with a height-adjustable roof. And then the inevitable happened: Wolfgang Peter and Rudolf Hornig both bumped their heads on the roof. Members of the design team intervened to adjust the height, and the roof began to rise. By the time the two voices announced "... that's great now!" in chorus, the design team was facing a new challenge: the new S-Class would have to be longer and wider if it was to avoid becoming a high-rise curiosity on wheels. As a result, the original dynamic design turned into a stately flagship. On the technical side, innovative solutions never before seen in any automobile in the world were developed to ensure that the vehicle excelled in such key areas as handling, safety and environmental compatibility, the latter being implemented to an unprecedented high level. And just to add weight to Daimler-Benz's claim to be the leader in its field, the technical faction of the management team headed up by the then Mercedes-Benz chief Werner Niefer prevailed over the doubters, most of whom came from the design department. It was decided: the new S-Class also had to be a tour-de-force in terms of its external form, not least because this would at last enable it to assume its rightful place on the roads of North America. And so it was, that, even at this early stage, the dimensions laid down in the specifications book clearly pointed the way to the shape (and the size) of things to come: 5231 mm long, 2162 mm wide including the exterior mirrors and 1497 mm high - dimensions which described a vehicle destined to occupy a unique position in the automotive landscape in Germany. With a wheelbase of 3040 mm, Mercedes-Benz was set to produce nothing less than a living room on wheels. Although it was the nineteen-eighties, chief developer Rudolf Hornig looked far back into the history of road transport in order to find the benchmark for traveling comfort. He had been inspired by the way the passenger compartment of horse-drawn coaches was suspended in a frame by means of leather straps. This design had a number of advantages: the compartment was completely decoupled from the chassis and, therefore, from the influence of the vehicle's unsprung masses. A contemporary interpretation of this principle could produce a limousine offering the ride comfort of a sedan chair. Hornig hoped that a workable solution could be found by using a "perimeter frame" within which the vehicle body would be mounted by means of a cardanic suspension system. Hornig and his team spent some 18 months trying to overcome the difficulties associated with the system. But it was still too early to count on reliable support from electronic control systems and, much to their disappointment, the team accepted that the design was not robust enough and would not be able to satisfy MercedesBenz quality standards in time for the scheduled market launch. The development team reverted to using subframes - a Daimler- Benz invention dating from the nineteen-fifties which had made its debut in the 180 Ponton model. However, there was no change of policy as far as the imposing size of the new MercedesBenz was concerned: it was retained as the dominant visual cue for automotive excellence. The excursion into the technical intricacies of the perimeter frame, which was too heavy and defied all attempts to eliminate vibration, and the decidedly late adoption of a high-performance brake system for the W 140 meant that the start of production was delayed by 18 months. A fact that went almost entirely unnoticed by the public. In March 1991, the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class was presented to the world press for the first time at the Geneva Motor Show: full of pride, the then head of Mercedes-Benz, Werner Niefer, stood next to a massive wooden container on the small stage at the Noga Hilton hotel in Geneva. A stage which somehow seemed to be much too small. Lurking beneath the wooden form was the S-Class. As the wooden shell rose into the air, the big new Mercedes was exposed to the gaze of the journalists for the first time. Above it, the wooden form swung back and forth menacingly. The result of eight years of development work was revealed for all to behold. The journalists applauded politely.
That evening saw long-standing divisions open up in the Mercedes camp. And for the first time, even those who had always been true believers were prepared to admit that it was not a question of the stage being too small. Nor did the huge wooden shell suspended above the new car represent any real danger. No, it was the sedan itself - at over five meters long, more than two meters wide and almost one-and-a-half meters high - that might become the real threat. Questions were asked about the social compatibility and environmental acceptability of this automotive monument. The marketing department offered the reassuring explanation that, after 100 years, the car had now merely caught up with the increased size of the people who use it. The journalists readily nodded in agreement. It was only afterwards, when they actually got down to writing their reports, that they were overcome by terrible doubts. Might it not simply be that this new S-Class was the result of a failure to appreciate the importance of maintaining a sense of proportion and avoiding automotive excess! To start with, there were just a few isolated, cynical jibes. German car magazine auto, motor und sport headlined its 5/1991 issue with "Sternegrog" [~ "Star-sized"], for example. Nevertheless, the editorial copy was also permeated by appreciation for the new S-Class, as typified by the reference in the 19/ 1991 issue of the same magazine to "Eine Masse Klasse" [~ ''A whole lot of class"]. It was not until September that year that an avalanche of criticism was set in motion. An installation set up by Greenpeace opposite the main entrance of the Frankfurt motor show triggered an open debate: the installation, a huge stack of one-liter fuel cans, symbolized the total amount of fuel used by an S-Class in the course of its life. No less than 60,000 liters for a 600 SE which had covered 300,000 kilometers. Journalists picked up the issue: could it be that Mercedes-Benz had gone wrong somewhere? At first, only insiders were aware that Mercedes-Benz chief Werner Niefer had decided the W140 was to be used to counter the first serious challenge to the Stuttgart-based company's dominant position by its Munich rival, BMW. The BMW 7-series had been a success story ever since 1986, while 1987 saw it equipped with the first twelve-cylinder engine produced in Germany since the war. Their pride wounded, the members of the Mercedes-Benz management team pulled out all the stops for the W140: at launch in spring 1991, the 300SE was powered by a 231 hp in-line six-cylinder engine complemented by two eight-cylinder units from fall 1991, a 286 hp 4.2-liter V8 in the 400SE and a 5.0-liter V8 developing 326 hp in the 500SE. The same year also saw the arrival of the first Mercedes V12 with a displacement of six liters and an output of 408 hp in the 600SE. All versions offered an output higher than that of the comparable BMW models. The reason for the unusual decision to launch the extended SEL versions with their extra ten centimeters of length at the same time was known only to insiders: for years, the development work had been devoted exclusively to the long version. It was only shortly before the market launch that Niefer gave the green light for a shorter version, too. In the end, just 9.1 percent of all S-Class customers opted for the 300SEL while 46.6 percent chose the less expensive 300SE. Only 2.5 percent of the V8 models were sold in the form of the 400SEL as opposed to the 9.3 percent accounted for by the 500SEL. On its own, the 600SEL made up no less than 10.5 percent of S-Class production whereas the short-wheelbase 600SE accounted for only 4.2 percent.
As well as offering a wide choice of versions, the new S-Class boasted many special features calculated to show who the real experts were when it came to building premium automobiles. Innovative double-glazed windows ensured that the occupants were not troubled by traffic noise while electric motors pulled the doors shut silently. The telescopic chrome guide rods were among the finest examples of what can happen when Swabian engineers get hold of an idea they really like. Selecting reverse gear caused the rods to extend automatically in order to help guide the driver when maneuvering into a parking space. At the time, critics of this elaborate arrangement were told that an ultrasonic parking aid still under development did not yet satisfy Mercedes quality standards. With the W140 weighing in at anything between 1890 kilograms (300SE) and 2180 kg (600SEL), the chassis was naturally the main focus of the design engineering effort. Working within the constraints of the company's traditional policy of refusing any compromises regarding handling safety, the developers had set out to find a solution which overcame the fundamental physical conflict between handling safety and ride comfort. Using a modified multi link independent rear suspension and a new double wishbone front axle - both decoupled from the body by means of subframes ‚Äď the Mercedes-Benz developers succeeded in setting new standards for comfort and controllability. At first, it seemed as if the positive impressions gained by journalists during the test drives were pushing the emerging criticism of the overbearing presence of the W140 into the background. There was an outbreak of positive spin and the car's technology was praised as "trend-setting". With one exception: the payload, which ranged from 402 kg (300SE) to 488 kg (400SE), was so limited that five passengers could travel with only small pieces of hand luggage. A miscalculation that cost chief engineer Wolfgang Peter his job. The fact that the new S-Class was also 25 percent more expensive than its predecessor (after adjusting the price for options) did nothing to help matters. Nevertheless, the debate about the overbearing appearance of the W140 was largely restricted to Mercedes-Benz' domestic market. The new S-C1ass towered above all its competitors on Germany's roads. Wolfgang Reitzle, then chief engineer at BMW, spoke of the "cathedral", a name which clearly betrayed a certain sense of reverence toward the colossal vehicle. In the course of its seven-year production life, the Mercedes flagship came to be regarded by German customers as an institution. And yet, it marked the end of an era at Mercedes-Benz. It had helped management to understand that customers could no longer be expected to show uncritical appreciation for sophisticated technical solutions. In Germany, in any case, it was clear that many Mercedes-Benz customers were prepared to voice serious reservations about the brand's upsizing policy in the executive sedan segment. Hardly the best background for the market launch one year later of the only S-Class derivative, a large coupe which seemed destined to be used by wealthy seniors for taking their grandchildren on outings. When this two-door model hit the streets in February 1992, the critics wondered if Mercedes-Benz had lost the plot completely as far as design was concerned. The C140 managed to be far too tall, flabby around the haunches and curiously lacking in grace and elegance. All attempts to find any trace of the lightness of touch normally regarded as the very essence of a coupe's styling were in vain. The majority of these S500 and S600 models found good homes in retirees' garages. Market acceptance of the W140 in North America, the most important export market for Mercedes-Benz, was far more positive. With few small cars and hardly any mid-range autos small enough to be dominated by the W140, US and Canadian roads were the ideal setting for the new S-Class. Even today, the luxury Mercedes of ten years ago does not seem at all out of place in the midst of the large MPVs and offroaders which now make up so much of the region's traffic. US customers had no hang-ups about accepting the W140. In it, they had at last found a Mercedes sedan which made a visual statement that could hold its own next to the sometimes monumental architecture of their SUVs. The second most important export region for Mercedes-Benz is Asia. From Istanbul to Tokyo, customers saw the conspicuous size of the new S-Class as a welcome differentiator which set them apart from the crowd and served to define their position in society.
The big "Benz" towered above the extensive local population of small cars (as, indeed, does every Mercedes in the region). The prestige associated with the size of the car also elevated the driver, passengers and owner to a conspicuously higher level of importance. It was a declaration of professional success and individual prosperity. In 1998, news of the subtle, elegant lines of the W 220, the successor to the W140, caused sales of the flagship to pick up again during the last months of production.