They were built in the same year, but have lived widely different lives. We drive a pair of unique W140 S420s – with a 400 000 km difference on their odometers – back-to-back.
Words: Wilhelm Lutjeharms
Images: Charles Russell
Astonishing things can happen when you share your passion for all things Mercedes-Benz with a fellow enthusiast… The story of how these cars were brought together began with a picture that was shared on WhatsApp. I was conversing with a friend who collects Porsches and Mercedes-Benz. His latest acquisition was, rather surprisingly, a W140-series S420. Surely there is nothing special about these cars? After all, the W140 is widely regarded as the most unloved iteration of the S-Class.
There’s no apparent reason why these cars should appeal to collectors. More than 14 000 S420s were produced between 1994 and 1998. If you are looking for a distinctive W140, it might be worth considering an S600 (3 399 made), or the S500 LWB landaulet, which was produced exclusively for the Pope...
In response to my misgivings about my friend’s latest acquisition, he explained that the car only had 32 877 km on its odometer. My frown disappeared; that is certainly an impressively low figure for such an old S-Class.
Incidentally, he had also received pictures of a W140 S420 that had racked up 425 926 km, nearly 400 000 km more than his. I immediately wondered how these two sedans, both of which were built in 1997, would compare. How would their driving- and ownership experiences differ? Would the high-mileage example have a storied maintenance history?
After several emails, a lot of waiting and some more emails, a message containing the details of the owner of the high-mileage example finally arrived in my inbox. Around three months later the “disparate” S420s converged.
From a distance the cars looked identical. After all, both are white, they have the same wheels as well as the same light grey coloured interior trim. But, would more significant differences come to light during the morning? Surely all the additional time on the road must have taken its toll on the high-miler?
The stories of these cars are as different as each owner’s approach to their respective cars. The low-mileage S420 now belongs to a collector (only the car’s second owner) and he purchased it early in 2016. It took almost a year to convince the previous owner to sell as his car, as he was, quite understandably, reluctant to part with his car. It fits neatly into the current owner’s garage, filled with a number of other Benzes, including older S-Classes such as a 300SEL 6.3 and 450SEL 6.9.
However, even he is impressed by what the owner of the much-used S420 has to say about his pride and joy. Before the S420 was passed on to him, his partner used the Benz to commute between Johannesburg in South Africa and neighbouring countries Botswana and Zimbabwe. The car’s high mileage can, by and large, be attributed to those long-distance journeys.
A number of years ago the car was relocated to Cape Town. One would suppose the S420’s southerly trek would have resulted in mollycoddling, but not so. The fairly young owner explains: “I have an active outdoor lifestyle, so when we head to the mountains in the Western Cape for rock climbing, long stretches of gravel is part of the journey to these remote places. In most cases I cave under peer pressure from my fellow climbers and we travel in the S-Class!”
That’s right, the S420 often sees gravel roads as its custodian further explains: “Owing to its size and weight the Benz feels utterly planted on the gravel roads. And, even on rough roads it still glides luxuriously, it soaks up most bumps”.
It was also during one of these trips that the S420 got a flat tyre … for the very first time. Having said that, the tyres hadn’t been changed for nearly ten years prior to that incident.
As the owner of the pristine S420 admits, it is great to hear that a car of that vintage is used regularly… and to undertake trips of such a nature. I thought I’d be told about a long list of the all the problems a high-mileage W140 has had compared to the possible few, little, problems of the less-used W140. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There had been no major problems at all!
As I open and shut the doors, all of them still close with that perfectly slow and distinguished suction. On closer inspection there are obviously a few marks and battle scars from the various roads, conditions, provinces and countries that this S420 has been exposed to.
The seats are marginally more cracked and show their age compared to those of W140s that have seen a lot less seat time, but, considering the Benz’s myriad “tours of duty”, there are remarkably few signs of wear and tear in the cabin.
Even though the car is used regularly, it racks up fewer miles than before, so the owner currently only takes it to Mercedes-Benz for a service every two years.
Granted, this might be the most unloved S-Class in one of the world’s most enduring and revered lineage of luxury cars, but the W140 has oodles of presence nonetheless. That attribute is probably owing to its sheer size, heft and squared-off design, and not because of any design flair.
The following order of business is to climb behind the wheel of the near-flawless S420. There is no hiding the size of this car, even from behind the wheel. The bonnet stretches out in front of you, while the vast cabin makes you feel extremely safe and protected. The sunroof, together with large and upright windows, further contributes to the voluminous cabin. Goodness, there is even enough space in the footwell to tap dance on and around the pedals (should the mood take you). This overall exterior design contrasts with those of a modern-day grand saloon, which feature sizeable metal panels and smaller glass areas.
As the W140 was developed in the late 80s into the early 90s, there is no infotainment screen like in today’s S-Class. The fascia features four dials while the upper and centre console has a unit for the air-conditioning system and one lower down for the audio system. The facelifted W140 (as seen here) did feature an infotainment screen, however, these two specific cars were not fitted with this system.
On the inside of the doors are the three buttons positioned in the form of the seat (in profile) and they allow occupants to set their preferred driving positions.
As I set off in the S420 and my foot leans on its throttle pedal, the luxurious behemoth confidently picks up speed in manner that I had expected it would. Gearshifts are executed in a rather slow manner, but in such a way that you, or any of the passengers, would barely notice them. At an indicated 100 km/h, the rev counter settles just below 1 900 rpm as the 4,2-litre, light-alloy V8 block makes the most of its torque reserve. It would be sinful to pin the throttle – it’s best to just sit back, relax, put on some music and take in the picturesque scenery.
The lack of rattles and creaks is impressive, plus the cabin insulation keeps road and engine noises to a bare minimum. You do sense that the car has been carefully cared for its entire life; fortunately that’s unlikely to change in future.
I stop next to the other S420 and expect to be subjected to a car that will show its age, and more importantly, its mileage, as it takes to the road. But as I set off in the high-miler, to my utter surprise, the driving sensation is exactly the same. The steering wheel and all the controls do show some signs of being wielded and operated repeatedly (the steering wheel still has that soft feeling if you press into its rim with your fingertips) throughout the Benz’s more than two decade lifespan, but, it is hard to imagine that this car has clocked up more than 10 times the mileage and endured countless more hours of the African sun than the other S420.
The smooth stretch of road ahead of us does have a few undulations, and it is only on these sections that I can discern a few more noises filtering through the cabin. Even the engine pulls as strongly as the pristine S420’s.
I take a look at the dashboard and centre console, and it looks exactly the same as the other S420. The only change the owner has make to the interior is the installation of a modern sound system compared to the standard audio unit – clearly a necessity when you hit the road less travelled (where there’s no radio signal) and your cassettes of the early-90s are kaput.
There are a few interesting technological facts about these W140s, considering that they were the in-between models (they bridge the gap between the classic, simplistic W126 and the much more advanced W220 that went into production in 1998). A prime example is the spare key/immobiliser, which is the size of a credit card, only somewhat thicker.
If someone had told me that the S420 with some patina had done only 100 000 or even 150 000 km more than the neat one, I would have believed them. From behind its steering wheel it demonstrates the solid build quality of these cars … even though they might be from a time when the era of “over-engineered” cars had already ended, at least as some enthusiasts will have you believe.
As the owner of the pristine example sums it up: “These are not collectable cars, but useable cars.” I can’t think of any other luxury sedan I would take on gravel road trips, let alone one from the 90s. If there was ever a specific car that proves it can be done, and an example of an S-Class that can do it, this W140 is it.
Mercedes-Benz S420 (W140)
Engine: M119, 4 196 cc, V8
Power: 205 kW at 5 700 rpm
Torque: 400 Nm at 3 900 rpm
Transmission: 4-speed automatic, RWD
Weight: 1 990 kg
0-100 km/h: 8.3 seconds
Top speed: 245 km/h
Fuel consumption: 11.7 L/100 km
Years produced: 1994 – 1998