Logic dictates that the Mercedes-Benz W140 coupés will be highly collectable cars in the near future.
The youngest of them is 20 years old now and as well as being the absolute technological flagship of the Mercedes range throughout the ’90s, they’re also quite a lot rarer than you might think: just 26,022 of these giant pillarless two-door four seaters were built between 1992 and 1999.
In fact, they’re quite a lot rarer than Mercedes ever intended them to be – because like the four-door W140 saloon they were derived from, these coupés had an image problem.
Here was a vehicle that was – in certain people’s eyes – symbolic of everything wasteful about western society at the end of the 20th century; a car which, particularly in 6-litre V12 form, became a poster child for four-wheeled capitalist excess in a world that was becoming increasingly aware of ecological issues.
If Swampy, the noted Newbury bypass protestor, had been asked to name a prime example of a glutinous, ecology-destroying behemoth, you can’t help but think this big Mercedes coupé would’ve been at the top of his list.
In fact, the W140 did have a ‘caring’ side to its character: it was the first Mercedes to feature CFC-free plastics and refrigerant for the air-conditioning.
Unfortunately, its detractors were more interested in pointing out that nobody really needed a 408bhp two-door coupé that was so long it required retractable antenna on its rear wings (to help its bloated plutocrat driver to park it) or so wide that its (heated) mirrors had to electrically retract themselves when it was being transported by rail, just in case they got damaged in a tunnel.
Reaction to the car was so poor that Greenpeace actually mounted a protest against it on the roof of the Sindelfingen manufacturing plant in 1995.
A chastened DBAG made sure that subsequent S-Class coupés were more conventionally attractive, more apologetic in tone and did not brim so gleefully with techno overkill. As one small example I offer the fact that the subsequent W215 CL coupés had side window glass that was not as thick as a single pane of the 140 Coupé’s famous double glazing.
With double wishbones and coils up front and the latest five-arm multi-link suspension at the rear, it was a car for which 5-litre V8 power was at first deemed sufficient: until, that is, it became obvious that the upstarts in Munich were about to trump Stuttgart with a V12-powered 7 Series.
Postponing the release date of the W140 saloon until 1991 gave Mercedes some breathing space to develop its own V12 (and bigger brakes) and also to ramp up the refinement and luxury factors in the face of opposition from the big V8 Lexus that could no longer be ignored.
This generation of S-Class is alleged to have cost $1billion in development; the production delays are said to have cost DBAG’s chief engineer his job.
Some 45lbs lighter and 3.8 inches shorter than the four-door S-Class, the C140 coupés made their debut at the Detroit Auto Show in 1992. The choice of an American show to launch the C140 reflects that nation’s appetite for big, luxurious two-door cars – and DBAG’s success there with previous incarnations of S-Class coupé – but they were never imported to the states in huge numbers, strangely.
The C140 production history is a bit confusing, although in material terms they changed surprisingly little over their seven-year run.
The initial SEC nomenclature linked the model to the previous W126 coupés. In 1994, they were re-designated ‘S’ coupés and then, confusingly, from 1998 to 1998 the CL500 and CL600.
Initially there was only the 500SEC and 600SEC; the short-lived S420 coupé would emerge in 1994 to extend the range downwards, but would be by far the rarest variety, with just 2496 built. There were no poverty variants of these cars, which were 25% more expensive than the W126 coupés they replaced.
All models had diamond-cut alloy wheels, double glazing, ‘close assist’ doors (and boot lid), dual-zone climate control and, on the 500 and 600, full Nappa leather as standard.
In fact, the options list was very short – no matter which engine you went for – and it’s interesting to note that these were the first Mercedes passenger cars to come with a radio as standard.
The orthopaedic seat, with inflatable cushions, was one of the more expensive options and the V12 version in its later years became the first Mercedes to have sat-nav as standard, followed by a ‘Linguatronic’ voice-control system.
The 600, with its proud ‘V12’ C pillar badges, was significant in that it was Mercedes’ first production 12-cylinder model in DBAG’s history and had several features as standard that were extra on the smaller-engined versions, including stability control; it was also the fastest four-seater production car in the world at the time, even after its 48-valve, four-camshaft (with adjustable inlet technology) engine was de-rated slightly to 394bhp a few months into production to curb emissions.
Keep in mind that Ferrari F40, a stark two-seater with no internal door handles, only had another 50 horsepower. It was also one of the safest cars on the road and from 1993 would be the first Mercedes with side airbags.
Rare, refined and brimming with technology there is a lot to recommend these cars. They’re cheap, too – although prices for good ones are firming up quickly.
But take care: a poorly maintained example can chew up and spit out even the most dedicated owners. Believe me, I’ve seen it happen. That’s probably why, even as somebody with natural leanings towards large cars, I have always avoided owning one.
I did get close to buying a 500 coupé for £2000 a few years ago. The owner was practically begging me to take it away by the time I had decided it wasn’t really ‘me’.
In this S-Class coupé, the Stuttgart engineers had left nothing to chance technologically and in many ways it represented a level of ambition they never reached for again. That alone is probably a good reason for buying one.
Pretty? No, and it is no use pretending this car is ever going to have the visual appeal or period glamour of a W111 coupé. But while that big, bold body may not represent Bruno Sacco’s finest hour, time has perhaps softened its impact.
In a world where there are so many huge and almost toxically unattractive modern cars, the C140 appears almost graceful. And no, I never thought I’d find myself writing that line.
Images: Malcolm Griffiths/Daimler AG