Cars are historical objects, and they do a great job of holding onto the zeitgeist of their production years. A Jaguar XKE exudes the Brit invasion, the Spa 1000km 1965, and all kinds of shared memories of the 1960s. It’s a major reason why the XKE sits often in the limelight while its successor, the XJS, was born in the context of post-Watergate confusion.
Certain retain memories of their context better than others. Growing older can be a whitewashing experience. Rust eats history. Look at this Chevrolet Cavalier – it doesn’t bring to mind the Reagan years, it doesn’t hold onto the mid 1980s; it’s filled with poverty of 2011, of budgeting, of life with a beater.
There is not so much to objectively separate this Mercedes 280 S from any other old car. It has the same dents and faded paint, wearing the same patina of decades on the road.
Does the aerodynamic efficiency of this cars shape have anything to do with how people think about it? Does its ABS brakes change how people look at it?
I think the car’s identity has a lot to do with that three-pointed star up front. That this car is a Mercedes, and a big, top of the line (in body style but not engine) sedan gives this Sonderklasse most of its meaning to me and to the people who walk by.
Why should a name and a little hood ornament be such dominating aspects of this car’s stature and appearance? Like all cars, this Mercedes plays a lot on memory, and the memories of this car elucidate the contributing factors to its nature.
Jack Baruth described this specific kind of luxury appeal in one of his old articles on Speed:Sport:Life.
The initial virtue of the Mercedes-Benz was simply that it cost more and everybody knew it. By putting a Benzo in one’s driveway, one was declaring that one had not only forgotten the vagaries of the now-discredited American luxury ladder, one had soared well above it on a refreshing wave of cold cash. The 220D, 300SE, or 450SL might be outstanding cars, but that was beside the point. The point was that they cost more. I cannot stress this enough. They were not necessarily “better”. The Cadillac deVille of 1975 was larger, roomier, faster, quieter, more comfortable, and probably more reliable than any Mercedes-Benz available on these shores, but it mattered not, because the Benz was more prestigious due to its cost. By 1984 or thereabouts, there was only one genuine way to climb to the top of your neighborhood heap, and that was to drive a Benz. Period. For those unlucky shlubs who couldn’t afford the double-deVille price necessary to put a sixty-three horsepower, vinyl-interior, stick-shift 240D in their driveways, it was possible to still proclaim disdain for the American “tanks” by driving a Saab, a Volvo, or perhaps even an Audi – but Mercedes-Benz stood alone at the prestige pinnacle, and nobody doubted it.
This body style only went up to 1980, so complete yuppiedom eluded it, but even as a used car S-classes like this captured a particularly capitalist spirit. That the Mercedes badge was associated with solidity and engineering made it a perfect fit for technological consumerism.
In the decades since its arrival in the states, this Mercedes-Benz has stayed a real symbol of the upper crust. As it depreciated, it only worked its way down the corporate ladder, becoming a more and more aspirational car, full of dreams of having some culture and a lot of dough.
Sometimes these S-class sedans would go on sale at bargain basement prices, and, distanced from the honest admiration of the 1970s, their vast, heavy image became a somewhat comical feature, with its stern gaze looking with too furrowed a brow to be taken seriously.
Still, this car has played with these images only because it holds onto them so tightly. All that money it cost back in 1978 dwells ghostlike in this car, no matter how much it is casually driven, or dented. Someday all of its class will wear off and it will be forgotten. Telling it from a Ford Granada will be as hard as telling a 1930s LaSalle from a contemporary Oldsmobile. Not yet though.
Here’s that aforementioned article: http://www.speedsportlife.com/2008/10/31/avoidable-contact-19-rich-corinthian-swaybars/