Empires fall, cultures morph and fashions change, but throughout it all one thing remains true – the undeniable mechanical brilliance of mid ‘70s Mercedes Benzes. Mercs from this era seemed hewn from granite and over engineered to the point of parody, traits which enabled the company to further burnish its reputation for mechanical know-how. There’s a very good reason why decent examples now command a premium on the classic car market, and an even better reason why these cars remain so sought after in Africa, namely the fact that this side of a Toyota Landcruiser, there’s little to match them in terms of honest to goodness reliability.
Mechanical reliability doesn’t mean that mid ‘70s Mercedes models are immune from the passage of time and racking-up of miles however, certainly if this particular W116 S-Class is anything to go by. A life spent dealing with the inclement British weather (and over zealous application of road salt by countless different highways agencies) meant that, while still relatively solid, it had begun to rust and rust with gusto.
The owner had a very set brief when it came to the Mercedes and our work on it; he wanted it to be pristine and standard, as good as when it was first built and sold well over 40 years ago. The reason? He planned to display it within his home, specifically within a purpose built viewing area, details of which you can find at the foot of this page.
This very car was bought by the same family that owns it to this day, and such they have a very special, emotional attachment to it. Countless family jaunts, holidays and school runs, all of these many, many more were conducted in the plush, cosseting luxury of this old school ‘Benz,’ so it’s no wonder that the family in question were so keen to bring it back to its former glory – it’s effectively a member of the family!
Getting the car to this lofty standard was no easy task, though it did begin in our customary manner – by stripping it down, then having the bare shell media blasted. This effectively gave us a blank canvass and the ideal starting point from which to begin the process of routing all traces of rot. There weren’t too many surprises in this respect, though it soon became clear that various areas had begun to show their age, the rust most pronounced around those areas and panels which had been repaired at an earlier point in time.
The full list of areas requiring attention was on the large side, though key points included the inner wings, bulkhead, headlight ‘bowls,’ the bottom of the A-pillars, inner arches, rear three-quarters and sections of the chassis legs, all of which had seen better days.
Restoring a car back to its former, immaculate and standard condition is actually a trickier undertaking than you might first imagine, even with Mercedes’ excellent parts support for older models. That said, the fact that Mercedes continue to cater to cars like the W116 long after they’ve ceased production meant that we were able to acquire certain panels brand new, including the three-quarters, the front valance and the rear panel.
Far harder were the alloy trims and brightwork, all of which either had to be sourced New Old Stock or restored back to factory condition – not the work of 10 minutes but obviously essential in terms of its overall appearance.
The engine, the M116 3.5l V8, was an intrinsic part of the S-Class ownership experience, a large, unstressed engine from a time before the mass market adoption of forced induction and when fuel injection (which it has) really did command massive pub bragging rights. There was no question of replacing it therefore, and we instead treated it to a careful strip down and rebuild, because sometimes – just occasionally – the manufacturer really does know best.
The paint is the exact same colour the W116 was painted with way back in 1973, a stunning shade called ‘Alpine Green,’ or as it has since come to be affectionately known by those tasked with working on it at Retropower, ‘Skinned Kermit Green.’
This being a restoration as opposed to a restomod, the vast majority of the S-Class’s running gear had to be retained, restored and re-fitted. This in turn meant the parts, from suspension uprights to hubs and wheels to transmission casings, also had to be media blasted and painted, then carefully checked before being bolted back onto the car. Doing this enabled us to appreciate the lengths Mercedes went to to make W116 feel suitably special at the time, including the temperature resistant paint applied to the inside of the block and the special tyres created for this, the very first S-Class, by Pirelli.
All of this paled into significance compared to the struggle we had trying to restore the big Merc’s interior. You can read more about it on our dedicated blog, but suffice it to say that completing the task satisfactorily was quite a challenge.
We completed the restoration of this stunning machine in the Spring of 2019, then returned it to its rightful (and original) owners. It’s always a special moment when you can return a newly finalised project of this type, though this particular delivery was made all the more special for said owners having built a special orangery in which to display it, hence the images below.
There can be no doubt that this S-Class constituted one of the more challenging restorations we’ve yet undertaken, what with the complexity of the now almost half-a-century-old systems running throughout, the dramas associated with sourcing the correct trim, and the myriad other, head-scratching individual elements demanded by such an exhaustive rebuild. We must admit to being especially pleased with the results however, and it’s a nice feeling to have helped keep an example of one of the rarer Mercedes offerings on the British roads. Or perhaps more correctly, in a British orangery!