Unexpected Features: The American Diesel S-Class

America and diesel Mercedes-Benz cars go quite a way back. Even before the much touted 240D W123, the car that made crossing state lines less interrupted than ever before – until you can’t find a diesel pump in the middle of Arizona of course, the 190D and others seemed to hold a special and marque-loyal interest to Americans in a way similar to the French diesels here in the UK. It was the pinnacle of sensible superiority.

A W120/W121 180/190d, showing true pre-crossover ruggedness.

Naturally the rest of Europe got these diesel versions too, with our being conscientious and whatnot. It was only that we were so sensible that, often, we prudently settled for Peugeot and Citroën smokers instead.

In that theme, I suppose, it happened to be that the oil crises of the 70s and general permeating sense of responsibility seeping through American fat-cats’ hitherto impenetrable bubbles of wealth and consumption forced a rethink of the ‘full-sized’ car over there. Indeed, it was dared to challenge the idea of a 400+ cubic inch V8 being the sole source of wafting progress in Cadillacs and even imported luxury cars.

While the domestic manufacturers were tinkering with diesel engines from trucks, cramming them into Lincoln engine bays, all while balancing a dictionary open on the word ‘economic’, Mercedes-Benz brought in some rather more refined powerplants; refined, indeed, over decades of development. The famous OM617 5 cylinder turbodiesel slotted into the W116 – the first ‘S-class’ – model rather nicely, creating the 1978 ‘300SD’, and was able to talk the torque (228-230nm) enough to keep company with the petrol versions, aside from the two-cigars at once 6.9 petrol V8 range-topper, the 260-280hp of which made the 111hp (121 in 1979) of the 300SD look rather like an ultra-slim cigarette. Nonetheless, so began an American diesel S-class saga that would last 13 years.

Frank-Lloyd Wright’s Zimmerman House, a perfectly secluded location for your diesel Mercedes-Benz and exotic lifestyle
A W126 300SD. A more torquey 350SD came in 1991.

The following, much more modern, W126 S-class, came straight out of the boxes with the diesel engine from its forebear in 1980, then soon after being revised to 250nm torque and 125hp.

A new OM603 straight six arrived in 1986, and by now was attracting attention from more than just those moustache adorned, Frank-Lloyd Wright accommodated, Eastern-Asian-sourced spectacles wearing types. However, if you were someone of such taste in those days, a conscientious luxury juxtaposition-mobile was unavailable if you were unfortunate to live in Europe, arguably the home of such taste.

We had to suffer beautifully crafted six, eight and twelve cylinder petrol Mercedes-Benz models, one after another, until finally the W140 S-class of the 1990s gave the continent a S300 & S350 turbodiesel (not what you think; the 24 valve 300 is more powerful). The UK had to wait even longer. Of course, we enjoyed various other diesel models further down the range, but in the black & white way in which we’re all often susceptible to think, it seems odd that it was only in America that for so long Mercedes-Benz’s ‘finest car in the world’ was available with arguably the finest diesel car engine in the world. And then, abruptly wasn’t. The W126 was to be America’s last real taste of diesel S-class. Some modern appetisers didn’t go down well, such as the one-year special W221, and now Mercedes-Benz has quit the American diesel game for good.

A W140 turbodiesel, for mainland Europe only.


Differences in auto offerings between international markets seems to draw special interest, marvelling and envy out of the car enthusiast. Certain brands, models, engines, even before comparisons of roads, traffic, rules, coagulate in their complexity into popular terms like JDM, NA spec’, Euro spec’, each with their own connotations of theme. Think NA spec, think V8 Land Rovers, Americanised Renaults-come-AMCs, think of those wonderfully cushy domestic-built land-yachts, and deco design icons. German diesel exclusive doesn’t seem to fit in with that theme. For Americans, the Mercedes-Benz ‘SD’/turbodiesel is then all the more special, complete with its own Euro-spec marvel and envy – one that is usually directed the opposite way across the Atlantic. Meanwhile we’ll have to make do over here with our still luxurious but slightly conscientious diesel 20th century E-class estates, because, after all, there is all of that Old World vintage furniture for us to carry around at the weekends.

If you enjoyed this article, why not check out some others?
– and stay tuned for more in the Unexpected Features series

Remember to follow me on Facebook and Instagram too

Car photography courtesy of Mercedes-Benz & Daimler


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.