Old Nobility – Saloons of the 70s

Saloons of the 70s

The 1970s brought a lot of movement into the world of luxury-class saloons. With the W 116, Mercedes-Benz did more than just launch the S-Class name for the first time, Opel said goodbye to the luxury class for the time being with the Kapitän/Admiral/Diplomat B and Jaguar remained true to itself with the XJ Series 2. A look at three saloons of the 70s.

For the mostly solvent prospective buyers, the purchase of a luxury saloon is more a question of taste and detail. Would you rather be very luxurious on the road, would you prefer understatement or outward sportiness, would you rather be innovative or classic?

But in 1970, the market is increasingly changing. Whereas before brands liked to stay in their niches, manufacturers are opening up to a broader portfolio. It is not always successful to enter a new class or to give the brand image a new coat of paint. But they do exist, those brands that, in different ways, define the limousines of the 70s in the luxury class.

saloons OF THE 70S | MERCEDES-BENZ S-CLASS (W 116) | 1972-1980

Limousinen der 70er 1979 Mercedes-Benz 350 SE S-Klasse W 116 (31)

saloons of the 70s – THE NEW

Mercedes-Benz has been synonymous with the luxury class since the very beginning, and since 1972 with a new name: S-Class. Particularly in order to distinguish it from the smaller model series such as the E-Class and later the C-Class, the management around the Chairman of the Board of Management, Joachim Zahn, saw fit to give the luxury class the title of “special” or “special class”.

The 116 series replaces the W 108/109 models and initially comprises the 280 S, 280 SE and 350 SE variants. The 280 S and 280 SE were powered by the M 110 in-line six-cylinder engine with two overhead camshafts, which had previously made its debut in the W 114 series. The 350 SE was powered by the V8 engine M 116, followed six months later by the 450 SE with the more powerful 4.5-litre V8 engine M 117. In 1973, the 450 SEL and 350 SEL models also appeared with a 100-millimetre longer wheelbase for the benefit of passengers in the rear. From April 1974, the 280 SEL was also available as an extended version.


Two models in the 116 family stand out in particular. At the top from May 1975 was the 450 SEL 6.9 as the legitimate successor to the 300 SEL 6.3 (W 109).

The powerful 6.9-litre V8 engine, further developed from the proven 6.3-litre unit of the predecessor, achieved an output of 210 kW/286 hp and a maximum torque of 549 Newton metres. The hydropneumatic suspension with level control, used for the first time in a Mercedes-Benz passenger car, ensures maximum ride comfort. Like its direct predecessor, the 450 SEL 6.9 is an instant success: although it is more than twice as expensive as a Type 350 SE, 7,380 units are built during the four-and-a-half-year production period.

At the other, lower end of the spectrum, the 300 SD made its appearance from 1978. In response to the new US regulations limiting a brand’s fleet consumption, economical diesel engines are necessary.

As the first diesel engine in this vehicle class, the 3.0-litre five-cylinder from the mid-range 240 D 3.0 model is fitted with an exhaust gas turbocharger that boosts output to 85 kW/115 hp. This variant is only available in the USA and Canada.


The 116 series is packed with numerous innovations, especially in the traditional Mercedes field of safety. From 1978 onwards, the anti-lock braking system ABS, which was developed together with Bosch and guarantees the unrestricted steering ability of the vehicle even during emergency braking, is available. Today common in every car of any class, at its market launch ABS was a real sensation at the time.

In terms of passive safety, too, the S-Class with its integral safety concept marks the state of the art for the saloons of the 1970s: for example, the fuel tank is now installed above the rear axle in a collision-protected position; in the interior, heavily padded and deformable elements in the cockpit as well as a four-spoke safety steering wheel with impact cup ensure the greatest possible impact protection.

The most important improvement over the previous series, however, is the even stronger safety passenger cell with a stiffened roof frame structure, high-strength roof posts and door pillars, and reinforced doors. The energy absorption of the front and rear crumple zones is significantly increased by the controlled deformation capacity of the front and rear sections.

The 116 series is a great success for Mercedes-Benz. A total of 473,035 units rolled off the production line in Sindelfingen. The most successful model is the 280 SE with 150,593 saloons built, while the 350 SEL is the least popular with 4,266 vehicles. The 300 SD built for the North American market is sold a total of 28,634 times.

saloons OF THE 70S | Jaguar XJ Series 2 | 1973–1979

Limousinen der 70er 1974 Jaguar XJ 12 (9)

saloons of the 70s – THE CLASSIC

On the face of it, British manufacturers are often thought to have a tendency towards tradition. This is not entirely unjustified when you look at the Rolls-Royce or Bentley saloons, for example, across the decades. Jaguar is no exception when you look at the XJ luxury saloon.

In 1966, the first series of the XJ was launched as the last model developed by company founder Sir William Lyons. The basic exterior design remains similar until the X350 generation, which is phased out in 2009.

Now it is no malus to stick to the good, the tried and tested. After all, Porsche has been sticking to the basic 911 proportions for decades, Maserati to the analogue clock in the centre console. Rather, it is worthwhile to understand why these things have held on so much.

In the case of the Jaguar XJ, it has to be said that Sir William Lyons has achieved one last great feat. The lines are classic and timeless, sporty and elegant. The Series 2 is stooped, as if ready to pounce. The bumper, which is somewhat higher than in the first series, is due to the new safety regulations in the USA, which also had an effect on other saloons of the 1970s.


There is a choice of two six-cylinder and one twelve-cylinder engine. The smallest engine with a displacement of 2.8 litres is, however, only available in a few export markets; most vehicles are built and sold with either the 4.2-litre in-line six-cylinder or the V12 engine with a displacement of 5.3 litres.

With the six-cylinder, the customer still has the choice between short or longer wheelbase, while the twelve-cylinder is only available with the long wheelbase.

The small six-cylinder engine with its 104 kW/142 hp is admittedly a little weak on the chest to move the more than 1.5 tonne vehicle dynamically, but the additional 3.4 litre engine introduced in 1975 with just under 20 hp more provided a remedy.

At best, one could afford the V12 anyway; with the 211 kW/287 hp, the then almost two-tonne saloon became quite light when stepping on the accelerator.

Of the more than 90,000 XJ models built in the second series, only 14,000 were equipped with the twelve-cylinder engine. On the German market, the XJ 12 was the only car available with a twelve-cylinder engine for a long time. It was not until 1987 that competition came onto the market in the form of the BMW 750i (E32), and Mercedes-Benz even took its time with the 600 series 140 until 1991.

saloons OF THE 70S | Opel Kapitän/Admiral/Diplomat B | 1969–1977

Limousinen der 70er 1970 Opel Admiral 2.8 S (4)

saloons of the 70s – THE TRADITIONAL

While the saloons of the 70s were created in Stuttgart and the proven was further developed in Coventry, a chapter was closed in Rüsselsheim for the time being. According to popular opinion, the Kapitän, Admiral and Diplomat B – KAD B for short – marks the end of Opel’s luxury class history for the time being.

Die-hard Opelians will certainly protest, citing, not entirely unjustifiably, the Senator and its coupé sister model, the Monza. But even they will probably also concede that the Senator is rather pitted against upper mid-range cars like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class or the BMW 5 Series.

The three models, Kapitän, Admiral and Diplomat B, share the same body shape as the previous generation, which is why the three are also grouped under KAD. The different names characterise the different equipment variants, with the Kapitän offering the most basic equipment.

Opel soon realised that the luxury class and accountant’s equipment were not compatible and in 1970, the second year of production, the Kapitän was discontinued.

The 2.8 litre in-line six-cylinder engine with its 97 kW/132 hp or, with a second carburettor, 107 kW/145 hp output, but above all its mediocre equipment, had a hard time on the road and in the showroom.

In retrospect, for the sake of overtaking prestige, perhaps it is only so moderately clever to convey externally and by name which performance and equipment level is just coming up behind you on the motorway.

Opel’s Admiral ranks above the Kapitän. In addition to better equipment, the Admiral B also has a more powerful engine with 121 kW/165 hp through the use of Bosch’s D-Jetronic on request.

Saloons of the 70s – OPEL’S TOP DIPLOMAT

Above the two is the top model, the Diplomat. It is also available with the 121 kW/165 hp six-cylinder engine, but also – thanks to the US relationship – with a V8 engine from Chevrolet. The 5.4-litre unit produces 169 kW/230 hp, which is sent to the rear wheels.

The standard and optional equipment in the Diplomat is more than worthy of the luxury class. Standard features include automatic transmission and power steering, while almost all amenities such as electric windows, air conditioning or sunroof are available as optional extras.

Even though the Diplomat B is technically of high quality and on a par with its competitors – it is even priced more than 30 per cent below a comparable Mercedes – it is losing more and more ground to its competitors. This is certainly due to some extent to the American influence on the car, which cannot be transferred one-to-one to German automotive taste. Above all, however, it was due to the strengthening of the German competition. The reputation of being able to drive an S-Class W 116 from 1972 or a BMW 7 Series E23 from 1977 made many potential buyers look south.

The oil crisis of 1973 sealed the end of the KAD B series and in particular the Diplomat V8. The series continued to be built until 1977, but the glorious times of the Opel luxury class were never to be achieved again.

Photos Daimler AG, Jaguar Land Rover Deutschland GmbH, Opel Automobile GmbH

Author: Paolo Ollig

As editor-in-chief Paolo regularly writes about all the big and small stories related to classic cars and motorbikes. Classic dreams: Lamborghini Countach and Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.

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