Throwback Thursday: 40 years since the introduction of ABS in the W116 Mercedes-Benz S-Class


The history of the anti-lock braking system dates back to the turn of the 20th century when early concepts were developed for use on trains as a sort of “slip prevention measure”.

In the 1950s, its use was widespread in the UK aviation industry (known as anti-skid) as it significantly reduced stopping distance upon landing on icy or wet runways while reducing tyre wear.

British motorcycle maker, Royal Enfield, subsequently tested the similar Dunlop Maxaret anti-lock braking system used in the aviation industry on its motorcycles the next decade and the same results prevailed – braking distances were significantly.

Unfortunately it was deemed not feasible for motorcycle applications and the idea was scrapped.

Ford and British car maker, Jensen, also tried applying a fully-mechanical system in their cars but it was then deemed too expensive and unreliable for large scale production. Moving on, it was the aviation industry again that introduced the first fully electronic anti-lock system; this time on the iconic Concorde airplane.

The black steel wheels were painted as such to allow closer observation of how the anti-lock braking system worked.

Fast forward to 22-25 August 1978, together with Bosch, Mercedes-Benz presented the W116 S-Class which became the first production car to adopt an electronic four-wheel, multi-channel anti-lock braking system with one speed sensor and control valve for each wheel. The system was offered as an option then, costing more than RM 10,000 in the 70s.

Previous systems such as the three-channel, four sensor system consisted of two control valves for each of the two front wheels with the third valve controlling the two rear wheels.

In the words of Mercedes-Benz in a brochure about the anti-lock braking system, they explained, “The anti-lock braking system uses a computer to monitor the change in rotational speed of each wheel during braking. If the speed slows too quickly (such as when braking on a slippery surface) and the wheel risks locking, the computer automatically reduces the brake pressure.”

“The wheel accelerates again and the brake pressure is increased again, thereby braking the wheel. This process is repeated several times in a matter of seconds,” they added.

Whether it was in the wet, on snow or on most slippery conditions, ABS allowed the car to deliver the maximum possible brake force and braking efficiency, without the wheels locking up, while allowing the vehicle to be steered under emergency braking.

Two years later, Mercedes-Benz offered it as an option in every passenger car they produced while in 1981, the system was introduced in their fleet of commercial vehicles.

(1) Speed sensors for each of the front wheels (2) electronic control unit (3) hydraulic control unit (4) rear sensor

The use of a digital controllers instead of analogue electronics allowed the ABS system to be adopted on a mass-scale production with less complexity, better cost effectiveness and more importantly, improved reliability.

From October 1992 onwards, ABS became a standard feature in all Mercedes-Benz vehicles, paving the way for future introductions of other digital assistance systems such as Acceleration Skid Control (1985), Electronic Stability Program (1995), Brake Assist System (1996) and adaptive cruise control DISTRONIC (1998).


Pan Eu Jin

Pan Eu Jin

Regularly spend countless hours online looking at cars and parts I can't afford to buy. How a car makes you feel behind the wheel should be more important than the brand it represents - unless resale value is your thing.
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