The city of Stuttgart is not just the home of the historic Mercedes-Benz plant at Sindelfingen, but it also became Porsche’s base after the marque’s Austrian infancy. And back in the late ‘80s, Stuttgart’s second-biggest carmaker was not doing so well, for a myriad of reasons. So what was the neighborly thing to do? Ask Porsche to engineer and build the most bad-ass Benz four-door since the 6.3 litre W109.
Initially, Mercedes only needed Porsche to develop the blueprints for the car. It was a substantial job: Installing the the SL 500’s new 5-litre V8 (paired with the 4-speed auto, no manual version was planned) into the W124 required some structural strengthening. In order to accommodate a true dual exhaust system, the floor pan required some changes, including a small widening of the central tunnel where the exhaust hugged the driveshaft.
The engine, which was premiered in the fourth generation SL in 1989, was a 4973cc DOHC V8 providing the rear wheels with 322hp, which was about 100hp more than the next-biggest W124, the 300 E-24. That was quite a lot of extra cavalry, so everything else had to follow suit: shocks, brakes and tyres had to be beefed up, often using SL parts.
These internal changes ended up having an impact on the outside of the car: the fatter tyres and wider track required flared fenders and there was a larger front air dam with integrated fog lamps. Because the 500 E needed so many modifications and ended up wider than the standard-body W124, Mercedes-Benz decided it would be more practical to not tie up their efficient mass-production W124 lines with it by building it in-house. As luck would have it, Porsche’s Zuffenhausen plant, the former Reutter works, were severely underutilized.
So, from late 1990, a strange ballet started taking place around Stuttgart. Trucks left M-B with bare W124 shells and 500 E-specific parts (as well as a few R129 suspension bits) for Reutter, where the floor pan was cut, widened and welded back together, and the body was assembled. The cars were then trucked to Sindelfingen, where they were painted. The painted 500 Es shells, along with the engines and transmissions, then travelled back to Porsche’s Rössle-Bau works, where they used to make 959s, so that the suspension, interior and drive train could be fitted to the cars. They were subsequently sent back to M-B for a final inspection.
Befitting its role as an exclusive high performance sedan, the normal W124 seats, which were rather flat and had limited bolstering, were replaced by Recaro seats, covered in real leather and heated.
The rear seats (which I stupidly did not capture, but here’s a shot of a 500 E rear seat from the web) were initially also unique to the 500 E. They are deeply contoured to match the front, and have a console between them, making the 500 E a four-seater. This package of four deeply contoured seats was first used on the 500 E, but then became available on all W124 sedans as part of the Sportline package, which also included suspension changes.
There are a lot of W124s still on the road there – as is the case in many countries. It’s a daily sight, pretty much. After all, these were still made back when Mercedes-Benzes were literally over-engineered and built like Swiss watches. But the 500 E is a W124 of a different kind, and a far less common catch at that, though apparently Japan probably has the highest concentration of these exclusive cars on the planet.
Now the issue was selling this beast. The handmade nature of the car, as well as the multiple journeys across Stuttgart, meant that manufacturing a 500 E was an 18-day process and that Porsche could deliver a maximum of 12 units per day. This meant that the price of these exclusive machines was set at DM134,500 in late 1990 or, by the time it crossed the ocean, US$83,000 (1992 list price, plus “gas guzzler tax”).
With prices like that, i.e. close to a Bentley Mulsanne, sales figures were going to be comensurate, but Mercedes had a plan: Porsche were tasked to engineer a slightly smaller V8-powered W124. The 400 E, whose version of the M119 was brought down to 4196cc, was a bit less wild and, crucially, lacked the flared fenders that meant the 500 E could not be built on M-B’s regular W124 line. The price was consequently much lower, but so was the prestige, in a way…
In late 1993, the entire W124 family was facelifted; the easiest to spot change being the switch from orange to transparent front turn signals housings. Consistent with Mercedes’ new nomenclature, the 400 E and 500 E became the E 420 and the E 500 (as seen and caught above and below this very month). Model year 1994 was the final one for Japan and the US, though the big W124s carried over into 1995 for other markets.
There was only one even more exclusive E-Class: the 1993-94 AMG E 60, with its 380hp 6-litre V8. The 500 E / E 500 was not a hit in its home country, but over 1500 were shipped to America and Japan received about 1200 between 1992 and 1994 – the only two markets where the model topped 1000 sales.
Japanese sources claim that there was such an appetite for these cars here that many more were privately imported. Some claim that about a third of the 10,479 units made between 1990 and 1995 have now made it to Japan, which, if even ball-parkingly true, is quite startling. It’s worth noting that some of the cars featured in this post lack a yellow Yanase sticker, which one regularly finds on M-Bs imported from new into this country, like on the 500 E above that I caught back in November.
And it’s a fact that I’ve seen a few 500 Es about Tokyo, whereas I don’t know that I had ever seen one before I moved here last year. The majority of W124s prowling the pavement here are still of the 4-, 5- or 6-cyl. kind, but it seems this is the only country that really took a shine to the chunky V8 cars, no doubt because it’s the ultimate Schläfer for the sizable population of wealthy Benz otaku living in Tokyo.
Personally, the 500 E leaves me nonplussed. I don’t see the need to go from 0 to 100kph in 6 seconds, I’m not particularly keen on flared fenders in general and losing the rear middle seat feels rather silly for a four-door car. That’s ok; it just leaves more of these monsters for people who love them. Give me a W109 instead – even a 6-cyl. one. I’m not picky.
In-Motion Classic: Mercedes 500E – Not Your Average W124, by Chris O’Bryant
COAL: 1992 Mercedes 400E – The Sleeper Jim Klein