When it comes to Benzes of the company’s Panzer era (pre-W210 and pre-V6), when quality was the name of the spiel, it seems Japanese clients were really keen on their W124s. I see more of those about than any other pre-V6 model – including the W123, the C-Class W201 or any S-Class (there seems to be more W126s than W140s around, by the way). OK, it does make sense in that one sees plenty of W124s, as they did build over 2.5 million of them.
But you know what they only made a few thousands of? The W124 cabriolet, a.k.a the A124. As per tradition, the cabriolet was supposed to be the most exclusive of the E-Class family, as it became known from this generation onward. It didn’t exactly pan out like that, though finding one is still a relatively uncommon occurrence, especially a pre-1993-facelift car. We’ve already had a very detailed CC about the W124 cabriolet courtesy of Brendan Saur, but it showcased a later 320 E. We’re ever the completists, at CC — especially when it comes to classic Benzes.
A quick historical recap on the W124, which reigned supreme over the luxury mid-size market for over a decade, might not be amiss. The saloon premiered in December 1984, followed by the wagon a year later; the hardtop coupé was shown at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1987. It is instrumental to our story, being the first short wheelbase W124 to see the day and being the basis for the crowning piece of the whole range, the cabriolet.
As the last variant to join the range, it took its sweet time to grace the world with its presence, being launched in late 1991, but only in continental Europe. The rest of the world, including North America, RHD markets and Japan (where the W124 was sold with LHD, to add to its snob appeal), had to wait an extra year to place their orders. Initially, the only available engine was a 24-valve 3-litre 6-cyl. that had replaced the 12-valve engine in 1989; Mercedes, quite sensibly, called the new drop-top 300 CE-24.
The Japanese market cabriolets were never fitted with the Euro-spec 3-litre but got a 3.2 litre motor instead. The same output (220hp) was extracted from the two engines, but the 320 CE was perhaps seen as more appropriate for Japanese consumption. The US and UK got both the 300 and the 320 in 1992-93; Continental Europe only got the 300. There may be a reason for all this complexity, but it escapes me.
It may have escaped the folks at Stuttgart as well, as when the W124 got a facelift in late 1993 and lost a lot of the chrome on its nose, the model lineup was simplified and everybody got the E 320, if they wanted a 6-cyl. engine. Some markets (Europe especially) were able to get a 4-cyl. as well (E 200 or E220, depending on the country), but the Benz range in places like North America or Japan were never burdened with such a lowly powertrain option.
The thing about the cabriolet being upstaged is that, even before it was launched in 1991, Mercedes had devised and started production of the W124’s actual range-topper, the V8-powered Porsche-built 500 E saloon. Compared to that monster, and its slightly less overachieving sister model the 400 E, even the rare AMG version of the W124 cabriolet was pretty much outclassed. There was also the ultra-rare LWB versions – some were airport taxis, but a number were also kitted out as genuine six-door luxury limousines. Nowadays, it appears that the 500s and the LWB limos are still the most sought-after W124 variants, and the rarest.
In the end, i.e. when cabriolet production ended in mid-1997, only about 34,000 units had rolled off Karmann’s assembly line, roughly half of which went abroad until exports were halted at the end of 1995. This particular one seems to have led the usual pampered Tokyo existence and was parked behind a car detailing business in my neighbourhood.
I’ve never seen a six-door limo here, but there are a bunch of 500s roaming about. Six-cylinder saloons and wagons are downright common, eerily so for a 30-odd-year-old foreign car. The two-door variants, be they the hardtop or the cabriolet, are comparatively scarce. I guess most Benz buyers who wanted an open-air experience opted for the R129 SL roadster, which in understandable. With its straight-6 and four (cramped) seats, the W124 convertible does have its charms, but whether one considers Benz drop-tops or the W124 range itself, the 320 CE cabriolet always was the second-best. Being the second-best of such an elite crowd isn’t half bad.