(first posted 6/5/2013) Superlatives make great headlines; backing them up is another story. But is it even necessary, in the case of the W124? What other car designed
thirty thirty-five years ago still looks so fresh and contemporary? And whose all-round capabilities even come close? And whose obvious influence on just about every modern car is so widespread? Need I go on? It’s not really necessary, but maybe there’s a few doubters…
During the same 1980-1985 time period during which GM was going through its revolutionary switch to front wheel drive, Mercedes-Benz was also going through something of a revolution of its own. It wasn’t quite on the scale of GM’s, but during this period Mercedes very substantially redefined its cars, for a new era that demanded more efficiency, comfort, amenities and dynamic qualities. This period yielded what many consider some of the best cars ever from Mercedes.
The first was the 1980 W126 S-Class, which was decidedly sleeker, narrower, more aerodynamic and efficient than its rather bulky W116 predecessor. And its amenities were much more to the expectations of American luxury car buyers. But under the skin, it still owed much of its drive train and suspension technology to its predecessor.
Two years later, Mercedes unveiled the compact 190 (W201), its first step into the compact market in modern times. This was a huge new step for a conservative company whose products had always been in the upper-middle to premium class. The 190 was a completely new car in every way, except perhaps the transmission. It premiered a new multi-link independent rear suspension that became the gold standard, and widely influential. But the 190 was very compact by modern standards, with limited rear leg room. As such, it was something of a minor dud in the American market. Or perhaps it just challenged the conventional wisdom of what a Mercedes should be to well.
The heart of Mercedes’ line (and profits) was of course the golden middle, and the W123 represented the end of a line that went back to…well, it’s hard to say exactly, as each model change was both significant yet decidedly evolutionary. It’s perhaps a particular Germanic quality to espouse new technology while being conservative at the same time. But by the early-mid eighties, the W123 had become a bit of a neo-classic, with all the qualities that Mercedes were famous for–anvil-like structural solidity, high quality materials, unshakable suspensions– as well as being stodgy and not exactly fun to drive, unless it was perhaps to Tierra de la Fuego (and back).
So there was a lot riding on its successor, the W124. It was clearly a huge change from the W123 and its lineage; a clean-sheet new car in every almost every way possible, despite the similarity to its predecessor in its basic configuration. Bruno Sacco’s design was a text-book case of design following function, yet looking very handsome in the process.
The W124 body was given two priorities: reduced weight and improved aerodynamics. That Mercedes was able to shave several hundred pounds out of a car the same size as its predecessor–yet with substantially improved rigidity–alone was a very significant accomplishment. Undoubtedly, the use of modern CAD and high-strength steel helped make that possible.
Mercedes put its pioneering experience in aerodynamics to exceptional use on the W124. Its CD of as low as 0.28 was exemplary, especially for a RWD sedan. And its narrow but tall body made no concessions to passenger space, comfort and visibility in the quest of aerodynamic slipperiness.
The W124’s tall and pinched tail are key aspects to its aerodynamics, and created a template that was soon imitated to one extent or another by most subsequent sedans the world over. Of course, it’s been taken to a much more extreme extent in recent years, but at the time this was a radical change from the status quo.
The front end was dramatically sleeker than any Benz sedan before it. The aesthetic result perhaps wasn’t quite as successful as its rear end, in part because Mercedes kept the traditional radiator “grille”. Maybe it should have been ditched, but that might have been a step too far for most Mercedes buyers. Eventually, it would, on an increasing number of Mercedes sedans.
Under the hood there were more big changes. The all-new M103 SOHC was a huge departure from the past, especially in terms of what Americans had been offered. Most W123s sold here were diesels, the top model being the 300 TD, with the five cylinder turbo-charged diesel. The 280E was available, but its engine had been severely emasculated, and was not very popular. Now the volume W124 was the 300E, with 177 hp from its 3 liter six, not much less than Ford and Chevrolet’s top-tier 5 liter V8s. Mercedes took one leap from glorified taxi cabs to the most dynamic sedan in the world.
Mercedes’ first priority may have been improved efficiency, but the other benefit from the aerodynamics and new engine was speed. The 300E had a solid 140 mph (225 km/h) top speed, which made it the fastest regular production four-door sedan in the world at the time (unless someone can prove me otherwise). And it did that with utter composure; 140 had never seemed so relatively uneventful.
And it wasn’t a slouch in acceleration either: 0-60 was recorded by various magazines between 7.6 and 8.5 seconds, excellent for the time. Yes, a Camry V6 would blow it away today, but this all has to be seen in the context of its time, when America was just awakening from its Malaise slumber (or bad dream). Even today, a 300E’s performance envelope is still very contemporary; never mind the later E320, E400 and E500 models.
If those weren’t fast enough, AMG released the legendary Hammer in 1986, with a 32 valve version of the 5.6 L Mercedes V8. With a top speed of 190 mph, it quickly took the fastest-sedan mantle and kept it for some time.
If you’re going to drive fast, its nice to know one is doing it in the safest sedan of the time too. The W124 had ABS braking for its superb four-wheel discs. Its safety features were well ahead of the times, with one of the first SRS air bags (steering wheel), a belt-tensioning system, and the most advanced crumple zone and and safety cell of the times.
The Mercedes multi-link rear suspension alone qualifies it for the honor I’m bestowing on it: It was a revelation as well as a revolution. Up to this point, the typical semi-trailing arm IRS was inevitable far from perfect, too much camber change and other limitations resulting most typically a tendency to bring on oversteer in critical situations, especially in trailing throttle curves, never mind with the brakes on hard . BMWs were classic representatives of this habit; it wasn’t nearly as treacherous as the old swing axles, but it could be surprising and tricky in the hands of the un-initiated.
Mercedes’ jumble of links controlled the rear wheels almost perfectly, like no other IRS had ever done before, under any and all circumstances. It was the W124’s uncanny ability to keep its rear wheels planted at the rear, no matter how rough the road, tight the curve, accelerating, or braking–or all of the above simultaneously–that most impressed me (and others) about its abilities.
I often found myself (sought out, actually) on very rough, winding back-country roads in the remote hills, deserts and mountains of California, and the ability of my 300E to stay composed and collected was utterly unlike any car available at the time, and a giant leap ahead of the rest. It engendered a sense of profound security, as well as superiority. Yes’ I knew I was driving a car like none other at the time. And yes, it’s colored my feelings for it; now and then. Back to the facts…
There were so many other ergonomic touches that made high speed driving safer, like the seat controllers in the door (two memory buttons not shown on this one). Utterly brilliant, and totally intuitive: one could instantly feel with the fingers how to move the seat cushion, back and headrest in the desired direction without any fumbling or trial and error; something quite important at speed.
The W124’s interior certainly wasn’t “clubby” like a Jaguar, or bordello-plush like American broughams. It exuded the Northern European aesthetic sensibility that may have seemed stark to Americans at the time, but clearly represented the direction most interiors would soon take–goodbye bordello-red crushed velours.
Taste is subjective, and the W124’s cabin may not to be everyone’s liking, but it certainly doesn’t look as dated as most cars from 1985 or so, by a long stretch. Or do I have to show examples of that to prove it? I think not.
I can’t resist showing this, though, as it really does very graphically illustrate the difference in design philosophy at the time between Mercedes and GM. We’ve covered the issues that resulted in the 1985 Cadillac, but the results are graphic. And these are fairly accurate in proportion: the DeVille was ten inches longer than the W124. And yes, I’m cheating by showing a Coupe DeVille, but that’s what I have at hand, and its roof line is the same as the sedan’s.
Of course any resemblance of Cadillac’s next new sedan– the 1992 Seville –to the W124 is strictly a figment of my warped, GM-hating imagination. GM would never stoop so low to be influenced by Mercedes, right? Oh, well; too little, too late anyway.
Yes, the W124 was Mercedes’ biggest breakthrough car in the US ever, coinciding with the years of the biggest collapse of Cadillac’s market share. I don’t have sales stats available, but the W124 sold very well, considering its lofty pricing ($75+ k, adjusted). And they seem to still be everywhere; here, at least. The high-class Cockroaches of the Road™.
Now, that’s not to say it was perfect; especially so at the start. Mercedes must have anticipated the immense challenge of maintaining the W123’s legendary build quality, because it withheld the W124 from America in its first year. A very good call, it turns out. Taxi drivers in Germany were in a minor uproar over niggling quality issues with first-year W124s. I don’t remember exactly what they were, but then they were a bit spoiled by the W123’s decade-long run, which resulted in impeccable quality.
And although Mercedes scrambled to address all of them and keep the taxi drivers happy, there were still a few issues in the early models that came to the US. My ’86 had one recall for a front suspension part, if I remember correctly. And like so many of the early 300Es, it developed a sudden thirst for oil that was caused by leaking valve guides. That was readily fixed by MBZ under an extended warranty program, as it was quite common until the material was changed on that part a couple of years into production.
But other than that, I have no recollection of any repairs–other than routine maintenance– over six years and 140,000 (very hard) miles. And at the end, it still felt every bit as tight and solid as the day I picked it up.
I neglected to mention the other engines available in the W124. Of course in other parts of the world, that started very modestly, with the four cylinder 200, in either gas or diesel versions. But in the US, the lowliest W124 was the 300E 2.6 (also badged 260E later), a somewhat de-contented version with the smaller 2.6 liter six to lower its price a bit.
Although there was a huge switch in priority from diesels to gas versions in the US with the W124, it was available as a diesel too, and a very impressive one for the times. The 300 D Turbo had the smooth new six-cylinder engine, which was the most powerful of its kind anywhere at the time, and made the the 300D Turbo the world’s fastest diesel sedan (IIRC some 130 mph, or close to it). It did have some issues with its particulate trap filter that MBZ fixed under a recall.
It was later replaced by the 250D Turbo, a five cylinder version of the same family, and with a better balance of performance and economy. It is particularly sought after now among the MBZ diesel crowd.
Tha version is readily identifiable by its front fender vents. Their purpose? I’m trying hard to remember. They must have been functional, given Mercedes. Someone here will know.
And a few years later, the 400E came along, with its creamy-smooth 4.2 L V8. It wasn’t so much about drastic increases in performance, but about refined and luxurious forward thrust. Undoubtedly, the Lexus LS 400 had a lot to do with its existence, which rather played havoc on Mercedes’ whole strategy and pricing. But that’s a story for another time.
The same year, Mercedes also unleashed the über-W124, the 500E, whose development and assembly very much involved Porsche. Its bulging fenders hinted at its capabilities, and the 5.0 L V8 gave it blistering performance and a governed top speed of 160 mph. No; I haven’t found one here recently. They became almost instant classics, with only some 10,000 built over its five year run.
I’ve skipped over all the engine variants, as the list is very long. But the book ends are the 72 hp 200D, and 326 hp 500E; quite the spread. But even the weakest of them couldn’t mask the intrinsic abilities of this platform. It might take a while to get up to speed, but a lowly 200D was still happiest on the open autobahn, and could hit some 100 mph or so.
There were of course other body variants as well. The sleek CE coupe sat on a shortened wheelbase. The Sentra in front of it is just one of so many examples of how the W124’s tail soon appeared everywhere, with the distinctive trapezoidal tail lights, an angled trunk lid dropping down between them, and high-mounted license plate on the lid.
The coupe begot the Cabriolet, which continued in production for some years after the W124 sedans and wagon were succeeded by the blobby W210.
And last but not least, one of nicest wagon designs ever: the T version. If I’d gotten one instead of the sedan, I might still have it, given what a superb dose of practicality it injected in the W124’s other fine qualities. And if I ran across a really nice one now, it might break my long W124 dry spell. They say you can’t go back, especially some thirty years, but the W124 wagon makes a compelling argument against it.
Maybe this is a good place to stop, because the W124 story is endlessly long, literally. I fully expect them to be on the streets thirty years from now. And then maybe I’ll take up the story again–if I’m still around–and I can argue how the W124 was the best car of the last sixty years. That might not be all too hard.
I still kick myself in the ass for not getting the uber-rare convertible model (94-96) five years ago as my ‘welcome to middle age’ present…..
Check Craigslist Dave M., sure there’s head-in-the-clouds sellers trying to get $13k for a w124 convertible but there’s nice ones coming up in the $4000 range. I own a black on black 1995 E420 I picked up 3 years ago for $1500. It’s far & away the most bang for the buck car out there. Ive loved it so much
I got a matching 95 wagon last week
W124s exude elegance in design. The sound of the door shutting, the nice snick of the gear selector, the soft hills & valleys on the diagonal-cut ignition key all make for tactile satisfaction
That key is a big plus. W124 was the last generation using conventional non-electronic no chip key technology. The laser etching is hard to pick and still affordable. A genuine factory hardened-steel replacement key from Mercedes made from the vin number and express shipped to the dealer was only $28 and there in 2 days. Place your order at the dealer, enjoy a free latte and mineral water in the showroom lounge,do the same when the key’s ready and its like getting a free key
Electronic keys on new cars can set you back Hundred$ of Dollar$
I could just stare at these cars forever… As you explained in great detail, they were revolutionary in so many ways. They were the car I always thought of when I thought of “Mercedes” as a kid. My elementary school principal drove one in a color similar to the 1st photo.
I’d kill to own one today. Residual values are pretty high considering they’re quarter-century old cars.
Funny, our Vice Principal drove one in the same color too….
One of my cousins had the hardtop variant. Of course I longed for one, but then again, I’m not a doctor…
You also show a photo of the plane my old air force outfit flew and I supported – the SR-71 Blackbird!
You know you’re getting old where, at the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, the names mentioned on the plaque accompanying their SR-71 exhibit – I knew them and supported them!
You’re killing me, Paul!
This is going to be a long day…
Did you know Francis Gary Powers ?
Brilliant write up (as ever) on a hugely influential car. I’ve always kind of fancied an E-class estate of this gen myself – handsome cars…
… I’d humbly suggest however that the “the most advanced crumple zone and and safety cell of the times” claim might be a result of your enthusiasm getting the better of you. The Merc’s safety features were undoubtably ahead of the pack, but compare the substantial passenger cabin deformation visible in the W124 crash test image with similar side shots of the contemporary Volvo 740 and Saab 9000 crash tests (below) and it reminds you how (back in the mid 80s) the Sweedish rep for paramount safety wasn’t just marketing fluff. It really did take others (including MB) a while longer to catch up.
You can’t compare photos from completely different crash tests! The Merc above is the modern offset test of 64km/h into a deformable barrier. The photos you posted are the older style direct head on.
Old 50km/h into solid barrier:
Old Head On into solid barrier:
Watch this for an accurate comparison: http://youtu.be/LQH6MLTSDZ4
you are cheating those are full frontal crash tests
plus the saab 9000 was the fraùme of the ancient fiat croma even if it was a very reliable car that had an excellent handling and road hold and comfort that rivaled mercedes the frontal crash test was catastrophic of the saab 9000 /fiat croma alfa 164 / lancia Thema chassis
volvo had a slightly better result but proved poorer in handling and roadhold
mercedes side protection was poor and obsolete at that time the saab 9000 had abetter side protection (doors with doorbars and reinforced B pillar)
That’s true for the Fiat/Alfa/Lancia, but the Saab was re-engineered. It did well in the crash tests unlike its siblings, and it doesn’t share a lot of parts in the front end because of how much it was modified. The Top Gear episode on SAAB mentions how their tendency to redo things that were already done by their parent companies ended up spelling their bankruptcy. Not only did they redesign bodies, they went as far as making navigation systems from scratch because the ones provided by GM “weren’t good enough”.
I hate to digress here – I thought the Volvo 700/900 Series was the safest car in the world during the late ’80s/early ’90s. (At least that’s what my Volvo mechanic told me)
At the Auto Motor und Sport crash test published in 1990, the W124 and Volvo 740 had similar results overall. The 9000 had much a much worse result 2 years later, even in revised CS version with airbag.
I never crashed any 9000s, in eight years of driving them. Maybe that proves what a safe car it was? ; >
The big difference I see with the SAAB was the generous amount of open space under the hood, around and in front of the transverse four. You could see a lot of crush space. Those Merc photos show an engine compartment crammed full, IMHO. But I’d consider either a safe choice, except for the lack of side airbags. Sideswipes, T-bones and other side impacts have so much potential for harm. Too bad– there’s so much I love about this era of car design and styling, otherwise.
Now that I’ve checked to see that mid-’90s Mercs did have side air bags, and I’ve seen the used prices, I’m asking myself why I drive a VW. Dang you, Paul!
TAXI! Even now, some of them still run as taxis, and those that left service are now in Southern Europe and North Africa, doing the same thing. Very hard to break.
The W201 was apparently very overengineered, and, clearly, so was the W124.
Unfortunately, they were the last Benzes to be designed like that: make a no-excuses good car. Already towards the end of the W124’s life, it seems MB decided to abandon this strategy, as, well, almost the entire motoring industry had been doing for years. The youngest W124s, post-1992 (renamed E-Class), unlike the original, commonly have rust issues, although not to the extent its ridiculously rusty successor did. Even without Roger Smith or Ignacio Lopez.
I agree regarding post-’92 W124. Another big issue: bio-degradable wire insulation! Quite a few owners had to change whole wiring loom in the engine bay because of this…
the engine wiring harness was particular to the M104 twin cam, 24 valve in-line 6 cylinder engine. I had to replace one on my 1994 E320 sedan. The car was out of warranty, of course, but the dealer did the installation for free and I bought the harness itself. Still that was well over $400 in 1999.
In Europe, wiring harness problem was known for E 280, E 220, even some diesels.
Also, SL models (another “last real Benz” 🙂 ) had same problems.
The wiring issue actually affected ALL Mercedes from 93-97, with the exception of the M103 powered holdovers like the 4Matics. I-4, V8, I-6 gas, diesel, they all had it. The whole car was wired with the stuff but only the harnesses that were exposed to high amounts of heat near the engine went bad. Generally the main harness, lower harness, aux fan harness and DBW throttle body wiring.
There was another rather weird issue reported in UK – dashboard fires!?! Explanation is as follows: it is due to a un-fused connection to the boot courtesy light. The power cable runs in a curved tube alongside the boot hinge on the drivers side and after a period of time (opening and closing the boot lid) this cable shorts to earth, which results in the power lead heating up and the resulting fire is started at its un-fused connection to the fuse board in front of the driver and to the right of steering wheel.
But, honestly,even with huge number of W124s ( almost all pre -’92) running here, I have never heard of such problem happening to anybody.
A very enlightening morning read.
I must confess that when these came out, all I saw was a modern replacement for a “classic” Mercedes, and they did nothing for me. I was a W116 guy (to the extent that I could be considered a Mercedes guy at all) and could deal with the W123 OK too.
But as I read your piece on this car, it starts to come together – all right there to see but that I somehow missed. Sometimes a guided tour is necessary. And an excellent one this was.
My only experience with one of these was when I was a mechanic working on a 190E. The 190 was a turbo model, and I liked the way it drove. It felt solid, but not overly heavy. Working at a private shop, I had much more experience with VWs and Renaults, which did much harm to my opinion of European cars at the time. This sentiment probably was unfairly applied to the Merc, at least in the late 80’s. Still, I agree that the style of this car has aged very well, and agree that it was revolutionary. That interior would look right at home in a new Lexus. I like everything about it except for the wide console, which now is standard in every car sold here.
The front fender vents, so far I remember, were for A/C in certain models. And the most emblematic first-year problem german taxi drivers complained of was the so-called “bonanza-effekt” (only diesel models). The engine/transmission tended to swing when full-throttling under low rpms. This was solved by a complex throttling control system
Why only on the 2.5 TD?
Both W 124 turbodiesel models (250D turbo and 300D turbo, as well as 300 TD turbo) had those vents. These vents were rather fashionable in those days, so VW T4 van had similar on their turbo diesel models, and some enthusiast even swapped fenders of their diesel models with these turbodiesel items. Of course, even stick-on vents were made…:)
Purpose of the fender vents? Engine get air through them.
Specifically, they’re on diesel models with an intercooler fitted – they provide extra cooling for it. They weren’t required on any other model afaik, and they’re not for AC.
Honestly, I am not sure they even had an intercooler on 300TD or 250 TD. (I am really lazy to get downstairs and check a brochure 🙂 )
But only the 250TD had the vents. The 300TD did not have them., At least the early ones, in any case; which was only one imported to the US (250TD replaced it). I have shots to prove it (this is a 300TD). I can’t find ready info, but I suspect that the 250TD did have an intercooler, and these vents were used for that. Why else was it the only one?
:)So, to finally clear this side vent issue…
Turbo diesel W124 models ( 300 D turbo, 300TD turbo and latter 250D turbo, in few countries there was even 250TD turbo) ALL had fender vents solely as entry point for air for combustion. Conveniently, airbox is mounted just behind those vents.
Also, pictures show that non of them had intercooler.
Considering that turbo was added to 6 cylinder diesel a year or two latter, perhaps early 300TD without vents were just what badge said: 300 touring diesels, without turbo.
If there is a need for further clarification, I’ll check German or French brochure of W124, that I probably have in my archive.
Misha: this white car is either a ’86 or ’87 300Turbo Diesel (pictures of its rear deck lid attached). That’s the only W124 diesel model sold in the US during those years, and I know that those 300 TDs didn’t have the fender vent (see other picture of same car above)
The 300TD was discontinued in the US after 1987. The 250 Turbo Diesel replaced it, but only starting in 1990, also as the only diesel model then sold here. It was the first to have those vents here. And I rather remember reading in a magazine when it came out, about the vent.
I can’t really see the right fender, but nevertheless we could both be right, if there was a difference in spec between European and USA models. 🙂
As USA market already had turbodiesel Mercs available for long time, but had higher emission standards, 6-cylinder turbodiesel models delivered to States had that particulate filter on cylinder head (“trap oxidizer”), very close to turbo. To avoid airbox soaking up to much heat (which subsequently proved occasionally disastrous for turbos as well), airbox may have been relocated elsewhere in an engine bay.
So, now I am specially intrigued about this difference between EU and USA models. I hope my period Car & Driver and Road & Track are still in my basement, to check a picture of an engine bay of those early 300 DT.
Edit: just found a vehicle similar to one you were writing about on sale on Ebay. 🙂 It is US model 300D turbo (different headlamps), it’s without fender vents. Interestingly, airbox is same as in EU model, same position, but probably draw air from underneath right headlamp…
Good call, Paul! I believe I do owe you those long-overdue articles about Lancia Fulvia HF and my Yugo story 🙂
If I recall the reason they had the side vent was that new newer diesel model had the engine enclosed on all sides by sound insulating material (like a double firewall but in front as well). This was to make it quieter and more like a gasoline model. Or that’s how they sold the new side vent – I have no idea if it was based on fact.
The vents in the fender are only for engine fresh air intake. They lead directly to the air filter box….no intercooler on production MB diesel in that era.
Exactly! And here is a picture to prove it 🙂
I was reading some comments from former Ford of Europe design chief Uwe Bahnsen the other day about how much impact body panel tolerances have on aerodynamic drag. Bahnsen said Ford discovered (around the time the Mk 3 Escort was launched) that the difference between maximum and minimum panel tolerances represented more than an order of magnitude difference in Cd. Mercedes apparently figured out the same trick…
You can’t be serious. I mean, that car, nice as it is, is sitting on panel gaps in the 5-6mm range.
I think the low Cd is due to the polished details of that body. And it has PLENTY of aero tricks.
That is certainly true — the whole shape of the deck, as Paul noted.
There’s more to it: the angle of the headlamps, the bonnet edge, the lack of drip gutters (or whatever they’re called), the flush mounted glass, the boat tail rear end, the tappered rear (note the angle from the lower edge of the rear fender to the facia), the higher bootlid, the side skirts, the front bumper, the side mirrors, the almost hidden wiper. I would bet the undercarriage has some provisions too.
They basically threw the whole book at it and succeeded.
You could easily copy that profile and run a simple CFD simulation and it would roughly show how good the air flows around it.
But still, the car has upright a-pillars, by modern standards. That provides better visibility, making the car easier to drive and safer. They didn’t need a racy, fish-shaped profile to declare it as an aero car, they just built a normal, comfortable car that met aero needs by perfecting the details. And I love ’em for it.
My favorite Mercedes of all. This is a car that, along the E34, I’d love to own.
Is there a way of doing an E34 CC?
I have a vague recollection that Lexus had those seat controls first, and Toyota won a patent lawsuit against Daimler to force them stop using them. Toyota was willing to license the patent to some competitors, but not to Mercedes.
Maybe later today I’ll do some Google research to see if I can dig up the details.
Lexus didn’t exist when these came out.
Didn’t the 1984 Lincoln Mark VII have the “seat-shaped” design power seat controls first?
It’s large, but this is the only pic I could find with detail:
I happen to own both a Mark vii and a 300E right now, and there are alot of similarities. I’m pretty sure Lincoln got their inspiration from the Benz. They’re both extremely nice cars.
That seat shaped design buttons first appeared at the
Mercedes W126/380 SE in 1980. Prior to that these buttons did exist and could be ordered as an option in 1979. Since the 380SE they are standard.
If I recall correctly, Rolls Royce had something similar in early ’80-s models….
I am pretty sure Mercedes first introduced seat-shaped controls on the W126 in 1979 (1981 model year in the US).
I may be remembering it backwards. It may have been that Lexus put this style seat control in the LS 400 when it was introduced, and Daimler sued to keep them out of Toyota’s new luxury brand.
Daimler wasn’t worried about licensing to Lincoln or Rolls since they weren’t really competitors. But the LS 400 was aimed squarely at the SEL.
It was Infiniti with the 1990 Q45. The early ones had those seat shaped controls. You’ll notice later on they are different. Lexus always had their seat controls on the side of the seat, with the exception of possibly memory buttons, in those early years.
You are probably right 🙂
My 90 LS400 had 3 pre-sets buttons somewhere on the door, and the numerous adjustment buttons/sliders on the lower left of the seat. I loved it for long drives. Comfortable as the seats may have been, I’d still get a bit stiff and sore after a time, so it was great to hit a button and have the seat shift into another position that I had already worked out.
I remember reading about the seat controls. Mercedes invented and patented the seat controls. Lincoln copied it first and MB didn’t complain. When Infiniti copied it, MB told them to stop. When Infiniti said “What about Lincoln?” MB’s reply? “Lincoln is not a direct competitor” Infiniti had to change their controls.
Nowadays almost all power seat controls look like the MB design, except most are mounted on the seat, not on the door panel.
I think you’re remembering the Infiniti problem: Infiniti copied these seat control for the Q45. MB sued them and forced a redesign.
Great write-up, and one I was looking forward to since I recall you mentioning that one was coming down the pike.
This car is absolutely one of my favorite Mercedes, and really IMO represented MB at the top of their game. What I loved was how it was so resolutely modern it was compared to its predecessor, the W123 (which I also loved). I remember being blown away by how much of a leap it was, initially in terms of design, yet it was so clearly a midsize Mercedes. Of course, the W201 set the stage. The details, if you really examine the whole car, are just incredible, and still look so fresh today (all of which you’ve said, of course) – the curves and angled cuts at the trunk, the slight creases around the rear window/deck area, the clean and flush door frames. It also managed to look like an expensive car without any chrome other than on the grille. Look at this car’s bumpers, especially the front, and compare it to almost every car today – just clean, purposeful, and sleek, without all the arbitrary lines that are there to make cars look more aggressive.
I like every body-style, and for a long time I considered getting a Cabriolet. But truth is, I’m not a big convertible guy, and I drove one and was just a little disappointed. If I ever pull the trigger, it would be a coupe or perhaps a 500E.
One more thing – about your comparison to contemporary Cadillacs….as bad as the 1985 Deville was, just look how fantastic that 1992 Seville looks. The C-pillar into rear window into trunk area was quite similar to the W124, which I guess is what you were alluding to. Still looks great though.
I look at the W124 and am reminded of how bad most contemporary Mercedes look.
“I look at the W124 and am reminded of how bad most contemporary Mercedes look.”
Overall, a very solid car no doubt about that, but geared to different tastes. Not everyone wants an overly efficient car, some do like to be coddled, and others (myself included) are quite content never driving above 80MPH. At the time, I was driving my year old 1985 Oldsmobile Toronado Caliente and quite happy with its Henry VIII feeling and presence. Toronados were extremely popular then and a clean one like I had then today would be popular on the car show circuit. Just something uniquely American about its ability to be a touch outlandish.
I will say the short line about the OM603 was a bit trite. The OM603 was a headache for MB way more than the particulate filter. The original 3.0 and the subsequent 3.5 were known for severe head gasket issues so much so that, instead of issuing a recall and exposing the problem publically, MB quietly made it known to dealers to simply replace the components and/or motors, even well after warranty, to original owners. Comparison between the OM617 and the OM603 is widely discussed and often heated between MB diesel fans. Even though the OM617 was crude compared to later engines and painfully slow in now turbo models, it was a much better engine. I wouldn’t go as far as saying MB screwed the pooch but the diesel light dimmed somewhat after that. But MB was pushing gasoline engines now that fuel had stabilized, CAFE had stabilized (even though they continually pay fines) so I suppose diesel relevancy was less of a factor in sales as MB was now trying to build volume.
It was down to differing philosophies and different environments, as I pointed out in the other post, 55 MPH was the law of the land in the US, and it seemed as it was going to be so for all time, many cars designed in that era never really had high speed cruising in mind at the time, so isolation and comfort were the main priorities.
Many domestic cars from that era feel comfortable to about 80, and that was really fast enough for the majority of the driving public that might not ever even see speeds like that with the exception of perhaps a few times, remember getting caught doing 80 in the 55 era was a hefty fine as well,
Overall, a very solid car no doubt about that, but geared to different tastes. Not everyone wants an overly efficient car, some do like to be coddled, and others (myself included) are quite content never driving above 80MPH. At the time, I was driving my year old 1985 Oldsmobile Toronado Caliente and quite happy with its Henry VIII feeling and presence. Toronados were extremely popular then and a clean one like I had then today would be popular on the car show circuit. Just something uniquely American about its ability to be a touch outlandish.
Good point! When it comes to attracting nostalgia obsessed Baby Boomers in a strip mall parking lot somewhere in the middle of America, the 80-something Oldsmobile Toronado certainly has this niche market import foreign car outclassed. It’s no surprise that Mercedes-Benz has never been successful in the US. Their cars are just too fast and efficient for our style-driven collective consumer consciousness.
Mercedes is certainly successful in the US, at least in terms of building sales volume in their markets. Although some MB purists will argue that MB traded a lot of their character to chase volume.
Whenever I talk about different cars, especially when the topic is comparing domestic plates vs import, it’s really two discussions. Firstly, we can talk all day about engineering qualities, initial reliability, etc. GM suffered from ills of that’s in the past I agree. Now, the gap in those terms is virtually non existent in many regards so the discussion becomes morevsubjective. Which brings up my second point, style and design. GM and domestics always did well by differentiating themselves and offering unique models, like my Old Toronado. That drove a lot of sales. IMO, GM suffered more from losing it’s visual identity than from the engineering woes. A lot is often made about the effect that the diesels had on Oldsmobile and GM. I have not doubt there were some bad tastes, but mostly because people were cranky about gas prices and general economic malaise in those years. Yet despite the perceived troubles with the diesels, Oldsmobile sales continued unabated through MY1986, a full 9 models years after the first diesel came out. I was there I saw first hand. Olds sales did not begin to drop significantly until the models started changing and moving away from the traditional designs. Why did the Cutlass go from the best selling car in 1980 to depressed by 1989? not because of diesels but because the design alienated it’s market and failed capture a new market. Sort of like when Coke tried New Coke. Coke remedied that quickly, you can’t remedy a car so quickly.
So that will always be the mystique of American car design, it always captured the mindset of the times. You can’t imagine Toyota or BMW building a ’59 Cadillac-like car with all those fins and chrome. No matter how well engineered it would be.
The topic of this article is hardly comparing domestic and import furrin job cars, even though ~5% of the text did touch on the stark differences between American and German luxury cars in 1985 (and the similarities between 1995 American luxury cars and 1985 German luxury cars).
That’s not really what I was getting at either, though. I was just trying to point out the silliness of introducing “Oldsmobile Toronado” as some kind of counterpoint (to what?) out of nowhere… and I was also very amused by the proof-is-in-the-pudding “old farts dig it at car shows because of it’s outlandish American style” line. If there’s anything outlandish about that era Toronado, it’s that it could pass for a car 10 years its senior visually, while the mechanical components resembled high-tech cars of the 1930s. I suppose the fact that GM was selling a Cord L-29, BROUGHAM STYLE! at the same time Mercedes-Benz was selling the W124 actually is truly outlandish… but not in the way you meant.
All of which is not to say it’s a bad car at all, and I’m actually very fond of the ’79-’85 E-Body cars, but c’mon man… you have to be smoking some serious PCP if you think those cars captured the mindset of anyone’s early 80s except folks whose next ride would be a coffin. I really don’t even want to bite on this BS myth of “the longstanding tradition of distinctive American styling” or whatever it is you’re imagining, because it has so very little to do with the subject of this article… but what the hell, here goes:
For the most part, American cars stopped being on the cutting edge of style some time in the early 70s. Did Detroit still manage to sell millions of horrifically behind-the-times rolling anachronisms for another decade or so after that? Of course. That’s what building cars that actually were exciting, stylish, durable and capable from before WWII through the 1960s earned them. Selling dated, wheezy, CCC-plagued Cutlass Supremes, Cadillacs and Caprices plus clinging to that completely dead aesthetic on their 3/4 scale FWD successors earned them a trip to bankruptcy court, a portion of my paycheck and a historically embarrassing fall from grace. I can’t imagine Toyota or BMW building a ’59 Cadillac, because as iconic as a ’59 Caddy is, it’s also a grotesque monument to excess for the sake of excess, which neither Toyota or BMW have tended to dabble in. Not in such an overt and visually extreme manner, anyway. Mercedes-Benz released the W111 in 1959 (with fins) and it was every bit as iconic… just not on the Wal-Mart parking lot Cruise Night circuit.
So if you were trying to say that an Oldsmobile Toronado was a good, interesting car… I read you loud and clear and agree with you. Still don’t understand what relevance it had to this article, though. If you were trying to say it holds a candle to anything from Germany during the same era – from either a design/engineering or stylistic perspective – then you are sadly mistaken. How do I know? As I think Paul was trying to express in the article, once a Cadillac Seville looked like a W124 from the front wheels back and an Audi 5000 on the inside, the proof was in the pudding. I remember Cadillac making a big deal about how they benchmarked the E46 3-series when designing the ATS. I did not notice BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Hyundai, etc. mentioning that they were looking into tailfins, door skegs, overhead valves, chrome, “formal” landau roofs, electroluminescent opera lamps, etc. at any time ever. The ’92 Seville was, in my opinion at least, a great car. Same goes for the ATS… and both were influenced far more by the Benz featured here than anything American from the Johnson administration until very recently. The ’79-’85 E-Body, meanwhile, influenced no one… ever. Except GM itself, of course, and the few diehards who mistakenly believed that the style it wore was in any way relevant to the time it existed in. For GM, that meant trying to force that look onto too many cars where it never belonged for far too long. For the diehards, it means a parking lot full of aging Baby Boomers on a Friday night, imagining some revisionist past where an ’85 Toronado was the height of American style, men were men and morals were pure. Gag me with a plastic wire wheelcover…
” I remember Cadillac making a big deal about how they benchmarked the E46 3-series when designing the ATS. I did not notice BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Hyundai, etc. mentioning that they were looking into tailfins, door skegs, overhead valves, chrome, “formal” landau roofs, electroluminescent opera lamps, etc. at any time ever. ”
The last thing the European and Japanese carmakers got from Detroit was that Americans like a reliable & powerful A/C system (which the W126 S-Class that my folks owned in hot Eastern Washington State when I was a kid had). After that, they didn’t borrow anything.
I’m pretty certain were it not for the success of the 4-door Cherokee and Explorer we might still be waiting for Mercedes MLs, BMW X5s, 4-door Pathfinders and 4-Runners, Honda Passports/Pilots and Porsche Cayennes. The earliest of these paved the way for the crossovers that came next, lead by the Toyota Harrier (RX300).
Were it not for the Jeep Wrangler would we have had the RAV-4 which spawned the X3s, GLs, CRVs, Rogues, Macans, etc.?
Do you know that the most popular vehicle type in Europe right now is the small crossover? Or that if it weren’t for the Cayenne Porsche would likely not exist today?
Do you think without the success of the Chrysler minivan that we would have seen Siennas and Odysseys the size that they are, which is too big for the home market?
Do you think cars like the new Mini could have ever been justified were it not for the success of the PT Cruiser or new Beetle, which was penned by two Americans out in California?
Do you think there might be a few Tesla Models Ss roaming around Germany or Japan these days? OK not from Detroit but from America.
Do you think there would be so many creases and angles on a modern Mercedes after the Chris Bangle debacle at BMW (I know he’s a Yank) were it not for the success of the Art & Science theme over at Cadillac?
Do you see more Kias and Hyundais on the road now, or before when they were knocking off 10 year old VW/Audi designs?
cali – I think you were replying to Sam’s comment, but just to be clear anyway… I’m certainly not saying that American manufacturers have failed to introduce anything innovative or influential for the last 40+ years. There are several exceptions to Detroit being stylistically clueless during this era, too. Ford, for instance, had a string of really impressive cars starting with the Fairmont and running all through the 80s, highlighted by the O.G. Taurus.
In the current era, I think they’re all mostly back on par with the foreign competition or even surpassing some of it.
I was replying to Sam’s point about imports not borrowing from Detroit after figuring out cold A/C.
You were reacting to Craig’s damning with faint praise on the 300E. I agree the ’85 Toronado was more of a low than high for GM. Not because it was an underdeveloped car from the “new GM” but because of the forced “hit or miss” differentiation required to sustain so many overlapping brands. That said all Es got very loose with age, unlike the B/Cs.
The ’79 Eldorado was one of the most beautiful designs ever. The Riv looked good too but the Toronado was such an afterthought and so utterly forgettable that I had to look it up.
After the 60s there was always an ugly duckling in a new line-up from GM. On the Colonnades it was the Century. On the Es it was the Toronado. On the Gs it as the Monte Carlo. Buick was the most consistently good and Cadillac at least kept its DNA, although it wandered a bit after the ’92 Seville until the CTS brought it back.
When you add it all up there were more forgettable and unattractive cars out of Olds than the other divisions. If it wasn’t for the ’76 Cutlass, which was a black swan, I think the brand would have been long gone by the mid 80s.
This issue more than changing demos or anything else is what caused Olds and Pontiac to go away. Changing tastes had a lot to do with it too; Olds developed an old person reputation (cemented in place by that awful ad campaign) and the Pontiacs a well-deserved rep for tacky.
There were too many fresh, fantastic competitors from all over the world to choose from instead.
Having had used Mercedes in the family growing up I was familiar with their products and expected great things from the W123 replacement. Still the new car blew me away and nothing since has made a more favorable first impression. Not the Porsche 944T, not the Lexus LS400, not even the BMW E36. Everyone except GM was improving by leaps and bounds around this time but nothing could top the new W124.
Stylistically the car broke no new ground as the shock of the 190E (which I always liked) had worn off. Inside the dash, while completely modern, harkened back to the W126. Even the shifter was the same.
It wasn’t until I turned the key that I realized this was going to be a different kind of car. For one thing you could barely hear the starter motor. The engine was so calm and quiet that if it wasn’t for the tach you could not tell it was running. I believe the 124 was one of the first to use electrically-controlled engine mounts and they must have been the size of tires. Looking under the hood you could tell sound encapsulation was a high priority, perhaps to deal with diesel fitments down the road.
As much as I liked the SOHC in the W108 280SE let’s be honest, it was a rough, noisy engine. The DOHC in the W114 280C was smoother but slow. The SOHC in the 190E was just OK for NVH.
When I read the 124 was going back to SOHC I was surprised and had low expectations going into the test drive. Then I hit the gas and nearly soiled my young self. The way it raced through the gears, clipping off shifts like an F1 car, put a huge smile on my face. I’ve never seen the needle of a tach dance around more than it did that day in the 300E. The NVH isolation was at a breakthrough level. The engine and trans were actually talking to each other! The engine was smooth as silk and powerful, to the point where it felt almost like an electric motor.
Next surprise was the chassis. My expectations were somewhat high, knowing that the multi-link rear out of the190E would be used in the 124. But the car was tall (much taller than the 190E) and the tires were narrow. I expected the ride to be good and it was. I’ve never been in a car that had more suspension travel than the 124. The car was especially good over speed bumps which were popping up all over the place around that time.
Between the tires and suspension NO road noise got through to the passenger department.
Perhaps not unexpected on such an expensive car but what was a surprise was that the tires stuck like glue in the turns and didn’t make a peep of noise during aggressive driving. This was really new stuff back then. The LS400 four years later would be just as quiet and powerful but it wouldn’t handle like the 124. Nor treat a gallon of gas so kindly.
The single arm windshield wiper and power-release rear headrests were fun new features. The car had plenty of space. The doors closed just as Mercedes always had but there were these new door catches that were surprisingly stiff. Why, I’m not sure.
The body wasn’t pretty to some but had the lowest Cd around. The vision for these cars came from the engineering department, not styling or finance. Mercedes priorities today are in a very different place.
I still see tons of 124s around and wouldn’t mind having one. Many of the diesels from this era were problematic so be careful choosing one in a 124 or late 126.
Without a doubt one of the best cars of all time.
Well said; you should have written this CC! I ran a bit out of energy….
Great additional comments. My best friend traded in his first new Mercedes (85 190E 2.3) for a new 91 300E on the eve of the first Gulf War. Riding in that car, you knew it was a luxury model: smooth, quiet, vault-like. Yet it drove beautifully, with spritely acceleration, precise steering, good handling. A key to the success of this model was it size. Commodious inside but very svelte exterior, tight turning circle, perfect for urban living. My cousin traded her 300E for the 400E – talk about smooth and buttery power.
I will say that all of these cars in my acquaintance suffered from A/C problems and electrical gremlins with the power accessories. My cousin became a permanent Lexus driver as a result. That said, if you come to SoCal you will see lots of them on the road today. A fair number of coupes and cabriolets in my neighborhood. As Paul says, they still look contemporary.
The 1989-1994 Mazda 323/Protege sedan was so influenced by the W124 it’s almost a miniature version. From the side profile, the C-pillar, the shape of the rear window, rear quarter panel, trunk lid, to even the trapezoid instrument cluster.
As I remenber Infiniti Q45 from 1989 copied the seat controls.
The “glass jaw” for these cars were the A/C’s. With those deep in the dash actuators that aged with time, not mileage, gave out after about ten years sending air out of the wrong vents at the wrong temps. It’s a $3000 fix which sent these cars to an early grave. What a shame since they are neat little cars, especially the diesel.
Maybe that’s why there’s so many up here in the cool PNW?
In addition to the vacuum actuators being problematic, the evaporator core is also a weak point. The dash has to be removed to replace both, and while it is a bit of a job, it can be done at home in a day. I think it cost me about $350 in parts to do both. These cars are meant to be worked on, everything comes apart and goes back together nicely.
Just the picture makes my head hurt.
This to me represents one of the best MB models ever. I was in college when this came out, and I remember that this instantly became an aspirational “someday” car for me–especially the Coupe models. Sadly, by the time my means matched my aspirations, MB quality, design and core attributes had plunged, so they fell off my list.
The contrast to Cadillac is particularly sad. In my mind, this is when the severe damage was done at GM. Back to my parents and their friends in New Orleans… While Sevilles, along with the downsized C bodies and Eldos had been very popular, the “shrunken” mid-80s frumpy Caddys were complete duds. Switching started en mass, with Lincoln, Volvo, Audi and MB seemingly picking up a lot of high end buyers. So, with the W124, MB had perfected the formula to pick up a lot of former domestic owners. Benz had arrived in the Deep South and was no longer the diesel oddball. The price tag was still considered shocking, but no one was using Cadillac or Lincoln as the benchmark in the same way they had 10 years prior.
Ive driven far too many Mercedes trucks to ever want one of their cars Paul but yeah back in their day they really were something, Vauxhall took the mantle of fastest 4door in 89 and those were speed limited by UK govt dictat, 181mph fully laden on an Italian motorway was considered quite fast then. I recently watched the worlds stock production cars racing the 12 hour at Bathurst and the AMG Benz was most impressive accelerating to the speed limiter of 155 out of forest elbow onto conrod straight the Benz would leap away from the pur sueing Audi R8s and the sound of that V8 at 155 pure music.
I just bought a 1989 300E earlier this year. A one-owner, garage-kept beauty with 133K miles. I’ve owned several Mercedes over the years, and I have to say this one is the best. The last of the great, rock-solid MB’s before Lexus forced Daimler to change their stategy.
With regards to potential service issues (head gasket, A/C actuator issues), I’m fortunate in that I can do most of this work myself. The internet is a great resource for anyone who’s handy with a wrench…
The A/C actuator issue is a JOB!! Also use only MB coolant and you will get much more life out of your heater core. Replacing the radiators in these cars is simply a maintenance issue. They are inexpensive and are best replaced every ten years to save yourself some trouble. I learned a lot about these cars back in the 1990s from the master: Dr. Marshall Booth of Mercedes Benz Club of America.
Hi, spot on, assuming you agree with the size.Its a quite large car in Europe, where the C-class and earlier 190 are better suited
Paul, thank You very much for the great write-up!
I had a 91 300CE C124 with Automatikgetriebe in arctic white with a grey velour interior. Bordello-red velour was also available, but I am not sure whether MB offered velour interiors in the United States. It certainly would have lessened the cultural shock for Cadillac and Lincoln drivers defecting to Mercedes! My 300CE was easily the best car I ever had in terms of comfort and stability even at speeds above 200 km/h (120 mph). Interior quality was still very high despite all the weight saving efforts. With a mere 250’000 kilometer it still felt very solid and even those bright grey seats were in excellent shape. Unlike its predecessors, its M103 engine ran just as smoothly as any BMW six. I once drove from Switzerland to Holland with an average fuel consumption of only 8.5 liter (33 mpg) with running AC, only at 100 km/h or 60 miles per hour though – the numbers would have been quite a bit different if I had chosen to take the German Autobahn instead of driving through France and Belgium… I finally sold it because as a student I just didnt have the financial ressources to maintain a comparatively complex car like this one.
Later I also had a 88 S124 (W for the sedan, S for the station wagon, C for the coupé and A for the convertible) 230TE with a 5-speed gearbox. There were almost no options except the (optional!) fifth gear an a red MB-Tex interior. Despite being very stark without Klimaanlage oder Tempomat oder Mittelarmlehne vorne(front middle armrest), it was the best and most elegant station wagon I ever had the pleasure to own – if only that rotten KE-Jetronic had not imploded after about 300’000 kilometers! Sadly I had to sell it for scrap value.
My third one was a 87 260E sedan with a manual 5-speed box and I certainly had no reason to be happy with this car. I bought this one on a whim and it was a dud. The less said about it, the better. As much as I love anything with a three pointed star, buying a more simple non-IRS 86 Volvo 740 with a sturdy 2.3 liter 112 PS four cylinder engine seemed like a better idea, than buying another Mercedes W124. Those were and still are great cars, but they are also quite complicated – even a bottom of the range 200E. And even if You manage to find a very good one, You need to have the financial means to keep this car in top shape. Only then You will be able to take pleasure in owning a W124. On the other hand, if all You want is a sturdy beater – buy a Volvo 740!
As nice as my current Volvo is though, it cant really compete with the sophisticated W124. Of all the cars I ever drove or sat in as a passenger, I never felt quite as comfortable and safe as I do in a Mercedes W124.
+1 about the stability. Like Paul was saying that rear suspension was unflappable in any situation. Combine that with the existing slow inputs for Mercedes steering, throttle and brakes and 200kph cruising was literally no sweat.
What a feat to put so much refinement and stability together in one car. Tech breakthroughs like stability control have made that much easier to do and I feel the art of pure mechanical engineering is somewhat dying.
I know electric release for liftgates is the way to go but I sure do miss pressing that old chrome button on the trunk, or whipping the ball-joint shifter around in its gate, without ever having to look away from the road.
Mercedes always felt different than the rest, now everything feels the same.
Thank you very much for this superb CC Paul. I´ve been waiting for it since the TTAC days,
My dad’s second car is a 20-year-old 300E 4matic sedan, purchased new and at somewhat of a discount; the dealer had it for nearly a year and couldn’t sell it (in PA). I wish I could say I enjoy driving it. Perhaps the RWD ones aren’t as ponderous.
As for the coupe and especially the convertible, they were extremely pricey, hence few were sold; the successor C class-based coupes and convertibles were much less costly and much more popular.
Had a 300-24 and 400 in quick succession a few years back. Still regret selling the 400 after totally reliable 60,000 kms. It had only 40,000 km on it when I brought in from Japan. Still, after 5 cars with an auto I was itching to get back to a manual. So the Merc went to a friend, and the ’04 SAAB 9-5 Aero took it place.
Now as Yen is back to reasonable 100:1, I am toying with the idea of getting an ultra-low mileage 500E from there… May be, may be…
Great, great article.
Being the “best” does come down, at least somewhat, to what you want out of the car; what you intend to use it for. My take is that it is the most influential car of the last 30, though only if you really like what the last 30 have wrought today.
I cannot really dispute that:
1. The car is far better than the FWD Cadillac, which utterly failed to modernize the Cadillac for the rising generation of affluent 30-40 somethings c. 1985
2. The car is extremely reliable (although having friends who inherited these from parents and grandparents, I can attest that repairs, when they are finally needed, are much more expensive than any repair on a GM or Ford B/C/D-Panther from those days).
3. Every car’s interior looks like the interior on this car now.
4. The car totally changed what people think of as quality and luxury.
Indeed, having driven them, they are much more fun at high speeds (80+) than at 55-70. They are not for “cruising” in the traditional American sense.
They spoke to the rising generation, and, as much as GM and Ford are maligned for the reputation that some of their 70s and early 80s cars gave to “American quality”, I have a sneaking suspicion that these MBs and the imitators that followed (Lexus, bigger BMWs, Audis, etc.) would still have prevailed.
What I mean is that I doubt very much that the majority of successful younger people in 1986 would have picked a Cadillac Brougham over a 300 E, even if everything on the Cadillac was equal in quality and technology to the 300 E—a more powerful V8, a 5 speed automatic, fuel injection, real wood on the dash—everything Brougham-o-philes wish Cadillac had provided on them. Based on my reading of our country’s history I view the 300 and its imitators as a representation of our changing culture at the time, the inevitable passing of the torch to a younger generation.
The Baby Boom generation just wasn’t interested in what their parents were interested in. The Cadillac Brougham represents isolation, comfort, security, couples’ dinners at the country club (seats six with lighters for all!); a relaxed golf game (don’t forget your baby blue cardigan sweater) followed by a few martinis, a boardroom or an old fashioned steakhouse on wheels. People who grew up in the Depression loved this. It represented stability, security, enough food to eat, made it conspicuous that they had escaped that poverty, by rewarding them with softness, comfort, and sheer size. When I drove my ’87 Brougham in the mid 2000s, middle aged people would come up to me in parking lots, reminiscing, and tell me stories about how their workaday and now-deceased parents worked “all their lives” to buy a Brougham, finally getting there in the 80s when they were retiring. It really meant something to them.
The Boomers grew up in the Cadillac (or some cheaper version of their parents attempt at the dream). They wanted individualism: cars for personal sport and luxury, gyms for individual fitness (spandex beats cardigans), individual activities (the decline in membership of civic, religious, and other associations accelerated rapidly in the 80s…see Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”), white wine not martinis (and certainly not at lunch!), gourmet food served on small plates in an open restaurant, not a big steak and potatoes in a woody, dark place with push-button leather banquettes that looked like the inside of Dad’s Brougham. Status was increasingly about getting into a place where you were cool enough or rich enough to get in, not about being in some club based on college, bloodlines, or a membership committee of old men in bowties and tweed jackets “looking you over” to see if you could pass. The 80s changed everything; the Mercedes epitomizes those changes (along with the many movies of that time). It’s not the biggest car, it doesn’t have the softest ride, the most chrome, or the most space-age gadgets such as level control, or nifty infrared light indicators on the front fenders. But its expensive, efficient, and cool. It gets into the cool place. It picks up the girls. The Brougham does not. The Brougham is stuffy. It doesn’t pick up Betty Draper because Betty Draper doesn’t exist in 35 year old form anymore. Betty is now “Beth” and she graduated from Smith and Wharton and is now a young i-banker doing lines of coke in the bathroom at Goldman.The only thing the Brougham picks up is Hazel and Gladys at the Colony Club and car fares to JFK.
Does that make the 300E the best? Depends on what you like. Hugely significant, though.
I think the reason I don’t like these cars that much is an instinctive “counter-rebellion” against my parents’ generation…it was my grandfather’s big American boats, his dressing up to go out for lunch and dinner, etc. that seemed cool and different and special compared to my parents’ super-efficient little Japanese cars, etc. Internalizing that before I understood it, I never once wanted a car like this. It was always the big old-fashioned Cadillac for me and probably always will be.
That’s an interesting story, and one that is very observant. I agree with most of it but also add two things, 1) For many, buying American is a patriotic thing, maybe diminished now especially on the coasts but is a portion of the buying public. This is a proven fact, and a large reason why trucks are very popular. Now that most passenger cars look the same, trucks still look “American” like cars did 30+ years ago. IMO that is a critical factor in GM losing market share. We can talk all we want about build, reliability, etc but when domestic make cars had their uniqueness, they always sold well. So it is no wonder that all the way up to today, all of the desirable models you see at car shows and for sale that bring big money and interest are all the traditional designs. When I sold my 91 Brougham in 2005, there were people sleeping in front of my house camped out to buy it. 2) The chattering class often makes the mistake of assuming the priorities of buyers. Not everyone wants to ride in a coffin, no matter how good of a vehicle it is. Americans cars have historically placed a priority on style and emotion, something lost on most Japanese cars and some Europeans. 3) WWII exerted a huge patriotic permanency for that generation. You don’t lose a half million guys fighting in Europe and Asia and forget about it easily. Except for those directly sent to Vietnam, Boomers were the first generation to have never really experienced a national crisis like war or depression. Then coupled with the militancy around social changes in the country and you had all sorts of behavioral changes.
I am technically a Boomer but probably have tastes more like the WWII at least with the things you describe. I do dress up to travel, I do like traditional restaurants, and am very close to family and friends and neighbors. But of course I grew up in a different environment.
Good point about the trucks…clearly when CAFE killed the big car, as has been discussed somewhat, some inclined towards big cars in the past turned to big trucks instead. What was the Ford Excursion if not the second coming of the ’75 Continental Town Car. But even there, people compromised away the soft ride of the “American car” of yore. What was important in the description of “luxury” had changed. I believe this car (along with maybe the Jeep Cherokee) are largely what changed it, and this would be true even if GM and Ford had been making cars of equal quality.
For me, what I don’t like about these cars isn’t really the ride or the handling. It’s the blandness they introduced. The scotch plaid upholstery of 1975 may have gone too far in one direction. But these cars are what introduced our future choice of two interiors–grey, and biege.
Orrin, excellent comments… I’m guessing we’re probably around the same age, and I didn’t really “get” the styling of contemporary Mercedes-Benz models when I was young either. I couldn’t understand why a car that cost so much didn’t look more exciting. Seemed like a sharp, but unremarkable sedan – typical of other designs from that era, just ever-so-slightly nicer. Knowing that anyone who could afford one could afford to be driving something much more visually dramatic – like a restored ’65 GTO or an FD RX-7 (wasn’t really considering practicality at that age!) – I figured that people who own them must be status-seeking posers who didn’t care about cars nearly as much as they cared about flaunting money. Oh how wrong I was…
It wasn’t until I got older, started learning how cars work and appreciating them from a design perspective that I began to change my tune. By the time I was in high school, older M-B models that were once fairly prosaic and traditional – W108s, /8 sedans, etc. – had become visually engaging due to the passing of time. That’s what piqued my interest originally and from there it wasn’t too far of a stretch to see how a mid-60s Benz and a mid-80s Benz were actually fairly similar in the context of their time. I went full circle and became a believer. Brash, loud muscle cars and sports cars still appealed to me (and still do) but I got much more interested in minimalism and how the same kind of “energy” something like a Plymouth Superbird or ’59 Caddy oozes out every inch of its being could be harnessed in more subtle packaging or conveyed through the driving experience. The first car I actually bought was an obscenely ridiculous orange, brown and red CJ-7 with a huge V8, a huge carb, huge tires and an open exhaust. By the time I reached my 18th birthday, I had a (very used and cheap) grey 280SE in the driveway and a stack of D-jet manuals on my nightstand. I’ve gone back and forth ever since, but I generally gravitate more towards the latter.
I never really went through that whole culture clash thing with my parents, either… and they weren’t serious “car people” at all. My dad drove whatever he got issued at work and my mom drove whatever was cheap and available. No loyalties or real preferences, so I just kinda found my own way in terms of what I liked. But I do get exactly where you’re coming from, and it’s refreshing to see someone with such a balanced, objective and witty take… loved the part about Betty Draper, doing coke in the bathroom at work and the Colony Club. That last reference was awesomely cynical and “inside baseball” Manhattan (in a good way), great stuff!
Have you seen the new commercial for the 2014 Impala? I think you’d like it…
Love the commercial. Hard to get excited about the product, it looks vaguely like my pen/pencil/desk organizer on its side, on wheels.
Orrin: From six years in the future….really nicely written and perceptive essay there.
I have a true love for the W123 as well as the W126. When I think MB, those are what I think of, with the W126 being the pinnacle. With all due credit to the legitimate qualities and innovations the W124 in-arguably had, the W124 (and W201) is where I lose any and all interest in Mercedes benz.
The all out aero look just killed the aesthetic presence Mercedes Benz always had. A W126 is intimidating, even the W123 has a presence, but the W124? It’s like a Taurus. Not unattractive by any measure but it just doesn’t have that “this might be owned by a dictator” kind of look to them. The fact that it looks as though it hasn’t aged isn’t a positive attribute in my mind, more of a depressing reminder of how stale Automotive styling has been for so long. Those trapezoidal taillights and deep triangular trunk opening is one of my biggest peeves with modern car styling.
Plus, I know this will sound weird, but versions like the AMGs and 500Es started putting too much emphasis on performance for the brand for me. There was always performance and racing in MB’s bloodline but never so emphasized and mainstreamed. That started the decent to where is where Mercedes Benz is today. So bad that I now see ads with Santa doing burnouts in an E-class. Ridiculous. One of the unique feelings I get when driving old Mercs is that I don’t have the desire to drive like a mad man, despite the car’s willing capability when you do ask them to. They’re fantastically overbuilt cruisers, cars that you can keep for a lifetime, that someone else can rebuild for another lifetime. The W124 was the last of that. It marked the dividing point between selling Mercedes on build quality and selling Mercedes on capability.
I can understand your POV, and I even share it to some extent. The W126 certainly has more presence, and the classic MBZ way. And they are of course superb cars.
But the dynamic qualities of the W124 make it a substantially better driver’s car. As well as its original lower cost, greater variety of engines, etc… And at the time, the lack of chrome and clean exterior of the W124 was rather refreshing; it made the W126 seem a bit stuffy. But that’s all depending on individual taste, of course.
Oh no doubt Paul. I’ve experienced and admire the dynamic qualities of the W124, in fact they eclipse my beloved W123 and W126s in virtually every way, and I didn’t want my post to come off as dismissive of those qualities. My only criticism really is that it represented, to me, the new face of Mercedes-Benz, ultimately followed up by cars that truly softened and cheapened the image.
Part of my viewpoint is clouded, no doubt, by the fact that I wasn’t around when the W124 debuted(I was born in 88), so by the time I became consciously observant of cars, they were relatively old designs and just kind of blended in to the carscape of the early 90s. Conversely the W126, though much older(which I didn’t know at the time), had all the distinctive MB traits shared with W124 back then, but the S-class just looked so much more distinctive and important than the W124 to me. I can’t explain it. I had no real concept of wealth or power at that age but somehow the first time I saw an S-class it instantly defined it for me. Same with The W123 and R107 oddly(although I got turned off of those for similar reasons you mentioned in your Auto-Biography). The W124 on the other hand I had to experience, drive and learn about(which I did in this article) before I could really appreciate it like the others.
Thanks for the great article Paul!
I agree, the W124 is the best car of the past 30 years. I’m relatively new to the Mercedes-crowd: I’ve bought my 1991 200E (5spd manual) in January. The previous (and only) owner of the car was an elder Italian gentleman, and the condition of the car reflects that. Must have been his second car, because there are not a single scratch on the bumpers and the paint finish shines like a new car.
I was very excited when I first got behind the wheel of the 22years old Benz. What surprised me first was the excellent visibility and easy manouvering. You can see the corners of the hood from the drivers seat, and the panoramic rear window also helps. The turning radius is so small that its almost ridiculous. The mono-wiper cleans 90% of the windscreen. De-frost and de-mist is also perfect due to the excellent ventillation, and the side windows stay clean in the rain because of the body aerodynamics (of course not when stationery.) Driving position is comfortable on long trips and the instrument cluster is the best design ever: every gauge has the perfect size and position.
I consider the body and interior design timeless: just show me another ’85 car which stood the test of time as good as the W124! Your first feeling in the car is not that “oh, it’s almost a quarter-century old”, it’s rather like “oh, it’s a nice, comfy German luxury sedan”. I had some worries before I bought such on old car for daily driver but I hasn’t regret my decision yet. 🙂
Enjoy! Looks like a gem.
These cars never caught my eye. They were revolutionary, obviously. But they were a bit boring to look at, not bad, just boring. And rear leg room is pretty tight.
I used to own one, a ’95 E320 with about 80k miles on it. It was my winter beater a couple years ago (helping preserve my w126 for summers).
I think the previous owner neglected it; it had all sorts of troubles, not the least of which was a grouchy climate control system. (A real disaster when we tried to drive to Quebec in the winter and couldn’t get it to defog the interior!)
Anyway… when the car was working right, it was a revelation. I would happily buy a brand new one today… all it needs is GPS and a modern stereo. The driving dynamics were perfect in the city or on the highway (even at 100 mph–and remember that mine was pretty ratty!). It had great visibility, ergonomics, maneuverability, spaciousness… Sure, it lacks modern gadgets, but in most ways it’s still better than anything you can buy new today.
Geez, I’ve almost talked myself into buying another one… If I it were possible to find a 300E with manual transmission and manual climate control here in the US, I’d snatch it up without a second thought.
Oh, that reminds me: While searching for my E320, I test drove a 190E with a stick shift. I was utterly shocked by how much fun that car was. It was far more enjoyable than my E90 3-series (also a stick-shift). The ancient 190E had just the right balance of road feel and isolation, yet it was still quite lively.
Sigh. They’ll never make cars like that again.
The W124 lived on for many years in South Korea as the SsangYong Chairman.
Thanks for the nice article Paul. I have found myself taken with the attributes of the W124. They are probably the most undervalued used car on the market. As mentioned, the AC, head gaskets, wiring harnesses, and reverse gears are the weak points on the cars.
I have a 95 E320 wagon that I bought about two years ago. The head gasket was leaking badly so I swapped out the motor for a 3.6 amg version found in the 1995 C36. My friend and I have been slowly rebuilding the car. The suspension has been overhauled to 500e specs. There is a lot to go through with all the links and bushings on these cars. I have the parts needed to convert the car to a 190e 16v dogleg 5 speed gear box as well.
Regarding the W124 with a diesel engine, one word comes to mind: Workhorse !
Or in four words: Full Time Trailer Puller.
Everybody who had to pull tandem trailers for their profession had one. Contractors, farmers, cattle dealers, market vendors, you name it. In rural areas these cars were pretty much always covered in dirt or mud.
You could say a luxurious commercial vehicle. These cars were very durable and in those days they had by far the best and strongest diesel engines. At least in Europe the W124 diesel was the only passenger car which could handle heavy trailers for many years in a row without disintegrating completely. Maybe, just maybe, a Volvo 700 or 900 series with the 6 cylinder Volkswagen diesel engine (for commercial vehicles) was an alternative. But these cars were very rare, a W124 diesel was at any street corner. As a matter a fact they still are….
Japanese 4x4s with diesel engines (Nissan Patrol, Mitsubishi Pajero, Toyota Land Cruiser) became popular in the late eighties~early nineties and were the “natural” successors of the W124 diesel as sheer workhorses.
So, all in all, the W124 was a family car, a long distance cruiser, an Autobahn burner,
a taxi, an executive car and a workhorse. From 200D to 500E.
Sedan, coupe, station wagon and convertible. I guess we will never see such a car again.
Let’s not forget Brabus version, with V12 tightly packed in the front:) One of those (or was it Carlsson version!?!) sold few months ago for around 50,000 EUR…
For the US-market:
260 E – up to 08/1989
300 E 2.6 – form 09/1989
I’m just taking the fact that Mr. Niedermeyer posted this on my birthday, while I’m out on the North Coast falling in love all over again with my 260E as a birthday gift.
And I’ll just remind myself the point of this trip is to de-stress. So I won’t engage in online duels with the Brougham Society saying how great an ’85 Toronado is.
I have to say, having had a Diesel and Non-Diesel W123, these cars are truly revelations that really are meant to be driven. It’s all about the drive verson the destination in a W124. Try one out on California Route 1 or 128 (any of the models). Granted they aren’t as “old world” as the W123’s, the one feeling I do miss about those, but the pure delight of a W124 is like good sex. That’s probably why I don’t feel ashamed about being alone with my car for a week.
Have a great trip, and enjoy the sex!
Glad to see you checking in. I thought of you when this post came up and was surprised that you were not chiming in. Now I know. That looks like a sweet Benz. I suppose you will not be dealing with a Roto HydraMatic any time soon? 🙂
I owned a TE 300 and was kind of in love with it. It was very low, ( way lowered ) and the cornering was so mad that the standard seats were insufficient to keep you on your own side of the car! Brakes were fantastic, acceleration less so. Mine was worn out and had the valve-guide issue, and bugger all HP. I did not have the money to fix it up so passed it on. I hope that someone spent some money on it, I went back to something I could afford.
Great car, I have had other great cars such as a Ford Capri with a 5ltr V8 also lowered, and would say that’s the motor you want in the Benz. I thought about doing it. Its not hard to get 3 or 400 HP out of a Ford Windsor motor, I know of one in a Capri that has 500HP, I think it may well fit in and is worth a look if you have the cash and want a bit of power. Big Ford power is a lot less expensive than big Benz power! And the Windsor motor is beautiful to drive. All the electrical stuff etc. would be the biggest issue, but if I had the money to throw around and-or a big garage and the time to work on such a difficult project….that car and motor would be a marriage made in heaven.
The W124 is my all-time favorite Mercedes. After almost 30 years, it still looks sublime.
I used to have a W123 280E, which I adored, and one day a friend lent me his W124 280E (this model was called 300E-2.8 in the USA)
It was a revelation! I had always loved the styling of the W124 but driving one really clinched it.
It felt so capable and planted. The 123 was very soft by comparison, especially at the rear. The multi-link rear suspension on the 124 was positively revolutionary.
Both engines being 2.8 straight sixes, the 123’s M110 was very strong and capable, but the 124’s M104 was positively effervescent. Always willing and eager and it made such a delicious howl under full accelleration. I was instantly hooked.
I am now the proud owner of a 1993 W124 280E. To me, it is the perfect car. Just the right balance of luxury and sportiness. Just the right size. Just the right everything.
To sum up the difference between them, I would say the W123 was a compact luxury sedan, while the W124 was a luxurious sports sedan.
I felt that the W210 that followed seemed to go much more in the direction of larger size and luxury. They had lost the plot of the sports sedan and gone instead to the mid-size luxury sedan. Nothing wrong with that, but for me the magic was lost somehow.
Well said! The W124 is one of the most remarkable vehicles ever built. Have had the privilege of owning quite a few models (love the 123 and 115s), but the 124 is in a different class altogether.
And to think my friends at work think I cannot afford to buy a new car. What they don’t understand is I don’t want a new car. I love my W124 currently with 325,000 miles and still runs great
Very well done. I have always been impressed with the W124 also. Especially the six cylinder gas which gives decent economy, good performance, great durability and is easy to work on!
I’ve had the pleasure to own this 1994 E220 ‘Masterpiece’ for the past six years. Starts on the button every time, gets from A to B quietly and efficiently and my children have formed an orderly queue to own it when I’m gone. I cannot think of another car I would rather drive, except another Mercedes. Keeping the oily bits in working order for the present, but the body could do with a bit of TLC. Trouble is that here in HK it’s just another old banger and get no respect in the local carpark; thus lots of dents from people taking no care when opening their doors.
My father have 200D I am not sure it is 1987 or 1988 year of car….
One thing any one in this world who say for the W124 it is junk that person is totally moron. That person need to get gun and shoot it self.
One word for car just one word it is “MASTERPIECE“!
I still don`t see any car from europe manufacturer that go over 500 000 km without overhaul of engine or big repairs…Even new mercedes cars can not do that
This is made once for eternity no more..
I planing to buy one for 1000 – 1300 euro ( in my country such cars are cheap because average old car in my country is 15 years I am from Serbia) to invest about 2000 euro in car with car price that will be about 3500 euro .
I will get car for enjoying uFFFuuu many places to visit…
We say in my country in native language “Kao ladja“ = as ship (we can also say“ brod“ but when someone want to describe enjoyment for car or truck or….. how nice it is we say “ide ko ladja 🙂 “= it move as ship 🙂 …..
Long live W124 !! 🙂 hahaha
Ty for your time
It will be something as this for me color;
MERCEDES BENZ SHOULD RE-INVENT THE GLORY OF THE 123 AND 124. RUGGED CARS WITH CLASS. JUST IGNORE THE COMPETITION AND REMAIN MERCEDES BENZ.
I got an 89 300E on craigslist for $1000 after reading an old timer answering a noob which is the best Benz and he said 89 300E along w/ 2 other models/years depending on what size/style you wanted. It is beat and has many problems so I find another 89 300E online at a salvage auction to use for a donor (it was towed and the owner didn’t come and get it so it went to auction). The bid closed at $650 and when I had it towed home noticed it was way way nicer than the other one so now I have 2! The auction one leaks all the water out when you fill the reservoir in 5 minutes from the front/driver side of the motor but I can’t see where so I’m going to have an INDY look at it and get that fixed and then I’m set. How lucky! Now what to do with the $1000 unit? Here is the $1000 car in the pic. The $650 one is black with palomino interior.
124 is definitely in tune with the present.
I fell for the vehicle when I saw it for the first time in 1989 in India, when a local textile retailer bought a 300 D.It was unlike anything available then. Even today many of the features present in the 1996 and 1997 models introduced in India as E250 diesel and the E220 petrol are not there in many of the cars being offered in India.
I have been very fortunate to buy some of the outstanding specimens of these cars available in India.
One did save my life at least 2 times.
Second time in June 2011, I had to total it due to high cost of rep,acement spares. However I retained the car for use of spare parts.
I immediately replaced my daily drive with another E250 Diesel. I have been using this one as my daily drive ever since then.
Only once did I have a break down, on my way to Ootty. There were 4 of us in the car with plenty of luggage, and about 30 kms into the 52 km climb, the car showed high engine and water temperature.
I stopped the car at a convenient place and allowed it to cool off. However, restarting was a problem and cranking about 10 times did the trick. However, if I am not wrong ( pls correct me if I am) the difficulty in starting was due to vapor lock in the fuel delivery lines due to excess heat build up in the engine.
Anywzy the overheating should not have happened, and I must investigate the cause.(can I have everybodys opinion on what may have caused this?)
I admit that I am not a very disciplined driver, I drive as fast as the car can go, circumstances allowing, and once on a drive from Chennai to Kottayam, on a stretch between Chennai to Trichy, I almost paid the ultimate price!
There was a long stretch of absolutely straight road, at the end of which was a flyover and then a sharp left turn. I was doing a high speed as usual, must be around 170 kph, when I approached this sharp left. I had to yank the steering to stay on the road, The 124 took the turn without any fuss, however I lost a tire, rear left Bridgestone B 350 which was not rated for 170 kph! The tire developed a tear near the tread.
I knew that I had made a wise decision in buying the 124. Because I dont think any other car would have taken that left turn at that speed.
Especially the Jap, Toyotas and Hondas And Suzukis available in India. Now I am unwilling to take any risks by buying anything less than a 124.
Now I have bought an E 220 petrol too, and am enjoying the power and strength of that car too! 150 bhp on Indian roads is a lot of power even today, believe me ! I drove the E 220 non srop from Pune to Kottayam 22 hours driving time with a break for 4hours at Krishnagiri for sss , (I was alone because all those who had agreed to come with me backed out at the last moment. ) Distance was 1437kms!!! The car is extremely comfortable and a joy to drive.
Just found this site, can anyone tell me if a set of 16×8 225/55/16 66.6 bore 38p offset, from a w211 e320 fit my w124 e220, appears so from wheel charts, can anyone confirm please
Hi Greg, I wrote about my 124 above under ‘Bill’. Be carful about getting into 225 tires, you will have to talk to a knowledgeable Benz man, I could not get them onto my car. But….my car was very low and even 215s bumped in the wheel well under heavy braking and I had to slightly modify the guards to prevent rubbing. If your car is standard then you might be able to, but you are right to ask and it may not be possible.
You might be able to try a tire on the front before you buy? Also a 225 would be a tight fit in the back of my station wagons tire spot, though a spare doesn’t need to be 225 I guess. Cheers, Bill.
Yes, 16 x 8.0 will fit. My Evo 2 wheels are 17 x 8.25 + 34 and they fit without needing to roll the arches. I have used H&R lowering springs and put rubber bump stops (1 & 1/2 pieces each side) on from MB. You will need to space out the lower fender moldings to avoid the tires catching, but if you don’t it’ll only wear away a small amount. I have 225/45R17’s on the front and 235/45R17’s on the rear. Hope this helps.
Thanks Bill, What about the offset, do you know what offset range would fit, ive a benz wheel chart and it say 34/35
Hi sorry for slow reply, and also sorry that I don’t actually know. Good luck they are a great car if working well, and worth the effort if you have the time to work on one or have a fair bit of money otherwise. But if you get a good one they seem to be very reliable from what I hear. I see Miguel recons you can get 200 hp without too much trouble, I would look into that if I were you. Cheers, Bill.
The problem is in not aiming too high, as the transmission will break if there’s too much torque from the OM603 (3 litre 6 cylinder Turbo Diesel) engine. With a larger turbo, unrestricted exhaust and intercooler, people are getting over 400 bhp from these Diesels…but they can also bend rods if too much power is made. And too much torque breaks the transmission. So I only want around 200 bhp. Not much more…
Talking with dieselmeken in Sweden about rebuilding my pump now and he is recommending 7.5mm elements with a maximum of 100cc set capability, but it will come with 75cc as a base adjustment. This should (according to him) be plug & play. Nice. 🙂
I have a 1991 300D Turbo, which I am steadily improving and I must say I agree with the sentiment these are some of the best cars ever built. Mine is driven daily by our family and never gives any problems.
Truth be told I did need to put some things right when I bought it & improved things like suspension, brakes & interior – but that gave me the opportunity to see just how well built these cars are.
Currently I’m looking at the possibility of improving power by having the pump rebuilt with larger 6.0mm elements, which should allow easily over 200 bhp, but I’m not sure yet – the car drives so well as standard with 150 bhp I wouldn’t mind leaving it as is either….
I like it so much I bought a spare, just in case I need more parts in future.
I am in the car business and have been all my life, having driven countless great cars through my life, but to me the W124 is one of the very best. It’s a connoiseur’s car.
Here’s mine: http://www.superturbodiesel.com/std/Thread-My-W124-3-litre-Turbo-Diesel-Modernised
Looks good ! A W124 300 turbo-diesel, one of my favorite youngtimers. My neighbor had one, also with a sporty look like yours, lowered and bigger rims.
I’d say it has more than enough power with the factory powertrain.
It does have plenty of power, or rather lots of smooth torque… but with the improved (500E) brakes & suspension + wheels, it could do with having a bit more performance too, not dissimilar to it’s better endowed V8 brethren.
Just a bit of fuel pump modification will see to that…
I own a 1995 W124 powered by the amazing M119 engine. Personally I beleive it is one of the best cars ever built and plan on getting burried in it! The are wonderful cars. My E420 definately still has contemporary performance and confort despite being 20 years from it’s initial sales date in one and a half months. November 5, 1994
Paul, I don’t know if your paean to the W124 resonates so strongly with me because I’m currently considering buying one, or that your description provides so much background, it’s like a primer for anyone interested in researching the history of these stout cars.
In particular, I thought you explained the dreaded swing-axle’s diabolical propensity toward snap over steer perfectly – it happened to me in the ’70s, in a ’63 220S Fintail, south of Guerneville, CA. on the coast, when I encountered an increasing-radius left, AND hit the brakes trying to scrub off some speed, thereby committing both of the infractions you mentioned above, with the predictable results; the bad news was, the rear end snapped around to the right and we were headed for a 20-foot drop into the Pacific; the good news was, the right rear quarter hit the only tree within two miles, (a manzanita, as I remember) and spun us back on the road, where a good Samaritan in a 1960 MGA Coupe stopped and lent us his crowbar so we could pry the fender lip off the rear tire. We did, and drove it home that way to San Rafael. Much slower.
If I recall, this design prevailed through the 1972 Mercedes model year, so anyone coveting one of these ’60s classics would do well to be aware of the ‘limitations’ of this semi-trailing arm set-up. The W124’s remedy for this problem is a huge improvement over its predecessors.
Thank you for the detailed post here. Also, nice website 🙂
I recently purchased a 95 E320 with 210k on the ODO and it drives like a dream! There is the rust here and there and my power antenna is no longer in working order so it’s a hand wash which I don’t mind at all.
I wrecked my Subaru and a great friend who picked this up from auction (with the same model year Lexus 400) let me have it for 1k!
Where I lived until recently we had a Greek taxi company that bought these cars used and ran them until they fell apart, what never happened.
I remember one particular car that got me to the airport very often. The odometer had failed shortly before it reached a million kilometres and except from a slight clinking noise form the rear suspension the car was in exceptionally good condition regarding its mileage.
I have a 1980 123 240 Diesel Tan which I’ve nurtured for over 23 years.
The one W124 190 I tried to purchase had a salvage title on it and a ruined body frame.
Another guy who owned one I know was pleased but was consistently taking in the shop. My 240D on the other had, has over 500,000 miles (Original Engine) on it and I do Oil/Filter changes on it every 2000 miles or 6 months, which ever comes 1st. I recently had to replace the Oil Cooler lines and Oil Cooler but other than the doors sticking and having to replace the tired upholstery she is a fine and inexpensive Diesel Automobile to run.
where is the best place o buy spares for my 300TE 4Matic
awesome read. the w124 is a great car and for many of my generation (now in my early 30s) it has now become an affordable used car. whereas when i first got my drivers license, it was a top of the line vehicle driven by my friends’ wealthy parents or grandparents. now i am faced with deciding to go for one…
awesome read. the w124 is a great car and for many of my generation (now in my early 30s) it has now become an affordable used car. whereas when i first got my drivers license, it was a top of the line vehicle driven by my friends’ wealthy parents or grandparents. now i am faced with deciding to go for one and seeing if they can manage the NH winter ( I don’t have a long commute)…
Though functional the W124 is a remarkably bland car. At least it is serviceable as a half-way decent taxi in Munich.
Yes but I don’t recommend one as a car for your kids on P Plates and I am in Australia over a normal non embarrassing small car.Sure you avoid new car depreciation over buying the default Ford,Mazda or Nissan alternatives but at what cost of having to attend a shrink to explain with them what you did and the shame caused for life.
I’m on my second W124 M103–the first was this black ’92, a $900 snip with a bad head gasket, slivers of rear brake pads, and a driver’s seat I jumpered off a motorcycle battery to move into position. It sold when I had to find another shop space, and I truly regretted the necessity. My sweetie and I, with her two teen-age sons, drove back from Albany in the most truly awful winter night driving conditions I’ve ever seen…What with four studded snow tires and a pair of seventy pound tube sands in the trunk, the old Benz never faltered. That in-line six delivered the most fantastic torque from its 120 degree crank–it was ethereal in its silence and implacable in the snow. The heater and defroster were perfect, and the single wiper-cleared windshield never even so much as streaked with ice. In the dry, it could clip along in the fast lane for hours at over 90 with absolute aplomb, and was invisible to the cops, somehow. Loved that car. It took a couple of years to turn up its replacement, an 88 300E from down South with new shocks all around. $700, and I drive it daily three years later.
I own The 250D Turbo version. Oil consumption is a common problem for W124. The fenders have vents because The radiator is smaller than The non-turbo version. That’s because Mercedes is supercharged by a turbo-compressor which is powered by The fan’s belt, it doesn’t have a gas turbine. The vents have some flexible plastic tubes which are bringing cold air into The engine bay (my W124 still has them) to.compensate The lack of cooling due to smaller radiator.
The passenger fender vents have nothing to do with the radiator or cooling, they feed the diesel air intake directly via a sealed port to the air box.
So here’s the deal: We have a 1989 W124 Station Wagon 250TD (i5) that was upgraded to the inline 6 of the 300TD and has a standard transmission. This car has great power and fuel efficiency (~50mpg!) Not sold in the US, It was driven from California to Costa Rica by the previous owner. The problem is finding parts in Costa Rica. I am writing this from the states and hoping to find some parts before we fly back in December. Right now, I am looking for a dome light and rear bearing.
The strengths and weaknesses of the article have manifested. Great suspension–expensive to maintain. Incredible engine: expensive to repair. A/c has been removed–terrible for costa rica! Engine overheats sometimes–perhaps because the a/c fan no longer connected. Seats are broken…passenger seat pokes through the floor. Missing trim strip on door. Please let me know if you have parts.
Strong, well built car. Low choice of mechanics and parts!
When you compare the US wagons from the 80s and 90s to the mb wagon there wasn’t any. Night and day. The us wagons were relics from the 60s and 70s while the mb was from the future. No joke. There was lots of room for improvement that the Germans were focused on. Nowadays the us carco s have caught up with style and performance. So much so that modern benzes just look ordinary. They don’t look special and solid like the used to.
Good article, the 260 was released due to then tax issues on fuel economy. I have one, a 1989 banger. Here in Australia they came with all the fruit, and my ACC worked perfectly yesterday in 31C. The work Toyota is nice & new, but for all our 124s age & fuel consumption (the most annoying bit of ownership), it’s not worth driving to a wrecking yard. Likely it’ll outlast humanity. Austere, heavy, uses juice, but gallops along the motorway and keeps pace with any modern box. Our other cars won’t touch it! ‘re plush interiors-I think a return to velour would be hilariously brilliant!
Dave K, is correct, one quality of these machines, they seem ‘invisible’ to cops!
That ‘formal’ tri-star adorned grill garners respect…
I have a fairly rare, well loaded `92 300CE-24 as my ‘classic’ nowadays, & it does
the job, being ( mostly) home-maintainable, with its analog control systems, solid
sensible traditional M-B build quality, yet remains a sure, reliable & excellent tourer,
& with sporty 7,000 rpm redline aplomb to boot…
The bigger V8-type brakes, & optional LSD/ Bilstein suspension give confidence,
even above the capabilities of the base units as noted by Paul.
Everything still works as designed, from the very comfortable leather seats to the climate control,
‘Hitler salute’ seat belt delivery arms, & the strange-ish pneumatic central locking.
& hey, you’ve gotta dig that smooth pillarless hardtop coupe style..
She’s a keeper!
Superb article. I’ve had the 190E in the family since my dad got one new 30 years ago.
The build quality of these cars is absolutely sick.
Handles better than most new cars, plants the road like a tank, and corners like a mountain lion.
Every amenity of a modern car. add a cellphone with GPS and you are set.
This is my w124 300CE-24 Coupe
I’ve owned three w124 300d’s (estates) and one E220 coupe. Really liked them, and thought the steering felt great. (most people don’t like the steering box system) great cars.
This was a good one to re-read, along with many of the comments. As for the brief Cadillac v. MB comparison, it is often heard that “Americans didn’t want hard seats and minimalistic interiors.” OK, maybe not. But did they want cheap plastics, grenading engines and unflattering styling? I don’t think they wanted those things either, but that was what Cadillac (and some other American manufacturers) gave us.
A stiff structure, a solid, quiet ride and sure-footed handling would have been a hit for Cadillac if the car had been reasonably attractive and durable. Sadly, it was neither.
I don’t know. No less an authority than David E. Davis felt the same about the W124—“best car”.
Can’t argue with the objective data: it was much quicker and more fun to drive, I’m sure (mind you, I’ve never driven either). And when it came out, for me it was an easy call over the conservative W123. Even then, I felt the interior was ‘scandinavianized’ compared to the W123 and the W126.
But now that I’m over twice as sold, I’ve become very fond of the W123. It exuded that Mercedes solidity, at a reasonable price financially, and a steep price in acceleration. Today, I’d rather have a W123. Diesel.
But the W124 is a great car for sure. And for me, it’s the last Mercedes that I felt was a great car–after TWO epic cars(W113 and W116), and ONE brilliant car that I admire a lot more now (W123), the W124 was a worthy member, IMO, of this great club.
The W116 replacement was too much… and the W124 didn’t stand out, even with it’s attractive exterior.
Four outstanding sedans that were a tough act to follow–W124 was the last one.
W123/201/124, glory days for Mercedes Benz…
I can´t disagree with this. What I would like to do is to place the 1995 Peugeot 406 into the same level as the Merc for its delivery of pretty much the same qualities, those being calm good-looks and well-judged mix of performance, economy, comofort and handling. Like the Mercedes here today, the 406 is all about professionalism and not flashiness. There is almost nothing I can think of to improve the car that does not affect the other parameters. More speed would worse the economy; more speed would worsen the ride; any additions of “luxury” (non-functional aspects) raise the price but not the performance or utility; make is smaller to improve economy and the comfort diminishes; make it a bit bigger and the economy and handling diminishes. And so on.
There are other cars where one or other parameter could be improved without worsening some other too much. With cars like the Merc and 406 all the factor are at or near perfect balance. That makes them very, very good cars indeed
Bruno Sacco deliberately designed the body to have larger-radius bends at the creases and corners to give the impression that the sheetmetal was much thicker than other vehicles — it reinforces the feel and image of solidity through the whole car.
The car mags have said this was the last of the really high-quality, engineering-standard Benzes. After this Mercedes went downmarket as Lexus stole sales from them, and their cars became much more built-to-a-price like everyone else’s.
Peak Mercedes. The W210 after this was a blobby mess. I found the redesign as disappointing as when the Acura Legend went to the RL. I wonder what happened.
My late father owned 1993 230E, which was stolen in Poland and replaced with 1995 E280. Eventually, he got a good deal on 2002 E280 (W210) so he traded his W124 in. My father made a huge regret as the laundry list of repairs and service calls for his W210 grew longer and longer each year. Mercedes-Benz had a massive recall campaign in Germany to replace the rusted out doors.
He reached a point that he wasn‘t willing to pay to fix anything and let his car fall apart. “The service centre couldn’t fix it or doesn’t know what’s wrong with it” was my father’s code for “they charge a ridiculous amount for this or that.” I ended up learning how to fix many things from watching YouTube videos and looking up the owner forums. And waited until he went aboard on holiday before I could fix them. When he came home, he said something about the fable of dwarves sneaking in at night to make and mend shoes. My mum revealed that it was all my doing. That was a turning point in my relationship with my father: he finally saw how much capable I am in fixing anything and figuring out the cheapest but most effective ways of fixing things in his car. Due to his age, he asked me to do the repairs around the house and his car at last.
I love these so much! Especially the “T” wagon. Awesome cars, all.
Late to an old party here, but story of my life.
And so to an empty room I say it’s doubtless that the W124 is fairly magnificent thing, for the reasons listed, which could be summarised as “imperturbability.” Yet there are flaws, and they’re not insignificant.
The steering was rather free of feel, and a bit vague on centre, both exaggerated by the hula-hoop wheel which also made it feel undergeared (which it probably wasn’t). I’m not suggesting ’70’s Japanese-assist-awfulness or somesuch, but a BMW 5series from ’88 shows how it could be done better.
The front seats of the first series were direct from the later W123’s, famously hard in the middle and a bit sproingy on the outer edges, infamously not universally well-liked. I found them unsuitable, making me fidget about after not too long. The ride of the 124 was excellent, but on the firmer side of supple, and these uninviting thrones were not tuned suitably and boinked out of sequence in big bumps. The discomfort might draw one’s attention to the road noise, which was not close to French car class (a German failing for years).
Other things could arguably be failings or eccentricities depending on how much they irritated (or not). The driveline was the long-standing Mercedes You Report We Decide type, namely a stiff old pedal that sent nothing much for it’s first travel, then a transmission that would put down it’s cuppa tea, yawn, ignore the lowest gear as too difficult to reach and only then decide to hook up, before holding each gear at the point of change because it favoured the slurring one to anything too abrubt. All this deciding was without regard to the rush you might reporting as needed at the wheel. If taking off in drive, btw, and deciding in a scare that 1st really was needed and thus pulling it back there, the kickdown could be utterly savage.
The brakes, at least in RHD form, had plenty of stop but also lots of the Mercedes squashy pedal of the time.
In short, if driving only around town on the hardarse seats, with the mooshy brake response and the under-then-over-responsive tranny, listening to the tram tracks thumping rudely underneath, it didn’t feel so much like a special thing as an eccentric’s way to spend a lot of money. Take it out of town for a fang, ofcourse, and it one’s opinion shifted a lot – as did one’s arse, in my case – but not quite to ecstasy, as the steering reassured but failed to fully report.
To be clear, I still love these barges, but have always thought reporting on them has always been a bit excitable. They’re not the Messiah, and in some bits are just a naughty boy.
Now, the true best car of the past thirty years? The Lexus LS400 of 1990. It did all the W124 did (including steer a bit lightly) but with refinement levels to make the Benz seems ill-tempered, all whilst being built in such a fashion as to make that car look cheap. And they actually don’t ever break, whereas the myth that W124’s can all be driven to the moon is just that. That they did all this out of the box while inventing a new status brand and changing both what a luxury car needed to be like AND being a raging financial success also makes them a game-changer of significance beyond being the best.
Yes, you are hitting some good (bad?) points there. I used to work at Mercedes, and I have owned the two top tier, standard range versions of W201 (190E 2.6 Sportline, manual) and W/S124 (300TE-24V, five speed auto), and while they have many good characteristics, reliability and quality can definitely be discussed. There are always one or two things to attend to, an over voltage relay, a drifting tempomat unit, minor trim details failing, AC control unit, unstable idling, surging during acceleration, oil leakages, head and exhaust gaskets and so on.
For my driving, moving from the 1992 300TE-24 to a 1995 Lexus LS400 saved at least 10% on the fuel consumption and it was in most aspects a better car. The W124 can survive road salt better than any similar Japanese car I know though, at least when I look at Scandinavia.
Whats the year of the first image?
For me this is the most beautiful of all the w124,s the vert.
Most of the cars I’ve bought throughout my life have been getting on for 10 years old, due to a combination of impecunity and parsimony. It gives you time to get over the marketing hype and to study the experiences of long term users and searching for a good one is half the fun. It’s best to buy quality cars with the minimum of accessories. KISS.
Hence I came to buy my first Mercedes, a W124, 7 seater estate with the 2.3 litre 4 pot. It’s a car that that is often described as handsome, seldom beautiful, a car that commands respect rather than inspiring love. Driving one certainly made me feel like an ubermensch.
The handling is superb. I remember one memorable trip chasing a well driven Astra van, a fine handling motor, across west country B roads. Despite having the power to weight advantage, he couldn’t shake me, though he nearly put himself in a ditch trying.
Tough as old boots, but lacking the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of the W123. Efficiency isn’t everything.
Likely the best car technically and dynamically in it’s price range and in it’s time, and an admirable car in many respects, no doubt. Best for the speed obsessed who want a family driver, maybe, but that was not the majority of US drivers, then or now. Besides the fact it was way too expensive, any number of more mundane cars were probably best for their more modest needs and wants. An ’84 Cutlass, Camry, Prelude, Cherokee, even if not in the pure technical sense of the superior machine, was best if one wants to get into semantics. It’s the needs vs wants vs quality vs price that makes marketing autos such a challenge and more of an art than science, unlike designing a car chassis. The Best or Nothing is fine for some, and it was the best family driving machine at the time for those that wanted what it had to offer and could afford it… it’s hard to argue otherwise.
As good as the W124 was, like any Benz nowadays they are an overly complex and fragile money pit, albeit still great drivers when right. Better find a good low mile well maintained one though, or otherwise be on good terms with a competent MB mechanic along a stout wallet, otherwise better buy a Lexus. A good friend just put his mint low-ish mile W220 up for sale, having discovered all this the hard way. He also bought his wife a 3 yr old used Cayenne. Needless to say she now has a new Rav-4.
MB no longer makes cars to their ’80s standards. My old black & red Heckflosse 220SE and a relative’s silver ’84 300D were the kind of Benz cars we so fondly like to remember. Maybe the W124 was their swan song, but after the mid ’80s, there’s not so much to like.
America had a few cars to rival the W124/W126s, not many, but a few:
’85-’91 and ’86-’92 C/H-bodies
’84-’92 Lincoln Mark VII LSC
’84-’89 and ’90-’97 Lincoln Town Car
But that was about it…those cars weren’t as good as the Benzes overall in terms of performance and refinement, obviously, but had solidity that rivaled them in some areas.