1991-1995 Mercedes-Benz 500E/E500 W124

1991-1995 Mercedes-Benz 500E/E500 W124

The first instalment of this new series looks back at the 124-series 500E, launched at the Paris motor show in October 1990. It set a new high watermark for four-door saloon performance and is fast becoming a favourite among collectors with its link to Porsche.

Words David Sutherland Images Terry Oborne & Daimler AG

The expression, ‘an iron fist in a velvet glove’ could have been invented for the W124 500E, the four-door saloon’s suave but ultra low-key looks conceding almost no clues as to the huge (for the time) power and torque its high technology five-litre V8 harboured. Its unveiling in autumn 1990 came as German car makers embarked on an output war but in the most discreet possible way, and the 500E, borrowing the R129 500SL’s powertrain, was Stuttgart’s answer to the BMW M5, which for the last four years had been hailed as the definitive high-performance saloon.

The 500E, badged E500 following the 124-series’ facelift of 1993, was a car that only Mercedes-Benz could have built. Or not built, because Stuttgart neighbour Porsche did much of the development and assembly work. You could get close up to the 500E, or even inside it, without realising it was anything other than a well-specced 300E, hitherto the 124 range-topper.

The only visible exterior differences were the mildly bulbous wheelarches to accommodate the 16- instead of 15-inch alloy wheels, and the model badge on the boot, which customers could delete and often did. While it wasn’t available in beige, the 500E could have been mistaken for any 124 in a German airport taxi rank, hence those in the know christened it ‘Super Cab’. Once seated inside, there was still no obvious sign that you were in the first production V8 124-series.

The seats were special Recaros but only a sticker hidden underneath noted that. The rear cabin featured what were effectively two separate seats, the usual bench seat replaced because more space was needed for the 500SL’s R129 larger differential.

Instruments were the regular, smart 124 design, devoid of extra dials as per the 190E 2.5-16 W201. The 300E W124 was notable for the refinement of its super-sweet, three-litre straight-six. But it could never be called a quick car, and much the same applied to the 3.2-litre E320 successor. So, when the W124 500E arrived with its 322bhp and 354lb ft torque – half as much power again and nearly twice the pulling power of the 300E-24 W124/C124 – it truly took the 124-series to the next level.

The 500E wasn’t just unassuming in appearance, it even managed to conceal its performance potential from the driver until it was called upon. Twist the key and the astoundingly smooth M119 purrs into life, the only clear sign it has started being the rev counter needle lifting slightly. Engage ‘D’ on the autobox and you move off near silently; all very nice, but is this really the E34 M5 killer?

Working the engine provides the answer. As mid revs are reached, an ocean of thrust becomes available, deployed perfectly by the four-speed gearbox even though it was near the end of its career, soon to give way to a generation of five-speeders. The silken wallop of torque put the six-cylinder M5 to shame, presumably one of the goals of the programme, and makes the 500E feel one of the most effortless Benzes ever.

But that’s not all you get: as revs rise the V8 assumes an urgent character that 500SL owners would not experience in full, because part of Porsche’s development work included a complete overhaul of the fuel induction and ignition system. Generally, Mercedes engines are set to operate unobtrusively, but this is one you want to work hard just to hear and feel it – and of course if you want to blister to 62mph from a standing start in just over six seconds, which back in the 1990s was still noteworthy.

Mercedes did not want to impose a reduction in mechanical refinement in exchange for added performance, and the same thought was applied to the chassis. The suspension was heavily modified, and the 500E is more nimble than regular 124s, but little if any harshness is fed to occupants. The 500E’s cosseting manner was in stark contrast to the various ‘official’ AMG Mercedes models that would appear in showrooms within two years of the 500E’s debut, and which were very firmly sprung and, in the case of the W124 and W202 Class, noisier in the engine department.

When launched, the 500E slipped under the radar, especially in the UK where it was very expensive and unavailable in right-hand drive, hence fewer than 30 were delivered through Mercedes-Benz dealers. The 10,479 sold were enjoyed by people who wanted a very quick Mercedes but didn’t want to shout, or even whisper, about it and thus this incredible, virtually hand-built star car managed to be almost invisible.

Thirty years on, it’s a different story. The once near anonymous ‘Q-car’ has grown in classic status and the best examples are starting to make quite serious money on the international auction circuit. Mercedes-Benz now celebrates it as one of its choice ‘modern classics’, and even Porsche is now in on the act, for the first time wanting to highlight its considerable involvement in the project.

For some, the 500E/E500 was and perhaps still is the ideal motorcar: thoroughbred engineering, ample performance, high build standard, and quietly radiating the unmistakeable Mercedes-Benz aura. That the rest of the world has no idea what it is only adds to the appeal.

Just the facts

Mercedes-Benz 500E (W124)

  • ENGINE M119 4,973cc V8
  • MAX POWER 322bhp @ 5,500rpm
  • MAX TORQUE 354lb ft @ 3,900rpm
  • TRANSMISSION 4-speed automatic, RWD
  • WEIGHT 1,700kg
  • 0-62MPH 6.1sec
  • TOP SPEED 155mph
  • YEARS PRODUCED 1991-1995
  • NUMBER BUILT 10,479 (including 500Es)

All figures from Mercedes-Benz; top speed electronically limited; fuel consumption according to EEC urban; post-October 1992 cars made 316bhp/347lb ft torque; E500 badging arrived July 1993

Some owners upgraded the braking system. With its flared arches, this saloon sits just perfectly. This 1992 car has postfacelift indicators and Limited spec alloys. On the Mercedes-Benz stand at the Paris motor show in 1990. M119 V8 a big improvement on the old M117 unit. Non standard wheel; speedo reads in km/h.

When launched, the 500E slipped under the radar, especially in the UK where it was very expensive

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