Lend Me Some Sugar, I Am Your Neighbour

When Mercedes-Benz were looking to build their late-’80s supersaloon, they decided to keep things in the ‘hood. Zuffenhausen to be exact.

1989 Mercedes 500E. Image: Gear-Patrol

In 1989, Mercedes-Benz engineers were well advanced with development of the W140-series S-Class, a car which they determined would underwrite their utter dominance in the luxury saloon field. The W140 had been delayed owing to changes in the car’s specification which were intended to move it to a more rarefied market position than that of its predecessor. This would have the consequence of leaving a sizable chasm between it and its W124 sibling further down the range – a gap which Mercedes’ product planners believed could lucratively be filled.

There was also a matter of prestige to be considered. Bavarian rival, BMW had been nipping at Mercedes’ heels for some time and had just launched the second (E34) generation of the M5, now offering Ferrari-baiting (300 bhp) performance in an elegant, understated, ultra-contemporary wrapping. The glove was cast very much in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim’s direction. And while Mercedes’ AMG partner was in the business of offering emboldened versions of Sindelfingen’s finest, these (even then) were not subtle machines. Indeed, during those more innocent days, such vehicles were viewed by many of Mercedes’ traditional customers as terminally déclassé.

Image: mercedes-benz-club.net

Daimler-Benz management saw an opportunity to establish a more upmarket version of their mid-sized offering, while taking the fight directly to the Petuelring. At that point, the most powerful in-haus version of the W124-series was powered by a 3.0 litre 24 valve version of Daimler-Benz’s in-line six, offering 231 bhp and a rather peaky 195 ft/lbs of torque. The solution was obvious.

Like the 300 SEL 6.3 before it, the 500E would prove to be something of a parts-bin special. Mercedes dropped in the 5.0 litre V8 engine and four-speed automatic transmission which was being developed for the R129 SL, which was good for a brawny 326 bhp and 354 ft/lbs of torque at 3900 rpm. Brakes and suspension were suitably upgraded, with an increased track width of 1.5 inches and a lower ride height to match.

Stylistically, the wheelarches received a subtle flare to accommodate wider wheels and tyres, and this combined with an equally low-key bodykit comprising of a front air dam, and body-side skirts, lent the 500E the merest hint of visual aggression. Inside the 500E was trimmed to ‘Sportline’ specification, Recaro seats were fitted, with the rear bench replaced by two individual buckets. All in all, the 500E would be the apogee not only of the W124 model line, but of the Q-car genre itself.

Image: Gear Patrol

Realising perhaps that volumes for such a subtle machine were bound to be low, Mercedes contracted their Baden-Württemberg neighbour to build the car. W124 bodyshells were transported to Zuffenhausen where they were hand assembled by Porsche technicians before being shipped back to Sindelfingen for final assembly and inspection. The model was never offered in right hand drive, despite being offered in both the UK and Japan. From 1989, Porsche built close to 10,500 examples before production ultimately ceased in 1995. Of those only a fraction were sold outside Europe, the bulk of which destined for the domestic market.

One gets the impression the 500E was something of a toe in the water exercise for Mercedes, unsure of the market prospects of such a model and therefore unwilling to commit to a full in-house programme, yet keen to make a point nonetheless. Once the W124 was replaced in 1996 by the unlovely W210-series, AMG were on hand to provide the required muscle and would form the top of the model range. The 500E was never directly replaced.

Image: drivingtalk

Amid the brief lexicon of thoroughbred performance Mercedes saloons, the 500E’s status is assured. The fact that it was built by Porsche will, for some, only add to its allure and desirability. To enchantment, add both rarity and provenance and its all-time-classic status is assured. Mercedes don’t care to produce cars like this anymore, and neither for that matter, does the Northern neighbour who actually built it.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

8 thoughts on “Lend Me Some Sugar, I Am Your Neighbour”

  1. Very hard to reconcile that understated, superbly built, “iron fist in a velvet glove” car with the chintzy, garish, plasticky, sheep in wolfs clothing products of Mercedes Benz that litter industrial estate car parks these days.

    There are depressingly few options on the market today for the people with taste who used to buy a Mercedes Benz or an Audi in the late 80s/early 90s. Volvo spring to mind, but I fear they may give in to the appeal of shifting volume to the Morlocks with gaudy magpie attracting cars soon enough.

    1. There is something about the sobriety of the W124 that really lends itself to this sort of treatment. It just looks so capable doesn’t it? I really appreciate the fact that Mercedes engineers had sufficient confidence in their calculations to leave the body more or less unaltered.

      Leaving aside the wider engineering and sociological reasons, I did wonder if the advent of speed cameras hastened the demise of this form of subtlety? Prior to their adoption, keeping a low profile from the constabulary was probably a good idea, whereas the camera doesn’t discriminate.

    2. I don’t know if speed cameras are the main reasons for this. I rather think it has to do with a time when not showing off was considered a virtue. Also, openly showed aggressivity was not considered a sign for success and superiority, but rather as vulgar.

  2. The perceived wisdom here in Germany is that Daimler-Benz also tried to help out Porsche through the decision to outsource the 500E’s assembly. Lest we forget, this was the period before Wendelin Wiedeking was given the chance to show the ‘w*nkers’ at Zuffenhausen what healthy profit margins look like – and when Porsche was on the brink of bankruptcy.

    I also have it on good authority that the 500E’s quality was below the standard W124’s, which is why some cognoscenti have since identified the 400E as the true crown of the 124 range.

  3. Yes the 400E was indeed much more appropriate for a wealthy pietistic swabian businessman, a man who never wants to show his richness. Needless to say that the 400E-Badge was not mounted on their Mercedes. And the 400E has a much more reasonable price-tag than the 500E and such swabians never were seducible to spend more money than necessary.
    So for those people the major fault was that the 500E was easy to identify as a very expensive luxury car.
    I remember a Mercedes -Slogan for the 500E: “Silk and fire”.

    But the 500E opens the door for Mercedes to new groups of customers, AMG-customers. So it was leading the way for Mercedes much more than the 400E did.
    For me, the 500E and the 190E 2.5-16 evo will always remain as the Mercedes-dreamcars of my youth.

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