When Mercedes-Benz were looking to build their late-’80s supersaloon, they decided to keep things in the ‘hood. Zuffenhausen to be exact.
In 1989, Mercedes-Benz engineers were well advanced with development of the W140-series S-Class, a car which they determined would underline 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 seriously déclassé.
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.
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.
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 it’s all-time-classic status is assured. Mercedes don’t care to produce cars like this any more, and neither for that matter, does the Northern neighbour who actually made it.