Classic Drive: 1992 Mercedes-Benz 500E
A chance encounter with a fine example of a special sleeper
SAN DIEGO, California — Ahhh, the wonders of the Internet Age. When I was growing up, momma always said "never talk to strangers," but here I was, behind the wheel of some stranger's 1992 Mercedes-Benz 500E, 3,000 miles away from home in a city I'd never been to before. Life found a decidedly unconventional way of getting me behind the wheel of a Mercedes that is not only one of my dream cars, but the secondary answer to the "what's your favorite" question.
How did this happen, you might ask? Was it a friend of a friend's? Family? A referral? Nope, it all started with a good 'ol Facebook discussion about the W124. I struck a conversation with an owner who had one sitting nicely on 18-inch AMG Monoblock IIs, exactly how I'd have mine. The connection was practically instant.
Some time later, I found myself with a plane ticket to Southern California to attend the launch of the latest and greatest Hyundai Elantra. I put up an APB status to see if I had any friends in the San Diego area and the 500E owner replied. We ended up meeting on a cool, breezy, beautiful evening in Imperial Beach. That's some classic car culture comradery right there.
The car in question is equally as classic. Regarded as one of the greatest modern midsize luxury sedans, the W124 is a downright legend, both when new and in long-term perspective. Speak to any Mercedes enthusiast and the debate over what was the "last true Mercedes-Benz" will go back and forth between the W124 and the W140 S-Class. Their relatively simple construction makes both serviceable and designed to last, but the 500E is no ordinary E-Class.
Like a proper sleeper, it looks like a normal early 1990s E-Class sedan from a distance. Even up-close, one needs a second glance to see the flared wheel arches, accommodating a wider track and larger tires. From the front or rear, it's obvious the 500E is lower on its haunches with protruding hips, ready to devour miles of asphalt in a jiff. Because of its humdrum appearance, it's nicknamed the "wolf in sheep's clothing." This specific 500E is a 1992 model year car, though it sports the post-facelift hood and headlights, which were sourced from a 1994.
The cliché of feeling like a tank or vault might be over played, but there is no other way to adequately describe the feeling of opening and closing its doors. They solidly clack open and when closed normally, people in the next county will feel the thump. Build quality inside and out is so impeccable, it's easy to see how Mercedes-Benz was the leader in attention to detail. For instance, the passenger side side-view mirror is squared for shorter viewing distances, while the driver's side is rectangular for longer ones. (Before overtaking on the Autobahn, you needed to make sure a Porsche 911 wasn't charging up the left lane at 150 mph.) Side indicators and rear taillights are rippled to prevent the buildup of dirt from inhibiting their luminescence. And the body was specifically designed to be aerodynamic, offering one of the lowest drag coefficients of its time.
At cruising speeds on Interstate 5, even with around 210,000 miles on the odometer, the cabin was serene, rattle, and squeak free. The only audible signal was faint tire roar from the slightly stiffer suspension and larger wheels.
The 500E's 5.0-liter V-8 premiered a few years before the W124 in the R129 500SL. Mercedes shoehorned it into the confines of the W124's engine bay with the same in-house four-speed auto and an open-differential. The result is the same effortless 325 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque to propel the two-ton sedan towards the horizon. As the 500E evolved with changes in the fuel injection system, figures saw a slight decline by the car's facelift in 1994 and the end a year later. The electro-hydraulically controlled four-speed never interrupts delivery. The factory result is a 0-60 time of around six seconds and a top run electronically limited to 150 mph.
Also taken from the 500SL are its larger brakes and tighter recirculating ball-type steering box. Compared to the E320 Coupe that was my first car, the 500E offers flatter body control, a stiffer ride, and more eager turn-in. However, this 1992 500E had its Citroen-esque hydropneumatics self-leveling rear suspension deleted in favor of a set of Bilstein B8s. With the addition of 18-inch wheels, versus the stock 16-inch eight-holes, this specific 500E certainly offered a more unique experience, but the ride remained firm and compliant.
The real charm of the 500E, however comes from its conception. It was co-developed in close relation with Porsche. But not only that, each 500E endured trips back and forth between Mercedes' plant in Sindelfingen and Porsche's Rossle-Bau plant in Zuffenhausen just to complete assembly. Because of this tedious assembly process, each car took a total of 18 days to complete before shipping off to dealers. As such, not many were made. Of 10,479 said to have been produced, only 1,528 reached the United States between 1992 and 1994.
Despite the small run, finding one of these "wolves in sheep's clothing" isn't too difficult, at least not yet. Though the 500E is a fairly high-maintenance vehicle with complex bits that will need servicing or replacing, such as the rear hydraulic self-leveling suspension, the W124 in general is regarded as sturdy car. Slack on maintenance and like any other second-hand European gem, it will begin to get costly. Nonetheless, the 500E's comparatively solid reliability, durability, and ease of maintenance distinguish it from other premium classics, making it not just fun-to-drive, but friendly to own as well.
1992 Mercedes-Benz 500E Specifications
|EXPECT TO PAY||$18,000-$25,000|
|ENGINE||5.0L DOHC 32-valve V-8/325 hp, 354 lb-ft|
||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan|
|L x W x H||187 x 70.7 x 55.5 in|
|WEIGHT||3,950 lb (est)|
|0-60 MPH||6.0 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|