This story has been on the backburner for a while now, having been written and shot in the middle of summer. Enjoy!
Mercedes Benz has long made a name for itself building luxurious sedans for those who want to cover distance in comfort. The S, C and E-classes have been their bread and butter, now supported by numerous permutations of three letters that they seem to be pulling out of a hat, while responding to the needs of the market (a la GLA, GLC, GLE and all the rest).
If you need a high-performance variant, the very efficient gentlemen from Aufrech Melcher Grobaspach will fulfill every need. Track monster, urban muscle, autobahn-stormer, they’ve got it all, seamlessly integrating with Mercedes Benz product lineup since the late 1990s. That can be said of any of the German brands, who have their performance variants like //M and Quattro.
Back in the early ‘90s, however, things weren’t so simple. Unless you had discovered black gold or exotic baking powder, the chances of getting your hands on a truly spectacular machine were slim. Then again, AMG was churning out cars like the Hammer, operating as a tuning house for stock MB cars.
Whether this got the executives at the bigger company thinking, or whether it was a skunkworks project that eventually saw the light of day, few know. Either way, Mercedes Benz did something unprecedented by knocking on their Stuttgart sibling’s door and put forth an idea. Porsche, slightly idle at the time, agreed.
The result was a reinforced Mercedes Benz E-class chassis, with subtle fender flares to accommodate an engine so big that Porsche had to fit it to the cars. Displacement was 4937cc, divided into eight cylinders, making 350 hp. The resulting car was named the 500E.
Today, neither the displacement, nor the power figures capture our attention. Then again, you can’t really blame people, when a Formula-1 derived V10-powered super-sedan is now available for close to $10,000 on the used market (if you scrape the bottom of the barrel).
I too, did not know what to make of the 500E, having never had seat time in one. So, when a friend bought a car that was in need of some love, I thought it would be a great introduction to the model. That’s how I found myself standing in front of this car on a cloudy midsummer day.
First impressions? Extremely solid. Solid, to the point that the car looks like it’s been hewn from a hunk of granite.
The subtle lines are textbook Nineties’ Benz, but you need to know what you’re looking for. The arches and wider wheels do give the game away, but to a very small extent. Back this car into a corner, and it’ll come out fighting, or so the looks say.
Painted in a darker shade of tired grey, this particular specimen has lived a hard life. The interior, although luxurious, shows its age. Ripped leather and cracked trim tell their own story, but all the switches work just right. More importantly, the steering wheel looks like it could replace an anvil in a blacksmith’s workshop with nobody the wiser. The design language was very utilitarian in those days, but one can trace the roots of MB through to the new cars, with the controls being mostly in the same place. Start the engine and the V8 barks, before settling into a contented purr. The shift lever selects ‘D’ with a satisfying clunk and the car moves off, ever so smoothly.
During the next few minutes, I get a crash course in why people still covet this generation of Benz so much. The 500E is so smooth, that I find myself confident that she could undertake a cross country road-trip with extreme comfort, arriving at her destination completely composed, the same being said for her occupants.
Put your foot down quickly and the V8 wakes up, moving towards the horizon with a good degree of urgency. The 500E is slow by today’s standards, but that comes down to a couple of things: safety and comfort. That bank vault assuredness each time you shut the door comes at a cost – weight. The car was never built to handle the twisties and if that’s what your using the car for, I’d strongly suggest you stop. Need something that eats miles for breakfast, lunch and dinner? You’ve found it.
This brings me to the association that the car has. Every car has a particular reputation to attract a certain kind of clientele. Ferraris and Lamborghinis from the Disco era were known for flamboyant wealth and white powder. BMWs, specifically the E30s, were known for being the transportation of choice for the Yuppie. The 600 Grosser was known to appeal to those with highly autocratic tendencies and a sovereign wealth fund for their personal piggy bank.
The 500E? You drove it if you wanted to fly under the radar. A banker, or a businessman, who needed to cross countries to be home in time for dinner, usually cruising at highly illegal speeds without raising the attention of local law enforcement. Perhaps even a lieutenant, or right-hand-man, in an organized crime syndicate, who travelled behind his boss in the motorcade.
That’s the type of association that the 500E brings to mind. Power when you needed it, but a disguise when you didn’t, which is why I allude to an aging wrestler in a three-piece suit. Get into a bar fight with a 500E and you’ll leave the room horizontally.
This particular car will get a full interior refresh, a full respray and some basic engine maintenance before long. In spite of its needs, she’s a tough machine, born out of a rare marriage between two highly reputed German auto manufacturers.
Almost 25 years later, the quality still shines through. That’s why, if you want a run-of-the-mill sleeper sedan, you’ll find dime a dozen. If you want a German machine built with class, that exudes a subtle level of prestige and will probably outlast you, get a W124 500E.
Special thanks to Godfrey Landicho for taking the time out of his busy schedule to bring his beast out for us, and his incredible patience with this story. We hope the E never leaves your fleet!