While the combustion engine still has a way to go before its emissions-enforced retirement, we’re getting close to the end. And that has triggered the instinct to both celebrate but also quantify some of its high points.
Plenty of cars are going to be fighting it out to be remembered as all-time greats in an argument that will rage for longer than petrol and diesel lasts. Yet there’s one car that we’ve already described as being the greatest of all time, albeit of a relatively small bit of the pond: the W124-series Mercedes-Benz E-Class, in production for just over a decade from the mid-1980s onwards.
In 2008, Autocar’s then editor, Chas Hallett, let me spend some of the editorial budget on buying an example to answer the question: ‘Is this the best used car in the world?’
The E-Class was already well into late middle age by then, with lots to choose from and prices at the nadir. Just £1100 was required to pick up a mechanically strong 1993 E280 estate with a creamy six-cylinder engine, plus the desirable options of leather trim, a five-speed automatic gearbox and fold-up third-row seats in the boot.
Cosmetically, our car was far from perfect and, during our three months together, it did suffer from several electrical faults. But over 6000 miles, it also proved to be hugely capable, managing a trip to Berlin to meet a 560,000-mile W124 taxi and cruising down the autobahn at three-figure speeds on the way there and back. It even got the honour of transporting my newborn daughter home from hospital for the first time.
It was my first old Mercedes, but the bug bit hard: I’ve subsequently owned two more W124s and two of the smaller 190Es, all bought with my own cash. So my personal answer to Hallett’s question was definitely yes. More than a decade on, the W124 is still regularly cited as being one of Mercedes’ highest water marks, so we’ve decided to ask the question again – with the assistance of the same man who helped me select a car in 2008, Nick Froome.
After working as a sound engineer and music producer, Froome became a specialist dealer in high-end W124s in the early noughties, going on to sell more than 150 cars through his website, w124.co.uk, several of them more than once. He doesn’t do much trading any more, although he still offers an expert inspection service to anyone contemplating a German car from this period.