Currently reading: Still a class apart? Driving the W124 Mercedes E-Class
We once called the W124-series E-Class the best used car on the planet. We subject the car to 2020 vision to see if that's still true
News
8 mins read
10 May 2020

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.

Back to top

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.

The W124 car you see here, an E320 Sportline estate, is one he sold a few years ago and he has just agreed to help its moderately famous owner move it on.

W124s fall, prices rise

The world has moved on since £1000 was a realistic budget for a nice W124. Time and grim-faced MOT testers have dramatically thinned the numbers, a point made by the apparent fate of Autocar’s former car. L403 GYT – or ‘old gyt’ as it was affectionately known – managed another 50,000 miles in six years after we got rid, but its last MOT expired in 2015, suggesting that it has been either SORNed or scrapped since then.

These days, even tired- looking four-cylinder saloons are at least twice as much as we paid, with tidier examples of the much more desirable six-cylinder estates now at least £5000 – a sizeable premium over the W210 generation that replaced them. The stylish but wobbly cabriolet version carries an even chunkier premium, with the nicest examples now north of £20,000.

Back to top

Froome sold this E320 estate several years ago to screenwriter Jesse Armstrong, one of the brains behind the brilliant Peep Show and more recently creator of the award-winning Succession in the US. Armstrong came to it after owning a Volvo 940 wagon, which, he admits, “might have been the gateway drug”, and he’s now regretfully parting with the Merc because he is spending so much time in the US that it isn’t being used enough.

Froome has already identified a few jobs that need to be done to raise it to his standards, but it still looks close to immaculate as we rendezvous on the South Downs. The car feels familiar, but changing times have altered its relationship with other cars. It’s a point made best when parked next to photographer Olgun Kordal’s Superb Estate, the E-Class looking both low and narrow next to a modern equivalent – and very upright. Yet there’s also no arguing that this one looks classier and more timeless than our car appeared to be 12 years ago, when the roads were still full of them.

The cabin triggers something close to drooling nostalgia and is a reminder of how little equipment even high-end premium cars had in those days. Armstrong’s car has pretty much a full set of desirable options: leather trim, a power sunroof, electrically adjustable seats, factory air conditioning and a five-speed auto ’box in place of the standard four-speeder. But there are still fewer buttons on the wooden dashboard than a modern equivalent would have on the face of its steering wheel.

The well-sprung but minimally bolstered seat fits like a familiar armchair and the driving experience is every bit as stately as I remember it. One of the W124s I owned after running Autocar’s example had the four-cylinder 2.2-litre engine, and although the basic car was every bit as stylish and practical, it never felt ‘right’, lacking the bigger motor’s sound and effortless demeanour. The six has plentiful torque, but also a surprisingly zingy enthusiasm for harder work when the gearbox is kicked down or a lower gear selected. It’s not fast-fast: one of the day’s revelations is how hard I need to be pressing the firmly sprung throttle pedal to match the pace of 2020 traffic away from the lights and roundabouts. But the amount of performance feels entirely appropriate to the stateliness of the rest of the car.

Back to top

There is also something liberating about a chassis with almost no dynamic intent beyond comfort and competence. The first buyer of Armstrong’s car opted for the Sportline pack, which brought lower and firmer suspension, as well as 205-profile tyres for the 15in alloys. But by modern standards, it feels soft, with little front-end bite and noticeable body roll even at modest speeds. None of this matters in the slightest, though. The W124’s preferred role is that of laid-back cruiser, laying a velvet cloak over choppy road surfaces and with refinement that’s still impressive by today’s standards.

What really stands out is the same thing that did 12 years ago: the obvious quality of the engineering. It’s details like the ‘magic wiper’, the single blade that uses a clever mechanism to push outwards as it reaches the edge of the screen. It’s so good that Koenigsegg still uses it. Also the way the tailgate opens without any gas struts to hold it, these being hidden inside the pillars.

As the tatty W124s have died, so the elegant simplicity of the car’s design has become more obvious. Bruno Sacco was one of the great automotive stylists of the late 20th century – and this E-Class estate was some of his very best work.

Decision time

Is it still the best used car in the world? Objectively, no – the W124 has grown more expensive and the costs and complications in keeping one in good order for everyday use have grown, too. There are cheaper and more plentiful contenders for that title. Instead of that accolade, I reckon you are looking at a car that has made the transition to becoming a fully fledged classic, one of the cars that occupies a pinnacle and that we’ll still be celebrating long after the combustion engine has retired.

Back to top

A quick guide to buying a W124

The good news is that natural wastage has been gradually increasing the quality of the remaining W124 population. Most cars that have been in regular use will have had steady expenditure to keep them in fettle. The biggest risk remains rust, both cosmetic corrosion in panels, especially front wings, and more serious rot underneath, notably in the sills and jacking points.

Electrical issues are quite common, as we discovered with the car we owned, and later six-cylinder petrol cars like this one have a tendency to overheat their under-bonnet wiring looms, causing insulation to fail. Suspension bushes and ball joints wear out over time, and if previous owners haven’t kept up with replacements, the need to do lots at once can lead to big bills.

W124 expert Nick Froome says the five-speed auto ’box is well worth having from a drivability point of view, even though some reckon it is less reliable than the four-speeder. Similarly, the option of the backwards folding third-row seats in the boot adds significantly to practicality, although Jesse Armstrong’s car doesn’t have that.

There are factory and aftermarket air-con systems, the latter often offered by Merc dealers as a cheaper alternative to the official one. Colours are down to individual choice, but Froome prefers the lighter interiors. He says this is the only car with the combination of flat black paint and mushroom leather he’s ever sold. Oh, and the design code W124 should refer to the saloon only – the estate was the S124 and the coupé/convertible C124 – but these days the whole clan tends to sail under the W-number

Back to top

How a W124 fares by 2020 standards

Although it was the most stylish, the W124 wasn’t the biggest estate of its era. The van-like Volvo 740/940 had it beaten, seats up or down. But its blend of space and style is one that Skoda seems to be attempting with the vast Superb wagon, which is more commodious than either the V90 or current E-Class.

The W124 was very long by the standards of its era. Even now, its 4765mm overall length is just 91mm less than the Skoda. But the Merc is considerably smaller inside thanks to the more efficient packaging offered by the Superb’s transverse engine.

The E-Class has 530 litres of stowage with the rear seats up and 1770 litres with them lowered. The Superb manages 660 litres and 1950 litres respectively, and it also has much more generous rear leg room.

Back to top

Yet for usable practicality, the older car wins out thanks to a longer, flatter and lower load space, which is accessed through a wider aperture.

The Superb also shows how much dynamic tastes have changed. Although it’s one of the most gently sprung cars on the road, it feels like a sports car next to the W124, with much more direct controls and a ride that’s better disciplined but far firmer.

Three W124 estates that we found

1993 E220 Estate - 51,000 miles, £5250: Although they lack the appeal of the bigger engines, the four-cylinders are cheaper to both buy and run. The vendor doesn’t list the exact spec for this low-mileage example, but it certainly looks appealing.

Back to top

1994 E280 Estate - 137,000 miles, £4250: A good indication of the middle of the market for the estates: a late six-cylinder with twin airbags and seven seats, but the less desirable four-speed manual and no air-con. Formerly owned by Earl Spencer, so once a proper ‘estate’ car.

1995 E320 Estate - 97,000 miles, £7500: A stunning-looking car. Its fully loaded spec includes the five-speed gearbox, fold-up boot seats, cruise control and even the very rare fitment of climate control, plus a record of extensive recent spending.

READ MORE

The best Mercedes you’ve (probably) never heard of 

Mercedes to launch 32 new models by 2022 in massive rollout 

2021 Mercedes-Benz EQS previewed in new official images

Join the debate

Comments
9
Add a comment…
runnerbean 10 May 2020

I did many tens of thousands

I did many tens of thousands of miles in 124s (saloons and estates) in the late '80s and I loved them.  Not sports cars by any means but they could be driven briskly and safely all day, every day, without ever being tiring.  Then the 210 came along and my love affair with M-B withered and died.  I subsequently moved on to a sequence of Audis which encompassed many of the same attributes.  I think some of the same engineers moved from Stuttgart to Ingolstadt, taking their 

275not599 10 May 2020

How nice to have decent

How nice to have decent windows instead of cameras.

Screwdriver 10 May 2020

W115 > W123 > W124 > Everything since then

If you really want the thrill of owning a true Classic Benz, get a sorted W115 (aka Stroke 8). Handles like a sports car (even the diesels) and sits low and wide. If that proves too difficult (there are fewer than 200 left running on UK road's in excellent condition), "settle" for a W123. Both are superior in many ways to the W124, which is better than the rest without doubt.  

I would pay good money to see an Autocar comparison between the 3 of Daimler's best Executive cars ever made.