It is perhaps the most highly regarded variant of perhaps the most widely admired mass-produced car Mercedes has ever made, the W124 series produced between 1986 and 1995, lauded for its bulletproof build quality and timeless design. Which makes this car very important, and one that should be more famous than it is.
The 500E is an ageing Benz with rather a lot of the things that the advanced/crazed/obscurantist car nut tends to fall for. It isn’t what it seems to be, for a start, unless you assume that all Stuttgart taxis are capable of a 6.3 second sprint to 60mph.
And identifying it is a challenge best satisfied either by asking the owner of every W124 saloon you see (tedious, difficult and an activity that might lead to prosecution) or by staring unhealthily hard at its wheelarches. If they’re subtly flared and house 255/50 16in tyres then you could be looking at a Mercedes-Benz 500E. It’s also absurdly fast, though not quite so impressive in these days of AMG Mercedes with earth-mover torque.
And it’s rare. Only 7200 or so were built between 1992-94, 1528 of them to America, and only a few made it to the UK because it was searingly expensive and left-hand drive only; figures suggest there are around 60 on UK roads today. But all this was enough to produce knowing nods among people like us. Who would also enjoy the fact that the 500E was part-built by Porsche using assembly methods that would have had Toyota production types giggling in bafflement.
Made by Stuttgart
The cars were part-built by Mercedes before being carted to Porsche, where the 5-litre V8 motor was installed together with modified suspension and an upgraded interior. The process took 18 days - one reason why the 500E was so darned expensive. Besides a 326bhp V8 you got lowered, self-levelling suspension, upgraded brakes, Recaro front seats and more wood, the full length centre console turning the Benz into a four-seater, eliminating any role it might have had as a steroidal taxi.
Inside & out
Heavily puckered leather door inserts – they looked like they’d been artfully arranged by a department store fabrics department – completed this modest interior make-over, to produce a very Germanic product. And one in which efforts to exploit the E’s scope for entertainment were limited. Why? Because the ASR traction control was far too effective at stifling the gyratory potential of 354lb ft of torque travelling unabated to the back axle.
But there were solutions, I discovered, during a long, rain-soaked trip in 500E. One was to fling the car at bends with sufficient momentum that the ASR couldn’t cope, producing the desired slither, and the other more sensible strategy was to have an on/off switch added by a tuner.
Even without this mod the 500E’s combination of gargantuan go and indulgent luxury made a compelling prospect, its appeal only heightened by thoughts of its rarity and Porsche genes. And how much do you pay for one of these beasts today?
As with everything else these days in the classic car world, rather more than you used to. Time was you could pick up a decent one for around £15,000 (US$22,000), but today, you’re looking at twice that, complete with inter-galactic mileage. But they are rare and desirable, and there are probably worse places to put your money.
The comedian and actor Rowan Atkinson formed a fascination with this car and owned one in the ‘90s. In 2015, he bought the finest example he could get his hands on to rekindle it (pictured). It is now up for auction with some other cars from his collection.
Join the queue
A 1993 model, it has done 80,500 kms (around 50,000 miles) since new, and looks to be in excellent condition (pictured). It comes with a full service history, and cloth seats, which Mr Atkinson is said to prefer to the slidey-slidey leather of the period.
The car goes to auction in late February, with no reserve. But don’t get your hopes up: the car’s condition, the model’s growing reputation, and its celebrity association will surely ensure a hefty hammer price.