Once upon a time, the entire world conspired to make the perfect sedan. It was designed by an Italian who was obsessed with safety and was engineered by Germans who were infatuated with fuel economy. It had a Lamont winning V8 strangely because the Japanese had just finally arrived in America.
It was so fat, that it didn’t fit down its production line, so it needed to be hand-built by rivals across town.
The Mercedes Benz 500 was and is the world’s most perfect sedan.
By the mid-1970s, Mercedes had twice put an unconscionably large V8 in its S-Class. The first was 6.3 liters of “shut-up hippie”. The second was a 6.9-liter “middle finger” issued right in the middle of a fuel crisis.
And yet despite these childish acts of defiance, Mercedes’s image remained “old and stodgy”.
Ironically, that very fuel crisis sent Mercedes into an existential tailspin, that resulted in twins, the subcompact w201 and compact w124.
These sedans rescued Mercedes from the past and catapulted to defining the future of the automobile.
With a wedge-shaped high trunk lid for aerodynamics, and something else its rear with tapered like a teardrop. It may look like an upright square box to the eye but not to the air with a coefficient of drag as low as 0.26.
The W124 is one of the most aerodynamically efficient sedans of all time. This was designed in the 1970s these cars looked like spaceships when they debuted because everything else on the road looked like this!
The thing about Bruno Sacco is, he had just come from the Mercedes Safety Department. So while his stated goal was to create a design that would stay relevant for three decades, his actual target was at the confluence of design, efficiency, and safety.
The blade didn’t lift off the glass on the Autobahn, and rib taillights designed so that they still transmit light when they’re covered with snow or mud, and rear headrests that dropped down at the press of a button, so you didn’t back over your neighbor’s kid by accident.
By the end of the 1980s. Mercedes was basking in its huge success, with yuppies everywhere fawning all over their expensive over-engineered status symbols. But with the new decade came a new crisis and its name was Lexus.
A desperate plea came in from Mercedes North America. “Hey, Krauts throw a V8 in that thing or will never gonna be able to sell another one.” Good idea.
But remember, this was a fuel crisis vehicle. It was designed for skinny little four, five, and six-cylinder engines and, Mercedes obsession with safety meant the frame rails were placed close to the center of the engine compartment to protect you in an offset crash way ahead of its time but put a big wide v eight was never going to fit.
And with Mercedes engineers so busy trying to figure out how to beat Lexus with the next S Class. They just didn’t have the time to mess with the old 124. But you know who did Porsche three things to remember, Porsche and Mercedes, are both headquartered in Stuttgart. They’re like a walking distance away from each other.
Secondly, Porsche was in huge trouble with U.S.A sales down by almost 90%. They were desperate for money and work. And third, Porsche has an engineering consulting service, so Mercedes walked right over and hired Porsche to fit the new Mercedes V8 into the W124.
Porsche engineering would be responsible for widening the front frame rails to make room reinforcing the firewall and structure to deal with the extra power. Moving the front seats further apart to fit the exhaust on the new wider transmission tunnel, and then doing the side-impact crash testing.
Meanwhile, the new VA codenamed M119 had just made its production car debut and the 500 SL, and then immediately won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 1989 Sauber C9 used a twin-turbo 925 horsepower version of that engine, and it took first, second and fifth places in that race.
Mercedes tested the engines after the endurance race and found out that not only did they make more power after the race than they did before, they showed negligible wear. You can’t make this stuff up.
Anyway, the M 119 came in two different sizes and Mercedes realized that if they put shorter connecting rods in it, the five-liter could be made to have the same external dimensions as the 4.2 liters, which meant that Porsches engineering could be used for two models.
The first would be the 400E designed for the American market to compete against another car with 400 in its name. Yeah, the Lexus LS 400.
The second model was aimed right at Munich with the full fat five liters to banish the sports sedan that had been giving Mercedes autobahn headaches for years, BMW M5. W124 big-bore short-stroke all-aluminum V8 is a masterpiece.
The block is decades old. But the heads were all new with four valves per cylinder for camshafts and variable valve timing. It made supercar power, but there was a problem, a big, fat problem.
To complement all that power. Mercedes gave the 500E suspension wheel and brake components from the heavier and wider SL. To fit that stuff, the 500E got 2.2 inches of delicious, gorgeous finger-licking fender flares. And now it was so fat, it didn’t fit down its production line at the Mercedes plant.
Once again, Porsche came to the rescue. The factory that had been building the 959 supercars was sitting empty. And so Mercedes paid Porsche again, this time to build the 500E.
Mercedes would ship over a 300 a body and white, which Porsche would then modified to fit the V8. It sent the reinforced body back over to Mercedes for paint. If it was to be a narrowbody 400E, it would continue down the production line and Mercedes. If it was to be a 500E, it would be trucked back to a different plant at Porsche along with a big box of parts.
Then Porsche would assemble it all into a car and send it back to Mercedes again for final inspection and delivery.
This absurd process took 18 days and it is one of the reasons this thing was so expensive. In 1992, it costs $89,000. That was 35% more than a BMW M5. And in today’s terms, that’s nearly Bentley money for a compact.
The outrageously hot Audi RS station wagon was built in the same factory. This meant for a short time you could see both Mercedes and Audi’s coming out of the same Porsche factory.
But while the RS was genuinely a Porsche Audi collaboration, the 500E wasn’t everyone wants to believe that the 500E was a Porsche sports sedan, but the only Porsche apart on it is the battery cover which has a sticker on it from the supplier saying that Porsche bought it from them.
Look, Porsche did the engineering to bolt parts from one Mercedes model onto another Mercedes model, Porsche didn’t use any of its parts and from all, I can tell, had no hand in tuning any of them.
But here’s the thing. Mercedes didn’t need any help. Just about every magazine article declared the 500E the best car in the world. Automobile said it three times in one article, Car and Driver magazine had no complaints other than the price. I agree.
That’s what they say. And they used to mean that a Mercedes Benz is engineered like no other car in the world. Because it was its recirculating ball steering is more talkative than any modern cars Porsche and Ferrari included. The engine is a torquey, revvy, and acoustical masterpiece.
The structure feels as stiff as anything today. The interior is perfect, okay, it’s not perfect. It starts pulling in second gear unless you are booted, and then the traction control hates burnouts, but both of those things can be fixed.
So effectively what we have here is the best compact sedan in the world, upgraded with four Recaro bucket seats, flared fenders, and Le Mans, winning V8 under its hood, but no Le Mans speeds because the 500E was electronically limited to 156 miles an hour, as per the gentleman’s agreement between BMW and Mercedes.
But I’ve heard people say all over the world, this car will do 178 miles an hour if you just remove the limiter. No, it will require hardware changes for 500E to go faster than 156m/h.
And that’s because Mercedes chose a final drive ratio such that the engine is at 6000 RPM redline when the car is at 156 miles an hour top speed to go any faster, you need longer gears, but by choosing the short gear ratio, it decimated fuel economy ironic given that the 124 was originally designed for fuel economy, but it means that Mercedes never sacrificed acceleration in the name of mpg.
And so despite only four gears and a slushbox, the 500E hits 60 miles an hour in five and a half seconds, blasted through the quarter-mile at 101 miles an hour, and left the 34 BMW M five for dead and not just in a straight line, the Mercedes outbreak and out cornered the M car to the 500E and the E500.
As it was batched in its final year has gotten a lot more enthusiast attention than any of the big motor Benz’s that came before it. I don’t think it’s because it was touched by the hands of Porsche. So was the 400E and you don’t care about that car? No, I think it’s for three reasons. Number one, this is not a full-size luxury car.
It’s a compact car. It’s the size of today’s Honda Civic. Two, the 6.3 and 6.9. were cushy luxury sedans with a jet pack strapped to the back. This was a comprehensive rethink of a luxury car with intergalactic power that had handling to match. And three, the 500E is a W 124. And the 124 has a well-earned reputation at being perhaps the best engineered, best proportioned best designed the longest-lasting sedan of all time. They say it takes a village and in the case of the 500E, it took Mercedes brain power and Italian design, American fuel economy rags, Japanese competition, and then Porsches engineering.
So it took more than just a village. It took half the world, including two car companies that were in the same village. But all of those forces came together to create what was certainly then and probably still is today. The world’s most perfect Sedan.