Buyers Guide - Best of the Best W124 Series E-Class: 1986-1995

Pierre Hedary, Richard Simonds, Gary Anderson
Daimler Global Media
The understated 124 series E-Class offers unruffled dependability and poise. Built in volume and in an array of body styles, the 124 range affords today’s buyer a wide variety of choice.

Buyers Guide

The Best of the Best: The U.S. Market: 124 Series E-Class • 1986-1995

The understated 124 series E-Class offers unruffled dependability and poise. Built in volume and in an array of body styles, the 124 range affords today’s buyer a wide variety of choice.

 

Article: Pierre Hedary, Daniel Stahl, Gary Anderson

Specifications: Daniel Stahl  

Images: Daimler Archives

 

The good-looking, high-quality 124-series vehicle that became the E-Class midway through its production cycle was sold in the United States for 10 model years, from 1986-1995, with three upgrades during one of the longest production series in Mercedes-Benz history. Launched in Europe in 1985, the W124 came to the United States for model year 1986 in autumn 1985. Produced in sedan, station wagon, coupe and cabriolet body styles, the 124 was a great midsize car that offered reliable service without demanding constant attention.

 

As the primary product in the company lineup, the 124 was first available with 6-cylinder gasoline and turbodiesel engines; V-8 engines were added in 1992. In addition, the sedans and wagons could be ordered with all-wheel drive. And the 124s were even the chassis of choice on which AMG constructed some of its premerger wide-body high-performance cars. The happy consequence is that there are lots of these cars oto choose from; if the example is in good condition, it can be great value for the money.

 

Breaking from typical product-development practices, the W124s were styled and engineered following the designs of the compact W201 class introduced two years earlier, though Mercedes-Benz incorporated the safety innovations introduced on the W126 S-Class models introduced five years earlier. The chassis would continue to be produced for 10 years after introduction, testimony to its quality and class-leading attributes before Mercedes-Benz saw the need to introduce a new midsized chassis.

 

Background

 

With the introduction of the 124, the firm’s new marketing strategy was complete, with offerings in all three size groups. Building on an excellent product foundation, engines were upgraded midway through the life cycle for better performance. Exterior styling and interior appointments were updated twice during their manufacture.

 

Today, the models with most market appeal are the 1992-1994 500E/E500 sedan and the 1993-1995 300CE/E320 Cabriolet. A hidden jewel is the 1992-1995 400E/E420 that shares many advantages with the high-end 500, but with less horsepower – and a lower price.

 

The only real design flaw in these solid citizens is the first-generation Automatic Climate Control air-conditioning system with its vacuum-operating duct controls; these can fail, requiring expensive interior disassembly to replace – even by a mechanic with experience on this generation of HVAC systems. Fortunately, upgraded replacement controls are available. The evaporator is also a frequent candidate for replacement; in addition valve guides and head gaskets are common mechanical flaws in the six-cylinder cars.

 

Reasons to buy

 

• The 124s were the safest Mercedes-Benz cars built when new. Late-production cars featured dual airbags, traction control and an automatic roll bar on the cabriolet

• This model is notable for being much more rust-free than previous or later models, reducing the risk of a bad buy

• The 2.6- and 3-liter gasoline 6-cylinder engines are simple and robust; DIY maintenance is very easy

• Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel injection systems are reliable, easy to service and usually easy to diagnose

• Interiors, bodies and other cosmetic parts are very durable

• Climate-control systems work well, even in hot climates

Handling is excellent throughout the range; available factory bolt-on parts can make it better

• Diesel models offer excellent fuel economy; mpg in the lower 30s is typical for the 300D, 300D 2.5 and E300 diesel, and power output is excellent

• The 6-cylinder models are more than adequate on the highway, while the V-8 models – 400E, 500E, E420 and E500 – offer exciting performance

• The 124s had good standard equipment, including driver airbag, ABS brakes, and an option list that eventually included automatic locking differential, orthopedic seats, sunroof, ASR (traction control) and some other neat items

• Manual transmissions were available for model years 1986 and 1987 on the 260E and 300E – the only midsize Mercedes cars offered in the United States during that period – with a gasoline engine and a manual gearbox

• No valve adjustments are needed on any of these cars, eliminating the need for overnight parking at your mechanic’s shop

• Assembly quality generally reflects the classic Mercedes tradition; these cars should easily reach 500K miles with regular service and maintenance

 

Reasons not to buy

 

• The W124s don’t have the style that the 123 series and earlier models had. While this suits some, the 124 will never be a classic show-stopper like its older siblings

• The electronic systems of these cars are primitive; when a major issue arises, it can be tricky to locate and diagnose, particularly in the then-new electronically controlled safety systems such as anti-lock braking and anti-slip regulation systems

• Some simple service items, such as the water pump and serpentine belt tensioner, are hard to access and difficult to replace; V-8 cars are difficult to work on because of limited space under the hood and their motor mounts can be a problem

• All those lovely bits that make these cars handle so nicely wear out quickly: ball joints, shocks, struts and rear-spindle bushings need to be replaced every 60,000 to 80,000 miles

• Some interior components such as door panels, window regulators and so forth are not nearly as robust as those on older M-Bs. Plastic pieces tend to fall apart after 20 years or so; disassembly and reassembly on interior items is a fine art

 

Checkpoints for all models

 

Check the air conditioner for operation in all modes. Automatic duct actuators are prone to failure and difficult to replace because of their location, but replacement actuators made with better materials are available. If the dash vents aren’t blowing cold air and refrigerant must be added regularly, the evaporator may need an expensive replacement or repair.

 

If the suspension was recently rebuilt, check that Mercedes-approved brands were used. If not, get an estimate for the job because parts are not cheap and replacement requires special equipment; rear shocks aren’t usually a problem.

 

Engines should have a complete prepurchase inspection by a thoroughly experienced mechanic because of their age and potential for heavy use.

 

Complete service records indicating replacement of ancillary equipment at intervals of 75,000 to 100,000 miles should be available and are essential to avoid expensive surprises later.

 

All 6-cylinder gas cars, from the 260E and 300E to the E320, had issues with expensive-to-replace valve guides and head gaskets.

 

On 1993-1994 models, wiring harnesses were biodegradable and engine harnesses eventually fail, if not replaced, leading to expensive electrical issues, including car-computer failures.

 

Accumulators on the self-leveling suspension on the 500E and all wagon variants may need to be replaced if the ride is bouncy.

 

Check for correct operation and absence of leakage on the sedan’s sunroof and the power-actuated soft top on the cabrio; soft top repair is a specialized task.

 

Motor mounts should be checked on all models; V-8 cars seem to need them the most, and they are not fun to replace.

 

Rear sub-frame attachment points on early cars are susceptible to cracking.

 

Jack points, sunroof trays, battery trays, front fenders and the area around the lower-body side molding on later cars should be checked for rust due to trapped moisture.

 

Faulty windshield wipers can often be repaired, but complete wiper assemblies are quite expensive.

 

Market values

 

A major attraction of the 124 series is value for money. The series offers a complete range of body styles with modern safety upgrades, excellent interior space and traditional Mercedes-Benz styling and build quality, generally for well under $15,000. For the careful, patient buyer, standard sedans can be found in excellent condition for $6,000 to $7,000, leaving a nice budget margin for corrective maintenance and routine repairs if the body and interior are in good shape.

 

The 300CE/E320 Cabriolet

Of all the many models and choices of drivetrains available in the 124-chassis lineup, the attractive and comfortable four-seat A124 300CE (which became the E320) Cabriolet is a favorite of many enthusiasts. Only 6,343 units of this very pretty drop-top were built during the last three years of 124 production.

 

The first true four-passenger car that Mercedes-Benz had built in open form in many years, the 124 Cabriolet was carefully engineered to be as safe and as satisfying to drive as any of its closed body styles.

 

The soft top, furnished by Karmann, was carefully insulated for full weather and sound-proofing protection; reviewers noted the car was almost as quiet as the coupe at highway speeds.

 

For stability and vibration reduction, engineers added more than 300 pounds of sheet-metal reinforcements and vibration dampers. The windshield was reinforced to act as a front roll-over bar in conjunction with spring-loaded roll-over bars behind the rear seats adapted from the R129 models. The heavy consequence was 4,025 pounds of curb weight – but a feeling of solidity and confidence in motion.

 

To move this amount of weight, the car shared its engine with the 300SE, a 3,188 DOHC inline-6 producing 217 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque, sufficient to move the car to 60 mph in under eight seconds and reach a top speed of 140 mph, good performance for the day. Unfortunately, fuel efficiency tops out at about 18 mpg.

 

To offset the cost of these many significant engineering upgrades, the cabriolet sold for a breathtaking $77,300, not much different than the E-Class Cabriolet of 2017. However, these cars got good care during their lifetimes; many examples survive in good condition today, selling for $15,000 or more – two to three times the market value of the closed 124s. With assurance that those values are only likely to increase, finding a 300CE/E320 is worth the search.

 

Over its long production life, the 124 E-Class was offered as sedan, coupe and station wagon, joined in 1993-1995 by the 300CE/E320 4-seat convertible.

 

 

 

 

E300 Turbodiesel. Stylish and practical, the 124 models set new standards for quality and safety. The range had great variety, such as the E300 Turbodiesel and top-of-the-line 500E; all models came with durable, comfortable interiors.

 

Many stretch limousines and special-bodied vehicles were built on the 124 chassis.

 

 

 

Models       Model Years    Chassis      Engine     Power     Torque       Production

                                                                             SAE Net hp  SAE lb-ft   by Model  

W124 SEDAN:            

300E            1986-1992       124.030      103.983      177           188             258,063

300D turbo  1986-1987       124.133      603.960    1986: 148   1986: 201

                                                                                  1987: 143  1987: 195     38,908

260E            1987-1989       124.026       103.940      158           162            154,391

300E 2.6      1990-1992       124.026       103.940      158           162     

300E 4matic1990-1993       124.230      103.985       177           188             14,202

300D 2.5 td  1991-1993       124.128     602.962       121           165              48,876

400E/E420   1992-1995       124.034     119.975    1992: 268     295              22,802

                                                                           1993-1995: 275          

500E/E500   1992-1994       124.036     119.974    1992: 322    1992: 354

                                                                         1993-1994:315 1993-1994:347 10,479

300E 2.8             1993          124.028     104.942       194            199              57,302

300E/E320    1993-1995      124.03       104.992       217            229               63,950

E300 Diesel  1994-1995      124.131     606.910       134            155               23,166

C124 COUPE:

300CE           1988-1989      124.050     103.983        177           188               43,486

300CE           1990-1992      124.051     104.980        217           195               24,463

300CE/E320 1993-1995       124.052     104.992       217            229              13,768

S124 STATION WAGON:

300TD                  1987         124.193      603.960       143           195              14,844

300TE             1988-1992       124.090     103.983       177          188              41,775

300TE 4matic 1990-1993       124.290    103.985        177          188             12,094

300TE/E320    1993-1995       124.092    104.992        217          229             18,368

A124 CABRIOLET:

300CE/E320    1993-1995       124.066    104.992        217          229               6,343

 

 

Chronology: Mercedes-Benz 124 Series • 1985-1995

 

1985    January: The MY1986 W124 Sedan is unveiled

1985    September: S124 station wagon unveiled Frankfurt Motor Show •

            Available: 4-Matic for 6-cylinder sedans & wagons; turbodiesel for wagons; 3-way catalytic converter

1986    September: The 3-way catalytic converter now standard on all models

1987    May: C124 coupe unveiled at Geneva Motor Show • Available: Turbodiesel for sedans

1988    September: Anti-lock braking system (ABS) now on all models

1989    February: Improved diesel engines with lower emissions

1989    September: Facelift for entire 124 Series, with new interior

             Available: Sportline suspension package; 3-liter 6-cylinder engine for sedan, coupe, and wagon

1990    October: Top-of-the-line 500E introduced with 322 hp, 5-liter V-8 engine

1991    September: A124 E320 Cabriolet unveiled Frankfurt Motor Show; first 4-seat convertible in 20 years

1992    June: 2-millionth 124 Series vehicle rolls off the production line

1992    September:   Entire range again revised with improved engines and equipment

1993    June: 4-valve diesel technology introduced

            Exterior styling revised • E-Class terminology first used, with change in model designation

1995    August: 124  Series E-Class production ends •

            Production of all models totals 2,058,777 units,

            plus 2,342 stretch limousines and 6,398 special-bodied cars

 

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