Fire and silk: The tale of an ultra-special Mercedes-Benz E-Class

• History of the E-Class dates back to 1936

• The 500 E was a 5.0-litre, 240kW V8 'sleeper' 

• 500 E is now a sought-after collector's item

Mercedes-Benz recently celebrated the digital world premiere of the E-Class Cabriolet and Coupe, following the global reveal in March this year of the comprehensively updated E-Class sedan and estate models.

With over 14 million sedans and estates delivered since 1946, the E-Class is the best-selling model series in the history of Mercedes-Benz, and is perceived by many as the "heart of the brand".

The tenth-generation of the E-Class set new trends in 2016 with a clean yet appealing design, a high-quality interior, and a wealth of innovations, including new driving assistance systems.

This emotionally appealing, yet intelligent combination has proven hugely successful with more than 1.2 million current-generation E-Class sedans and estates finding buyers up till now. E-Class customers are among the most loyal fans of the Mercedes star, with eight out of ten E-Class sedan owners remaining loyal to the brand when buying their next vehicle.

Have you ever owned an older-generation Mercedes-Benz E-Class, or perhaps a 500 E? Please email us your stories and images.

Mercedes-Benz E-Class

Image: Mercedes-Benz

The E-Class history started with the 170 V model, initially introduced in 1936, followed by the 180 "Ponton" model (W120) of 1953, and the four-cylinder versions of the "Fintail" model series (W110) of 1961. The "Stroke Eight" (W 115/114 series) was the next major step seven years later and marked the arrival of the first coupé model.

The 123 Series of 1976 also saw produced of an estate version, and the 124 Series of the years 1984 to 1995 was also available as a four-seater cabriolet, and first gained the E-Class name in mid-1993. This model series also saw the birth of probably the most sought after and delectable variant of the E-Class – the Mercedes-Benz 500 E.

Understated but powerful

In October 1990, almost thirty years ago, the understated, yet immensely powerful, top-of-the-range Mercedes-Benz 500 E was one of the stars of the Paris Motor Show. While very discreet on the outside, this business sedan turned into a super sports car on the road – and Mercedes-Benz underlined these extreme characteristics in the 500 E's sales brochure, entitled "Fire and Silk".

Its modest appearance, with a subtly muscular body including lightly bulged wheel arches, a slightly lower body, and a modified front apron with inset fog lights to differentiate it from the other 124 Series models, combined with a hugely potent, high-torque 5.0-litre V8 engine producing 240kW, made this executive sedan something of a "sleeper" – a real wolf in sheep's clothing. 

Mercedes-Benz E-Class

Image: Mercedes-Benz

The V8 engine and its four-speed automatic transmission were taken from the 500 SL. Still, the 500 E incorporated several other new features: it was the first car to feature the "standard deck" engine – with the same crankcase used for both the 4.2 and the 5.0-litre units. This meant the engine nestled 16.5 mm lower in the 500 E than in the R129 Series SL. 

Shorter connecting rods ensured the same bore-stroke ratio, and the 500 E featured an electronic Bosch LH-Jetronic injection system, replacing the earlier mechanical/electronic KE system. The 500 E also received a shorter axle ratio than the SL, benefitting acceleration. Engine output was lowered slightly to 235kW from October 1992, due to emission control regulations and to reduce fuel consumption figures.

The 500 E can sprint from 0 to 100 km/h in just 6.1 seconds while its top speed is electronically limited to 250 km/h – performance figures worthy of a sports car, more so back in 1990… It is this combination of ingredients and characteristics that creates the allure the 500 E has exuded since its first appearance thirty years ago. 

Indeed, the powerful sedan is now one of the most highly sought-after young classic cars bearing the three-pointed star. (Interestingly, one of the interior styles offered in the latest edition of the E-Class is called Modern Classic; a further development of the classic display style in an elegant and light material mix.)

Mercedes-Benz E-Class

Image: Mercedes-Benz

A Porsche connection

Incidentally, the 500 E was created in close cooperation with Porsche. There were two reasons for this. First, the production order came as a timely stroke of fortune during a difficult period for the sports car manufacturer and secondly, the relatively small volume was an ideal match for Porsche's manufacturing processes, meaning that production of the 500 E was in good hands.

During production, Mercedes-Benz delivered parts to the "Reutter-Bau" plant of Porsche in Zuffenhausen where the W124 chassis were strengthened and hand-assembled. It was then transported to the Mercedes-Benz Sindelfingen assembly plant to be painted and then back to Porsche's "Rössle-Bau" plant to fit the engine and do the final assembly. For final inspection and delivery, the vehicles again went back to Sindelfingen. The entire process took 18 days per car.

Only 10 479 units were built from 1990 until 1995 – including the E60 AMG, which is also counted in the production statistics. The first 500 E models sold for 134 520 Deutschmarks (nearly R1.32 million) – more than double the price of a 300 E. a car which itself that could not exactly be called unspectacular. 

Mercedes-Benz E-Class

Image: Mercedes-Benz

The first specimens of this top model came off the assembly line at the end of 1990, and if they were registered in the same year, these cars could now benefit from the coveted H plate, for a "historic" car, in Germany from this year.

From 1993, the model was designated as the E 500 – in line with the new naming protocol of Mercedes-Benz – and benefitted from the final facelift of the W124 model series, including a revised radiator grille, framed by and integrated into the bonnet, a redesign rear end with wider radius edges to the boot lid and wings and modifications around the number plate.

With the 210 series ready and waiting in the wings, production of the E 500 was discontinued in April 1995 – with quite a few customers regretting not having bought this special E-Class model. 

Demand for a sports saloon of this kind remains to this day, and since the 500 E a particularly powerful model – mostly developed in collaboration with AMG, which became the subsidiary company Mercedes-AMG GmbH in early 1999 – has been part and parcel of nearly all Mercedes-Benz models. The Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1995 thus marked the debut of the E50 AMG as the successor to the 500 E. 

Very few well-preserved 500 E/E 500 models remain today. But those examples of this exceptional and powerful sedan represent a significant investment. They now are sought-after collector's items with good examples fetching up to more than a million Rand.

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