Impossible to imagine: Porsche built a Mercedes and an Audi, at the same time!

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Mercedes-Benz 500 E and Audi RS2 Avant
Mercedes-Benz 500 E and Audi RS2 Avant
Classic Car Africa

• Mercedes and Audi approached Porsche to build their cars.

• Porsche built the two cars on the same production line.

• E500 Limited on display in Porsche Museum.

Strange times call for strange measures. And it was such a period in Porsche's history that saw the Zuffenhausen-based outfit not only simultaneously build cars for Mercedes-Benz and Audi, but also "unofficially" produce its first sedan and station wagon models.

You see, three decades ago, Porsche was in dire financial straits due to the recession of the late 1980s. And with spare capacity in its plants, the German automaker urgently needed to find other opportunities to keep going.

Fortuitously, its Stuttgart neighbour, Mercedes-Benz, needed external assistance with the creation of a unique E-Class model as its engineering department was fully occupied with the development of the new S-Class of the time.

So, Mercedes requested Porsche to redesign the W124 chassis to fit the SL-sourced 5.0-litre V8 and to design the necessary changes for the suspension system and drivetrain. It necessitated wider wheel arches, which created another problem: the vehicle was too wide to fit in three sectors on the W124's assembly line in Sindelfingen.

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Mercedes-Benz 500 E and Audi RS2 Avant
Mercedes-Benz 500 E and Audi RS2 Avant

Merc's Porsche-built 500E

It resulted in Porsche being commissioned to assemble the car, as well. This was an intricate process, with Mercedes-Benz delivering parts to Porsche's "Reutter-Bau" plant in Zuffenhausen where the chassis were hand-built. From there, the completed chassis were transported to the Mercedes-Benz Sindelfingen plant to be painted and varnished. 

Then it was taken back to the Porsche 'Rössle-Bau' plant for the engine to be fitted and the car completed before it was transported back to Sindelfingen for final inspection and delivery. The whole process took a total of 18 days per car. 

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

The 500E, as this model was initially called (it changed to E500 in 1993), was a real "wolf in sheep's clothing".

Its design is understated, and only a more aggressive stance due to a wider track and lower profile, flared wings, side skirts, front air dam and wide tyres distinguished it from lesser derivatives. Available in left-hand drive only, the car was never on sale in South Africa.

With its naturally aspirated 4973cc M119 V8 engine (derived from the 500SL) delivering 240kW and 480Nm of torque, the business sedan could accelerate from 0-100km/h in 6.1 seconds and reach a top speed of 260km/h - very quick, even by today's standards. Only 10 359 units of the special sedan were built, and the end of production was set for May 1994. However, things did not exactly go according to plan, leading to an interesting twist in the tale.

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Mercedes-Benz 500 E and Audi RS2 Avant
Mercedes-Benz 500 E and Audi RS2 Avant. Image

The Porsche-inspired Audi

Porsche, in the meantime, had collaborated with sister-company Audi to design and develop a limited edition, high-performance station wagon based on the 80 Avant. Designated internally as the P1, it was the first estate car to be built by Porsche, as well as the beginning of the Audi RS high-performance model range. 

Built on the Audi B4 platform, the car was equipped with the most powerful version of Audi's inline five-cylinder turbo engine - delivering 232kW and 410Nm. And given that the Rossle-Bau plant was available following the production run of the 500E, assembly of the P1 began here in June 1994.

However, after the 500E was discontinued, Mercedes-Benz still received requests from special customers, and they again approached Porsche to build a final batch of 120 cars. 

READ: Evo and Elektro - The Mercedes 'Baby-Benz' boomers

From January 1995 to approximately the end of May of the same year - a quarter of a century ago - these last cars were built in the Rossle-Bau building alongside the Audi RS2 sport wagon; by the same staff involved with the initial E 500/500E contract.

The RS2 Avant, like the E500, was rather special. Porsche modified the Audi five-cylinder engine considerably and fitted a bigger KKK turbocharger. In this form, it pumped out 232kW and 410Nm; good enough to boost the RS2 from 0-100km/h in 4.8sec and reach an electronically restricted top speed of 262km/h. Impressive, despite weighing more than 1600kg.

Audi initially planned to build approximately 2 200 RS2s, but due to demand, a total of 2 891 cars were built. Of these, only 180 were right-hand drive cars built for the UK, New Zealand, and South African markets. 

The RS2 Avant is regarded as the vehicle that finally established Audi as a producer of practical high-performance vehicles and is now also considered a modern classic. It still is the only station wagon built by Porsche, while the 500E/E500, known by Porsche as Type 2758, is the first four-door sedan produced in Zuffenhausen, as attested to by the E500 Limited on display in the Porsche Museum.

Mercedes-Benz 500 E and Audi RS2 Avant
Mercedes-Benz 500 E and Audi RS2 Avant
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