Carpinion and debate: Was the W124 the last real Mercedes?
For decades, Mercedes Benz cars were all about engineering, quality and reliability. But everything changed in the 90's. For worse.
Almost 25 years ago, Mercedes Benz ended the W124 production, with the last coupes and convertibles rolling off the Sindelfingen factory between late 1996 and the summer of 1997. That was the last step on a range renovation that started in 1991 with the new S Class type W140 and than ended with the revolutionary A Class W168 in 1997.
But during the 90's, among the changing political and social situation in Germany, and the rise of the Japanese imports in Europe, Mercedes seemed to lose its way.
The best or nothing
The W124 was a worthy successor of the loved W123. Both showcased perfectly the company best features: quality, reliability, drive easiness, value for money and high technology.
The green W124 pictured in the main photography was mine until a month ago. It was a 1992 model year 230E, with 178000 actual kilometers and just one owner before me who bought it new, and kept it until the spring of 2019.
It has been by far, the best car i've ever owned. The quality all around was just astounding. With almost three decades on its chassis, it felt as tight as a drum. No rattles anywhere, no play on the pedals or the steering, no strange noises, no smokes... It just felt like a brand new car. Behind the steering wheel a sensation of perfect engineering was there as well, making you feel equally comfortable and safe. It felt like a Mercedes should.
"The best or nothing" has been the Mercedes Benz motto for many years. And it was true for a long time. Any car with the three point star on its hood featured a perfect mix of fine engineering, build quality, image, reliability and value.
No other car showcases the best technology of its time like the Mercedes 600 W100
Mercedes has always been an innovative company. They created in fact the modern automobile, and through the years, they applied all that research and development not only to improve its vehicles but to create new standards for the automotive industry. Safety crumple zones, the generalization of the Diesel engine, the generalization of ABS brakes and airbag, the use of pneumatic systems to control the car, the invention of the turbo diesel engine...
The W124 was probably the pinnacle of all the research and development Mercedes did during decades. It featured all the mentioned above, but also added incredible aerodynamics, independent multilink rear suspension, all wheel drive and other small novelties like the very special windshield wiper that managed to clean the whole surface of the glass with just one wiper. The W124 was probably the best engineered car ever built by Mercedes Benz. And that is saying a lot.
One million miles, and still looking brand new.
The best engineering, in the end, is nothing if it's not properly applied. Mercedes cars were always famous for its build quality and reliability. The best materials were used in every part to ensure the longevity of the mechanical bits, but also of the bodywork and the interior parts. Benzes were built to last.
Of course, that didn't come for free. Mercedes cars were always more expensive than its competitors, but offered a better value, as they suffered from less breakdowns which kept the running costs lower. Mercedes Benz cars, being longer-lived, paid for themselves better, and maintained a higher resale value than any of their rivals, resulting in a better investment.
The W124 is probably among the most reliable and better built cars ever. The amount of survivors almost 40 years after the car launch is astonishing, and many of them are still in the hands of its first owner. Many of the ones that changed hands ended up living multiple lives all across the world. A friend of mine owned a 250D, second hand bought and imported from Belgium with god only know how many kilometers. it roamed the streets of Madrid, the roads of the UK and after more than a decade, ended up as a taxi in Namibia. The incredible reliability levels and the mechanical ease of repair made the W124 the last indestructible Mercedes.
The Mercedes range had an unmistakable family image. After the 90s that was definitely lost
If you look at any Mercedes built before 1995, you know you can immediately identify it. The company always gave a strong personality to its designs, with staples like the Mercedes grille or the ribbed tail lights. A Mercedes had to be easy to identify and had to highlight among the rest of the traffic. That's why the whole range kept clearly defined cues that changed over the time without ever losing the family image.
The 1984 200 - 300 class was a perfect example of this. With its prominent grille, its ribbed tail lights, the belt line... it was without a doubt a Mercedes. It also looked similar to its siblings, the W201 and the W126 and influenced heavily the style of the R129, launched in 1989. After it, the iconic Mercedes image gradually diluted.
Where did it all go wrong?
The development of the W140 was too costly and the final product was not as good as the W126. It was the beginning of the crisis
The 1990's were, without a doubt troubled times for Mercedes. The launch of the Lexus LS 400 in the US in 1989, affected the sales of the W126 and the launch of the V12 BMW 7 series in 1988, forced Mercedes to develop a V12 engine to compete, with not enough time to do it properly. Launched in 1991 in both USA and Europe, the W140 was some kind of a fiasco.
Despite keeping an unmistakable Mercedes image, the new grille was a bit too subtle, but that was not the worst part. The costs of development were astronomical, as the W140 was probably the car with the most advanced technology and engineering in the world back then. However, sales were lacklustre due the competition of the aforementioned Lexus and BMW, but also from Audi, Acura, or Infiniti. Also the early 90's recession shrinked a market that was more crowded than ever. To give some figures, 406717 units of the W140 were built from 1991 to 1999. Half of what its predecessor sold. That left Mercedes in a delicate financial situation.
But that was not all. The over engineered W140 was not reliable. It suffered from electronic problems, and the rush-developed V12 units suffered from cooling issues as well. For the first time, a Mercedes Benz, especially a Sonderklasse model was not bulletproof. And even worse, the repair bills were astronomical. Bad news.
The 1993 C-Class W202 meant a drop on the perceived quality of the car, that affected the brand image.
When in 1982, Mercedes launched the 190 (W201) the car was praised not only for it's high technology. It was also praised because the quality was as high as in any other model of the brand, just in a smaller package.
In 1993, when the 190 was replaced by the new C-Class, things were different. Despite the good looks of the car, and the new engines, the perceived quality was lower than the one of the 190. And for the first time, a Mercedes Benz felt like any of its competitors. It's true that BMW and Audi improved a lot with the new 3 Series E36 and the 80 B4, but the truth is that some cost cutting measures affected the quality of the W202.
The W124 was replaced in 1995 by the all new W210. The new aesthetics of the new E-Class were very controversial, with a bold front end that featured four asymmetrical round headlights and curved bonnet and fenders, which contrasted with the conservative rear end. However, while aesthetics can be liked or hated, the worst defect of the new E-Class was quality, again, below the W124 one. More bad news.
Quality kept dropping with the C-Class based CLK W208 and the W124 sedan replacement, the W210
Mercedes replaced the coupe and cabriolet versions of the W124 with the CLK, introduced in 1997. Despite replacing the E Class coupe and cabriolet models and despite featuring a front end taken from the W124 sedan and estate replacement, the W210, the CLK was based on the smaller C-Class in an attempt to reduce costs and make the car more affordable. But that was not the worst. When the car was introduced to the press, the build quality of the pre-series models was simply appalling, Some journalists said that the panel gaps on the bodywork were so big that a cat could escape through them. The interior quality was also below the W124 one. Bad news. but the disaster was yet to come.
In the late 90's Mercedes tried desperately to recover the ground Audi and BMW were taking from them. BMW launched a cheaper and smaller version of the E36, the Compact in 1994 and Audi launched the A3, a Golf sized and based hatchback that would cover the lower part of its range.
So, Mercedes wanted to go beyond. And developed a true revolutionary car: The W168 A-Class. The new baby Benz was a one-box design car, with front wheel drive for the first time in the three point star brand and that featured a never seen before sandwich structure that allowed the engine and gearbox to crumple under the car in case of accident, preventing any mechanical parts to intrude the interior. The W168 was as safe as a bigger E-Class and the interior was as roomy as the one in a C-Class.
But when the car was launched in 1997, during a press test, the new car revealed something as new as the front wheel drive in a Mercedes. An engineering fail. During a maneuver called the "elk test", consisting in avoiding an obstacle at high speed, the cars failed to do it safely, even rolling over.
That went well.
The elk test incident was both an engineering and a PR disaster. Mercedes had to recall tens of thousands cars and halted the production for months, until early 1998. The company solved the problem by installing an electronic stability control, a part that increased the development costs of a car that had already costed a fortune. Despite the 1.1 million of cars sold, the A-Class was a disaster: The engineering was not up to the Mercedes standards and neither looked like a Mercedes.
In 1998, Mercedes and Chrysler merged in a venture that resulted in one of the darkest eras for the German manufacturer.
Epilogue: The star that lost its way
After the ominous decade in hands of Chrysler, with products like the Vaneo, the W203 or the W211, that were never up the standards of the brand, the company went solo again in 2007.
After that, Mercedes has followed an erratic path. While the core of the new models, the C, E, and S-Class have recovered a good level of quality, engineering and reliability, the lower part of the range has seen all kind of vehicles, from the ugly A-Class W169 to the Renault - Nissan based A and CLA-Class W176. Not bad cars, sure, but are they true Mercedes?
Probably the worst part to me is how the Mercedes image has faded away during this time. The new models look just like any other car with just a star on the front end. The new EQS could be mistaken with a Honda or Hyundai. No current model on the range has that Mercedes feeling, as they had decades ago.
So to me, the last Benz that brought together engineering, build quality, image, reliability and value was without a doubt the W124. The last true Benz