Celebrating 30 years of Mercedes-Porsche genius
"When the factory builds a hammer of his own" - Pete Lyons (1991)
Aiming straight for the M5
There's no doubt about the iconic status of the 500E as one of the most loved by the fans and one of the most well engineered ambassadors to the brand. It was created thanks to the engineering potential at Porsche with a single purpose - to compete with the BMW M5. But 500E has become so much more than a sporty saloon - it sparkled an automotive cult and even today is still considered one of the best engineered German saloons.
When the W124 debuted first, the design was revolutionary for the brand. But these were simpler times, when the engineers at Stuttgart still had the upper hand over the accountants. With the low 0.26 drag, revolutionary windscreen wipers, plenty of advanced safety systems and impeccable build quality, it looked like a winner from the very beginning. But things are never that simple. From the East, there was Lexus LS 400 and closer to home, there was the BMW E34.
Wolf in Sheep's clothing
The decision was to put a massive V8 in the engine bay of the W124, but that turned out to be quite a challenge. The engine in question - M119 was nearly unchanged (minus two turbochargers) from the Le Mans winning Sauber C9 as it was proven to be fast and reliable. The issue was that the engine bay of W124 was too tight to fit in. This meant a lot of clever workarounds were needed and then Porsche stepped in. At this time, Porsche was getting seriously starved for cash, due to dramatically falling sales in the US. After that issue was resolved, the 500E hit another, arguably more serious one. In order to keep on the road the big, heavy 5.0L V8 322 hp beast, better suspension and brakes were needed. The chosen platform to borrow them from was the much wider SL. This is why the very characteristic wheel arches of the 500E were born, distinctly different from the standard W124.
But then it was too wide to be on the production line. Here, the Porsche engineers stepped up again, due to the model being manufactured in Zuffenhausen. It has to be noted that there was no badge engineering and the 500E was not a Porsche with Mercedes badge. Porsche got their contribution in some of the engineering and tuning, but the parts and the design were all Mercedes.
Back and forth, then repeat
The manufacturing of the beast was far from the most efficient examples of that era. Building a single car took 18 whole days! That's ages even for the standards of that time. The body of a 300E had to be sent to Porsche for modifications, to then be brought back to Mercedes for painting and eventually sent to another Porsche facility for a final assembly. After that, it was returned back to Mercedes for final quality checks and delivery.
This was one of the main factors driving the price up. In fact, the price of a new 500E was stunningly impressive 35% higher than the BMW E34 M5. But then this was the cost of creating one of the most iconic sport saloons of all times. With a 0-60 time of under 6 seconds, the 500E was staggeringly fast, even with the 4-speed automatic gearbox. And to differ even more from the previous big engine Mercedes model, the 500E behaviour was like an actual sports car. It was a vehicle, created to be untouchable on the road from the point of dynamical and cornering abilities.
During the 1994 model year, Mercedes introduced the 500E Limited variant. Originally intended as a limited edition trim package, with 500 copies to be produced, Mercedes ended up producing nearly 1000 of these during one year of production. The 500E Limited was designated by code "958" on the data card. It consisted of trim upgrades, including a mottled, colored leather pattern on the centre inserts of the front and rear seats, steering wheel, and gear shift lever, exclusive "bird's-eye maple" interior wood on the dashboard, doors, and front and rear centre consoles, 17" EVO-II alloy wheels, a slight drop in ride height over regular 500E model, specially edged and colour-coded floor mats, and an owner's manual package with leather cover matching the seat leather inserts. The seat insert leather was available in three colour choices: grey, green and red. The 500E Limited could be combined with the E60 AMG option and these cars are considered among the rarest and most prized variants available, with only 45 cars containing the "957" and "958" codes on the data cards.
There was also a specialised E60 AMG model built in very limited numbers from 1994 to 1995 which had the 6.0L V8 engine. The vehicle made 381 hp and could reach 0-60 in 5.3 seconds. The E60 was equipped with the "Limited" sports interior, 17" EVO-II alloys together with uprated AMG sports suspensions and AMG twin exhaust system. Otherwise, the brakes and body remained the same. A number of E500s have also been converted to E60s by replacing the engine with a 6.0L V8, but do not carry the "957" code on their MB factory data cards.