It’s 1994. You just got promoted to a corner office, and you want to reward yourself with a new executive saloon. You want something with some power, but you also want it to be understated so as to not flaunt your newly found wealth. Of course a German car is the only answer. The Benz dealership will happily sell you an E500 and the folks at BMW have an M5 with your name on it.
Now if we were talking about at 2020 E63 and M5, it would mostly be a six of one, half dozen of the other type situation, but back in the 80-90s there was more distinction between the brands. Although the W124 chassis hit the market first, the M5 was on it’s second generation and to get a high power E-class (I know it wasn’t an E at this point) required a trip to AMG. So we will start with the M.
The e34 M5 was introduced to the world in 1988. Upon introduction, the 3.6l S38 I-6 of the M5 produced 311 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque. This may not seem like much but it was a different time back then, plus it only had about 3,100 lbs of car to move around. The engine was later bumped up to 3.8l of displacement, but not for the North American market. Bodys were manufactured with the other e34 range, but were then shipped to M GmbH for final assembly. If you wanted one of these in your driveway, you had to be prepared for your left leg to do some work, as all M5s were manual transmission only.
It wasn’t until 1989, a full year after the 2nd gen M5 debuted, that the folks over at Mercedes decided their mid-sized W124 sedan needed a power bump, and the car didn’t hit the market until 1991. Rather than work with the still independent AMG, Mercedes contracted out the engineering to Porsche, as the W124 was not designed for V configured engines. That V engine was the M119 out of the 500SL, and it made 322 hp and a not too shabby 354lb/ft of torque. In addition to the modified chassis, the 500E rode on a slightly wider track and required wider fenders. It was this additional width that prevented the car from being assembled with other W124 variants, and so production was contracted to Porsche as well. It was a convoluted process, with cars travelling back and forth several times over the 18-day production cycle. Side note: The 400E/E420 had the same chassis modifications, but had the same track and width as other W124s and so could go down the same assembly line. Unlike the M5, the 500E was automatic only. In 1994 all W124s received a cosmetic refresh and a new naming convention, but the 500E/E500 was basically unchanged mechanically over its production run. Another side note; while the U.S. was the largest export market for the 500E with a little over 1,500 units sold, Japan was a relatively close 2nd, with just under 1,200 units sold. This becomes even more noteworthy when you consider the car was LHD only.
So there you have it. Two completely different ideas on what constitutes a high performance sedan. Do you prefer the M direction, one that stayed true to its Motorsport name and heritage, to make a dance partner for your favorite twisty road? Or is Mercedes’ adaptation of the American muscle car formula (put in a bigger engine and call it a day) more to your liking? It’s a tough call for me. I’m a Mercedes fanboi who’s owned 3 124 chassis cars, but I’m also a manual transmission elitist, and if I could have any M5, it would be the e34. But since torque>>>everything, and there is nothing approximating a switchback anywhere near Chicago, it’s gonna be the E500 for me. How about you?