My first experience with the W124 series was more than 25 years ago. I was looking for a summer job when I was in college and ended up at Hertz car rental at Amsterdam Airport. The job was basically collecting rental returns at the airport terminal garage, drive them to the service facility, clean, fill-up with petrol and return to the terminal building or park at the storage area. Most cars ranged from sub-compacts like a Ford Fiesta or Peugeot 205 to compacts like the Ford Escort and larger cars like an Opel Vectra. And then there were the luxury cars which were always a treat to drive. Think Mercedes 190, BMW 3-series and also the occasional Mercedes-Benz 300/W124, BMW 5-series and even the rare S-Class. After driving basic transportation for most of the shift, it was always a treat to have that occasional moment of bliss in a Benz.
After having a number of different Saabs, I was ready for a (temporary) change and I noticed a 1990 Mercedes-Benz 300TE for sale on Craigslist in 2009. Flashback to the late 80s when I imagined I probably never would own such a wonderful car, ever. This light brown station wagon was advertised as being in very good condition and never driven in winter. It was only about 10 miles from where I live and an appointment to check out the car was quickly made.
A test drive of about 20 minutes quickly brought back memories from 25 years ago and I knew I had to have this car. I didn’t really know much about the W124, its reliability record and possible problem areas. All I knew was I probably wouldn’t find another clean W124 station wagon like this so close to home. Asking price was $5,500 and I offered $5,000. Sold!
Production for the W124 started in 1985 and ended 11 years later in 1996. It is common knowledge in automotive enthusiast circles that this model was one of the best engineered vehicles of all times. It has everything you expect from a Mercedes like luxury, prestige, engineering, comfort and status. And one thing, probably the most important, that was neglected and missing from Mercedes that followed: reliability and cars that last a long time.
You see, Mercedes engineers were told to stop making the cars so reliable and reduce quality. The main reason was probably because it was bad for business because why buy a new car when your perfect, reliable current car still works great. So after the W124, quality and reliability in Mercedes cars declined steadily. Only during the mid-00s, someone at Mercedes finally figured out this was actually hurting business and had a negative impact on resale values.
When you consider buying a W124, high mileage shouldn’t deter you. Cars with less than 200K miles can still be found and are reasonably priced. When I look at 10 or 5 year old Mercedes-Benzes with more than 100K miles, I see ‘money pit’ written all over it. Fortunately, Mercedes-Benz is making quality a priority again but they will never be a cheap car to own and repair. But that shouldn’t be the main driving force behind owning a car from this company from Stuttgart.
This 1990 300TE had about 140K miles on the odometer when I purchased it. There were a few things that needed some attention like general preventative maintenance I wanted to do. With cars that have not been driven very often, it is always good to change the fluids, filters and spark plugs. Inexpensive items your car and your wallet will be thankful for. Regular maintenance is easy do-it-yourself with just a few basic tools. Even changing the automatic transmission fluid and filter are pretty easy to do yourself.
Driving this car was just as I remembered it from 25+ years ago, even though I only drove it short distances back then. The exterior dimensions are small compared to current car sizes. The interior is very spacious and much bigger than you expect from the outside. My car had the MB-Tex upholstery which is basically vinyl. I really would have enjoyed real leather but the advantage of MB-Tex is that it still looks great after 20 years and this kind of mileage. Leather would certainly mostly crack and look old, especially when it hasn’t been cared for properly. So I didn’t really mind the beige vinyl as it looked great and is very comfortable.
The three-pointed star on the hood reminds you that you are not driving an ordinary car. I always thought it was something special, harking back to an earlier and more special time in automobile ownership. The ride is comfortable and definitely not sporty or hard. It feels like the car is glued to the road when going through corners and nothing will be able to upset the chassis and suspension. It is hard to explain the driving experience but you feel like you’re someone special like a head-of-state or royalty.
The 3.0 liter inline-6 with 12 valves (M103) in mine has adequate power of 177 hp or 132 kW at 5700 rpm but it doesn’t make it very fast. Later models had 24-valve engines and there was also a V8 and several different diesel engines. For top performance, the 500E with the hand-built engine by Porsche is the top dog in the W124 family. On a side note, W124 only covers the sedan but is often used for the entire range. W stands for Wagen (car), the station wagon is an S124 and the coupe C124. I am not sure why they used S for the station wagon because they don’t use the word station wagon in Europe. It is the first series of vehicles that carried the name E-class in the USA.
With all the great qualities discussed so far, one may think this is the perfect car and buying one is a safe bet. While this isn’t a comprehensive buying guide, there were a few concerns with my S124. It is a 20-year old car after all and the design and technology is even older. The first thing I noticed was the higher RPMs the engine needs for every day driving. While many of today’s vehicles stay under or near 2,000 rpm when doing highway speeds, the 300TE often was at 3,000 rpm or above. Nothing to be concerned about but it shows it is an older design engine with a relative low power output when taken its size in consideration. It also can be a thirsty engine and my average mileage was about 20 mpg.
The engine is easy to work on for general maintenance. Unlike today’s cars, there is a lot of space around the engine. The transmission can have some problems and it is not uncommon to need a complete revision or replacement between 100 and 200K miles. Definitely not cheap but worth it when the rest of the car is such good quality. The hood opens at a regular angle for checking fluids and such but also has an additional setting that allows for it to open vertically. Very convenient so you’ll have easy access and never bump your head.
Michigan vehicle registration fees are based on the MSRP of the car when it was new. I think this 300TE was more than $50K new (in 1990!) so you’ll be paying much more yearly fees on this car worth $5000 than a brand new $30K car. That just isn’t fair..
I owned this 300TE for about 8 months. I was still into Saabs and thought I would be happier with one of those again. Looking back, I wish I still owned because TE’s in that condition are not readily available. It was sold to a new owner that lived on the east coast. I will always greatly respect the W124 and hope I’ll own another one some day.