There was a time when the engineers at Porsche were commissioned to build a W124 Mercedes-Benz. This factory widebodied, V8 powered 500E was the result.
What happens when a top-tier German automaker wants to release an ultimate version of their popular W124 chassis, but their own resources are simply too tied up to handle it on their own? Well, they bring in help from another esteemed German automaker—especially one that doesn't compete in the same segment. This is exactly what happened in 1989 when Mercedes-Benz had all of their engineers focused on developing the stately new S-class.
During that time, the Porsche factory had a lot of extra time on its hands since the Stuttgart powerhouse was going through some financial issues after multiple failed product launches. This created a perfect opportunity for collaboration between the two German automakers, and Mercedes ended up contracting the highly skilled builders of the legendary 911 to rework the popular Mercedes W124 chassis so that a beefy 8-cylinder engine and heavy-duty supporting drivetrain could be installed at the factory.
In order to do that according to the exacting German standards of precision, the entire chassis and suspension would have to be redesigned. Simply putting a large 5.0-liter V8 engine into the existing W124 would result in a front-heavy car that would understeer hard into corners and be unresponsive overall. To allow for a car that could actually steer well and handle with a big V8 up front, Porsche widened the front track of the car, which would allow for more responsive steering.
Since the Porsche engineers changed the frame rails and positioning of the front suspension to accommodate the 5.0-liter power plant, the wheels wouldn't fit into the W124's factory skinny body shell. The obvious solution was redesigning the body of the 500E. This resulted in wider steel fenders from the factory; however, this presented another problem—the Porsche redesigned W124 body wouldn't even fit into the original assembly line fixtures at the Mercedes-Benz assembly plant in Sindelfingen.
At that point, it made more sense for Mercedes to commission the 500E to be hand-built by the expert craftsmen at Porsche's "Reutter-Bau" factory in Zuffenhausen.
Each vehicle and its parts were transported several times across Germany between the Porsche and Mercedes plants to make the assembly of the 500E possible. First, Mercedes would build the chassis, then it would be transported with truckloads of parts to Porsche's Stuttgart factory, where the main components were installed by hand. After assembly, the cars were trucked to the Mercedes Sindelfingen factory for a coat of paint.
After the paint was dry, the cars were then trucked back to Porsche's "Rössle-Bau" plant in Zuffenhausen so that the technicians could hand assemble the interior, suspension, and drivetrain with the same precision that they put into the legendary 911. The assembled 500E bodies were then transported all the way back to Mercedes in Sindelfingen for final inspection before delivery.
The amazing thing is this entire complex process only took 18 days from start to finish, and the Porsche factory completed building between eight and twelve of these cars every day.
Ken Wong purchased his 500E in April 2018, as an early birthday present to himself. Although he has many other European cars in his collection, he was compelled to find a 500E to fill another spot. Even though he sees the W124 as a common pedestrian passenger car chassis, he wanted a 500E because of its mixed pedigree due to the Mercedes and Porsche collaboration.
Ken liked the idea of having a stately executive sedan with enough power and torque to accelerate up a steep road, since he frequents Southern California's mountain roads - not for racing his cars, though. Instead, Ken loves to bring his bicycle up to the hilly areas near his house to meet up with his other cyclist friends.
The 500E may look mild-mannered from the outside, but the flared fenders give you a hint as to what lies beneath the hood. When the car was first introduced, some nicknamed it “The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing” because it is the epitome of a European made sleeper, with the 5.0-liter V8 engine under the hood.
Since this isn't Ken's only European car, he explained that he wanted to maintain the OEM form factor of his 500E, so he didn't want to swap out the factory interior for racing seats, bolt up a wide-piped aftermarket exhaust, install hot cams in the engine, or anything like that. Ken fully intended to buy the 500E for his collection, so he could enjoy driving it pretty close to how it came from the factory. However, he admits, "due to my aftermarket wheel fetish, I swapped out the 18” AMG monoblock wheels that came with the car to a set of 19” Carlsson 2/6 wheels."
Ken is the third owner of this car and spent a lot of time learning about the car before he bought it. Apparently, 500E owners are very intentional with their research and understand exactly what they are buying. They are already enthusiasts of the car, and they know all about the hand assembly, history, and attention to detail that the 500E possesses.
Just take a look at the interior - with the wooden trim, luxuriously padded door panels and the perforated air leather on the seats, the construction materials were super high end for a vehicle that first made its sales debut in 1990.
It all makes sense. After all, high-end construction materials and leading-edge design are precisely what an automaker needed in the 1990s when it listed the 500E with an $81,800 price tag at the dealer That's equivalent to over $150,000 today when inflation is accounted for.
Since all four factory seats were made by Recaro and the front seats are heated, Ken decided to leave the interior all stock, without feeling the need to add on aftermarket pedals, steering wheel, or shift knob. He admits, "I decided to update the head unit with an Alpine one, and added an amp and subwoofer to better enjoy the fidelity of music blasting from my 1990s CDs!"
Even though Ken drives his 500E all the time and says it's his favorite car in his collection to drive on the street, it still only had under 79,000 miles on it at the time of our photo shoot.
As a flashback to period technology that was popular in the 1990s, Ken uses an aftermarket alarm remote to lock and unlock the car. This Viper alarm is a bit newer and fancier than what was available on the market in 1990 when the 500E first came out, but it's certainly not something that drivers of modern-day cars even need to buy anymore.
The dome light panel next to the sunroof control had an LED light panel installed into it to make the interior much brighter at night. Little details like this make a big difference on utilitarian cars that are actually used as daily drivers.
The rear passenger compartment is quite spacious, as it was designed to allow four tall German executives to travel at top speed down the Autobahn in style.
Creature comforts were added, like reading lights on the C-pillar and padded leather above the armrest of the door panels. Rear passengers could opt to use the wooden slide-back storage compartment in the middle of the seat, or fold down a thick, padded armrest to create some separation of personal space in the back seat. The rear headrests can be folded back into the rear deck so that the headrests don't obstruct the driver's vision when there are no passengers in the back seat.
Behind the folding rear headrests, the retractable sun shade for the rear window provides the passengers a bit more comfort for long drives on sunny days. Since Ken lives in Southern California, he uses that sun shade pretty frequently.
When the hood is lifted up from the iconic Mercedes-Benz grill, the M119 V8 heart of the beast is revealed. Since the M119 is the same powerful 4973cc engine found in the Mercedes R129 500SL roadster, it has 32 valves and twin dual overhead cam heads, which help the engine flow enough air to produce 322 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque.
Since the mileage is relatively low, Ken says that the car hasn't required very many repairs since he's owned it; only maintenance. He explains, "I was lucky to have purchased my 500E from a fellow enthusiast who maintained the car in immaculate condition, both mechanically and aesthetically."
While manners maketh the man, wheels maketh the car. Ken decided to bolt up a set of Carlsson 2/6 wheels to the 500E, with 19x9 (+25 offset) upfront, and 19x10 +25 in the rear, for a fatter lip and more muscular looking manner on the street.
From the exterior, an observant eye will notice the factory flared steel fenders, which allow super-wide wheels and meaty tires to fit underneath the original wheel arches. Since Porsche built the car with wider fenders to make it stand apart from its lesser W124 brethren, it allowed the 500E to have a 1.5" wider track, enabling the car to handle and steer better than a normal W124.
Ken's car is a 1992 model year 500E, which came with upgraded brakes from the SL roadster, including 300 mm brake rotors with 4-piston calipers. Although the 500E already came with a 0.9 inch lower height profile than a typical W124, Ken decided to upgrade the suspension further without swapping out to a set of coilovers. He opted for Bilstein shocks and H&R springs, which lowered the car just a bit more and, in combination with the dampers, give the car an even more confident feeling on the road, without rattling your teeth on Southern California's horrible quality roads.
Ken says, "I own a lot of cars, but my 500E is my favorite daily driver sedan. Why? It is quiet, and the interior of the car sounds like it's being vacuum-sealed when you close the door. This car is torquey and elegant; it exudes a quiet yet strong demeanor."
Even though many magazines have written about the 500E in the past, many modern-day car enthusiasts aren't even aware of its existence unless they are specifically connoisseurs of the Mercedes-Benz brand. The most common question he's always asked at car meets is "where did you get those fender flares?!"
Ken just responds to the question by smiling, then begins telling the story of the time when Mercedes-Benz and Porsche teamed up to create the perfect "super sports sedan."
Story and Photos by Antonio Alvendia
If you like this Mercedes-Benz 500E, you can find additional Mercedes-Benz content at mercedes.fcpeuro.com, as well as more build features like this one here. If there's anything specific you would like to see, or if you have any questions/comments, leave them in the comments section below.
Antonio Alvendia is an aficionado of cameras, rare wheels, hip hop, and obscure aftermarket car accessories. He bought his first E39 Touring after seeing M5 Estates on photo trips to Europe, and now has sights set on restoring a classic Mercedes. Antonio was a principal photographer on the limited edition hardcover book on Singer Vehicle Design's Porsche 911 builds, entitled One More Than Ten. Future goals include returning to the Nurburgring to shoot the N24 race and driving the Nordschleife again. ••• Instagram : @MOTORMAVENS