MERCEDES-BENZ 124 REVIEW

2014 marks three decades since the introduction of the W124, yet few people consider it a bona fide classic. It’s easy to see why; there are lots of them still in daily use, whereas most classics are seen primarily at shows. But the W124’s popularity as everyday transport is testament to its usability; when it comes to over-engineered cars that offer everything you could need in one affordable package, it has few peers.

Offered in saloon, estate, coupé and convertible guises, the W124 represents spectacular value in its ious guises. That includes the two-door cars, but here we’ll focus on the saloon and estate, which offer unparalleled usability.

Launched in October 1985, at first there were saloons only, in 200, 230E, 260E and 300E flavours – or there was a 250D diesel. By April 1986 there was an estate with the same engine choices. In September 1988 the 200 gained fuel injection to become the 200E and the 300E became the 24-valve 300E-24. The 300TD estate replaced the 250TD in February 1990 then seven months later all cars got a catalytic converter as standard.

The big changes came in October 1992; that’s when all W124 engines were updated with four-valve cylinder heads. The 200E got a multi-valve head, the 230E was replaced by the 220E and the 280E replaced the 260E. at the same time, the 320E replaced the 300E and the 4Matic four-wheel drive option was dropped; it had been offered since April 1988 but proved unpopular. Such cars are now very rare.

A facelift in August 1993 saw the E become a prefix rather than a suffix (E320 rather than 320E for example), and it’s these cars, with their clear indicator lenses, colour-coded lower panels and bonnet-mounted mascot (it was previously set in the grille) that most buyers want. Buy one of these with all the right options (standard cars could be pretty basic) and you’ll have all the classic you could ever need.


VITAL STATISTICS

E320 saloon
 

Engine                                      3199cc/6-cyl/DOHC

Power (bhp@rpm)                     220@5500

Torque (lb ft@rpm)                    228@3750

Top speed                                142mph

0-60mph                                   7.0sec

Consumption                            24mpg

Gearbox                                   4/5-speed auto


WHAT TO LOOK FOR

BODYWORK & CHASSIS

The bodywork tends to last well, but check the front wings where they meet the bumper along with the inner wing under the washer bottle, the rear wheelarches and the jacking points. For the latter you’ll have to remove each of the covers to get a proper view.


ENGINE

The eight-valve four-cylinder engines (200 and 220) will cover huge mileages and are frugal too, but are a bit underpowered, especially in the estate. The multi-valve E220 is the best four-pot as it’s reliable, economical and more muscular. The diesels are also incredibly long-lived and very fuel-efficient – but they’re not all that unrefined. Best of all are the six-cylinder powerplants (260E and 300E initially, then the multi-valve E280 and E320). These are much smoother, torquier and suit the car far better. Pick of the bunch is the E320, which is already the most desirable and will always be the most collectible.

The front timing seal leaks on the earlier six-cylinder engines. These can be fixed with the engine in situ, for around £350. Distributor caps and rotor arms are weak; OE parts cost £100 and you should expect to replace these every three years or so depending on how the car is stored and driven. The fuel injection can also play up because of wear in the fuel distribution units and injectors along with vacuum leaks. Repair costs can y wildly.
 

ELECTRICS

The E280 and E320 have a wiring harness for the engine which has biodegradable sheathing. This degrades leading to misfires then costs around £1000 to fix. The price for the loom ies according to the car’s spec – it can be anywhere between £400-800, plus VAT and fitting. These engines can also suffer from head gasket leaks. Bank on spending £1200 to fix these, as you’ll probably have to do the valve stem seals at the same time – and if that harness hasn’t been replaced, you may well have to do that too. Also check the rubber engine mounts, as these can fail; new ones cost £75.60 each (four-cylinder) or £99.60 for six-cylinder items.

 

RUNNING GEAR

Most of these cars have an automatic gearbox but there are some manuals; the latter are rare and not very sought after but all W124 transmissions are bullet-proof. They all benefit from a fluid change every 25,000 miles, although the factory recommends every 40,000 miles. Back axles are strong, although estate units can eventually wear, especially if the car is used for towing. Estate diffs feature stronger bearings but the same ratios, although the ratios are different between four and six-cylinder models.

All of these cars came with power steering and unusually there’s a box rather than a rack. Leaks from the power steering pumps are rare and the boxes are reliable. Expect a bit of play in the box after a huge mileage, but this can usually be adjusted out.


BRAKES

Brakes are very reliable with nothing to worry about. All estates got self-levelling rear suspension as standard. The metal pipework for this corrodes and access is poor so the rear subframe has to be dropped - then you end up replacing all of the bushes at the same time. OE parts are expensive, but you have to use OE parts or you’ll end up having to do the job more than once.


INTERIOR

Interiors tend to wear very well. Many W124s have leather trim, but cloth is far from unusual. Predictably, it’s the driver’s seat bolster that’s most likely to be worn, but only after a huge mileage. Carpets last well and so does the switchgear and instrumentation. New parts are very costly, but there are lots of good used parts available as many W124s have been broken.


OUR VERDICT

After owning a W124, anything else will seem under-engineered. There are lots to choose from, but many are neglected and parts costs can be high.  As always you must single out a cherished car and be prepared to invest in OE parts to keep it running. And that’s just what it’ll do; it’ll keep going forever.

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