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W124 Love – The Panther of Europe


Our friends at The Truth About Cars write a lot about  The Panther Love – their affection to the greatest example of cheap, bulletproof American large sedan. Although it’s been taken away from us as of 2011, it still lives on the roads and used car lots of America. Whether you’re looking for cheap retired taxi made from retired police cruiser or want to cosset your backside in plush leather seats of the nicest Town Car you can find, the Panther is here for you.

But what about us, poor Europeans? Panthers are scarce here, much more expensive than in US of A, with somewhat limited access to the spare parts supply and knowledgeable mechanics. And most of all, they don’t fit our roads and cities. It’s not to say that you cannot successfully run a Panther here as a daily driver (as a former GM B-body owner and driver, I know something about this). They are still quite affordable and parts are cheap even with the shipping, customs and taxes. But the idea of an omnipresent big car that’s cheap as dirt, will last forever and you can buy parts or have it services almost anywhere, is missing. For us, the Panther is more of an extravagancy than rational choice.

Fortunately, we have our own equivalent of Panther.

[Ed: Today we’ve got another piece from longtime internet car guy friend Vojta Dobes, a.k.a. Bobash, a.k.a. an awesome guy in the Czech republic with a penchant for American Iron.]

But surprisingly, it’s not one of the Europe’s big Fords or Opels, which should be similar to the Panther in their market position. Cars like Scorpio and Omega never made it as big as Panthers and B-bodies in USA, filling taxi fleets and police garages. They’re not as durable, not as popular and with age, they’re getting more and more scarce. No, the Europe’s Panther isn’t anything such pedestrian as Ford or Opel. It’s proper piece of German engineering. A Mercedes-Benz W124, also known as the first generation of E-class (technically , it became E-class with the mid-production run facelift, but we can overlook that).

For an American, such a thing may be hard to understand. How can a luxurious car, like Mercedes-Benz, become a cheap, practical choice, aching to America’s Panther? How is it possible that Europe’s taxi fleets are full of such luxurious vehicles?

The answer is simple. They are not luxurious. Or at least not by the American definition. In the time when W124 was born, Europe did not adopt the idea of platform sharing and brand “ladder”. While the Cadillac or Lincoln had their cheaper, but mechanically similar siblings to do the chores of taxis or police vehicles, there was no such thing for Benz. No cheaper alternative with similar engineering. If you wanted build quality of a Mercedes-Benz, you had to buy one. So, it you wanted a taxi cab that would last forever and be cheap to run, you’d buy the cheapest Benz available. And for that, the factory would build you a stripped down version.

Euro W124

Thus you could buy these “luxurious” vehicles with weak and noisy, but also frugal and durable diesel engines, and with virtually no equipment. Even in 1990s, it was common to find a Mercedes-Benz without A/C. Or without power windows. And stuff like power seats, essential on a Cadillac or Lincoln from that time, was optional even on the most expensive models.

With well-known durability comes popularity. And with it, lots of aftermarket support, and lots knowledgeable mechanics, able to fix stuff on the cheap. This makes the W124 in any of its variants an ideal car for someone who likes himself a big, brash automobile on the cheap. Which leads to popularity among, ahem, strange types. Which may be similar to Panthers – neither used CrownVic, nor the ex-taxi beige 200D are ideal choices to make an impression of stylish, distinguished gentleman. But Lincoln Mark VI or Crown Victoria Touring Sedan is a different story. And so is 300CE-24, or 500E.

From the basic, practical transportation of 200D sedan or wagon, to style and luxury of top-end 300CE-24 coupe or exclusivity and speed of 500E supersedan, the W124 is all things to all men. And it is also the best car in the world, ever. But more about that in the next installment.

  • Rover 1

    Aerodynamics that are still good by (or better?) than todays standards with self cleaning taillights and side glass,good steering, good seats rustproof ness and a good ride handling balance as well as ageless looks and detailing, the W124 would be a classic design, anyway. But add in amazing build quality , world wide ubiquity and cheap parts, don't be surprised if they become one of the most common cars left from the 80s.

    I certainly plan on them being my main scource of transport for the next 20 years at least.

    • BobAsh

      I wouldn't call W124 exactly rust-proof. Maybe I would even go other way and call it rust-prone. It's not as terrible as on W123s, but rust is still the most common reason for W124s to die. My CE is currently in great risk of being euthanased due to inoperable body cancer.

      • Vavon

        But concerning rust, surely it can't be worse than the W210 E-Class…

        • BobAsh

          It isn't. But it also isn't that much better.

    • M44Power

      Rustproof? I had an 86 W124 whose rocker panels would disagree with that statement.

  • lilpoindexter

    I wanted to get a turbodiesel one…and convert it to 5 speed…i even found a 5speed from a 190e2.6…I never bought the car, and I got sick of tripping over the trans on my patio, so i sold it.

    • Rover 1

      Or a six speed off a Sprinter Van, the same six speed as in BMWs.

  • Metric Wrench

    While I dearly love the W124, they have their odd problems. Degrading wiring, an appetite for wheel bearings, and a fiberglass wall between the engine and the HVAC intake that cooks and gets brittle over time.

    On the upside, tossable handling in a midsize car, great brakes, and bulletproof drivetrain. For bonus points, find one with the exquisite 3 liter non-turbo diesel – one of the few diesels that sounds lovely when revved.

    • M44Power

      Seems as if the wiring was much worse after the M014 engine introduction.

      • Misha

        Actually, wiring got biodegradable insulation (whose brilliant idea was that?!?!) during last facelift and introduction of quite a few new engines in '92.
        Those models are easy to spot – model badges had E letter in from of numbers.

        As far as rust is concerned, around here quite a few spent 15-20 years as taxis, driven throughout a year (and we use a LOT of wrong type of salt, NaCl, during wintertime) and they have rarely any rust spots. This happens mostly due to bad accident repairs.

        As for rust (and not just rust!), W 210 has to be a worst ever Merc. They manages to make very unreliable car, that inherited all of its engines and transmissions from aforementioned '92-'94 W124 !
        But, you have just have to remind yourself of famous speach made by Mercedes CEO at the beginning of '90s, highlighting that their cars were unnecessary over-engineered…….and very soon, s*** hit the fan…

        Mind you, I would gladly use 300 E or 260E, or budget permitting, 400 E or 500 E 🙂

  • clunkerlove

    "The European Panther".

    • BobAsh

      Although English isn't my native language, I will argue with you about this. W124 would be European Panther, if it was like Panther, but FROM Europe. But W124 only works like Panther IN Europe.

      • RichardKopf

        Well, if you want to show possession, just remove the article 'the'.

        Looking forward to the next installment!

        • BobAsh

          Damned articles. Us Eastern (or Central, to be precise) Europeans can't ever learn them properly, as Slavic languages don't use anything like articles 🙂

          • Misha

            🙂 🙂 I concurr!
            I managed to figure out all eight forms of infinitive of English language, gerund and other difficult stuff, but articles are still unconquered territory! 🙂
            This peculiarity gets even weirder, when you take into a consideration that most Slavic have a grammar that makes grammar of Latin language seems like a piece of cake:)

            • RichardKopf

              Blame the Germans! We just have a, and, and the. They have genders and case.

          • Dean Bigglesworth

            Finnish is also fun, with words like kolmivaihekilowattituntimittari (three-phase kilowatt-hour meter). Much, much longer words are possible if you actually bend the words. Or you can say something like "kokoa koko kokko kokoon", which translates to "assemble the whole bonfire".

            Here's a link with all 2253 word-forms of the Finnish noun kauppa(shop).

            Also this. I'm a bit bored at work.
            <img src="http://www.phonetics.ucla.edu/appendix/languages/finnish/finnish.gif&quot; img="">

            • BobAsh

              This reminds me what I heard someone say about Hungarians (same language group as Finnish). They're actually telepats and use the language only to mask the fact. There is no way that this mess could be used to rely information reliably.

  • Goodwin

    I agree. If you want a solid running 20 year old car in Europe the 124 is the one to have. And before that …it was the 123. It is a shame that MB are not what they used to be….

    • Misha

      Some purists say that W123 was a pinnacle of Mercedes over-engineering….W124 was inevitably going to get much more complicated, so reliability was going to suffer……
      But, eve W 123 had its nightmares…unreliable HVAC unit, weak simple chains on first 4 cylinder petrols…
      You want a million km car? Get yourself W 123 300d 🙂

      • Goodwin

        True about 300D. However, most W123 I seem to see are 230E.

  • miki

    Sure, they were cheap by Mercedes standards, but then you had to pay an extra for things like the rear wiper and a 5 speed gearbox ( something unheard of in Europe, even in the cheapest city cars ).

    • Vavon

      I'm sorry but that's just not true, in the early 80's several modern cheap city cars had 5-speeds as standard.

      And moreover there was the smaller Mercedes-Benz 190, that was the cheap Mercedes-Benz!

      • duurtlang_

        A good friend of mine has a w124 200d from 1986. It's got a 4 speed manual. Just like my 1991 Golf. On my mk2 Golf the right mirror was optional in earlier production years.

        • Vavon

          My first car a, 1984 205 GL 1.1, had a 5-speed gear-box. It also had only one mirror, I added the second one.

  • T.W.

    Your argument holds water right up until the end – the Mark VII was not a Panther (rather an MN12 Thunderbird/Cougar) and even in sporting Touring Sedan guise, no one would ever mistake you for arriving in the lap of luxury if you rolled up in a Crown Vic, or even a Cartier/Executive/Mark Cross/Givinchey Town Car, for that matter.

    • BobAsh

      I know that Mark VII is a Fox. But I mentioned Mark VI, which IS a Panther.

  • jeniik

    The w123 is even better in everything and is so nicelly serviceable. The main issue is rust since even the nevest cars are 27 years old now…

    • Misha

      Even W 123s are not all the same. Supposedly, first gen cars ( '76-'80 / '81) were built from recycled steel.

  • Sjalabais

    I am surprised nobody has said: "Volvo!" yet, so I'm just gonna say it:


    • FuzzyPlushroom

      Yeah, the 240 was Scandinavia's and the UK's Panther just as the W124 was for mainland Europe.

    • Dean Bigglesworth

      Volvo 700 and 900 are the first cars that i think of when i think "European Panther". And yes, that is something i have actually thought about berore.. A few years ago when I needed to find a cheap automatic car I quickly narrowed it down to 740 Volvo or W124 Merc. Ended up with a 740.

      Currently for sale on nettiauto.com there's about 160 E- and CE-class Mercs from 1985-1996(W124 is not a search option) and 250 or so 700 and 900 series Volvos. Still see 200,700 and 900 series Volvos and W124s every day.

      • Sjalabais

        In Scandinavia the choice is simple – maintenance is close to "free" on ye old Volvo's, Mercedes is very expensive. But I see the allure of any car that is as well build as this sample.

        • Dean Bigglesworth

          That's one reason i ended up with a 740, the other was that there were no decent Mercs available anywhere close and i needed a car yesterday. It has 350tkm or so on the odo, i've replaced the radiator(140€) and cat-back exhaust(130€) and that's about it. The brake calipers need overhauling and it needs a tune-up and some small rust fixing along the arches, but that's about it i think.

        • BobAsh

          In Czech Republic, it's the other way around. Parts for W124 are relatively cheap and plentiful, lots of mechanics know them real well. Volvos are really a quaint choice, no one really knows them, parts are not that easy to come by…

  • Frank

    Just bought a C 124 230 CE this weekend for my wife.
    190k km ~120k miles for a mere 1.000 Euros.

    That was a steal, even though there are some things to fix:

    -external valve on the KE Jetronic is leaky
    -air pump for HVAC sensor noisy
    -old tires
    -front end is cluttering on bad roads

    On the plus side:
    -no rust
    -engine runs smooth
    -autobox works flawless
    -interior is clean minus cracked clearcoat in center console wood panels

    This is going to be a fun project.
    Would make a nice story too…

    • Rover 1

      Please keep us informed.

  • guest

    W124 was the last real M/B made that had any decent build quality. W201s were junk,claustrophobia-inducing tuna cans. Take a 500E with studded snow tires on out at night . Press the p/brake pedal down one click so the red light comes on. The ASR will then be disengaged sensing the p/b postion switch closed . Aim steering wheel straight ahead and mash throttle pedal with your 11 1/2 EEE Thom McCann. Observe the light show in your r/v mirror as the Michelins blaze away like a Joie Chitwood Thrill Show spectacle. Django Unleashed ! BTW, the local constabulary take a dim view of such displays of wanton enviornmental discharges so use discretion when performing this feat. YMMV…

  • Dean Bigglesworth

    Mmmm…. Hammer…..
    [youtube 2MzqNn8kJqQ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MzqNn8kJqQ youtube]

  • Stephane Dumas

    I guess the old Lada derived from the Fiat 124 is another "Panther" or it's "close but no cigar"? 😉

    Also, ironic to see the Morris Oxford III becoming a "Panther" overseas as the Hindustan Ambassador. http://www.aronline.co.uk/blogs/cars/hindustan-mo