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.
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.