Never Drive Your Heroes Vol. 3: 1992 Mercedes-Benz 300E
In Scorpio Rising, posted earlier this week, the Merkur Scorpio is clearly the headliner, with the 1992 Mercedes-Benz 300E primarily along to provide a more familiar baseline with which to compare the somewhat obscure Ford product. The secret, though, is that while the Scorpio was perhaps more of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I was just as excited to spend time with the Benz.
The 300E was the first introduced and most popular model in the U.S. market in the W124 family of Mercedes-Benz sedans, coupes, and wagons introduced in 1985. The line also included diesels, a 260E/300E 2.6 with a smaller inline six, the Porsche-built 500E supersedan, and, after a 1993 facelift, the first models officially referred to as the E-Class with new six and eight-cylinder engines.
The W124 is perhaps the exemplar of a much-missed bygone era of Mercedes-Benzes engineered and built to a standard – primarily a standard of extreme durability – not a price. As I pointed out in the earlier article, this philosophy meant that buyers ended up paying heavy prices, indeed: roughly $85,000 adjusted to 2016 dollars, compared to $52,000 for a new E-Class. All the same, even at 24 years old, the 300E I drove exuded solidity and craftsmanship befitting its lofty original pricetag. The aerodynamically refined styling by Bruno Sacco still shows very modern proportions and detailing, in contrast to the equally iconic but spindlier W123 that preceded the W124, and nothing about the driving experience betrays the car’s age.
Well, there’s that legendary durability, the sophisticated engineering, the classically clean styling – how many 2016 designs could stay in production for a decade and still look fresh in 2026? There are all of the virtues of the car itself; but, as usual, my motivations are slightly more obscure and less rational.
Memory is a powerful thing, and the games and toys with which we amuse ourselves as kids can prove very influential on what delights us as adults. I was, of course, obsessed with Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars as a kid, and one of the first Matchbox cars I can remember owning and playing with was model 58-H from 1987, a light metallic blue Mercedes-Benz 300E.
Matchbox castings in the mid-to-late ’80s tended to be quite realistic and well-detailed, and the Mercedes included doors that opened to its navy interior and a stand-up three-pointed star hood ornament molded into its chrome-plated radiator grille. It was a beauty, and I still have it to this day, one of my most prized possessions if only because I truly can’t remember ever not having it.
So, it was a special treat to be able to experience the real thing. Even as the earliest examples crest 30 years old, most 300Es are still daily drivers in the hands of non-enthusiast (although often very fastidious) owners, so finding an example to drive proved somewhat challenging. In the absence of the usual channels – forums, clubs, folks at Cars and Coffee – I found this absolutely stunning, low-mileage example in the inventory of a local used car dealership, and the staff at Premier Motors were very kind and accommodating.
The pleasure of the driving experience in the 300E isn’t about visceral thrills; it’s about feeling every motion, every response to your inputs, every mechanical deliberation performed by this machine and knowing that its actions and responses were anticipated and thought through and finely calibrated by very serious and talented and (hopefully) highly-paid craftsmen and women. The 300E becomes a leather-lined throne room, its silken straight six ready to fulfill your every wish, and you assume a regal detachment from the outside world, so satisfactorily are you ensconced within. You really start to wax eloquent, kids.
In many ways, the 300E feels a lot like a modern car, and to Mercedes’ credit, a very good, very expensive modern car. It is just as quiet as you’d want a modern car to be, just as quick off the line, and just as composed in its balance of ride and handling. It lacks, however, the conveniences and electronic geegaws of a modern luxury car; its luxury is found in the quality of the materials and assembly and in the utterly intuitive and functional way it performs all the basic functions of driving, assuming that you, the driver, are intelligent enough to look up directions before heading out to points unknown, that you don’t need to talk on a telephone while driving, that you can check your own blind spots, apply your own brakes, and exercise sensible judgement in the operation of a fast, heavy, deadly machine. Perhaps its greatest luxury is the respect with which it greets you; you and the 300E are equal partners in the act of driving.
In the ’80s, Matchbox cars were the elegant, refined alternative to Hot Wheels – I always preferred them for it – and the 300E was perhaps the most elegant and refined car in my little 1:64-scale fleet. The 1:1-scale version did nothing to sully my childhood awe of this car’s grandeur. It’s the kind of car I could understand holding onto and pampering and enjoying daily for 30 years.