Many say that the Mercedes W124 is the perfect Merc to buy, offering just the right balance of the traditional three-pointed star values and modern amenities. It’s now over 35 years old though, so there’s plenty to watch out for. Here’s our Mercedes W124 buying guide.
The Mercedes W124 was a crucial model for the company, taking over the position held by the iconic Mercedes W123 for a decade. It was recognisably a Mercedes, with conservative styling led by a very upright grille, but it was also clearly something quite new. The front end was actually tilted backwards slightly, part of a programme to reduce aerodynamic drag which gave the Mercedes W124 an impressive drag coefficient of 0.30. Some might say it looks like a bigger 190E, which it does, but it still manages to have proportions that are just right. Underneath, it also shared the smaller car’s innovative multi-link rear suspension design.
Inside, the cabin was an evolution of design, and today holds up as one of the most attractive and simple of all 1980s car interiors. Naturally, it’s all built to an exceptionally high standard.
The engine and optional extras range was extensive, and generally independent of one another, so you can get big engines with low equipment and vice-versa. The bottom of the range was a 200, a carburetted 2-litre version of the four-cylinder M102, moving up to the fuel-injected 200E and the larger 230E. This engine was carried over from the Mercedes W123, with a few detail improvements, then was replaced in 1992 with the new double-overhead cam M111 range of engines, producing about 10% more power, though the carburetted version had been dropped in 1990.
The six-cylinder engines are the most desirable of course, even if many enthusiasts will tell you that a four-cylinder is more than adequate. These were again carried over, offered in 2.6-litre and 3-litre forms, with a hot 24-valve, double-overhead cam option becoming available in 1989. The six-cylinders were revised in 1992, where all received double-overhead cam heads with 24 valves, now in 2.8 and 3.2-litre flavours.
Fans of diesel are also catered for, with a wide range of four, five and six-cylinder options of the OM600-series engine, with a turbodiesel six coming in 1987 and a turbodiesel five in 1990 topping the range until the new OM606 so-called ‘multi-valve’ engines were introduced in 1994 for the last couple of years of production.
An automatic gearbox was an option on all these models, but was almost always specified. There was even a four-wheel-drive 4Matic system available, although in the UK offered only with the 3-litre 12-valve engine, in saloon and estate forms.
There was a Mercedes E36 AMG model, with a 3.6-litre straight six tuned up to 268bhp. The V8-powered 400E and 500E were something quite different, for they were assembled by Porsche and had to receive special structural work to fit the engine. Naturally these are low volume models in a rather different category to the usual W124.
Besides the variety of engine options, there were different body styles and lots of equipment to choose from too. An estate came out in 1985, a coupe in 1987 and a four-seater convertible in 1992. There are no trim packages to speak of, but the equipment list is very long and includes ABS, alloy wheels, memory and heated seats, even electric windows on early models, with only a few things becoming standard in later models, like an airbag and ABS.
Mercedes W124 – What to look for
Body and chassis
It will pay to inspect a prospective car’s bodywork and chassis thoroughly, as there can be big bills hiding behind patches of corrosion. Fortunately most panels are available to buy as replacements, but more terminal cases can become a nightmare.
The front can be particularly bad on high-mileage cars, shown up by damage to the leading edge of the bonnet for example, but it’s the front wings that seem to succumb to rust most of all. If there’s no visible rust on the outside, still check from the inner wing just ahead of the wheelarch, above the bumper. A sagging front bumper can also be a sign of something going on here, because it is secured to the wing.
Also cast an eye towards the washer fluid bottle, because water can get trapped beneath it and will eventually rot out that part of the inner wing. While underneath, it’s worth checking the condition of the crossmember below the sump, because this can often be subject to a lot of road dirt and can be expensive to replace.
Rear wings can go too, but not normally as badly as the fronts. It’s the rear chassis and suspension that might need your attention, as they go at the subframe supports. The front support is a usual suspect, but is best accessed with a rear wheel off so can be tricky to spot when buying. It can be important though, because if it’s gone from the inside then fixing it will require dropping the axle. The same goes for brake lines, which tuck themselves over the subframe.
You’ll also want to go out of your way to check that the jacking support points are solid, as particularly on later cars they are hidden beneath trim covers.
Estates seem to attract moisture at the rear of the cabin more than saloons, and water ingress can eventually reach the extent of constantly misting up the rear windows. Check along the window seals for signs of serious rot: if it’s minor it can be repaired fairly easily, but if it has had time to spread it can be very bad. Be especially careful of damage at the bottom of the C-pillar, where significant rot can become unviable to repair. Coupes tend to be most susceptible to leaky rear screens, which will in turn also let in water to the rear.
Engine and gearbox
Generally, it is fair to say that the W124 is bulletproof in this respect, and very high mileages can be racked up provided maintenance is kept on top of. However, there will be things to watch out for when looking to buy one today.
First and foremost is, quite naturally, evidence of regular maintenance. Earlier four-cylinder cars had simplex timing chains with shorter replacement intervals of 60,000 and oil changes recommended every 3000 miles. Later cars came with duplex chains. At very high mileages, later four cylinders in particular can suffer from stretched bolts that will lead to oil leaks at the head. If it doesn’t idle quietly, it might need attention to the hydraulic tappets.
Six-cylinders can suffer oil leaks at the front and rear of the head, while the later multi-valve sixes can also leak from the timing cover – if this one goes left unchecked it will also spell the end of your alternator which lies underneath.
The later sixes are also most vulnerable to the infamous biodegradable wiring loom issue, which if haven’t been sorted by now should be fairly obvious with visible cracks or just a brittle feel of that which is visible under the bonnet.
Diesels will wear engine mounts more than the petrols, and turbochargers will become service items when well into six-figure mileages. Some have also noticed a loss of compression over time, too, with valve-seat recession on cylinders 5/6 normally the cause. A rebuild will work wonders, but of course take time and/or money, so be sure that your car performs if you don’t want to go there.
The 722.3, 722.4 and optional 722.5 gearboxes are excellent and should cause no problems. They may leak a little oil, but are generally supremely robust. If your car doesn’t shift smoothly, suspect a lack of oil. If it is reluctant to change and makes noises then be prepared either to walk away or negotiate suitably. However, be aware that most differentials will leak a bit of oil so this might be the cause of an untoward whine – not great, but better than a dud gearbox.
The rare 4Matic four-wheel-drive system on is worth inspection on its own. The 4Matic light on the dash should illuminate on start-up then disappear, and listen out for clunks or rumbles from the drivetrain when turning at full lock.
Suspension and brakes
No matter how well built a car is, suspension components wear, especially the rubber bushings that add a layer of refinement and the W124 uses a lot of them. Listen out for clonks or squeaks from the suspension that will point you to worn suspension bushes. Other common points at the front are the anti-roll bar and ball joints. At the rear, subframe bushes can go, and so do the rear wheel bearings. If the rear ball joints have gone, factor in the cost of a specialist because they require a special tool for removal.
Self-levelling rear suspension was an option on the estate and, strangely, the coupe. The system employs a pump and ram to maintain a constant height with special suspension spheres. If it all works it’s great, if not it can be difficult to fix.
It’s still just about possible to buy into W124 ownership for modest four-figure sums, but anything less than £1500 is going to be rather risky. As we explored in the body and chassis section, if you find yourself with a rotten one you can quickly end up in a money pit. Sellers are waking up to this fact and prices are on the move, particularly now that the older W123 Mercedes are more expensive than ever.
A nice four-cylinder Mercedes W124 wanting only minor work ought to cost you £2000-£3000, while the very best nudge into six-cylinder money at over £5000. The top 24-valve sixes will have a premium on them, with prices up towards six figures. AMG and V8-powered models are well over £10,000. It does seem that there are fewer for sale than ever, so we reckon securing a good one will be a worthwhile investment.