Mercedes-Benz W124 E-Class: Gone But Not Forgotten

30 years ago Mercedes-Benz began their Indian journey with the W124 E-Class. We rewind the years, dive into period magazines, dip into our personal archives, and drive, what many reckon was, the best built car in the world
The W124 with made-in-India Mercs at the Chakan factory.
The W124 with made-in-India Mercs at the Chakan factory.Rohit G Mane for evo India

Do you remember what you were doing 30 years ago?

Your correspondent was all of 17. I had just got into junior college, Nowrosjee Wadia in Pune if you’re curious, a marked change from the boys’ school I’d stepped out from; living my best life. There were girls at Wadias, for starters. I’d chucked the cycle and graduated to mum’s Kinetic. I’d just started dating the girl who I’d eventually get married to. And it so happened that 30 years ago, her dad was running the best garage in Pune, where the first Mercedes-Benz cars to be made in India, the W124 E-Class, had the PDI inspection done.

The grainy pictures accompanying this story, that’s the garage, and the E- Classes were the first two to be delivered in Pune. The silver one was legendary industrialist Rahul Bajaj’s, the blue one was delivered to politician Patangrao Kadam, and that guy bent over inspecting the cars was my future brother-in-law. It was at this garage that I got my first taste of a Mercedes-Benz.

Of course I didn’t drive it. These cars were going to be delivered to the movers and shakers of that time and the baby-faced boyfriend of the daughter was hardly going to be trusted with one. But I sat behind the steering wheel, and I dreamed. I looked at the three-pointed star, and dreamed harder. For the first time in my life I saw power windows, but dare not play with it. Airbags! Heck, I didn’t even know what SRS stood for. The way the doors shut, the way the locks slammed in, all the buttons on the dash – I lost my mind when I was shown the button that dropped the rear headrests. And just to put things into perspective, those days even air-conditioning was a novelty. And there was wood on the inside. This was real wood, not some horrid plastic knock offs, and it was treated and coated in such a way that in an accident this would not splinter.

30 years on, the cabin still feels solid – that was the legendary build quality.
30 years on, the cabin still feels solid – that was the legendary build quality.Rohit G Mane for evo India

This was the safest car in India, the fastest car in India, the most desirable car in India, and the most expensive car in India. It cost 22 lakh rupees, and to give you a frame of reference the next most expensive car in the country, the Tata Estate, was `5.1 lakh. A Maruti 800, with AC, was `2.6 lakh.

It gave birth to a whole new segment in this country, at a time when these things were so far out of the realm of possibility that the Auto India road test in June 1995 said, “Nostradamus himself could not have predicted that Mercedes-Benz would set up shop in India.” And if that wasn’t hard hitting enough, Hormazd Sorabjee, who penned the road test, added, “A country not exactly known for its car making prowess.”

But car making is exactly what Mercedes did. Pressed steel panels were sent from Stuttgart to Pune where they were mounted on jigs and the entire body structure was welded together to create the monocoque – back then the strongest and safest monocoque in India. The entire painting was done in India, and to give it Mercedes levels of paint finish they created the best paint shop seen in India until that time. Even stuff like the seats didn’t come as full units but were assembled in India by skilled fitters. And then the engine and gearbox assembly was married to the chassis. All of this was documented in Adil Jal Darukhanawala’s December 1995 road test of the E220 in Car and Bike International, and two years later the engine, gearbox and rear axle had also begun to be assembled in India – a commitment to make in India way before the term was even coined.

There is a saying that if you have to meet with an accident make sure you are in a Mercedes-Benz.
There is a saying that if you have to meet with an accident make sure you are in a Mercedes-Benz.Rohit G Mane for evo India

Two years later came the twin-eyed W210 in September of 1997. A year later work commenced on a new plant in Chikhali, on the outskirts of Pune and on the very first day of 1999 it was up and running. In December of 2000 the W220 S-Class rolled out – an absolutely momentous occasion for the Indian luxury car business. Remember the E-Class had gone up to between `27 to 29 lakh, the S-class was 72 lakh rupees, and yet the first batch of 84 S-Classes all soon found buyers. A few months later, in May 2001 came the W203 C-Class. In Feb 2003, after nine years, the 10,000 cars milestone was hit. Twice that number was achieved in the next seven years. In November of 2007 the first Actros truck rolled out, followed by the buses, until the CV business was transferred to Chennai when Bharat Benz was set up in 2011.

In 2007, ground broke on a brand new facility in Chakan outside Pune and operations commenced on February 24, 2009 – back then the most advanced CKD operation for Mercedes-Benz in the world. Here’s where the next milestones arrived.

The W116 ML-Class, forerunner to the GLE and the first luxury SUV in India came in September of 2010 and two years later local assembly began, followed by the GL-Class. In 2010, the 30,000 cars milestone was hit. In 2014, the 50,000th car milestone was hit with the C-Class. That very year, Mercedes were back to number 1 in India and hold that position till today. In 2015, I picked up the GLA from this very factory, shipped it to Stuttgart, and drove it from there back to Pune on the first GLA Adventure. That very year local production of Maybach began, followed a year later by the GLC, a year later – 2017 – by the long wheelbase E-Class, and another year later the first BS6 car in India, an S 350d, which was also the 100,000th Mercedes from the Chakan line. I remember coming here in 2020, when the first Covid wave started to wane, to drive the first luxury EV in India, the EQC. Two years later came the EQS – India becoming the first assembly plant outside Germany for this luxury EV, and laying the template for CKD operations for this car to follow in Thailand and Malaysia. Last year the Centre of Excellence was completely revamped, hosting the launch of the EQE SUV, and that’s where we head to for a coffee and a nice book.

Being a CBU import it got its alloy wheels unlike the Indian-built cars that got steel 
wheels with wheel caps.
Being a CBU import it got its alloy wheels unlike the Indian-built cars that got steel wheels with wheel caps.Rohit G Mane for evo India

Adil, in his excellent book, Winning, says Mercedes made their first attempt at passenger cars in the ’60s when a big squadron of 180s were sent to India and a dozen cars were handed over to K B Lal, Krishna Menon and other union ministers to use in their official duties for a year. The idea was once those ministers found them suitable, talks could begin about a licence for possible phased manufacturing along the lines of the Mercedes trucks that were already being manufactured. But a year later, when asked about the cars, the keys were symbolically handed back and no word came from the powers that be. That was the socialist mindset which only crumbled when our nation’s gold reserves had to be mortgaged to the World Bank in the ’90s, prompting economic liberalisation and, on April 22, 1994, Mercedes-Benz India came into being.

Sticking to the law of the time, this was a joint venture with Mercedes holding 51 per cent and TELCO 49 per cent. A new plant carved out at TELCO’s sprawling works in Pimpri to the exacting standards of the 3-pointed star, the first instance of the then Mercedes-Benz CEO Helmut Werner’s ‘Made by Mercedes’ concept to be applied anywhere in the world. As for me, I was only 17. I had to wait a year to get my driving licence, and another three years before I’d drive my first Mercedes, which was also an E-Class. The W211 E-Class in April of 2000, the very first month of me joining Overdrive magazine as an intern. I think it was the first V6 to be ever assembled in India, because we made a very big deal about it, splashing it front and centre on the cover. It was also the first automatic car I ever drove, Adil letting me drive it for all of 500 metres and I still remember feeling like I’d made it in life. It was the best thing that had ever happened to me.

This was a joint venture with Mercedes holding 51 per cent and TELCO 49 per cent.
This was a joint venture with Mercedes holding 51 per cent and TELCO 49 per cent.Rohit G Mane for evo India

Here’s a secret. I only planned to do one year at Overdrive and then head off to the US to do my masters; I had even got my admissions, scholarships, all sorted. Except, automotive journalism was letting me drive Mercs – which 21-year-old boy would quit that to go back and study? Ever since, I’ve been fortunate enough to test every single Mercedes to be launched in India, but the W124, I actually only drove for the first time three years ago for the Gone But Not Forgotten page at the end of this magazine. This is that very same car, our technical editor’s uncle’s car, and being Parsi owned, it’s in almost the same condition as it was when it rolled out of the factory in Pune.

The laws of the time mandated a minimum of 15 per cent indigenous content and so the battery, bulbs, certain fasteners and tyres were Indian. I remember the hoo-haa everybody made about the JK Tyres that it got, which Adil clarified were adequate, but in the same breath also said that if buyers put European rubber, Mercedes would tweak the engine management system to deliver the same power and torque as the European spec. Safety was something Mercedes never compromised on. In his road test Adil even said, “There is a saying that if you have to meet with an accident make sure you are in a Mercedes-Benz.”

The W124 was a safety pioneer. This was the first car in India with standard airbags – twin airbags for the driver and passenger. This was the first car in India with ABS. The first with four-wheel disc brakes. It was the first with side impact beams. It had seat belts for all occupants, with belt tensioners – and this wasn’t a given back then, prompting the Indian Auto road test to comment, “You can wear the seat belt at all times”. It was even tested for roll over stability, this is the era before NCAP crash tests. But best of all, this was difficult to crash because it had what was then a revolutionary rear suspension design.

PD Singh owns the very first W124 to be registered in India.
PD Singh owns the very first W124 to be registered in India.Rohit G Mane for evo India

The rear suspension was referenced as “near legendary” and the five-link setup laid the template for the suspension layout for all other cars to follow, before some cars cheapened it with the torsion beam. With the W124 you didn’t have to worry about the rear snapping sideways. The handling was neutral and predictable with, I quote from Car and Bike International, “Outstanding stability on bends”.

Of course by the standards of today you have a fair bit of body roll. The recirculating ball steering is slow. The steering wheel is much too big. The suspension feels too soft. But this still has that most important of all Mercedes characteristics – comfort. So much comfort. This is ridiculously comfy. Power? The petrol E220 got India’s first 4-valve dual overhead cam engine. It made 140bhp, 200Nm of torque and it was the most powerful engine of the time. 0-100kmph was tested by Car & Bike International at 9.8 seconds. Even today 100kmph in under 10 seconds is a reference point for a fast car, and this is 30 years old.

I am driving the diesel that came nearly a year later and here too there was a first. The first passenger car sold in India with more than 4 cylinders. This was a 5-cylinder 2.5-litre diesel. “A high tech, high revving diesel motor the likes of which we have never seen before” said Auto India in the April 1996 road test. It put out 113bhp, 170Nm, and in their tests 0-100kmph took 16.5 seconds – which was quicker than a Maruti Zen, the standard of that time. Not having enough roads back then they got it to a top speed of 170kmph, while Mercedes claimed 190kmph. The petrol was claimed to do 210kmph – another first, the first Indian car capable of over 200kmph.

"This was the best proportioned, best engineered, longest lasting car of all time".
"This was the best proportioned, best engineered, longest lasting car of all time".Rohit G Mane for evo India

And did I mention that the W124 was over engineered? Mercedes engineered this E-Class like no other car in the world – with zero cost cutting. This was the best proportioned, best engineered, longest lasting car of all time. So much so, that the very first W124 to be tested in India, in that Auto India road test, is still alive and kicking. That car, MH 12 P 6972, was used by Ratan Tata, after that by Tata Motors’ MD Ravi Kant and now is owned – nay, treasured – by PD Singh, the CEO of JP Morgan who says, “It’s an easy car to maintain. There are a number of them still in service, around 1700, and spare parts aren’t a problem.”

The W124 was the quintessential German-engineered car. Quintessential ’80s Mercedes design too, with form following function. Square looks. Indisputable solidity. Lots of restraint; opulence intentionally avoided compared to W123. It’s expensive but not brash, the sole exception being the chrome grille. And while it may not look it, it was also designed in a wind tunnel. The wedge-shaped trunk is tapered at the rear, like a tear drop, giving it a Cd of 0.26, one of the most aero efficient cars of its time.

And that’s the same philosophy which carries on to this day. The EQS electric sedan is the world’s most aerodynamically efficient sedan with a Cd of 0.20. Like the W124 was the first luxury car to be made in India, so too is the EQS the first luxury EV to be assembled in India. And 30 years on, automotive journalists will look back to this as the pivotal moment in the brand’s transformational journey.

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