By on June 16, 2007

In 1985, I started a Spanish language TV station. Having run a multi-lingual broadcast outlet for the world’s most famous guru, I was ready to rock and roll. There was only one minor detail: thirty million dollars. Fortunately, my partner and I found it. Unfortunately, we didn’t choose our sugar daddies carefully enough. It was a wild roller-coaster ride– even if I did end back on the ground. At least I got a sharp set of wheels out of the deal.

So, at 32, I became a part owner and General Manager of KVEA, the station that spawned Telemundo. I had a dream gig: buying stations and building a Spanish language TV network. And I got the company car of my dreams: a 1985 Mercedes 300E.

Mercedes’ all-new W124 series Benz had just arrived on the American automotive scene. It was an automotive milestone: the last time Mercedes would field a sedan that was far enough ahead of the competition to render it virtually meaningless.

The four-door German sedan certainly looked the part. It had the slipperiest body outside of a mud-wrestling pit, yielding the lowest drag coefficient of any car of its day. The 300E was also stuffed full of innovative technology: a new five-link rear suspension (air for the wagon), ABS brakes, fuel injection, air bags and a radical mono-blade windshield wiper. And it weighed less than 3200 lbs.

[Remind me again: why does today’s MB E350 weigh 600 lbs. more, get no better mileage, and have a terrible reliability rep? I guess MB engineers spent the last twenty-five years with more pressing problems, like Maybach and Chrysler.]

When I saw the 300E, it was déjà vu all over again. Just like the Thunderbird, I was gripped by an advanced case of veni, vidi, vici. I HAD to have one. And so I did.

The 300E fulfilled my every desire; it was as if I’d designed the car myself. It was a handsome beast (enhanced with oversize BBS wheels), as well as efficient, reliable, comfortable and solidly built. But most of all, it loved to roll.

The 300E was bred on the Autobahn, in the fast lane. Although its silky six only stumped-up 177 horses, it would do an honest 140mph. I verified its top speed (more impressive in 1985 than now) as soon as possible. And I had witnesses: Stephanie and our two little kids in the back. (She’s never complained; we’ve survived thirty years of accident-free fast driving together. Knock on wood.)

Every car has its “happy” cruising speed. The 300E’s was 110mph. I spent as much time as possible at that speed, savoring the blissful state of restful alertness that the velocity engendered.

Of course, my Mercedes’ magic carpet ride had its inherent risks: 110 was exactly double the posted speed limit. But the rules of the game were different then. California still had a state-wide ban on radar. The CHiPs would “play the ramps,” swooping down on speeders from on-ramps like fighter jets off the deck of a carrier, or an avian predator hunting for a kill.

Unlike today’s lop-sided hi-tech war, it was a sportsmanlike game of cat-and-mouse. By staying hyper-alert and using the rear-view mirror constantly, I excelled at recognizing cop cars from great distances. And slow down. Fast. In fact, I batted 1000– except for one “bear-in-the-air” ticket.

My 300E was like a rock, unshakeable no matter how rough the road or weather. It induced a feeling of security and well being every time I stepped inside. Too bad it couldn’t protect me from the storms brewing at work.

Telemundo’s majority owners were plugged into Michael Miliken’s junk-bond factory, and put in little of their own cash. The recession of 1991-1992 hit the media hard. When the crunch came, they walked. Foolishly, too, since NBC paid $2.7 billion for Telemundo in 2001.

Telemundo stock crashed and burned. Goodbye fortune. The final blow came when a new CEO fired the management ranks in a futile effort to justify his brief existence.

Aged 39, I was free again. I had never set out to be a corporate “suit.” I enjoyed the challenges, but not the politics, questionable ethics and “creative” financing. I never looked back, except for missing the Mercedes.

I’m intensely independent, and needed to live the rest of my life on my terms. So I sold the Benz, a token of an era now ending.

I had bought the 1966 Ford F-100 for $500 to haul brush. Now, hooked up to a trailer, I used it to move our stuff to Oregon in 1993. The Beverly Hillbillies were fed up with expensive, pretentious and crowded California, and were heading back to the hills.

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13 Comments on “Auto-Biography 21: Doing an E...”

  • avatar

    Yes…the 124 was a benchmark car, and M-B finally had a mid sized gas engined car compared to the previous mostly diesel line up of 300D’s.

    The 5 link originated on the 190 (W201) a few years before. The 6 cyl. which seemed powerful at that time was a bit of a “lump”, the drivetrain was a quirky holding 1st gear until the catalyst warmed up.

    You could get an M-B Tex or leather or velour interiors, you could even get a 5 speed manual transmission in the early years. The 1985 were not expensive, and with price increases(M-B quickly noticed that with pent up demand the market was willing to pay a lot more) there were numerous people making money with the early 300E’s.

    In 1985 a 300E was not much more money than a Cimarron…the folks that had to sell Cimarrons would look at a 300E and go into a state of shock.

    It was not unusual to bring 300E’s to car shows and have body panels pushed in, literally by the crush of the crowd.

    It was a benchmark car for the automtive industry at large, and a benchmark car for M-B.

  • avatar

    PN- I too, am a corporate refugee now living in Oregon. As usual, an excellent piece. Syndication and book form should be discussed in serious tones.

  • avatar

    “I’m intensely independent, and needed to live the rest of my life on my terms”

    Amen to that

    Great Read as usual.

    Its always fascinated me as to the transformation of 60s and 70 free spirited types into 80s corporate money makers.

  • avatar

    I had a 1990 W124 (300E in US). One of the best Benzes, IMHO. Great long-haul road car. Perfect balance of ride/comfort and handling. Some quirks for sure. Felt sluggish when accelerating from rest, as it started in 2nd gear when in “D”. (Full throttle or placing shift in one of the intermediate gears gave a peppier first gear start, but who wants to shift an automatic??) I remember there was a remote release of the rear seat headrests, but no automatic retract. And that single wiper blade…one day I was waiting in the car while a friend was doing an errand. It was drizzling, the car was idling, and I had the wipers on slow intermittent. As the blade made its occassional swipe, I felt a gentle but perceptible rocking of the whole vehicle on its suspension. Was that weird or what…?
    BTW these cars are amazingly cheap now as 12-20 y.o used cars with plenty of miles left in them. And safer than a Volvo!

  • avatar

    I had a USA 300E born in late 1985, too. The USA ones were all sold as a 1986 models. I had the stick-shift and my parents had an automatic. The early USA automatics had the same gearing as the first 4 gears of the sick, with the stick just having an additional gear for the highway. Seat-of-the-pants acceleration between the two was very similar, with the low-speed benefits of the torque converter making up for the added weight and drivetrain loses. The stick, however, could touch 30 MPG on the highway.

    As for top speed, the USA rev limiter and USA gearing meant that either transmission would get you to 137 MPH in 4th; 5th gear might get you a tad faster. 1998 automatic versions had taller gearing, which might have increased the top speed except that Mercedes also included a 137 MPH speed governor. Later, with wimpier tiers, the governor was decreased to 128 MPH–including for the 275 HP 400E model! The 500E had the 155 MPH limiter, which it could hit.

    In my family we called the single wiper a “uniwiper.” It’s only shortcomings are that it makes me a little seasick when running at the high speed and isn’t quite as fast as a conventional design. As another poster mentioned, it does very slightly rock the car when you are sitting still at a traffic light. Stiffer springs/shocks can cure that.

    As for airbags, the 1986 model only had driver-size airbag, but at least it was a non-USA-compliant one that wasn’t powerful enough break your face. The car also had seatbelt pretensioners. The ABS had 3 sensors: one on each front wheel and one just in front of the differential to monitor both rear wheels simultaneously.

    The convertibles and the 500E are both highly desirable (aka: expensive on the used market). Until the CLK cabriolet, the 300E cabriolet was the only 4-seater Mercedes convertible since the 1960’s. The 1993 300E and 1994-95 E320 all had the 3.2L 24-valve engine; they can be excellent cars for a modest price. The 400E / E420 can be nice too, but make sure to get a stiffer suspension and bigger tires. I think that the 500E / E500 is hard to justify the $22k for a car that, by todays guzzling standards, isn’t really all that fast anymore.

  • avatar

    Man, the more you write about this stuff the more I shake my head.

    Doppelgaenger comes to mind. :-)

  • avatar
    Bill E. Bobb

    This was one of the first “24 Hz Chassis” vehicles; hydroformed chassis rails made the unibody incredibly stiff…part of why the 124 was so groundbreaking for the time.

  • avatar

    Oops. I forgot the most significant feature of the “uniwiper”: it was mounted on an eccentric cam-driven pivot so that it extended as it swept past the far corners of the windshield and then retracted as it neared the center. The result was that it covered an amazingly-large amount of the windshied–probably more than most 2-wiper systems. If you watch the end part of the blade nearest the pivot, you can see that it moves in a rounded-corner square pattern instead of a semicircle.

  • avatar

    The single wiper cleaned 85% of the windshield,one drawback the wiper blade would easely ice up in winter and not wipe so good.

    For all their qualities, 124’s had miserable traction in winter(on snow), until the 4 Matics came along.

    400E’s has a 2.27 rear axle ratio, the car would do 200 kph in 3rd gear.

    500E’s were an SL platform with a 124 body(flared front fenders and quarters), assembled by Porsche at the time.

    At one time there was a Sportline option on 300E’s with a lowered suspension, and console in the back seat. There were also 300CE coupes, the convertibles were quite expensive at the time.

    The latter versions with the 3.2L DOHC engine were an improvement in the “power department”.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    God, I’ve had nearly a dozen W124’s over the last few years. From a 1995 diesel to a very long list of 300TE’s. When it comes to winding roads and long-distance commuting, there are few vehicles from that era that can touch them. In short, the W124’s were fun to drive, safe, technologically advanced, and had an absolutely bulletproof powertrain.

    The W124’s still represent the only vehicle I would use as a daily driver from that era… with the exception of the 1st generation Lexus SC400. Another great car that was over-engineered due to the culture of the company. However the Mercedes is a lot more economical to drive than the Lexus. In fact replacement parts for the Mercedes can be cheaper than those for a Camry or Accord of that time depending on your model year and options. This is one of the main reasons I try to stick with pre-93 models.

    Right now I have a 77 350SE (bought for $250) and a 93 W124 Wagon (bought for $2500) that I’m trying to balance off in my mind. The former would be great with a few modifications, while the later may become a mixed bag due to the weaknesses of that model year. Before this I bought a 1992 W124 sedan in Silver for $800 (not a typo) that just needed new brakes. Everything worked! Even the PITA climate control that was inspired by the 7th circle of hell still worked fine.

    Thanks again for the write-up. Let me know if you’re ever in Atlanta.

  • avatar
    The Flexible Despot

    Great article, as ususal, Mr. Niedermeyer.

    My daily driver is a 1995 E320, with 110,000 miles on the odometer. I’ve had it for about 2 years. Love that W124 chassis and body style. I have never had a car that tracks as well straight down the road. It makes high speed interstate driving very enjoyable.

    I doubt I will ever sell it. There is no telling how many miles it can eventually go. It is a great used car bargain, if it has been properly maintained. No timing belt to deal with either, which is nice.

  • avatar

    I owned an 89 260E W124. I consider the mid year W124’s to be the closest thing to automotive perfection on the planet.

    The car was perfect in every way. Just the right size, excellent power, fun to drive, fast, safe, sexy, and conservative at the same time. MB ruined them in the later years when they removed the glove box for a passenger air bag and replaced stuck a bad excuse for a glove box between the front seats. It handled beautifully in all weather and road conditions. I would drive that thing off road on camping trips and would be fine (talk about strange looks from fellow campers in 4WD pickups when they see me drive up the dirt road in a dark gray W124 with all my camping gear in the trunk)

    My now ex-wife has the old W124 now. She demanded that she get to keep it. Oh well. I would love to buy another one!

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