By on May 22, 2013

rs2500e

I must start today’s article with an announcement: this is a big day. That’s because today is, in fact, my birthday. To celebrate, I will take a rare day off from writing a story of great importance to everyone, like the one about that woman crashing her Highlander into a house.

Instead, I believe I’m entitled to one story of intensely detailed automotive history that will be appreciated by approximately nine people, all of whom will quickly correct minor details I’ve gotten wrong. Of course, being a Millennial, I also believe I’m entitled to a lot more than that, but I will address those concerns on my tumblr.

Anyway, today’s subject is one of my favorite automotive topics of all time: incredibly obscure cars from the 1990s. I enjoy this topic almost as much as I enjoy walking up to people at Cars and Coffee and starting sentences with: “When I had an E63 AMG wagon…”

The obscure cars in question were manufactured by Porsche. But they aren’t sports cars, or even ungainly SUVs with frog headlights. Instead, they’re the Audi RS2 and Mercedes-Benz 500E. If you’re with me this far, I implore you to read on. If not, see if I get you anything for your birthday.

Some History

Let’s start with a little background. As I’ve written before, Porsche was in dire straits in the late 1980s. That’s because their product portfolio largely consisted of old cars: there was the 911, which came out decades earlier, the 928, which felt like it came out decades earlier, and the 944, based on the 924, which was initially developed decades earlier … as a Volkswagen.

To put it in perspective, here’s an interesting statistic: Porsche sold more cars last month than they did in the entirety of 1993. In other words, Porsche in the early 1990s probably felt a lot like Lotus today: you were just waiting for the moment where they would announce it had been sold to a much larger automaker, who would invest a lot of money in bastardizing the brand name.

The RS2

rs22

In order to round up some extra cash, Porsche drew some inspiration from the teenager who mows your lawn and began taking on side projects. The first was an Audi station wagon called the RS2.

Here’s what’s important about the RS2: it is the single coolest vehicle ever produced. I base this highly factual statement on two important qualities. First, it shares its wheels and mirrors with the Porsche 964, and its brake calipers say “PORSCHE.” This makes it immensely cool. Number two: it is not currently available in the US. This makes it stratospherically cool. For proof, just ask anyone who likes the R34 GT-R.

Seriously, the RS2 was a neat car. To create it, Porsche and Audi took an Audi 80 Avant, chosen because it was the most boring car they could find, and dropped in Audi’s 2.2-liter turbocharged five-cylinder, which made 311 horsepower. The result was the birth of the hot station wagon, which is something that we car enthusiasts endlessly talk about today, but would never actually buy. (Except, of course, for me. I had an E63 AMG wagon. Just ask the people at my local Cars and Coffee).

Of course, a sporty station wagon wasn’t enough to save Porsche, which is why they took on a second side project, like when the kid who mows your lawn offers to shovel your snow. (Or, if you’re in the south, when he offers to rake your leaves. Or, if you’re in Arizona, when he offers to kill your scorpions). That brings us to…

The 500E

rs23

The 500E was a rear-wheel drive Mercedes sedan based on the W124 E-Class. But it wasn’t a typical E-Class: instead, it had an enormous V8 under the hood.

Of course, when I say “enormous,” I mean five liters and roughly 300 horsepower. But you have to remember that, back then, the competing M5 had a six-cylinder and Cadillac’s “performance” model was a 200-horsepower convertible that they inexplicably built in Italy. As a result, the 500E was very cool.

The 500E was also very cool because, once again, Porsche built it. Actually, that isn’t strictly true: Mercedes built it, then transported everything to Porsche’s factory where the workers were sitting around, presumably contemplating striking, because that’s what you do in Europe. Then they assembled everything and sent it back to Mercedes.

Every 500E was left-hand drive, and every 500E had only four Recaro bucket seats. Every 500E was also tremendously fun to drive. I know this because I actually owned a one-owner, 72,000-mile 500E, which I purchased from a Fiat dealer in 2011 for $10,000. I only had it a month before I got a much higher offer from someone in Ohio. To date, after owning more than a dozen cars, it’s the only one I really miss.

After the 500E

The 500E and RS2 may not have been enough to save Porsche, but they certainly kept the brand afloat. Of course, we all know what happened next: The 500E helped jumpstart the “fast sedan” game that continues to this day. Porsche gave us the Panamera, whose best quality is that you don’t have to look at it when you’re driving it.

And the RS2 faded into automotive obscurity, unless you’re me, who actively counts down the days until it becomes legal to import. Now that will be a happy birthday.

Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.

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78 Comments on “When Porsche Built an Audi and a Mercedes...”


  • avatar
    DeadWeight

    Let me juuuust drop a little conversation piece here:

    http://members.rennlist.com/914_canam/zCanAmBumblebee.jpg

    Happy Birthday, Doug.

  • avatar
    nine11c2

    they did a good part of the V-Rod Harley-Davidson as well.

    • 0 avatar
      porschespeed

      That was ‘Engineering’ and sadly they were unable to convince the r-tards at HD to ditch the 315/405 firing order on an inline crank that *everybody* abandoned by 1930.

      ‘Natch only “special” people would ever buy a Harley.

      (And by “special” I very much 100% mean riders of the short bus.)

  • avatar
    dswilly

    Doug you would probably know if this was/is true, but I remember a rumor that Porsche made more money doing R & D for others than they did on their own cars.

    • 0 avatar

      Back then – certainly possible. Considering how much margin is in each car, that’s obviously not the case these days!

      I once spoke to an engineer on the 500E project through a co-worker, who heavily implied that without 500E (and to a lesser degree, RS2), the company really would’ve been facing serious problems and possibly buyout.

      Of course, 20 years later…

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Among other things, Porsche is said to have designed the transverse I6 in the Daewoo Magnus. So, head on down to your local BHPH lot for a Suzuki Verona, slap on too many Porsche badges, and amaze everyone at Cars & Coffee.

    • 0 avatar
      JuniperBug

      Don’t forget the suspension development work they did for the first gen Hyundai Tiburon, proudly proclaimed from that car’s rocker panels.

    • 0 avatar
      Onus

      They helped design the Lada Samara.

      • 0 avatar
        Synchromesh

        They did help design the Lada Samara, which is preposterous. What the hell did Porsche know about small mass-produced economical fwd hatchbacks in the 1980s? It’s like asking Lotus to design the Mercedes S-klasse.

        • 0 avatar
          porschespeed

          Porsche Engineering is a different division. Yes, same parent, but a very different child.

        • 0 avatar
          Jacob

          Why would any company that was an expert in designing and selling small FWD cars want to help Lada? For the most part Lada cars of that time were crap (as they are today), but Lada had a dealer network in pretty much every western European country. If you helped Lada, you’d be helping a competitor. Porsche wouldn’t need to worry about that.

          Speaking of which, I believe I heard that Ford’s original V6 3.0 and 2.5L DOHC Duratec engines were tuned by Porsche, and it really shows. I have had a 99 Ford Taurus for a decade. The car basically fell apart: transmission, suspension, etc. Everything except the 3.0L DOHC engine. The engine consumed no oil, purred like a kitten, and pulled strongly with near 100,000 miles on clock, with nothing but oil changes in terms of maintenance. This was one of Ford’s most under-appreciated engines. Except for the short lived Contour SVT with 2.5L Duratec, they didn’t really put the V6 Duratecs into any driver oriented car (Granted, I am not sure if the V6 in the current Mustang is based on Duratec, or a clean design. In any case the 3.5L V6 would have been an ultra-deep major revision of the original 3.0). I heard somewhere that Porsche tuned Duratec actually had more power, but Ford’s bean counters detuned it as usual.

  • avatar
    Brendan McAleer

    There are several RS2s in Canada. I also saw a green 500E not that long ago – you spot them immediately for the wide fender-flares.

    By the way, here’s a little more info here as I did a tiny bit of research when I wrote these two up elsewhere – those are 968 CS brakes on the RS2, as well as the 964 signal lights, and it has a solid red bar on the rear hatch to also mimic the 911.

    Cramming the V8 and sorting the suspension was left to Porsche to engineer – M-B had strict instructions as to what was allowed, but Porsche helped with the how. The cars actually shuttled back and forth between the factories like so: MB – to Porsche for flares, etc. – back to M-B for paint – back to Porsche for final assembly.

    I have a photo somewhere of a line of RS2s parked next to 500Es in the factory: there was overlap between the two. It’s also worth noting that the cars were produced at the same factory as the 959 – the 500E started development in ’89, just as the last 959s were coming off.

    • 0 avatar

      Jeez – if you find that photo I’d love love love to see it.

      Here’s another fun fact (and yours were very welcome, although I confess to having already known them but VERY little else, except I never realized they were ACTUALLY Porsche brakes) – the RS2 had the “PORSCHE” script on its little red Audi “S” emblem, like so:

      http://www.kato-unitrack.co.uk/images/audi/rs2-red-backgrnd.jpg

      Same building as the 959 indeed. The building is still there in Zuffenhausen.

      • 0 avatar
        Brendan McAleer

        I love the “powered by Porsche” on the header too.

        Here’s a great interview with a semi-local owner. Guy has a fantastic car history.

        http://motoringconbrio.com/2011/10/07/guest-contributor-dave-tenbroek-on-his-audi-rs2-avant/

        • 0 avatar

          Tremendous. Really appreciate it. There is absolutely 100% no car that I am more jealous of, save for possibly a 993 Turbo or a Carrera GT. I would happily buy this thing from him the moment it turns 25, but it seems he won’t be selling!

          • 0 avatar
            suspekt

            I must say, the 993 Turbo is one of the most beautiful cars every built… I dont think any 911 before or after has looked as good…. what a beautiful peice of art, nevermind the performance

          • 0 avatar
            Brendan McAleer

            I should email him and see if I can drive it sometime. I do know a guy with a 911 Turbo 3.6 too…

          • 0 avatar

            Hell – e-mail him and see if *I* can drive it sometime! Not as much of a fan of the Turbo 3.6 – I always preferred the 993. Not that I would turn one down!

            I briefly had a 996 TT – I actually loved that car, weird headlights and all. Funny thing is it was much faster than the 993 TT but cost about half as much. Of course, it didn’t kill bugs fast.

        • 0 avatar
          corntrollio

          Thanks for the article, Brendan. I too have an RS2 dream, like Mr. DeMuro.

    • 0 avatar
      BobAsh

      Cramming the V8 wasn’t left to Porsche, and I wouldn’t even use the word “cramming” – that would suggest that making 500E required some modifications or that it was hard to get engine in there.

      Which it sort of was, compared to I6 models (which is also why the V8 swap in the CE model is not very straightforward), but certainly wasn’t compared to 400E model, made solely by Meredes, which used the same M119 block.

      By the way, even the engine itself is not substiantially different to the one in the quite common 500SE W140, making the W124 500E unique only by its suspension bits, bodywork, interior (sort of) etc.

      One day, I will build a 500CE.

  • avatar
    nutbags

    Happy Birthday Doug! Those would be two nice presents if they appeared in my driveway, one can wish, right.

  • avatar
    philadlj

    Man would it have been funny if Porsche had also been responsible for the ’82 Accord, ’84 Caravan, and ’91 Explorer. Like it just flitted from one automaker to another building winners.

  • avatar
    swilliams41

    There was a dealer in Arlington Texas a few years back who specialised in moving german iron, mostly VW’s. He had a black 500E like this for 10k and I almost bit. Bought a GLI instead, no regrets. My son, who drives a GTI, tell’s me the Houston Cars and Coffee blows his mind. I have to get down there to attend.

    What current cars fit this built by somebody else bill?

  • avatar
    vaujot

    I think back in the day both projects were partly given to Porsche to keep them afloat. I understand both Daimler-Benz and Audi/Volkswagen Group were worried that Porsche might go bankrupt and didn’t want that to happen.

    • 0 avatar

      To this day, in the office, there was still a camaraderie towards MB under the theory that ‘they saved us with the 500E.’ More than one person brought this up on more than one occasion.

      • 0 avatar
        porschespeed

        ‘Porsche Engineering’ ain’t Porsche ‘car builders’. Same company, but not really. The constant blending of the two entities speaks volumes.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    As a fast wagon lover/owner and former Audi owner I am a bit conflicted by the RS2. On one hand, YEAH! WAGON! and on the other Audi??? Run awaaaaay!!! But 300+ hp from that time period? Startling.

    Does the Merc suffer from the dreaded biodegradable wiring? I’m not up to speed on when that was going on, but any time I see a mid 80s-early 90s Benz I always think about that and what a nightmare it would be.

    Happy birthday, man. I didn’t realize you are a millennial… way to make a guy feel old.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      The wiring issue is pretty much an early ’90s thing. It is not THAT big a deal to replace the engine harness. Volvo and Saab had the same issue earlier, Early-mid ’80s for them. Easy and fairly cheap to fix on a Volvo, total nightmare on a Saab 900 – BTDT, got the t-shirt.

      The Porsche museum has a great display of all the various things that Porsche has consulted on. Including these two cars of course. There are even Porsche Design artificial legs! Of course all of that absolutely pales in comparison to what ELSE is floating around that museum. A well-spent morning in Stuttgart!

      • 0 avatar

        Sadly as the displays at the museum rotate, these cars are no longer there (or at least they weren’t as of my last visit in 12/2012). Obviously they’re still in the collection but not there at the moment. And let’s be honest: a visit to the Porsche museum (or MB museum) is the ONLY well-spent morning in Stuttgart!! (Unless you’re at the airport waiting for a flight south!)

        • 0 avatar
          krhodes1

          That’s too bad, I was there 8/2011, and they had ALL of the cars that Porsche had a hand in on display, including the Lada.

          As I was picking up my BMW in Munich the day before, the nice gal who was my presenter asked us where we were going. I replied “Stuttgart”. She got a funny look on her face and said “You should stay in Munich, Stuttgart is not very nice”. Can’t say she was wrong about that as far as the city itself, but the Porsche museum in the morning and the MB museum the rest of the day was a fine way to spend time. The Porsche museum is cool and all, but the Mercedes museum is simply spectacular!

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah – the 300hp must’ve been wild. As you mention, we’re talking 1990… the M3 had 215hp! Can’t imagine meeting an RS2 on the road back then.

      My 500E had no wiring issues at all. No really issues of any kind to speak of, save for a few of neglect by the previous (elderly) owner. I’ve never owned a car that felt so solid, my current Range Rover included.

      Thanks for the birthday wishes! This will be one of the last few where I can pull off making anyone feel old…

      • 0 avatar
        porschespeed

        Oooh. 300 HP in 1990? Be still my snoring heart….

        928 Euro had ~330HP in 1983. My 500SEL Euro grey-market had 300HP. Even 928 US Spec had 300+ by 1985.

        I flipped a 500E years ago and it was a nice car. But it felt small and heavy compared to my Euro W126s.

      • 0 avatar
        ronev

        Doug, totally agree on the solid feel of the 500E….never had another car like it. I did have to have the engine wiring harness replaced, however. The 500E is just magnificent.

        My other car is a 2011 Lotus Evora and, depending on number of passengers, it is literally a coin-toss on which car to take on road trips!

  • avatar
    jpolicke

    Happy Birthday, Doug!

  • avatar
    becauseCAR

    This is an excellent car history article. Keep them coming.

    I want to hear your take on how Porsche decided on building the Boxster, the car that actually saved them (and a car mostly driven by semi-retired baby boomers).

    Happy birthday!

  • avatar
    Ratsnake

    Around this time Porsche also consulted on the Volvo Modular Engine. Of course, I’d rather have a 500e.

  • avatar
    Numbers_Matching

    Had a ride in a 500E back in the day that I will never forget. This one is on my short list.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Happy Birthday Doug! The 500E and RS2 were as desirable to me twenty years ago as the Panamera isn’t today. I blame reunification. Germany seems to be exactly where Detroit was in 1958.

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    Happy Birthday mate.

    Can’t be bothered with the RS2, but I’d love to drive a 500E. I am also with you on the 993.

    Regarding this: “…This makes it stratospherically cool. For proof, just ask anyone who likes the R34 GT-R…”

    If said R34 is in good condition, they look great (and sound beautiful with the proper fart can). 2dr Turbo RWD models are alright, but they usually lack the visual candy of Godzilla. Pedestrian, non turbo models are horrible and not cool at all.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for the birthday wishes. Totally love the R34 GT-R by the way – just taking a shot at all those who think cars are only cool if they’re unobtanium. Why aren’t you into the RS2?! It goes hand in hand with the others…

      • 0 avatar
        Athos Nobile

        The R34 GT-R is beautiful in part because it looks the part. Although I guess it is a good car, you would not buy a regular Skyline because the thing is VERY stodgy looking (you would have to be a very dedicated otaku to… still wouldn’t). But with the bulges, headlamps, facias and so on, they really made the R stand. You could get one here, $35K may net you a decent one. If you fancy an Evo VII TME you can have that here too.

        Regarding the RS2… it is an obscure car to me, and you have to agree with me that Audi has made bigger/better monsters after that: RS4 and RS6 Avants for example. That car just does not resonate with me.

        Unobtanium per se doesn’t make a car cool. Other than maybe Derek, I can’t really see people lusting over a manual Peugeot 308 HDi SW. Google it and you’ll see why.

  • avatar
    Wheeljack

    If memory serves, Ford proudly touted that Porsche helped with some of the development of the 2.5-liter V-6 that launched in the Contour/Mystique/Mondeo back in 1994 as a 1995 model.

  • avatar
    VenomV12

    My dad had a 500E, to this day still one of the greatest cars we have ever owned. They still look great today also. Used to beat unsuspecting Corvettes off the line all the time. One of his colleagues still has his, original owner and his wife drives it every single day. An NBA player in town had one too, but he trashed it putting in a whole bunch of custom stereo stuff and it was never right after that.

    The 500E and the 850CSi are two cars that I will probably buy again one day when I finally start some sort of collection.

    Happy birthday Doug.

  • avatar
    jmo

    I love this post!!

    It’s exactly the editorial tone I’m looking for. It has a honest enthusiasm for cars and their various permutations.

    In contrast to the bitter “grr, get off my lawn” schtick of other TTAC writers.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY DOUG ! .

    May there be plenty more yet to come .

    Nice article , this sort of topic is why I enjoy TTAC so much .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Illan

    “Instead, I believe I’m entitled to one story of intensely detailed automotive history that will be appreciated by approximately nine people”

    Make that 10 people. i really enjoyed the article and i love learning something new in the automotive world.

    and happy birthday dude!

  • avatar
    Speedster356

    Just google Seat Ibiza Porsche!

    Happy B-day Doug!

  • avatar
    AFX

    “I’m entitled to one story of intensely detailed automotive history that will be appreciated by approximately nine people, all of whom will quickly correct minor details I’ve gotten wrong. Of course, being a Millennial, I also believe I’m entitled to a lot more than that”

    I can see it now……”Ignorance Was Expected- The History Of Porsche” by Doug DeMuro.

    I love Doug’s articles, especially since he’s a Millennial, of all the people that I would’ve thought would bail for Jalopnik it’d be him. Whenever I read his articles I get visions of LOL Cats and balloon captions, and the feeling that his research was based on the car model overviews from Gran Turismo. I guess the “Olden Days” to his generation was anything from the 1980’s, or basically anything before the invention of the PS1.

    I’m suprised, or more accurately absolutely SHOCKED, to learn that Porsche collaberated with Mercedes and Audi to help build cars for them, especially seeing as how ol’ Ferdinad was once the technical director for Daimler-Benz, and he created the grand prix cars for Auto Union.

    P.S. I’m still waiting fot that “one story of intensely detailed automotive history”, when can we expect for that to appear here ?. LOL !.

  • avatar
    FAHRVERGNUGEN

    Cross-pollination at its best. I recall many years ago articles on a fellow who had a 928 with an ugly body sitting around, and he hatched the idea to have a custom GTI body built around it. Widened and lengthened the body to fit, built ‘custom’ interior using 928 parts, etc. Hardest was getting the glass right. He ‘thrilled’ at flipping the high beams at ‘real’ Porsches on the A-bahn and blowing by them with his FauVee.
    The dreams only cash can conquer.

  • avatar
    mcarr

    Also, around this same time, Porsche tried putting their Carrera 3.2 engine in a Mooney M20. Spent millions of dollars engineering their engine for light aircraft duty and totally lost their shirt in the deal.

    I remember wanting a 500E when they came out. The RS2 was cool, but not as desirable to me at the time. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  • avatar
    doud1987

    Thanks for this great article Doug!

    I too can’t wait for the RS2 to be 25 years old to import it in the US.
    Some tried to import it under the “show and display” rule, but the NHTSA did not consider it rare and significant enough, and it is now on their black list for show and display…

    I grew up in France where a friend of the family had one on the French Riviera and was a “spirited” driver. I have great memories being in the back seat while he was racing another friend in a Audi S3 on twisty roads. The turbo kicks in at 3500rpm and gives you a big kick in the ass, then the 5-banger roars until the redline at 7000 rpm (or more, there is no rev limiter..), then the dump valve (stock) whistles like in a rally car when you shift up. What a car!

    If you don’t have the patience you can built a sort of replica based on an Audi 80/90, by swapping a 2.2L AAN engine from a urs4/urs6 and tuning it up to around 310hp with a bigger turbo and ECU remapping. Those engines are overbuilt.

    According to the Wikipedia page of the RS2, it’s the RS2 that replaced the 500E:
    “Although much of the car’s underpinnings were manufactured by Audi, assembly was handled by Porsche at their Rossle-Bau plant in Zuffenhausen, Germany, which had become available after discontinuation of the Mercedes-Benz 500E, which Porsche had manufactured there under contract.”
    It makes sense since the 500E was sold from 91 to 94, and the RS2 from 94 to 95.

    • 0 avatar

      I was SO sad when, years ago, I checked the Show & Display list to discover it was expressly forbidden.

      The problem with building a replica is that they didn’t even sell the 80/90 Avant in the States. So even if you did everything right, you’d still have to base it on a sedan or that Quattro Coupe we got for a few years in about 90-91ish.

      RS2 was after the 500E, but I actually think they may have overlapped by a bit. Brendan’s reference to his photo of the cars together at Zuffenhausen probably confirms that. It’s said but in 1993ish, the best cars coming out of Zuffenhausen probably had four rings or a three-pointed star on them!

  • avatar
    jimbob457

    Took the wife’s 996 cabrio in for routine service yesterday and discovered that the little fellow is built like the proverbial brick shithouse. The rear tires are a foot wide. The brakes are enormous. Internet search shows about 1000 of these little 996 beasties are currently listed for sale, mostly in Germany.

    Its oddly low market price as a used car seems unrelated to any sort of quality problem that I can detect. Our example has 94K miles and seems almost new. Have I unwittingly fallen into the honey hole? Or is there some disaster lurking right around the corner?

    • 0 avatar

      On the 996? Do a search for “IMS” or “Intermediate shaft.” You’ve been warned! :)

      • 0 avatar
        jimbob457

        Thanks for the info. Our Porsche mechanic just retired, so I am having to take an active interest in the care and feeding of the wife’s car. Following your instructions, I located a lengthy how-to-do-it video on the offending bearing. Sounds like some preventive maintenance might be in order as soon as I can find another Porsche mechanic.

        • 0 avatar

          Absolutely. With preventative maintenance, all will be well. You don’t want to be stuck having NOT done it when the engine grenades.

          • 0 avatar
            jimbob457

            Any reliable data on the IMS lifetime failure rate for the 996? I have seen numbers as low as 5% and as high as 10%. Since you have been a Porsche executive, I was hoping you might know something others don’t.

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