Calling someone a guru in 2020 might seem a bit sixties, but when it comes to Mercedes W124s, it's probably the only word for Nick Froome. I was going to say that he’s forgotten more W124 lore than we’ll ever know, except that Nick comes across as the sort of bloke who doesn’t forget much.
These days I have a job to remember why I’ve just walked from the kitchen to the living room, but I have no difficulty remembering a W124 press launch in the mid-1980s and the impression of engineering superiority they exuded. 25 years later, the appeal of the W124 as a sustainable motoring solution was unchanged for me. So was my feeling that I would never actually own one, because good ones have never been cheap. For all these reasons, when the opportunity came up last year to buy one at a silly price from a trusted fellow Luddite, I practically ripped his hand off.
The car in question is an E300TE 3.0 multivalve diesel estate from April 1996, which you may recognise from PH’s recent underbody rust protection story here. This is one of the last estates to be built before the W124 line was finally shut down in June ’96. By that time, the 124's successor (the W210 E-Class) had been on sale for a year. Model overlap was OK in those days. It suited those traditional Mercedes buyers who weren’t keen on change.
With luck I'll be given a further instalment to ramble on a bit more about the history of my car, and about what's been done to it during my ownership. This time however I would like to concentrate most of my rambling on Nick Froome.
If you've ever tuned into a W124 thread anywhere, there's a fair chance that Nick will be on there dishing out useful knowledge. For anyone with an eye on a W124, Nick is most definitely one of the guys you want to be calling. Not so much to buy from anymore – we'll get into that later – but as a source of expert advice.
How did he get into 124s? After ten years or so putting together desktop publishing setups, he was looking for a new challenge. He says: “I was always interested in cars. When a friend asked me for some advice on a safe new car for his wife, who had managed to spin her BMW convertible into someone’s garden, I told him to buy a Merc W124 estate. I’d learnt a fair bit about them by then.
“He thought it was a good idea, so we went to look at a car, an ’86 250TD, the five-cylinder non-turbo one. He bought it for her, but she hated it, so I ended up buying it off her. I had that car for 12 years.
“I told another guy who had done some work on my BMW 2002 that I fancied buying and selling a few classic cars. He said not to do classic cars, they're a nightmare, do what you know, and you know about Mercedes. I remember looking at him and thinking that made sense.”
It was only a day later that Nick saw an advert for a brown W124 300TE in west Sussex, which he promptly went to see, although things didn’t exactly go to plan… He says: “On the way over we saw another 124 with a piece of paper stuck in the window. We screeched to a halt, I ran in, bought the car, and we carried on to the brown one, which I also bought. So on the first day of my new W124 career I had two cars to sell.
“People started ringing me up about 124s. I started buying cars, but incredibly carefully. There was a limit on the number of cars I could prep simultaneously to the level I wanted, which was probably too high. I would have three or four cars maximum, of which two would be ready to go.
“At one point I was doing about one W124 a month. If someone said they wanted an Azurite Blue 280, I’d say what interior did you want? I started a website, W124.co.uk, which is still going. I never advertised. I concentrated hard on getting the photography of my cars on point.
“Over time, though, the supply of good cars dropped like a stone. For me it went down to two a year and then to zero. There are more cars in Germany but the mileages are enormous.”
As such, the focus has changed. Now, for £250 plus travelling exes, Nick will give the car you're thinking of buying an in-depth inspection followed by a comprehensive rundown on what needs doing. Unless you’ve somehow magicked up a fully restored W124 at affordable money, there will be stuff that needs doing.
Some readers might consider anything with more than 100,000 miles on the clock fit only for the knacker’s yard, but a W124 powered by the famed OM606 3.0 24-valve straight six diesel is considered to be still 'running in' at twice that mileage.
In the 910 variant of the OM606 that was fitted to the late W124 E300s and the early W210 successors, the princely maximum power of 134hp (yes, really) was produced between 4,600 and 5,000rpm, with maximum torque of 155lb ft between 2,200 and 4,600rpm. These power numbers sound madly small for a 3.0 engine, and the revs sound madly large for a big old oil burner. But somehow it all seems to work. The way an E300TE gathers speed, or momentum at least, is almost spooky. There's no lazy Berlin taxi rattle. Instead, it’s revvy and light-feeling, even by modern big diesel standards. Once an OM606 gets into its motorway stride it will mooch along in a spritely fashion all day with no apparent effort, while returning fuel consumption figures in the mid-30s. Nick says Mercedes geared it to “absolutely hit the power peak at around 81mph”.
By OM606 standards, my ’96 E300 is a mere nipper at 132,000 miles. Have a look at R129SL's W124 thread here. His 300 estate has just tripped over the 400,000-mile mark. Admittedly, he's spent a hell of a lot of time and money on it over the years, but he's happy to do it because he gets all the pleasures of W124 estate motoring in return. To quote Nick's website, “there is no other car that combines luxury, load-carrying capacity, durability and excellent ride quality as well as a W124 estate… bought carefully, and maintained by the right people, they are inexpensive to run, particularly over a long period”.
I didn't buy mine very carefully, and only time will tell if I'm one of the “right people” to maintain it, but getting on for a year into my stewardship I can honestly say that I've never begrudged a car's demands less than I have this one. At the moment it feels like every pound spent is an investment rather than a necessary expense that I might have to repeat in a year's time. Almost every week I find something new in the car, some thoughtful piece of design or tiny detail that makes me wonder whether the advances we have seen in recent years really represent true progress.
“These cars can be terrifyingly fast on roads like this because you just don't lift,” say Nick, while bowling along in my car on his Sussex Downs test route. “The 300 diesel is weird because it’s very, very soft, but the softness really works. If you absolutely push it along an A-road or a very well sighted roundabout you can start to make things slide around a bit. The front end is a bit like an original Range Rover. When you’re cornering in one of those, the first bit of turn you do, the nose tilts. Once the nose is tilted, you can wind on a bit more lock and follow it. These Mercs are exactly the same because the front end is soft. Once the front end has taken a set, it will follow – although the six-cylinders do need a little more pre-warning than the lighter fours.
Nick explains that the standard front wishbones have a pair of big bushes bushes on each side that can break up over time. This causes the wishbones to tilt under load and upsets front end performance, so replacing them with new ones can “transform the car”. Nick reckons my W124 “drives OK”, but “no better than that”. He says a drive in a prepped car of his would immediately show “what they should be like”.
Although no doubt old technology, W124 TEs have a nitrogen-filled sphere-based self-levelling setup that works brilliantly even by modern standards, as long as the system is in good shape. When they fail – which Nick says they often do these days – that there are a couple of different failure modes. One causes the back end to “go incredibly high and rock-hard”, while the other sends the “ride quality off bit off”. Nick decides the latter is a likely scenario in my car.
With no major noise, sagging, jacking or any other obvious issues, and my memories of the launch not being strong enough to remind me of how a new one should ride, that wasn’t something I'd noticed particularly. But Nick says most people wouldn’t “if you're not in them every day”. When you get it right, he says the ride is like a magic carpet.
“The things that fail on these cars are all the rubber bits,” continues Nick. “Top mounts, anti-roll bar bushes, rear subframe bushes, they go soft and break up. I used to replace them all the time. If the ARB bushes haven't been done, do them front and rear. They used to be about eight quid each. And do the drop links on the rear. Every single diesel I’ve bought over the last six to seven years has needed new engine mounts, too. They’re fluid-filled, and when they lose their fluid they just collapse.”
Back at Nick’s lockup in Brighton we popped the bonnet – a fabulous design that allows the bonnet to be tipped right back at a 90 degree ‘inspection’ angle to give full access to the oily bits. Nick went straight to the front strut top mounts, where he found the nearside one to be in a very tatty state. One job of a strut mount is to insulate the strut from the vehicle, preventing noise and vibration from entering the cabin. It also holds the spring in place. All the front-end weight of a vehicle is on the spring and the strut mount, and that’s a considerable amount on a Merc 3.0 diesel. The central bearing of a strut mount also acts as a steering pivot. If the bearing is seized the spring will start to twist under steering inputs.
Based on Nick's advice and after scouring through the draughtier regions of my purse I had the front ARB bushes done at the same time as the strut top mounts. Although the car is now driving well, new engine and gearbox mounts are next up as part of the long-term plan to get the TE up to spec. The worn ones can be seen to let the engine briefly rock when it’s started or stopped.
I ask Nick what his favourite W124 is, to which he says “the 300 diesel multivalve estate”, because the engine’s “revviness makes it a lot more fun than the old diesels” and a “great thing to drive”. But he also recommends the E220 and E280 estates, and 320 – although the latter’s use of fixed ball joints in the front mean worn ones require entirely new wishbones at £250 a pop. Better still, bolts rust solid so you’re looking at a £1,000 job with oxyacetylene. It’s a tenth the cost for a simpler job on the 280, hence Nick’s love for the lesser car.
Any duffers? Nick nominates the E36, of which he reckons there are only about “seven right-hand-drive estates in the UK”. But despite the allure of rarity, Nick says they’re “just an E320 with a little bit more power and torque and about seventeen times the likelihood of blowing a head gasket”. Not one for those on a budget, then.
Nick’s considered building his own perfect W124, going back to a “bare metal respray, putting some sound deadening in, all new suspension, leather, paint, just make it really nice”. He estimates it’d cost about £25-£30k, but that he doesn’t see a market for it as “nobody’s going to want to pay retail on it, which would have to be £45-£50k to cover your time and effort. But if I put a stupid engine in it and priced it at £120k, people would probably be queuing up”.
Investing in a classic is one thing. Spending many times more than the cost price of a daily just on keeping it going and protecting it against the future may seem a bit mad, but for me it's all about perception and commitment. I'm seeing the W124 as a rebuildable car that does everything I want it to and that, treated right, could see me out. Having come to that conclusion, it's then just a case of sticking with it. Once the process is started, the really mad thing would be stopping it. Right now I have no intention of doing that – and knowing that people like Nick Froome are on the scene certainly helps.