Right, it's time for something stoic and dependable. And apart from a Routemaster or an FX4 cab, do they come more stoic and dependable than a Mercedes W124? I was specifically drawn to this one at Hankins because it mirrors the very car I used to own. In fact, it's such a twin of my old beast that I had to check the number plate, to make sure it wasn't actually my old car. It isn't. But anyway, let's crack on.
Now, these days my love of classic Mercedes' runs marrow-deep, but this wasn't always the case. The old Stuttgart produce never really featured on my radar because I was always into BMWs - growing up they were sporty and dynamic, whereas Mercedes' seemed just a wee bit sober. My mate Ian, though, whom I worked with when I was in my twenties selling Bentleys and Roll-Royces, was a proper Mercophile. Oh my god, he wouldn't shut up about the things. He'd owned many, including W123s and a 190E, and his drip-drip, water-torture enthusiasm was starting to wear me down. At the time I was smoking an E34 525i manual, which I'd bought on the promise of pin-sharp handling and electrifying performance. Now, I liked the 5 Series, but a year into our union the deep love I'd hoped for just wasn't materialising. It felt heavier and more ponderous than I'd imagined it would, and the engine - while lovely and smooth - lacked a free spirit in the way it revved out.
Anyway, by chance, we traded in a pair of W124s saloons - one, a fetching Sportline in Brilliant Silver with eight-hole alloys, which Ian snapped up, and the other in Blue Black with wheels trims just like this car. It was super-low mileage, completely mint and it had air conditioning, which was a must for me. So with the lever of peer pressure giving me last nudge I needed, I bought it. Boom: I was a Mercedes driver. And the day I drove it home, I thought to myself "What on earth have I done?"
Oh my, it was just such an old fart's car. The steering wheel was from a truck, the seats were hard and flat, the dark burr walnut was the colour of an old man's pipe, and the instrumentation was front lit. Now, this may seem like a small detail to fixate upon, but the last car I'd had with front-lit dials was a Mk2 Cavalier. I'd moved on in life since then, and my E34's dials glowed from behind with a lovely warm orange. This was a huge backward step. Then there was the E220's engine. Okay, my 525i wasn't a free-revver, but it was as silky as a mink's belly. The E220's four-pot was gruff, like the big ends in its belly were shot. I wasn't happy.
Yet here's the thing. The joy of cars is when they get under your skin, right? Seeping through every pore and rewiring your brain via your sole. And this is what the W124 did. Yeah, the steering wheel was the diameter of the O2, but it was still a surprisingly accurate implement when attacking corners and exploiting what was, fundamentally, a well-balanced chassis. It really was. On the low-grip, 195-section tyres you could hurl the big old Merc into a roundabout and find yourself aping Jim Clarke in a Lotus Cortina with a lovely four-wheel drift. I'll whisper this quietly, but it felt lighter and lither than the 525i, and more fun. And some of the joy was because this was a pair of M&S tartan slippers on wheels that had no place going sideways, so when it did it felt like an act of anarchy.
But while the W124 would indulge my imbecilic side, conversely it like a wise uncle that also taught me to slow down. I learned the art of coasting, which hitherto had escaped me. It was what the W124 did best. Its ride was soft and forgiving, its engine had plenty of torque to surf (although nothing like the grunt of the fabulous E320 Coupé's that I followed it up with a few years later), the gearbox was slick when you were trickling along, and those hard, flat seats - well, they were superb. On a long drive they were like a made-to-measure wingback. And sure, it was old fashioned inside, but beneath pipe and slippers was the quality that made Mercedes so revered. The unflappability of everything, from the switches to the surfaces, schooled me in the value a well-engineered car over looks and features. It's a lesson that I still heed today.
I just looked forward to getting in the W123 every morning. The silence of the vacuum-operated central locking; the reassuring thud of its well-oiled the door close. And as I settled into its simple but grand interior, I'd look out to the sign of earth, sea and wind in front of me and think, "Oh man, I own a Mercedes." It felt like a privilege to view the world through a three-pointed star and it meant something real back then. Not in a flashy way, because being a twenty-something fella there was plenty of gauche stuff I could've swapped it for if I'd wanted to stand out. But I didn't. I grew to be happy with stoic, sensible and a wee bit sober. You could argue, then, that the W124 made me a better, more rounded person, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the sign of a truly great car.
Specification | Mercedes E220 (W124)
Engine: 2,199cc, four-cylinder, naturally aspirated
Transmission: 4-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 150 @ 5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 154 @ 4,000rpm
First registered: 1995
Recorded mileage: 59,000
Price new: N/A
Yours for: £6,995
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