• After recently experiencing a low mileage W123 #230E in the December #2014 issue, the opportunity to drive a #W124 version provided a rare comparison test.

    Quality is quality, no matter how unadorned the product might appear to be, and no car surely highlights that better than a Mercedes-Benz of the 1980s, a prime example being the W124 230E seen here. Long before the term ‘poverty spec’ was invented, Mercedes-Benz offered cars that looked basically furnished, came with hardly any equipment as standard, and which hardly impressed in the performance stakes.

    They were also significantly more expensive than all comparable rivals, if indeed anything other than a BMW or Audi could be truly thought of as a rival to the three-pointed star.

    The buying public loved them. In #1989 , the year before this 230E was registered, and the peak year in that era for new car sales in the UK, #Mercedes sold just over 13,000 124-series cars (still then known, rather awkwardly, as the ‘200-300’ range). That exceeded the #190E total by some 2,000 units, and was more than, for example, the total number of #VW #Passats registered.

    Those brought up on modern cars loaded with kit and with plentiful power outputs might struggle to understand how Mercedes got away with it. But demand was so strong that customers waited months for delivery, and after a few years could sell the car on for a healthy proportion of its list price - which had not been discounted by one penny.
    Let’s look at the February #1990 price list, current when this 230E was delivered to its first and only owner. The cheapest 124 was the 200E, with its two-litre fuel injected engine, priced at £19,020. As standard, it had a five-speed manual gearbox, anti lock brakes, central locking and an electrically operated passenger door mirror (the driver’s was manual).

    CHOOSERS CAN BE BEGGARS

    But during your visit to a #Mercedes-Benz dealership to place an order, the salesman would have slid a blue booklet across the desk, showing the 38 factory extras that could be added, ranging from twin illuminated vanity mirrors at £68, to air conditioning at £2,092, and including one or two specialist items such as a tow bar and an engine sump guard.

    You could, provided you were prepared to wait for the factory to build it, order a 200E with every factory option available which, taking account of duplications, totalled 32, generating an extra £ 16,076 on the invoice - but that still wouldn’t get you a radio. Maybe a few customers did this, but in the UK it was common to see the exact opposite, a 200E with absolutely no extras, and the reason was simple. A key threshold in the company car tax regime of the day was a list price of £19,251, and the basic 200E nestled neatly under that - hence its lucky ‘user chooser’ driver paid no more benefit in kind tax than on a humble, 1.6-litre Ford Escort.

    Over the 200E, the 230E came with an electric tilting sunroof and front/rear electric windows. The owner of this car - or perhaps it was the supplying dealer - proceeded beyond the basic specification, but when ticking the options boxes was clearly budget conscious, choosing the four-speed automatic transmission, metallic paint, a leather steering wheel and gearknob, and a wooden console box for cassettes, all of which added just under £1,900. The ‘delivery charge’ of £190 plus VAT brought the price to £23,536, although the dealer supplied Blaupunkt Cambridge SQM39 radio and electric aerial would have upped that further.

    The first owner (a retired airline pilot) recently gave up driving, at which point the 230E passed into the hands of Martyn’s Car Sales in Chertsey, Surrey, where we understand proprietor Martyn Neville is prone to buying in 1970s to 90s Mercedes for resale, but then diverting them to his now considerably sized personal ‘young classic’ collection. However, the 230E - having covered a mere 28,000 miles from new - did appear to be one you could buy, priced at £7,990.

    FLYING HIGH

    It was one of three 124s for sale here, but stood out due to its notably well preserved condition, only a small patch of rust on the front wing preventing the description of ‘pristine’ applying. The Diamond Blue paintwork retains its lustre, and inside, the Mercedes still looks like new.

    The 124-series was launched in early #1985 and stayed in production in Germany until #1995 , after which it was supplied in CKD (‘Completely Knocked Down’) kit form for export fora short period. Saloon production totalled just over 2.2m, long wheelbase saloons and special chassis conversions, estates, coupes and cabriolets swelling this by an additional 524,700.

    Its decade long life saw two facelifts, and this 230E is middle period, from after the barely detectable 1989 update, which introduced lightly revised exterior and interior trim, and before the staged 1992/1993 revisions when engines were changed, the star was moved from the grille to the bonnet, and the bumpers colour coded. Its engine is the 124’s original 2.3-litre four-cylinder, producing 130bhp and 146lb ft torque (1989-on 200E running tax minimisers made do with a not significantly less 116bhp and 127lb ft).

    THE MORE POTENT FOUR-CYLINDER

    Settling into the 230E’s still fresh cloth seats and absorbing the shiny Zebrano wood veneer instantly takes me back to the last time I drove a 124 that felt as youthful as this, in 1988 and the six-cylinder 260E. This involved an excursion onto Pendine Sands in Wales (as recalled in Mercedes Enthusiast April 2006), during which the virtually brand new Mercedes press car was nearly lost to the Atlantic. But Martyn Neville didn't have to worry today because our plan was less ambitious, merely a relaxing drive to remember the way Mercedes used to do things.

    The four-cylinder M102 engine, which made its debut in 1980 in the 123-series 230E, does not truly inspire, as it never emits anything other than a gentle thrum, and does not really like to rev hard. But it is smooth enough, and from within the cabin it is very quiet - which of course is what counted most for Mercedes customers. Neither does it deliver sparkling performance, but, again, the 230E was obviously quick enough for owners who, if they had been worried about pace, would have bought a #BMW #320i or a VW Golf GH Notwithstanding the probable expectations of today's drivers, the 230E has sufficient usable performance, even if you must avidly > flex the right ankle on a long travel accelerator to extract what’s there. With either the manual or automatic transmission, the saloon achieves 62mph from a standstill in just over 11 seconds but, probably more importantly, the engine with its high-ish torque peak is suited to relaxed cruising.

    HANDLING WITH CARE

    No aspect of the 230E’s handling is tactile. The recirculating ball steering messages little back to the fingertips, and the comms blackout continues into fast corners, during which the car’s natural responses are damped into submission. But yet again it is what Mercedes, no doubt correctly, reasoned customers wanted, and the W124 - which adopted the excellent multi link rear suspension of the W201 190/190E range - wants for nothing in terms of road holding and braking. It could also, with its mere 15-inch wheels and 65-series tyres, teach many tautly sprung and generously tyred current cars a thing or two about comfort.

    Another hallmark of this period of Mercedes is the cabin, so austere and plain - and for another £ 150 you could order the MB-Tex vinyl and make it even more so.

    And yet so appealing, thanks to the simple, restrained design. The springy seats, shared with other Mercedes of the era, are certainly an acquired taste, but even without the costly electric seat and steering column adjustment you can fashion the perfect driving position, thanks to separate manual height and angle adjustment controls on the side of the seat.

    SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

    The paperwork on this car is as complete as I have seen on any older Mercedes, with every receipt, MOT certificate and even tax disc present. And it proves that an executive sized saloon is not necessarily an expensive car to run; there have been no major repairs in this car’s life, and most of the services have been £300 or less, despite an official Mercedes dealer performing every one.

    The 124-series, particularly the saloon, it seems, is the latest once plentiful Mercedes to become scarce as, 18 years after its production ended, many survivors are deemed no longer useful. As one who recalls seeing it as the newcomer on motor show stands, and having enjoyed so many great moments in a 124 of one kind or another, it makes me sad. Fortunately, at least, this particular 230E, thanks to its top condition, is likely to have a life ahead of it at least as long as that which has so far elapsed.

    Paperwork reveals no major jobs undertaken.
    A warning triangle in the super clean boot.
    Paperwork reveals no major jobs undertaken.
    A warning triangle in the super clean boot.
    Seatbelts for all three rear occupants.
    Anti lock brakes standard from 09/1988.
    The M102 unit was carried over from the W123.
    One previous owner since 1990 and just 28K miles.
    Blaupunkt radio and cassette player for this youngtimer.

    Mercedes-Benz 230E W124
    ENGINE M102 2.298cc 4-cyl
    POWER 130bhp @ 5.100rpm
    TORQUE 146lb ft @ 3.500rpm
    TRANSMISSION 4-speed auto.
    RWD WEIGHT 1.360kg
    0-62MPH 11.2sec
    TOP SPEED 121mph
    FUEL CONSUMPTION 24.8mpg
    YEARS PROOUCED 1985-1992

    Figures for a 1990 car as pictured; fuel consumption according to EEC urban
    Thanks to Martyn’s Car Sales for the loan of the 230E Web www.martynscarsales. co. uk Tel 07768 017781, and to Great Fosters for the location Web www.greatfosters. co. uk Tel 01784 433822