16th September 2020

The Mercedes-Benz 500E & Audi RS2 – when Porsche came to shove

By the end of the 1980s, Mercedes-Benz was riding high on the tail end of a decade of prosperity. The W124 saloon had sold well since its introduction in 1984 and the SL sports tourer had remained a global success for almost 18 years of production.

For fellow German super-brand Porsche, times were not as prosperous. The US economic downturn had hurt its major market, the 959 supercar had been vastly expensive to engineer, while at the same time, the 928 tourer was not providing the sales it was meant to. Overall, the production lines were slack. This capacity was to prove not just a huge help to Mercedes but would also go on to spawn another of the 1990’s most iconic models for Audi as well.

Mercedes had a small but urgent demand for a faster model of the W124 E-Class than its flagship three-litre straight six version. It made sense to fit the five-litre V8 from the newly introduced SL roadster, which was based on the W124 frame, but two issues stood in the way. Firstly, Mercedes-Benz engineers were fully occupied with the forthcoming S Class saloon and had limited ability to focus on such a niche project. Secondly, but more fundamentally, when the larger engine was fitted to the car, and the wings had been flared by the two inches needed to accommodate the wider front track, it would no longer fit down the existing production lines.

As a result, a call was made to the CEO of Porsche, Peter Schutz and it was agreed that Porsche would use the spare capacity to complete the engineering of the 500E from its Stuttgart plant. The frames and bodies were hand-assembled at Porsche, before being sent back to Mercedes for painting. Once dry, the vehicle would then be sent back to Porsche to have the engine, gearbox and all other parts fitted before being sent back to Mercedes for a final inspection. Rapid, it was not but the quality of the engineering meant that for buyers, the 500E super saloon was considered one of the finest quality Mercedes-Benz models ever made.

As the contract with Mercedes began to run its course, and with production at Porsche not having picked up enough to occupy the workforce, a deal was struck with Audi to engineer its latest sports saloon, the RS2. With the Audi, the entire process was based at the Porsche factory and, while the RS2 was based on the underpinnings of the Audi 80 saloon, Porsche really got to work its magic on the rest.

The five-cylinder engine was re-engineered with new internals, a larger turbo, a better induction system and exhaust. To cope with the huge power increase, Porsche re-engineered the suspension, brakes, and transmission to produce a truly supercar-beating family estate.

Unlike the unbadged stealthy menace of the Mercedes 500E however, with the RS2 Porsche kept much more of its involvement visible and the Audi was far from subtle. From the ‘cup’ alloys, to the PORSCHE inscribed brake calipers and RS2 badging, it was clear to all that the Audi was no humdrum family wagon. With many bought in the vivid shade of Nogaro blue, fast it may have been, but understated it was not.

Both the Mercedes and the Audi are now firmly considered to be modern classics, and both can be used happily every day. Have you owned one of these cars? If so, let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.