In the case of the Mercedes E-Class, it's difficult to pinpoint precisely where the beginning actually is. Officially, the E-Class name didn't emerge until 1994 (with the W124). But, the lineage goes back much further than that. The E-Class goes back to the dawn of time when there were still dinosaurs plodding around eating frankfurters and onions on the banks of the Rhine.
Some of the history is shrouded by the fog of war. After WW2, Mercedes resumed production of their Type-170; a car based on an aging pre-war model from 1936. Unlike some other German manufacturers, the Mercedes plant escaped the ravages of war, making Mercedes' decision to resume production of their pre-war model seem quite logical.
The Type-170 was finally replaced in 1953 by the Type-180. Nicknamed “Ponton” (due its "pontoon" style body) the new model demonstrated that Mercedes-Benz were innovative and kept-up with changing times. The Type-180 was introduced in a post-war era of hope and optimism. Designed to be rigid and aerodynamic, pleasing driving dynamics became an important consideration. With the Type-180, Mercedes was well placed to exploit the emerging era of mass consumerism.
I'm old enough to remember seeing Mercedes' 'Fintail' models sitting at our local Mercedes dealer's second hand forecourt. I remember how rugged they looked. Introduced in 1961, these cars were known as the W110's, an attractive four seater saloon with minimalistic interiors. The earliest W110's came with either 1.9-litre diesel or 1.9-litre petrol engines. Although unmistakably Mercedes, the styling had distinctly American undertones.
The W110 remained unchanged until 1965 when it was given a refresh, including the introduction of new 2.0-litre and 2.3-litre engines. The W110 'fintail' was the first car to be subjected to extensive crash-testing as Mercedes focussed on developing passive safety systems.
As the fin-tail Mercedes era drew to a close, Mercedes designed their next "Stoke-Eight" model from scratch. With this, a new minimalist three-box saloon emerged. Despite simple lines, the new W114/115 proved an outstanding success with over two million cars sold globally.
The W114/115 models featured vertically mounted, rectangular "bulk-head" headlights. With this, a legendary new look was created, despite being instantly recognisable as a Mercedes. It retained the famed MB grille with matching chromed bumpers and window surrounds.
Depending on specification, the W114/115 featured either cloth or leather seats. Dashboards were less minimalist yet retained functional design. The instrument cluster featured a pair of large dials, one of which housed the speedometer and tachometer whilst the other housed the fuel gauge, coolant temperature gauge, oil pressure and an ammeter. The W114/115 were built on a new platform with rear semi-trailing arms further enhancing comfort and road manners. The cabin was surrounded by a safety cell, making this the safest mid range Benz to-date.
After the “stroke-eight” model ended its tenure, another midi-Benz was born in Stuttgart. It came in the form of the 1975 Mercedes-Benz W123. This model is still renowned as Mercedes' most reliable car. Clattering in-line-four diesel engines seemed to last forever, with many examples still in regular use today.
The W123's was marketed as a small S-Class. It featured twin round headlamps with an integrated halogen fog lamp concealed behind one large S-Class-like rectangular lens. The U.S. market got chunky bumpers whilst the whole range had the angular lines softened to form more rounded edges. The W123 came in saloon, coupe and estate guises with a LWB limousine also available.
After ten years of success, the W123 finally bowed out. Unlike its predecessor the new W124 took design cues from the new smaller (190) sibling rather than being hailed as a shrunk-down S-Class. As always, the design remained distinctly Mercedes, featuring aerodynamic sloped-back headlights with integrated corner-mounted indicators. The aerodynamic theme continued with a steeply raked windscreen matched by a forward-raking rear screen.
Inside, a large center console housed a Blaupunkt stereo head-unit as well as heater/air-conditioning controls. A choice of petrol engines ranging from 2.0 to 3.0-liter were available with either carburetor or EFi. Similar displacements were available for diesel customers.
In 1993 the W124 was upgraded inside and out. Despite already being considered over-engineered, drivetrains were markedly improved alongside other tweaks consistent with the drivetrain upgrades. These improvements made the W124 an industry benchmark for both quality and excellence.
While the rest of the automotive world became obsessed with quirky designs, Mercedes remained true to its own designs with the 1993 'facelift' W124. Traditional rectangular headlights and the staid MB chrome grille remained. Inside, quality was impressive with chrome detailing making furnishings look classy. This was the E-Class that was said to have been carved from one solid chunk of iron.
However, Mercedes went from peak to weak with their next E-Class. The visually altered W210 received a radically different front end with class specific quad headlights as well as a range of new engines. Sadly, cars made between 1995 and 2000 suffered a series of issues including rust. The model was facelifted in 1999 with many of those initial issues ironed out. The 'marmite' quad headlamps got some beauty treatment with optional Xenon bulbs available.
Interior-wise, leather and wood offered abundant luxury. A Modern instrument cluster displayed information on a dedicated LCD screen. New fiber-optic sound systems enhanced the audio experience whilst engines were upgraded to comply with 'Euro 5' emission standards.
With the 2002 W211 E-Class, comfort was second only to that of an S-Class. The E-Class provided everything Mercedes knew in one formidable package. The model was refreshed for the 2006 model year with an even sleeker design and a more prominent grille.
After a seven year tenure the impressive W211 was replaced in 2009 by the W212. Trademark quad headlights became square-ish whilst haunched rear quarter panels provided muscular Bentleyesque looks. The interior was even more spacious featuring a wide instrument binnacle hosting an infotainment display accessed by a BMW 'i-drive' style swiveling dial.
In 2013 a facelift freshened the design. LED quad headlights were united under one glass panel. A large grille came in two shapes depending on specification. Interiors were the most opulent to-date featuring high quality two-tone leather, wood and brushed metal.
In 2016, the W213 heralded the end of E-Class' trademark "four-eyed" look. As heralded by the previous model, a different 'face' gave away equipment level. Avantgarde and AMG models were identifiable by a sports grille featuring a large three pointed star logo in the middle.
Inside, new technology abounded, including high-resolution infotainment displays. In addition, touch controls on the steering wheel responded to finger movements allowing drivers to control the interface without taking hands off the steering.
A facelift came in 2020 with revised LED headlights. The diamond-style grille was further enhanced creating altogether sportier looks. Hybrid versions became available for the first time.
Ever since 1953, even before the E-Class took its name, each new generation became a class-leading benchmark with many ground breaking features creating an outstanding driving experience for generations of lucky owners. It may not therefore be too outlandish to suggest that E stands for Evolution? It's a well deserved accolade.
Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring.