My ultimate Mercedes adventure began with family friends in a small farming village near Tübingen, not far from Germany's Black Forest. The company was wonderful, and the crisp fall air invigorating, especially after having left my home in Arizona just days before. Nevertheless, I was chomping at the bit to get started on a most excellent adventure in a most excellent car, one that was “engineered like no other car in the world.”
After a good night's rest and a real German Früstück, it was time! My good friend and American travel companion Joe and I were ready to embrace a long drive in the mountains. My German friend Robert had loaned me his meticulously maintained and perfectly original 1993 230TE Mercedes-Benz Kombiwagen. The Benz was waiting for us to put it through its paces on some of the most exhilarating roads and epic scenery in the world.
This particular W124 station wagon is finished in Cabernet Red Metallic (paint code: 512), fitted with black and anthracite cloth interior (interior code: 061). It also includes a sunroof, optional ASD (electro-hydraulic locking differential), self-leveling rear suspension, and a very uncharacteristic European 2.3L gas engine and four-speed automatic gearbox. Best of all, this beautiful specimen would be ours for the next four days while travelling through the countryside and Alps of Germany, Austria, and Italy.
While this 230TE is just shy of 30 years old and has 158,500 miles showing on the odometer, it truly is a Mercedes-Benz through-and-through, in both quality and durability. The car's interior looked and felt just like it would have when it left the factory in 1993. The switchgear and all the controls functioned like new.
On a crisp October morning, it was time to turn the key and get underway. As expected, the engine turned over decisively, delivering a smooth and still near silent purr in the cabin. And so we were off to our first destination – the 19th century fairy-tale castle Neuschwanstein. Built for King Ludwig ll, this fantasy castle is located in foothills of the German Alps in Hohenschwangau, Germany, just a few miles from the Austrian border.
The first leg of our journey was two hours and 45 minutes, which took us through miles of farming villages, rolling hills, and to the world-famous Autobahn. However, the 2.3-liter engine and automatic transmission meant our top speed was far from impressive and getting to the top, or near it, was also a bit uninspiring. Regardless, the W124's drivetrain was silky smooth and sufficient to enter Autobahn traffic without concern. Still, the right hand lane was a very good friend for this Kombiwagen.
Contrary to popular belief, many sections of the Autobahn do have speed limits and those average between 100 - 120 km/h (62-75 mph). It was a privilege to be on a number of stretches with no posted speed limit. Again, while not earth-shattering, winding this engine up to 100 mph was smooth and the car was every bit as poised and quiet on the straightaway as my GLC Coupé. While the top speed is 200 km/h, as indicated by Mercedes specs, the 2.3-liter engine enjoyed cruising at just 24 mph below top speed. This car could have taken on considerably more in perfect comfort if it had been fitted with one of the optional larger engines.
Ascending the mountain from Füssen, Germany to Hohenschwangau, we were greeted with light rain which gave ample opportunity to use the very efficient and era-hip single windshield wiper. Beyond the intrigue of the efficiency and near complete edge to edge clearing ability, there was the enjoyment of watching the ever-so-funky gyrating motion this wiping system goes through to do its job. Yes, a few times I did get distracted and mesmerized as I watched the wiper and not the road!
Once in Hohenschwangau, we checked into the beautiful Hotel Müller, which is located at the foot of Schloss Hohenschwangau, the first castle of King Ludwig ll. Hotel Müller is one of several four-star hotels I have stayed at in Hohenschwangau and I give it a five-star rating for both dining and accommodations. The food, atmosphere, mountain views, and historic building made for an experience well worth repeating.
After a tour of the Neuschwanstein Castle and a leisurely walk down the mountain back to the hotel, it was time to call it a day. We enjoyed dinner at a longtime favorite, the Hotel Alpenstuben just down the road from Hotel Müller. The dining here is also excellent and their offerings of authentic Bavarian cuisine are well worth the visit.
The Tyrol and Innsbruck
Morning dawned with a brief shower of light rain, just in time to pack the car and head off further up into the Alps. We were making our way to Innsbruck, the capital of Austria’s western state of Tyrol.
Perhaps due to the chilly temperature, the W124 started a bit sluggishly, putting an instant knot in my stomach. A second later, it fired and all was well. After getting a few more swipes of the mono wiper to remove the residual rain, we were on a 15 minute ride to the Austrian border.
Once again our steadfast 1993 230TE performed flawlessly. Even more impressively, it was just sipping at the gas, which I was not expecting from a car of this vintage. Our journey included highway, city, and aggressive mountain roads. Through it all, the car averaged 19 MPG. I was quite pleased, as gas prices averaged $8.00/gallon in Europe.
At this point the terrain remained relatively flat as we headed to Innsbruck, so the drive was uneventful yet spectacular as the Alps continued to grow ever more grand. We were treated to just a few glimpses of lightly snow-covered peaks appearing in the distance.
Arriving in Innsbruck brought the thrill of having this W124 packed in city traffic and narrow streets. Here too, the car displayed its ability to nimbly weave through city traffic, U-turns, and exceedingly cramped parking garages.
Where to stay in Innsbruck
Stopping in Innsbruck brought us to another inspiring small hotel, housed in a building built in the year 1200. The Gasthof Weisses Rössl is located in the heart of historic old town Innsbruck and has been serving as an inn since the 1600s. The Gasthof has been family-owned and -operated for the past 100 years.
Without exception, this hotel was excellent. From our warm welcome from Maria to the dining experience and the quaint rooms overlooking the narrow streets of old town, along with the excellent level of service, this hotel is on my list of top picks for future stays. While it is rated as a three-star hotel, in my opinion this hotel far exceeds that if you are looking for a cozy piece of history in old town Innsbruck, complete with a great gastronomic experience.
Another great dining experience in old town Innsbruck is the vintage-themed Piano Bar Café. The Café boasts an intimate dining room with vintage artwork covering the walls floor to ceiling. There is candlelight at each table, which made for an eclectic, if not eccentric, dining experience. We spoke with Greda Seiler, who has owned the establishment for the past 40 years with her husband. She said they take pride in their restaurant, and serve only the best food, and it shows.
South into Italy
After we ate our way around Innsbruck, it was time to prepare for another big day with our W124. We headed south through the Alps to the great Dolomites in the Tyrol region of northern Italy.
Our journey would start off on relatively benign high-speed motorways with miles of tunnels for the majority of the trip. The exception is the final 15 kilometers, which would begin our ascent into the mountains with hairpin turns up to our hotel, which was located in San Giovanni di Fassa. The town lies in the rolling pasture foothills of the Dolomites, and represents the heart of Alpine skiing.
After getting just a teaser of what the roads had to offer on the next leg of our adventure, we checked in at the X Alp Hotel. Considering the high quality of everything we’d experienced so far, it’s all the more impressive that this was the highlight hotel of our tour. The hotel manager, Pietro, greeted us in true big Italian style and showed us to our room, complete with a large balcony and a view that begged for attention.
That view would have to wait, because the Great Dolomite Road was calling our 230TE to a duel.
Climb every mountain
Lasting four hours and climbing 7,800 feet, the journey took us along a stretch of roads that ring the Dolomites. This test would certainly show the technology and ingenuity Mercedes-Benz engineers offer ed in this E-Class of three decades ago, and it was sure to impress us in every way.
Within just a few kilometers, we quickly climbed once again into some of the most stunning scenery on earth. Due to the dry summer across most of Europe, autumn colors were beginning to blaze a few weeks ahead of schedule and stood in spectacular contrast to the still lush green pastures, vivid blue sky and even some fresh overnight snowfall.
Seeing all this beauty was made possible by our W124, which ever so nimbly whipped through the many miles of switchbacks and steep grades.
While the overall agility of this car was exceptional and better than I imagined, the small-displacement engine and automatic transmission meant it sorely lacked the power needed to push us briskly up the hills. On especially steep ascents, it was necessary to manually shift gears if the 230TE was going to do more than maintain walking speed to the next turn.
Still, body roll was minimal and the car’s steering remained very composed. There was the traditional slight tendency to understeer common in cars of the period, which I was forced to embrace as I laid into several of the hairpin turns.
Keeping in mind that this was not my car, and having my buddy Joe with me, my better angels kept me from pushing harder to test when the tires would begin to break loose.
As ever, all good things must come to an end. So it was with this journey and our W124. After an intense drive and hundreds of photos, we headed back to the X Alp Hotel where we sat down to a tantalizing five-course meal at the restaurant. The food was presented perfectly by waiter Roberto in true South Tyrol Italian style. After dining on many locally sourced ingredients, including cappuccino soup, venison ravioli, venison tenderloin, seared tuna, and a sampling of exquisite wines, we called it a night and prepped for heading back to Germany. However, we had one final pitstop to make in Rottweil.
Being partial to the town of Rottweil, founded in AD 73 by the Romans, I felt there was no more fitting place to snap a few parting photos of the W124.
And so it’s here that we say “so long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, goodbye” to a legendary car, magnificent scenery, and treasured friends – until next time.