(Ed. Note: Please welcome Youseftak’s first submission to our pages with a fine vehicle right up our alley. Oh, and don’t miss the video at the end! Majority of photographs taken by Rose Worden)
I fell in love with the Mercedes Type W123 at some point in the last few years. I’m not sure how exactly, but sites like Curbside Classic and others surely contributed to this development through their extolling of the virtues of vintage cars from the 1980s and 1990s.
By now it has become a cliche; the W123 is the embodiment of Mercedes Benz at its best, before the slump of the mid-1990s, built to a standard not to a price-point, the Panzer-like toughness, the bank-vault build quality, the million-mile lifecycles, and, of course, the thunk of the doors closing.
But beyond the hyperbole, there is something undeniable about the type of car that the W123 is. A type of car that does not really exist anymore.
As American streets become ever more laden with crossovers that do not do anything much better than the hatchbacks, wagons, and sedans they vanquished, or conspicuous SUVs and full size trucks, the car enthusiast is left to look toward the past for cars that suit their sensibilities.
For this particular enthusiast, the W123 is such a car. It is designed to do one thing well, and that is to be a car in the most narrow sense. A means of transporting people and things comfortably, stylishly, and efficiently. It does not aspire to anything more. Its handling is capable, rather than sporty, because unlike most cars today it has no sporting pretensions. Its motor, in diesel form, is adequate and economical. It will get the heavy sedan up to cruising speed… slowly. But it will do so for decades if properly cared for, while returning excellent fuel economy.
This is why W123s run the gamut from the beaten down taxi-spec 240D collecting fares in the streets of Rabat or Cairo, to the $30,000 pristine wagons that list on various internet auction sites.
After years of living in New York without a car, I found myself with a new job in DC and some disposable income to burn. I decided to pick up a W123 as my first real project car. The hours and hours spent poring over craigslist ads pondering hypotheticals became a more serious search. When I found the particular car I ended up buying, I wasn’t really in a position to pull the trigger but I couldn’t afford to miss this one… or so I convinced myself.
This, after all, was my ideal specification W123; it was a 240D 4-speed, with the venerable 0M617 turbo diesel swapped in from a 300D or 300SD. It also had no sunroof, crank windows, non-vacuum “manual” climate control, and it was an interesting color combination: Orient Red over Palomino MB-Tex. And it was being sold for cheap.
Really, I couldn’t afford not to buy this neglected vintage German car.
The car was advertised as being in decent shape but it had clearly been off the road for a while and exhibited a problem with reverse gear engagement. To be more specific, it did not engage reverse at all. I did some research into potential causes for this before heading over to inspect the car. Most sources pointed to linkage problems as the most likely culprit on the manual transmission cars. The manual transmissions in these things supposedly never die, unlike the automatics which require periodic rebuilds and are controlled by finicky vacuum-operated systems that fall out of adjustment.
On the day of the inspection, I arrived at the warehouse in Virginia outside of which the car had been sitting in a grass parking lot, seemingly since the Clinton Administration. The seller was offloading two ‘80s Mercedes Benz diesels, both in what I would consider project car shape. In addition to the 240D, there was a black on gray W126 350SDL that also had a 0M617 swapped in.
The seller was a bit of an aficionado, but was getting out of the diesel Mercedes game for good and I was happy to take one of his cars off his hands. He claimed that the 240D was his grandmother’s daily driver and I got a kick out of thinking about an elderly lady driving around a stick 240D with a turbo swap smoking Virginia Slims (I found a few old packs underneath the driver’s seat when I cleaned the interior).
The car started up fine and ran strongly, albeit with some thick black plumes of smoke, to be expected on a neglected diesel. The engine passed the blow-by test and the transmission shifted through the four forward gears fine and the clutch felt good, though I was only able to test it out in the parking complex.
More importantly, it only had a minor spot of rust on the passenger side front fender, common enough on these W123 cars, and I have seen much worse on more expensive cars being advertised in the area. The paint was badly oxidized and the color-matched hub caps were long gone, giving the car a much more run-down appearance than I thought it deserved, which might be why the seller was willing to part ways for such a small sum.
Or maybe I’m just a sucker.
The 240D was my ideal specification and, with the swap to the OM617 already done, I was gambling with house money. Of course, this is the flawed thinking of a vintage car enthusiast, and I recognized that. These projects never work out the way we initially intend, but that’s half the fun.
I had the car towed to my garage and commenced my project. The first step was diagnosing the reverse gear. I hoped the problem was not internal, but rather to do with the linkages being missing or out of adjustment. I got under the car and found all three sets of linkages intact, much to my disappointment. I adjusted the linkages, no dice, still no reverse. I tried tightening the final part of the linkage that connects directly to the transmission as a last ditch effort after throwing some new gear oil in there. I then had to admit defeat and bring it to a mechanic to diagnose it.
After some googling I found a shop in DC called, funnily enough, Mercedes Classic, which seemed like a reasonable starting point. I called them up and explained my situation, and was surprised to find that the head mechanic was familiar with older diesels. The 240D’s maiden voyage would be across town to the shop. The plan to learn and do everything myself was not off to a great start.
After a drama free though nerve racking 20 minute trip across town I arrived at the shop and was greeted by a friendly mechanic with all manner of vintage Benzes in his shop, from run of the mill first-generation MLs, to more recent E-classes, and even a W140 S500. I shudder to think how much that one costs to keep on the road!
When I got the call the next day, it was bad news. The head mechanic suspected the problem with the transmission was internal and the most cost effective way forward was to source a replacement. I located a transmission from a similar 240D on eBay, for the princely sum of $200 shipped, and I was off to the races.
Over the past year with the car I’ve been through it inside and out. I’ve learned a lot about diagnosing and wrenching on cars and have had the chance to do everything from polishing out the badly faded paint to adjusting the valves, rebuilding and balancing fuel injectors, performing diesel purges, doing a full brake service, replacing the alternator, and many other projects. The car as it sits now is something I can certainly be proud of and is a true joy to drive when I need to get out of town. Everywhere I go I run into people that have Mercedes diesel stories, and I’m also happy to hear them as I continue to make my own.