COAL: 1977 Mercedes-Benz 240D – “Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me…”


[This is a ’78. At least it’s the right shade of poo brown]

In the midst of Volvo mania, the (ex)wife changes her mind. Now she wants a Mercedes. Diesel. Stick shift. In the early 2000s, in the Midwest, this is not the easiest thing to find. When you do, it comes with a funny story.

One of my Volvo parts customers was a European car sales and service establishment. Interesting place; they would work on anything European, from a Ferrari to a beater Volvo. They bought some parts from me, and would pass along my phone number to owners of old Volvos when the repair estimate exceeded the value of their car. I bought quite a few parts cars from their customers over the years.

I was stopping by the shop one day, and as was my habit, I cruised the back lot, with my eye out for derelict Volvos. And there sits this Benz. It’s got to be an automatic, right? I jump out of my car and look. It’s a stick!

I park and walk into the shop. “Hey Joe! What’s with the stick shift Mercedes out back?”

“Oh. That’s a customer’s car. He’s getting a lot of work done, but he’s not in a rush. I have the techs work on it when the shop is slow, to save the guy a few bucks.”

“Do me a favor, Joe. Tell the guy if he ever wants to sell it he should call me first.”

A month or so went by, and I kind of forgot about it. Then Joe called.

“Are you still interested in that old Mercedes?”

“Sure, Joe! What’s up?”

“We finished the work on it. We called the customer to tell him it’s done, and it turns out he’s DEAD. The family doesn’t want the car, so they brought me the title. If you just pay the bill on it, it’s yours.”

That’s how I became the owner of a $2400 Mercedes 240D with $2400 worth of recent repair receipts.

It was mostly in good mechanical shape, although the body was a bit rough. The wife loved it. Things broke now and again. Turns out Mercedes are quite a bit like Volvos when it comes to repair work, so my Volvo knowledge transferred easily.

(The main difference between repairing old Volvos and repairing old Mercedes is the number of bolts. If Volvo engineers determined that the correct number of bolts to hold a part in place is four, they used four bolts. If Mercedes engineers determined the correct number of bolts to hold a part in place is four, they used eight, just for good measure!)

The car serves us reasonably well. Sure, little things break, but they are easy to fix, or easy to ignore. It’s hard to get less that 35 miles from a gallon of diesel fuel. Everybody’s happy.

If you’ve never driven one of these, it’s an interesting and new learning experience. Everybody knows they’re slow, but even the owner’s manual quotes a 0-60 time of 28.5 seconds. That, my friends, is a whole new level of SLOW. Coincidentally, 28.5 seconds is also the 1/4 mile time. It’s like learning how to drive from scratch. Rule #1: NEVER SLOW DOWN if you can avoid it; it takes too long to get back up to speed!

Well we kept it going for a couple years, but being in Michigan the rust was eating the car quickly. One day, the wife was taking a particularly heavy client somewhere. The vertical brackets holding the seat frame to the floor punched clear through the floor pans, and the seat dropped 3 inches. It’s done.

At that point, the only real value in the car is in the drivetrain, particularly the manual transmission bits. I list the whole car on eBay with the title “Mercedes W123 Manual Transmission conversion kit + free carrying case”. The winning bid is $99. The buyer drags an empty trailer from Georgia to Michigan to come pick it up.

In my opinion, the Volvo 240 and the Mercedes W123-chassis Diesels are the two best-made cars the world has ever known. They sure don’t make them like they used to, but at least we don’t have to drive anything that slow anymore!