The untimely demise of our VW Passat (see COAL) in early 2008 left us a one vehicle family. (See COAL for the Mazda MPV.) During this time, we were able to make logistics work living in a city and swapping use of the minivan with public transportation and ride sharing services. In the fall 2008, I left my job to start a consulting business (not particularly well-timed with the recession) and, given the finances, didn’t want to spend money on another new car.
Slowly, I began to look at used options when I read a New York Times article about a guy in New Jersey who drove Mercedes W123 body diesels as his main daily driver cars. And I thought, BINGO! I need one of those famously indestructible cars in my life as a twofer – my first classic car AND a new (to me) daily driver. (Others had opined on this idea on CC – here and here.) Enter a white 1983 Mercedes-Benz 240D.
In retrospect, this was not the most well-considered decision of my life. First, by the time I came to this realization, it was January in Minnesota – not prime car buying time. Selection was limited, to put it mildly. Second, while I had always admired the look and reputation of the W123 body cars, I had no experience with them – never drove one and had only ridden in one once many years prior for about 10 minutes that was owned by a friend’s parents. Third, we are talking a car that was, at the time, 26 years old. Meaning, shit happens in two plus decades, and it would likely make sense to go in with reasonable expectations and an eye toward a good inspection. Fourth, the subject car was being sold on Craigslist on a farm about 2 hours away from home. Meaning my ability to conduct said inspection was further limited – by distance, time and the frigid Minnesota weather. And, fifth, this was the infamous Mercedes four cylinder diesel – workhorse, yes, but one of the slowest cars known to creation. Oh, and it had an automatic. Starting a 26 year diesel in subfreezing weather requires a special sort of patience (it did have a block heater, thankfully).
So, after convincing my wife and my sons to drive 100 or so miles to the southern Minnesota farm where I met the very amiable young man who was selling the Mercedes, I decided to plunk down $2200 for the car. Now, a few things about these cars. They are super duper solid and have the build quality of a vault. This model had about 170K miles so it still had “life in it”, as they would say. It rode well, made no weird noises, was super quiet and, once up to cruising speed, could run for miles and miles without a hitch. On the drive back, a couple of things, however, became clear. The dashboard lights were about 2 watts – meaning I could barely read the speedometer in the dark. The heater took awhile – a LONG while – to generate heat. And winter traction wasn’t fabulous – it had been awhile since I had driven a rear wheel drive car and, while it had decent Michelin tires, I had forgotten the difference drive wheels make in the snow.
The Mercedes was a definitely a tank in terms of build quality, but no car escapes the ravages of time unscathed. Within the first month, the oil cooler lines began to leak heavily, necessitating new ones – to the tune of nearly $1,000. The infamous vacuum system acted up constantly – door locks would open or not open, depending on some voodoo I couldn’t figure out. I bought special equipment to see if I could diagnose the door vacuum issues, to not much success. My then grade school aged sons complained non-stop of getting locked inside the back seat when one door or another wouldn’t open.
Then there was driving in winter and fearing that the car wouldn’t start – having never owned a diesel car in the rigorous climate, I was paranoid about going somewhere without plugging in. The glow plugs did do their job and I never got stranded, but there was an ever present concern whenever I went somewhere in subfreezing weather for a long period of time. Finally, the A/C system didn’t work, meaning getting quality defrosting/defogging could be hit and miss.
However, by far the biggest downside was the general slowness of the car. For around town driving, this was not a big deal. Once up to speed, the car was as fast as any other car. It handled well and, once I reacquainted myself with the nuances of RWD in winter, I was fine. But highway merging was another matter completely. I had to plan every entrance with care – a long lane with no one bearing down on me in the right lane. Most times, it was okay, but I also knew I had little margin for era. The automatic shifted fine and worked well with the engine – it was just a simple matter of too few HP for the car’s weight. Add in family members and it was a bit too much drama.
All this said, the Mercedes had many virtues – and had I more time, money, space and knowledge, I could have made the car work. The W123 may be a bit stodgy, but it’s a classic body style and Mercedes clearly over-engineered the car. No wonder that I saw many of these cars as taxis years later when I was traveling in Morocco. Excellent space usage, solid build quality, comfortable (but controlled) ride and basic, well-designed systems would make the car a natural for long term use (for warmer climates).
In the end, however, the Mercedes was not cutting it as the back up family car I needed. My eyes had begun to wander to other cars once the warmer weather came and, by September, I was looking at another classic RWD replacement – this time a blue Volvo 240 wagon (COAL to come). After several weeks on Craigslist, I sold the car to a couple who lived on a farm about an hour and half north of the Twin Cities. Maybe there is something about rural life and these durable cars that went together better.
Now that I am just about an empty nester, I think about the possibility of trying another W123 diesel for a pure warm weather collector. If I did, I would probably look for the turbo 5 cylinder engine or, at a minimum, a 4 cylinder with a stick shift. Those cars still have a remarkably handsome profile, even 40+ years after they were first introduced. I see a few wagon versions in my neighborhood and I think, “Maybe someday…”