Double-u one two three. It had to happen someday. It’s not like these are excessively rare or anything. They are hitting their 40s, so sightings are perhaps not as usual as they were. I had the privilege of coming in close contact with this rather lovely cream-coloured 1978 model recently, so here goes.
This generation of Mercedes-Benzes is not out of the banger area, but good ones are getting rare. These are nigh-indestructible cars, if looked after properly. Just like all the M-Bs up to that point, only more so. Daimler-Benz had hardly put a foot wrong since the war. Sales were growing steadily, the cars were usually beautifully styled and the marque’s reputation for excellence was universal. The Mercedes range usually consisted in a smaller saloon, a bigger one, a limo and the SL. Our focus today is the smaller saloon category.
The 1954 W180 “Ponton” generation kicked off the use of modern monocoque construction, but stylistically, the starting point was the Heckflosse W111, which was refined and smoothed out into the high-end W108/109 S-Class (not pictured) and the low-end Strich Acht W114/115 by the mid-‘60s. The W123 is a remarkable re-do of the W114/115 shape – with more rounded edges and a miniature S-Class look that was acceptably conservative. No hatchbacks please – though the W123’s smaller successor, the W201, was sketched as one in the late ‘70s, when Mercedes essentially split their low-to-mid-range saloons into the C- and E-Class (W201 and W124). A big separate trunk will do very well and will be acceptable in all markets. I see a strong continuum from the Fintail to the W123, as if the wind had eroded the W111 over the years.
The W123’s design is mostly post-Bracq (Bruno Sacco was head of styling at Mercedes when the W123 programme really got in gear), but it pays a very deep homage to Bracq’s W116 S-Class. The W116 and W107 SL of 1971-72 ushered in a small revolution with their horizontal lights and ridged safety taillamps, which would become part of the Mercedes design language for quite a while. Full-scale production started in December 1975 and the car was officially launched in January 1976 – only the saloon at first, but several variants beckoned.
The suspension, steering, brakes and most engines were identical to the previous W115. There were many flavours of W123: smoked (Diesel) or plain, carbs or EFI, 4-cyl. or 6-cyl., deluxe or taxi, coupé or limo. Never had Mercedes developed so many variants 29 versions of the W123 were developed in all, not counting the chassis-only versions. The classic hardtop C123 (above), which debuted in late 1976, was certainly the best-looking of the breed.
Continuing with a tradition that was pretty much abandoned by most automakers by the ‘70s, Mercedes proposed a Lang version from 1977, as they had done with the W115. The 63cm-stretched eight-seater was a favourite of airport taxis and high-end hotels; a few were also made for private buyers who thought the 600 (W100) was a bit steep. The W123 Lang cost as much as the cheapest S-Class, which was more palatable, but only came in three flavours: 240D, 300D and 250. Benz usually managed to shift a little over 1000 of these (plus a few hundred chassis for hearse or ambulance conversions) per annum, making it the rarest W123 body variant by far.
The real shocker was the 1978 introduction of the wagon. Until then, Mercedes wagons had always been made by third party coachbuilders. M-B finally caved in to the combi – pretty much after everybody else had done so. Better late than never: just what the conservative yuppies and recycled hippies of the ‘80s needed to go on weekends in the Berkshires, the Riviera, the Lake District or visit their secret bank account in Switzerland. Finally, these stock ’80s stereotypes could have a Benz wagon cater to their need for aristocratic snobbery with a side of practicality and a dollop of reliability.
Petrol engines went from a 2-litre 93 hp and a 2.3 litre 108 hp 4-cyl. to a 2.5 litre 127 hp or a 2.8 litre 154 hp 6-cyl. Fuel injection was available on the 230 and the 280, bringing the four and the six up to 134 and 175 hp, respectively. Three 4-cyl. Diesels were available (200D, 220D, 240D), as well as a 5-cyl. 3-litre (300D), initially rated at 79 hp. There were other engine options available in the ‘80s and the output of most engines depended on the anti-pollution legislation in individual countries, but let’s keep this readable. Additionally, not even Germany got every version of the W123, but the huge variety of durable engines on offer helped Daimler conquer market niches in many countries.
In the US, the W123 is synonymous with Diesel – indeed, it came only as a Diesel for the North Amercian market from 1981 to 1986. They were also popular in France and Italy, where Diesel benefitted from lower taxation, though petrol version remained on offer in those markets. In Germany, Diesel W123s were usually taxis (of which there were plenty), but the private customer preferred the 230E. British buyers, who paid a lot for their Benzes in the ‘70s, usually went for the top-of-the-line 6-cyl – a 250 or a 280E. The W123 was also exported to all corners of the globe – they are ubiquitous in many African and Asian countries even today.
Which brings us to the W123 du jour. This 1978 Mercedes 280 is a friend’s car. They live in on the island of Bali, having recently moved there from Jakarta (along with the Benz). It’s had a re-spray and a bit of bodywork, but is pretty near original. Except that “E” on the trunk – that came from a more-common fuel-injected donor car. It seems the 280 was the least popular of the line: only about 33,000 sold from 1975-1981, after which the model was dropped. Virtually all the other engine options made the 100,000 unit mark, except the ephemeral 220D (1976-79, which still managed over 55,000 units), along with the US-only 300D Turbo (1981-86; 75,000 sold).
As we’ve seen, this Benz is carbureted and the big inline six is still relatively at ease in the front bay. This is from a time when A/C was still a relative luxury. Most European W123s didn’t have it, either. But they did have window defrosters and heating, which this Southeast Asian model never needed: the heater hoses were clamped, I assume from the factory, as can be seen below (the obviously broken hose in that shot is just a stump).
I’ve ridden in these before, but never with the black MB-tex in tropical heat. And there is a lot of traffic on parts of Bali these days. Eat, Pray, Honk! It’s a comfortable car to be in, though A/C would be high on my list of optional extras. Nice and low, with adequate legroom, the seats were springy and felt pretty dated. A contemporary Citroën CX or a Detroit full-sizer were even more comfortable than the W123, but what the Benz had was a well-earned reputation for quality and durability.
The W123 became the most widespread Mercedes around the globe – up to that point, anyway. In the US, the price of the new “baby Mercedes” was pretty high in the late ‘70s. It did not seem to harm the model’s penetration of the US market though, thanks to the dead reliable Diesels and the car’s overall sophistication compared to most of its competitors, be they European, American or Japanese. In Europe, the W123 was available with smaller engines and therefore capable of attracting a solid following. A lot of the European cars migrated to Africa by the ‘90s, just like many RWD Peugeots, to a second life of labour under the sun that continues to this day, or to Eastern Europe, whose appetite for anything with a three-pointed star was huge, especially in the ’90s. Cars in the Middle-East and Asia do not tend to change countries so much, with some exceptions of course (e.g. the recent influx of second-hand Japanese cars), but I believe our feature car has been Indonesian since birth.
Rust is the inevitable enemy of the 40-year-old car. In places like Indonesia, one also needs to contend with fungi, wildlife, humidity, volcanic ashes and the difficulty of sourcing spare parts. On top of that, one cannot insure a private car that is over ten years of age. It takes a lot of chutzpah to drive a 1978 Benz in some places. Few cars made in the ‘70s can survive like a Mercedes, though W123s benefitted from much better rust protection from 1979 onward.
The steering wheel in these is massive. And certain quirks, such as the dash-mounted handbrake or the big red “hazard” button on the console, really add to the car’s character. It’s funny, because I’ve seen these all my life, but never paid so much attention to the base saloon version. A coupé or a limo was always worth a look, but the saloon was just part of the everyday décor of life from the ‘80s to the present day.
A few design features help the rest of the car, such as the little curved strip on the C-pillar. A very Mercedes shape, that small detail is the W123’s Hoffmeister kink, if you will.
This cunningly upswept trim piece was seemingly added quite late in the game, replacing a more traditional W115-like chrome strip arrangement previously seen on the 1973 prototype picture. A late addition it may be, but it was an inspired one.
Our feature car had the US-type sealed beams / fog lamps setup originally, i.e. probably not the Euro-spec version as pictured above on the right. This was usually preferred in far-away countries such as Indonesia, as it was far easier to repair the sealed beams than the flush-mounted, glass-covered Euro-spec ones. In 1979, Mercedes introduced a new Euro-spec headlamp with a squarish look (above left), though it seems either arrangement (sealed beams, old Euro-spec and new Euro-spec) could be provided, depending on the model, the model year and country-specific variables. For whatever reason, our CC had the big Euro-lights fitted some time ago. I must say I don’t mind the sealed beam version of this Benz – provided the bumpers aren’t US-style also.
Daimler-Benz built about 2.7 million W123s from 1976 to 1986. When times were good, Mercedes sold more 6-cyl. cars; when times were bad, they sold more Diesels. The sturdiness of the car, and its safety and comfort, were still strong selling points in the ‘80s. They were mainly built in Germany (Sindelfingen and Bremen factories), but CKD assembly took place in Venezuela, Thailand (which is perhaps where this car originated) and South Africa. The W123 was also the first Mercedes assembled in China, by FAW, from CKD kits in 1984. They made something like 900 units. The Long March started with a first step…
A sign of the W123’s influence was the 1980 Lancia Trevi. The Lancia tried to look as alike the Benz as it dared. Quality-wise, Lancia were not in the same league, so it looks like the Italians borrowed the W123’s image to signal their recent taking up of rust-proofing. Lancia were in a bad place in 1980, their image tarnished by the Gamma debacle and their European market share in free fall. Many have copied Mercedes designs over the years, but nobody thought Lancia would have gone there. They did.
The W123 is perhaps the definitive incarnation of the old Mercedes-Benz spirit. I have read many accounts of Daimler’s de-contenting of Mercedes since the ‘90s, though I’m not sure whether that’s had much of an impact on the general public’s perception of the above – still a symbol of quality, for almost anyone you’d ask. It remains to be seen how the Benzes of the late ‘90s will fare at 40-plus years of age. It’s unlikely that many will reach that point. They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
A big terima kasih to Nungki & Melly, the car’s proud owners, and Luwi, who helped restore it years ago. And special thanks to Paul for his corrections!
CC Outtake: A Mercedes-Benz W123 Taxi in 2016, by Robert Kim
COAL: 1980 Mercedes Benz 300D – Slow and Steady Wins the Race, by Importamation
COAL: 1984 Mercedes Benz 300D Turbodiesel – One More Time, With Feeling, by Importamation