W123 fan Martin Buck­ley ex­plains the ap­peal of this classy ’80s Benz range


Com­pe­tence, even ex­cel­lence, can some­times scan as ‘bor­ing’ in the world of old cars, and that just about sums up the plight of the Mercedes-benz 123-series. Func­tional, ra­tio­nal, beau­ti­fully made and al­ways ex­pen­sive, the 123s are in many re­spects the essence of what a Mercedes is, or was; but they were never in­tended to be ‘ex­cit­ing’. The very word sug­gests a lack of con­trol, a rash and im­pul­sive streak that would not have sat com­fort­ably with the im­age of ab­so­lute re­spectabil­ity Stuttgart still nur­tured in the ’70s and ’80s. These cars were about do­ing busi­ness in the real world. In the some­times flaky genre of old cars I have oc­ca­sion­ally al­lowed my­self to think that the W123 might just be a bit too sen­si­ble, re­li­able and prac­ti­cal to qual­ify as a ‘true’ clas­sic.

Diesel ver­sions worked for a liv­ing in the taxi trade across world; their pop­u­lar­ity said every­thing that needed to be said about the W123’s leg­endary dura­bil­ity. Equally whole­some and vir­tu­ous were the var­i­ous four-cylin­der petrolengined vari­ants, the in­jected 230E giv­ing per­haps the op­ti­mum com­pro­mise be­tween per­for­mance and econ­omy for most peo­ple.

For those cus­tomers who wished to go faster in their W123s, how­ever, there was al­ways the op­tion of the fuel-in­jected M110 en­gine. This was as ex­cit­ing as the W123 al­lowed it­self to get: a clas­sic twin-cam straight-six cre­ated in the late ’60s to give the W114 ‘new gen­er­a­tion’ sa­loons and coupés (from ’71 on­wards) the per­for­mance they needed in the face of in­creas­ingly strong op­po­si­tion from the new six-cylin­der BMWS.

Hefty West Ger­man tax on en­gines of over 2.8 litres kept Stuttgart’s de­sign­ers fo­cused on ex­tract­ing as much urge as pos­si­ble from a rel­a­tively small unit, while keep­ing half an eye on fu­ture emis­sions reg­u­la­tions for the North Amer­i­can mar­ket. Fuel econ­omy – never much bet­ter than 20mpg – wasn’t a huge con­sid­er­a­tion in an £8000 car built for peo­ple who did not have to worry about the price of fuel. Even ac­count­ing for the weak­ness of Ster­ling at the time, £8k was an ex­traor­di­nar­ily stiff price for a 2.8-litre saloon that didn’t even have a rev counter or a ra­dio as stan­dard. You could buy a Jaguar XJ12 for the same money. In fact, the 280E was nei­ther the fastest nor the most re­fined of its multi-cylin­der ri­vals, a list that in­cluded the Peu­geot 604, BMW 528 and Ley­land’s ‘saviour’ car, the 122mph Rover 3500, which at £4750 was hard to ig­nore. Tellingly, of these mid-’70s car mak­ers, only Mercedes was con­fi­dent enough to fit an odome­ter that ran to 999,999 miles.

The 280-en­gined 123s were de­signed for 100mph (or more) cruis­ing on un­re­stricted mo­tor­ways. To make the point, fac­tory brochures showed a world of healthy, square­jawed ’70s Ger­mans in beige flares mak­ing ‘re­spon­si­ble’ use of this power through Teu­tonic pine forests and along de­serted, sun-drenched au­to­bahns, en­joy­ing the velour trim and the quad head re­straints in a Mercedes that still had an air of qual­ity and su­pe­ri­or­ity, but was some­how less men­ac­ing than the cars that had come be­fore it.

Like every­thing else about the W123, the M110 straight-six was the prod­uct of care­ful, me­thod­i­cal de­vel­op­ment rather than revo­lu­tion:

‘This was a Mercedes that still had an air of qual­ity and su­pe­ri­or­ity, but was less men­ac­ing than the cars that came be­fore it’

its ex­ten­sively webbed cast-iron block, with 12 coun­ter­bal­ance weights on a beefy seven-bear­ing crank­shaft, was di­rectly re­lated to the M130 sin­gle-cam en­gine used in the W108 S-class and Pagoda since 1967, and had a his­tory that could be traced back to the early ’50s. Where most Mercedes en­gines tended to look in­dus­trial and un­ro­man­tic, the M110 pre­sented hand­somely un­der the 123’s two-po­si­tion bon­net, with proud dual cam cov­ers on the alu­minium cylin­der head. It also proved enor­mously ver­sa­tile, end­ing its days in the G-wa­gen in 1989, hav­ing pro­vided ser­vice in the SL and SLC sports cars, and two gen­er­a­tions of the S-class saloon.

While Con­ti­nen­tal buy­ers could choose from var­i­ous lower-com­pres­sion car­bu­ret­ted M110 vari­ants, for the power- and sta­tus-hun­gry Bri­tish mar­ket these top-of-the-range W123s only came with in­jec­tion, ini­tially Bosch D-jetronic – with its vac­uum sen­sor and 25-tran­sis­tor ECU – and later K-jetronic, a con­tin­u­ous high-pres­sure sys­tem with fuel run­ning at 5bar and de­liv­ery con­trolled by an air-flow me­ter. Ini­tially rated at 175bhp, power went up to 182bhp in 1978 thanks to a higher com­pres­sion ra­tio; there was no ad­ver­tised dif­fer­ence in out­put be­tween the D- and K-jetronic cars.

All ver­sions – saloon, coupé and es­tate – are rarer than you might imag­ine in 280 form: of 2.6 mil­lion W123s built from 1975 to 1986, fewer than 180,000 had the in­jected twin-cam en­gine. That fig­ure is weighted mas­sively in favour of the sa­loons (126,004 cars) but to­day they are prob­a­bly the least of­ten seen, if only be­cause the coupés and es­tates have tended to be cher­ished.

Fin­ished in a rare shade of For­est Green, Peter Sut­ton’s 280E has a full leather in­te­rior and elec­tric win­dows. It’s from 1984, by which time the play­ing field had lev­elled out slightly in Mercedes’ favour: at £14,000 the ba­sic 280E was now com­pet­i­tively pitched against the Jaguar XJ 3.4, BMW 528i and Peu­geot 604 at £12-13,000.

Mark Coso­vich’s W123 World did a full bareshell restora­tion on this saloon, and with its bal­anced and blueprinted South African-spec­i­fi­ca­tion en­gine it drives ‘as new’ with an au­thor­ity and as­sur­ance that feels con­tem­po­rary. Al­though you do come across the very oc­ca­sional four- or five-speed man­ual, the au­to­matic trans­mis­sion was stan­dard on Bri­tish 280s, and all the cars pic­tured have it. The later four-speed au­to­matic in the saloon is more re­spon­sive, with its part­throt­tle kick­down, but the M110 en­gines were de­signed to pro­duce real power from 3000rpm for high-speed over­tak­ing rather than low-speed rub­ber-burn­ing. It pulls away in sec­ond for smooth­ness (un­less you hold it in ‘low’) and this, com­bined with the big steer­ing wheel, tends to give the car a slightly pon­der­ous flavour, par­tic­u­larly if you’ve just come from a mod­ern.

As with the hard seats (for good pos­ture) and the huge steer­ing wheel, it was very much a case of ‘Stuttgart knows best’ rather than pan­der­ing to fash­ions or buy­ers’ whims. Push harder, and the lusty sound and smooth feel of the M110 when revved am­bi­tiously goes some way to back­ing up Coso­vich’s as­ser­tion that the 280E was “a true sports saloon”.

To­day, the es­tates (TES) are the most soughtafter vari­ants, with the coupés (CES) com­ing a close sec­ond. In terms of driv­ing they are, nat­u­rally, much the same as the saloon, ex­cept that the coupé (with its 2in-lower roofline) feels cosier, and the es­tate, with its com­pli­cated self­lev­el­ling rear sus­pen­sion, has the smoothest ride. All ver­sions are im­per­vi­ous to rough or care­less driv­ing, but these are not cars to tease out your ag­gres­sive in­stincts. In some ways the coupé had the hard­est job of all, be­cause it was so ob­vi­ously less car for more money, and ar­guably not as at­trac­tive as the model it re­placed. It was

pro­moted as the car for the empty-nest, af­flu­ent cou­ple who no longer needed four seats, while the es­tate was for the ‘life­style’ fam­ily (be­fore the term be­came so nau­se­at­ing) who were still pro­cre­at­ing: with its op­tional third row of rear­fac­ing seats and chrome roof bars, this was the best and sex­i­est es­tate car in the world.

These wag­ons were a new prod­uct for Mercedes, which had stu­diously ig­nored the grow­ing es­tate-car mar­ket for decades. They quickly be­came the most sought-af­ter sta­tion wag­ons for sale when pro­duc­tion be­gan at the Bre­men fac­tory in 1978. They were so suc­cess­ful in Ger­many that, for a while, it looked as if they might not even be built in right-hand drive. When they did ar­rive in the UK in 1979, not even a £13k price-tag could dis­suade buy­ers. Its stylish pro­file, and su­perb util­ity and prac­ti­cal­ity, changed ex­pec­ta­tions of what an es­tate could be. They be­came fash­ion items and some­thing akin to fam­ily heir­looms, such was buy­ers’ affection for a wagon that seemed im­pos­si­ble to re­place.

This white 1982 280TE was pre­vi­ously owned by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees (quite a few TES had celebrity first own­ers). These bi­gengined 123 wag­ons were cheap and abun­dant when I was still buy­ing them 10 years ago: to­day

they’re few and far be­tween and most, says Coso­vich, need a full restora­tion. This was never cheap and is made more dif­fi­cult these days be­cause cer­tain parts are be­com­ing ei­ther hard or im­pos­si­ble to source from Mercedes-benz, or else pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive.

Much the same can be said of the coupés, which are blighted by even greater parts prob­lems be­cause so many items are spe­cific to this two-door body: even the fuel-filler door is dif­fer­ent to the saloon’s. A re­ally ex­cel­lent 280CE such as An­drea and Steven Prevett’s 1981 car (never used in the rain by its pre­vi­ous two own­ers) would com­mand over £20k now; it’d be more than twice that to re­store a pro­ject car.

The good sur­vival of the 123s com­pared to their flimsy ’70s and ’80s ri­vals proves the case for Mercedes’ build qual­ity. In the con­text of the mid-1970s, it would be hard to find a range of pas­sen­ger cars with bet­ter power steer­ing, stronger brakes (ABS was avail­able to­wards the end) or a sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter ride. Four decades on they still feel fast cars, if not thrillingly so, and are com­fort­able but don’t set out to pam­per you.

To own a W123 is to make an in­vest­ment in safety, re­li­a­bil­ity and su­perb build qual­ity, se­cure in the knowl­edge that you’re driv­ing a prod­uct of

‘To own a W123 is to make an in­vest­ment in safety, re­li­a­bil­ity and su­perb build qual­ity, from a firm that was at the top of its game’

the largest re­search and de­vel­op­ment bud­get in the world, from a firm that was at the top of its game. I can only ex­plain it as a cer­tain feel­ing of so­lid­ity that you ei­ther buy into or you don’t.

For model guru Coso­vich, these qual­i­ties make the W123 a kind of re­li­gious call­ing as much as car. For me it is a case of to­tal re­spect rather than blind de­vo­tion. As a young dad, 20 years ago, the 280TES first made a be­liever out of me; my chil­dren were brought up in them.

To­day, hav­ing gone through var­i­ous Pago­das, 6.9s and other three-pointed-star ex­ot­ica, I still might choose a 280TE over any of them.

Clock­wise from main: Peter Sut­ton’s beau­ti­fully re­stored 1984 280E; dohc straight-six; early cars had 175bhp, later 182; leather trim and elec­tric win­dows in this ex­am­ple

Clock­wise from above: 1981 280CE of An­drea and Steven Prevett; many coupé-spe­cific parts make the CES pricey to re­store; com­fort­able, un­der­stated in­te­rior lacks op­u­lence

Clock­wise from above: Mercedes was late to the es­tate-car party, but the hand­some 123 was a hit; the large, flat load bay; its hard-wear­ing in­te­rior is great for fam­i­lies

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