This is a 34 year old car with 31,000km on the clock. Yes, really. But more on that later.
First, let me go right back to where my love affair with the W123 Mercedes-Benz began: Colombo, Sri Lanka – in the year 1988.
The road outside my house was a pot-holed nightmare, teeming with old rust buckets, tuk-tuks, bollock carts and even the odd Elephant carrying a man on its back. Now add a touch of monsoonal rain to the scene. Oh, and people walking down the road and crossing it at random intervals. Don’t forget the stray dogs and cattle and road-side sellers. Then suddenly, cutting through all the chaos appeared this graceful, shiny Mercedes, totally unruffled by all that was around it. I didn’t know it at the time of course – being only five years old, but this was a W123. It was like a vision from another world that transported me to what could and should be, rather than what was. I guess some memories just stay with you.
This year, I decided to make that memory a reality and buy a W123 of my own. There are always around 25-30 for sale at any given time, all around Australia, but finding one in top-notch condition isn’t always easy. But I spent the last few months scouring the classifieds daily (yes, ALL of them), and one morning, an ad popped up, advertising a white 230E with 31,000km on the clock. Of course I thought that this was a typo – the average mileage for one of these is around the 300,000km mark. However, when I called the owner, he assured me that the kilometre count was genuine, and that the car was totally original. Apparently the owner had died a couple of years after the purchase, so his wife had decided to put it in storage… for three decades.
I bought it over the phone, sight-unseen. The car had been advertised for a total of about six hours.
I’ve only now had ‘Panzer’ the 230E for about three weeks so I obviously can’t provide any anecdotal evidence about its long-term reliability – but do I really need to? It’s a W123. There are still thousands of them driving around all over the world, and there are some that are still providing service as taxis in Africa – with more than 1,000,000km on their clocks. This is the car that defined Mercedes-Benz and gave it its reputation for top-notch engineering… which of course they then proceeded to destroy in the 90s and 00s – but that’s another story for another time.
The W123 came with a variety of engine choices – from an almost hazardously slow 4-cylinder diesel, all the way up to a 2.8l straight-six. My one is what I believe to be the sweet spot in the range – the fuel-injected 2.3l four. It provides more get-up-and-go than the diesels, and is noticeably more economical than the sixes, without being hampered with a massive performance deficit. Besides, even the sixes are comprehensively beaten off the traffic lights these days by a bog standard Civic, so best not to worry too much about performance when driving one of these around.
Speaking of the driving experience – this thing takes you back to an older, arguably lovelier era of motoring. The ride quality is the best I’ve ever experienced outside of a hydro-pneumatic Citroen, flowing like honey over speed humps and bumpy roads. The 4-speed automatic transmission is lazy and unhurried, slurring its changes like a drunk uncle slurs his words at Christmas. At no point does it encourage you to push hard or drive enthusiastically, so you tend to adjust your driving style accordingly and enjoy the car for what it is – a relaxed and assured gentleman making its way confidently (but slowly) through a chaotic world.
If for whatever reason, you DO decide to push it – it responds surprisingly well, albeit with lots of body roll. It hangs on in corners, and while the (recirculating ball) steering is vague at the straight-ahead position and slow, it provides plenty of feel. The brakes are strong and have no trouble bringing the big German to an abrupt stop.
When it comes to features… well, let’s just say that this comes from an era where Mercedes-Benz made luxury cars without actually bothering to include luxury features. The seats are MB-Tex (Mercedes-speak for vinyl), you have to wind up the windows, the thin-rimmed steering wheel is large and not leather-bound and only the passenger-side mirror is electric. The sound system showcases a cassette deck, and I’m determined to keep the car completely original, so this is why the lovely people of Melbourne have been treated to the dulcet tones of Jim Reeves and Engelbert Humperdinck as I’ve driven past them with the windows down… because, I decided to raid my dad’s old cassette tape collection two weeks ago.
Thankfully, there is power steering and a heater that works extremely well. There is also a fire extinguisher under the driver’s seat and a first aid kit in the back. But given that this is now three decades old, I’m tipping that it’ll likely act more as an accelerant in the event of a fire… so, if this thing ever catches fire, I’m going to grab the first aid kit and run away, fast.
I’ve left the styling for last. This is not an attention-seeking car. Most people driving around in their blob-shaped SUVs won’t take a second look at it. But in a world where some people will refer to their Nissan X-Trails as 'sexy', I think it looks poised, tailored and handsome. It doesn’t try hard, and it doesn’t need to. It successfully captures and blends some of the charm of the previous (W114) generation and the modernity of the successive (W124) generation.
I decided to buy this car as a 34th birthday present to myself – and the fact that it was built in the same year as I was born in was a lovely little bit of additional sentimental motivation to take the plunge. So far it has surpassed my expectations and I very much look forward to spending our 35th year together. ‘Panzer’ shares a garage with ‘Remy’ – a 2014 Fiat 500, and so I now have two unpretentious but characterful cars to tackle the urban environment with every day – and this makes me happy.
If you’ve ever wanted to own a W123 because you understand its appeal as a relatively low-maintenance and usable every-day classic – do it. You won’t regret it.