The W123 was launched here late in 1976 and went on to become the best selling Mercedes-Benz of the 1970s and early-1980s.
Graham 'Smithy' Smith reviews the used Mercedes-Benz W123 1976-1986: its fine points, its flaws and what to watch for when buying it
Driving an old classic car can be appealing, but it's important to buy a quality oldtimer, like the Mercedes-Benz W123, to avoid the dream turning into a nightmare.
There's something special about driving an old car. Sure they don't have the safety of a new car, they don't perform as well, and aren't as environmentally friendly, but they have something few new cars have, character.
But it's important to make a high quality purchase. A car that was well engineered and well built in its time will usually stand the test of time well. So, if you start with a quality car, and then buy one that has been lovingly maintained and is in good condition you have a better than equal chance of enjoying your classic motoring experience.
Buy a worn-out, rusty old banger that wasn't a great car when new and you're asking for trouble. The Mercedes-Benz W123 ticks just about every box for an everyday classic driver. It was a great car when new and there are many examples still being driven every day.
The W123 was launched here late in 1976 and went on to become the best selling Mercedes-Benz of the 1970s and early-1980s. It was a mid-sized model capable of accommodating an average family in comfort with enough room left over to swallow whatever luggage they wished to take with them.
It was a model to suit all needs, the Mercedes for the people if you will, with three body styles, sedan, wagon and pretty coupe. Typical of Mercedes there was a plethora of engine options to choose from, which expanded its appeal even further.
The choices began with a modest 2.3-litre carburettor-fed single overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine that boasted 80 kW and 186 Nm. In quite a heavy car the performance it delivered was best described as sluggish.
Before diesels were even thought of by the everyday motorist Mercedes offered one in the W123. The 2.4-litre single overhead camshaft four-cylinder was an old-time diesel, no turbocharging here, and put out just 48 kW and 137 Nm. Only those interested in economy bought these.
Or the most part W123 buyers chose one of the six-cylinder models, which offered more zip than the fours possibly could. They were powered either by a carb-fed 2.5-litre single-overhead camshaft in-line engine or a larger 2.8-litre fuel-injected double overhead cam unit. The 2.5-litre six put out 95 kW and 196 Nm, the 2.8-litre engine boasted 125 kW and 233 Nm.
From 1980 there was also the option of a 3.0-litre five-cylinder diesel that gave a more respectable 65 kW and 172 Nm. The vast majority of W123s were sold with four-speed automatic transmissions, but some made it to market with four-speed manuals. Final drive was through the rear wheels.
Mercedes generally equipped its cars well, although nothing to the level of today's models. Even the base model, the 230, came standard with air. It also had power mirrors, fog lamps, central locking and a radio-cassette sound system. Other models had power windows and some also boasted cruise control.
ON THE LOT
Buying an old model like the W123 is quite different to buying a more recent used car. They're generally not found in used car lots or auction houses, they're more likely to be found at specialist classic car dealers, or through newspaper classified or on-line ads.
It's also worth checking with the Mercedes-Benz clubs as the best cars are often sold by word of mouth through the club network. Values vary quite a bit because of the large variation in condition of older cars like the W123.
Generally the range runs from $2500 for an average condition four-cylinder sedan, through $5000 for a more desirable 2.8-litre six, to $10,000 for a pretty 280CE coupe.
IN THE SHOP
Buying a top quality model usually means it will stand up well over time, but even the best cars need regular care and attention and the
W123 is no different. It's wise to check for evidence of regular oil changes over the years, old oil is a car killer. Also check for crash repairs and paint defects; a car as old as the W123 is likely to have been in a fender bender at some time.
The engine should run smoothly and there shouldn't be any smoke from the exhaust, the transmission should engage gears smoothly without reluctance, and the brakes should pull the car up in a straight line. Check the tyres for uneven wear that might indicate a suspension problem, and the power steering shouldn't be heavy.
The sun can have an affect on the interior trim components, particularly the dash pad and rear parcel shelf where it's possible to find cracks and faded colours. Find a car in good condition and the W123 can be a pleasure to drive.
IN A CRASH
The W123 was made before airbags were routinely fitted, but Mercedes was a pioneer of safety in motorcars and were designing crumple zones before anyone else. The 'Benz bodies are strong, but are designed to absorb much of the energy in a crash.
AT THE PUMP
No lightweight, fuel economy isn't one of the W123's strong points. The fours and the diesels will deliver the best economy if you can stand the sluggish performance; the sixes are the best buy and will get 10 L/100 km on a run.
* Traditional 'Benz look
* Stylish coupe a classic charmer
* Smooth six-cylinder performance
* Family-sized interior
* Well built
* Solid and sound
* Affordable everyday classic
ALSO CHECK THESE
BMW 5 SERIES — 1977-1983
BMW's mid-sized sedan didn't offer the same wide range of models as 'Benz did with the W123, but it did come with a wonderful straight-six engine and a great chassis that was used as a benchmark by many other carmakers when developing new models. Still a good daily driver. Pay $4000-$8000.
VOLVO 240/260 — 1975-1986
It's not the most glamorous of classic choices, the Volvo suffered over the years from its emphasis on safety before safety was regarded as important. Today that same safety can be of value if you want to drive an older car. Cheap as chips to buy, run and repair, they go forever.
Look carefully for rust as they also suffer from the dreaded tin worm.
JAGUAR XJ6 — 1979-1987
One of the all-time great sedans the XJ6 still holds its appeal as a classic driver, although it suffered from poor build quality through some very tough times for the company before being bought by Ford. One of the nicest classic sedans to drive, very comfortable, but is thirsty and can be unreliable. Pay $7000-$10,000.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Neat old car that's fun to drive and still capable of handling modern day traffic.