Even as a child, I knew there was something very special about Mercedes-Benz cars. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the majority of cars on American roads were from the Detroit automakers, and they weren’t exactly doing their best work during the so-called “Malaise Era.” While Japanese cars were making inroads into North America and were built to a much higher standard than the domestic cars of the time, their early reputations of being somewhat tinny and flimsy weren’t unwarranted.
But then there was Mercedes-Benz. Unlike many automakers of the time, Mercedes-Benz was doing some of the company's most legendary work, with icons like the W116 and W126 S-Class cars, the R107 SL roadster, and even the W201 190-series compact sedans all showing the world what build quality and innovative engineering looked like at a time when gutless carbureted V-8 engines, three-speed automatics, solid rear axles, and shoddy assembly were the norm.
My family didn't have the means to own a Mercedes-Benz when I was growing up, but my parents had quite a few friends who were fortunate enough to own one. On the lucky occasions I got to ride in a Mercedes-Benz, I knew these were not like other cars. It was the way the doors slammed shut with solid authority. It was the way nothing rattled or creaked even on rough roads, with big bumps smothered by the suspension with a muted thump. It was the firm yet springy seats. It was the regal and composed ride quality, quite unlike the floaty and bobbing suspensions in American cars of the time.
Who could forget the one-of-a-kind sound of the OM617 five-cylinder diesel, common in many popular Mercedes-Benz cars of that era? It wasn’t exactly silent but still managed to sound refined in a pleasantly mechanical way. These cars were engineered to a standard that even a child could appreciate, and so my lifelong admiration for the iconic German automaker was cemented.
Focusing on the W123
The model that was most common among our family friends was the W123, and specifically the 300D. That model remained an object of desire for most of my life. Friends and family alike recall how I’ve always admired these cars, ogling every one I’d see happily chugging away down the road long after their competition made their final trips to the scrapyard. Eventually, my wife Carrie decided to have a chat with me one evening, declaring that it was time for me to fulfill this childhood dream and get one for ourselves! Naturally, I was absolutely elated and in full agreement with her declaration, and so the search began.
There were plenty to be found in Southern California, where it’s still common to see W123s going about their daily business. It's a testament to their toughness and durability. But with even the newest examples being well over thirty years old, we wanted to find one that was mechanically strong and had been well maintained, and this took priority over cosmetics.
It took a few months to find “the one,” of course. No car, no matter how well-built and engineered, is immune to neglect or misuse. To be sure, there were a lot of duds out there that suffered various maladies from lack of maintenance and poor bodywork repair. On one car, my index finger went right through paint and filler when I pushed on a quarter panel.
Then one day I saw a Craigslist ad for a clean-looking Astral Silver example from 1983. The W123 looked to have been well cared for but was being sold at a slightly shady looking used car lot. It also had 291,000 miles on the clock. We decided it was still worth a look.
The 300D had been sitting in the back of a warehouse attached to the lot, and the salesman had to move several vehicles to get the car out for a better look. Despite having sat there for what the salesman said had been weeks, the OM617 diesel fired right up and quickly settled into its distinctive idle. An extended test drive revealed that it was mechanically very stout, with the engine pulling strongly (for an OM617), transmission shifting smoothly, and the suspension ironing out the road in a way that only a vintage Mercedes-Benz can.
But how did it look? Truthfully, it was a little rough around the edges, but it looked honest. The paint was still shiny but there were well over three decades worth of small scratches, and the entire hood was peppered in rock chips. The finish on the 14-inch “Bundt”-style alloy wheels was pretty much all gone. The interior was pretty clean and looked gloriously period-correct with its deep blue seats, carpet, and dashboard. Even the wood on the center console was shiny and uncracked – a rarity in these cars. However, the dashboard was badly cracked and the door cards exhibited the wrinkling that most W123s of this vintage suffer.
Nonetheless, this particular example spoke to me. It turned out that it was a one-owner car, well-cared-for by a gentleman in Pasadena until he couldn’t drive anymore. The stack of service receipts showed that he maintained the mechanicals meticulously over its nearly 300,000 miles and 35 years on the road. He clearly enjoyed long trips with the car as evidenced by the peppering of rock chips, a stick-on liquid-filled ball compass attached to the windshield, and, somewhat hilariously in a car not exactly known for speed, an 80s-era Whistler radar detector.
Though the car was visually far from perfect, I loved its appearance. It had the sort of patina that showed this was a well-used but also much-loved car. The patina reflected its long history with its first owner, who cared for the car very much but didn’t baby it. Its visual imperfections were a testament to its many years of reliable service, and they suggested that the first owner really had a connection to this car. Why else would one keep a car for well over three decades?
With all that in mind, we decided that this was the one. As this was our very first vintage car purchase, we did have a little trepidation. We’ve all heard the saying, “There is nothing more expensive than a cheap Mercedes,” and this one was offered at price that was less than what we were prepared to pay. But with its seemingly solid mechanicals, we decided to take the plunge.
Joining the family
Driving our newly acquired W123 home felt like being transported back to my childhood. The sound of the diesel engine and that distinctive smell common to old Mercedes-Benzes with MB-Tex upholstery particularly stood out during that drive. The lack of interior rattles in a 39-year-old car was laudable. Being an ’83 model, this 300D packed the turbocharged version of the OM617 under the hood. While it's no fireball, it certainly had no trouble keeping up with traffic, especially with the surprisingly smooth four-speed automatic. Others I had driven tended to shift hard. Even the air conditioning pumped out cool air, and the period-correct Blaupunkt cassette radio that the prior owner had installed at some point was still working flawlessly.
Shortly thereafter, I set about thoroughly detailing the car to remove many of the blemishes and get the paint – most of which was original – as shiny as possible. It has been said that you really get to know a car when you wash it, and that was certainly true here. It was during the detailing that I noticed so many features we take for granted in modern cars that were present in the W123, a car that debuted all the way back in 1976.
Here are just a few examples: the doors wrap around the rocker panel so that your pant legs or skirt don’t get dirty when you get in or out. There are prominent gutters around the rear window so that rainwater flows around the glass, not over it, which helps rear visibility in bad weather. The instrument cluster consists of three large and legible circular gauges arranged in a manner much like modern cars. Even the shape and layout of the dashboard is very similar to that of a modern automobile, with a prominent center stack containing audio and climate controls that flows down into a center console that contains the shift lever and some storage. It’s very apparent just how much and for how long the W123 and other Mercedes-Benz models of this period influenced automobile design.
Life with the W123
Given its robust mechanicals and incomparable style, the 300D eventually became my daily driver. I just couldn’t stop driving it and eventually I stopped trying to fight it. After all, what good is it to anyone just sitting in the garage? Besides, in our experience, parts availability has never been a problem with the W123, so while there have been some necessary repairs here and there, we never had to go through the pain of tracking down unobtainable parts, a chore that so many vintage car owners regularly have to suffer. The W123 is vintage, but because so many still thrive in daily service, there continues to be a strong market for parts. That makes it a realistic proposition to use a W123 as an everyday car.
We really haven’t had to do much to our new 300D. On a cosmetic level, we replaced the worn Bundt alloy wheels with a downgrade option: the standard steel wheels with color-matched wheel covers. I honestly prefer this look to the extra-cost alloys that most 300D turbo models were equipped with, so we went that route rather than refinishing the stock alloy wheels. Because uncracked blue replacement dashboards are very rare and expensive, we made do with a carpeted dash mat, which actually doesn’t bother me because that was a very popular period accessory in the ‘80s.
Of course, we’ve had to have repairs and maintenance done since we acquired the car, but most of the work has been routine and affordable. The only really catastrophic event was when the fuel tank corroded, and flooded the trunk and garage floor with diesel. To this day, we can still smell the occasional whiff of diesel inside the W123.
The best or nothing
Using our 300D as a daily driver is a joy. Complete strangers constantly stop us to admire and comment on our elegant old Mercedes-Benz, whether at stoplights, on the road, or in parking lots. Many of them share their own Mercedes-Benz stories from the past as they pore over the car. Recently, our 'tween daughter’s friend requested that we only drive them around in the old Benz rather than in our other, much more modern, car. Yes, even today’s 11-year-olds understand how cool this car is. Of course, we are more than happy to oblige her.
On the road, the 300D is simply lovely. The ride quality is wonderful even by today’s standards and the vault-like solidity is impressive, especially after nearly four decades on the road. I love that the car is slow by modern standards; in today’s world, the 300D’s pace is like a big German middle finger to the endless rat race happening outside.
I’ve even embraced the terrestrial radio and cassette player that has inspired me to build a period-correct cassette collection. I’ve been asked why I don’t replace that radio with a more modern unit with Bluetooth capability. Honestly, Bluetooth is the last thing I want in this car. It’s a car from the pre-connected world and being able to disconnect and not be barraged by phone calls and messages just like back in the day is truly a luxury today.
There’s a saying that you should never meet your heroes because you’ll likely be disappointed. Our experience with our 300D, one of the definitive automotive heroes of my childhood, would certainly suggest that’s not always true. Mercedes-Benz engineers in the 1970s created one of the most durable and well-engineered vehicles of all time, and four decades and hundreds of thousands of miles have not worn out our car’s luster.
While W123 prices have been steadily climbing (with wagon pricing having gotten particularly out of control), decent sedan examples can still be had for well under $10,000, making classic Mercedes-Benz ownership not only attainable, but its durability and parts availability make it a classic car you can actually drive and enjoy regularly. And if you own a classic Mercedes-Benz you’ve coveted since childhood, isn’t that the point?