It’s time to wax lyrical about the iconic W123...

Classic Mercedes-Benz models are very popular with collectors. We look at the W123 range, a perfect entry-level collectable.

Packaging

Practicality is key with the W123, which leads us to the fuel tank fitted for the fuel shortages of the 1970s. At 80 litres, the tank was large and safely mounted above the rear axle between the boot and rear seat. It has a solid steel cover plate to further protect it. The boot is large, too, at 510 litres, and the spare is mounted under a board.

Seating is spacious with traditional vinyl upholstery that is super durable. A first-aid kit is mounted on the rear parcel shelf.

Disc brakes all-round were standard and recirculating-ball steering was common for the time, although it did result in some vagueness in a straight line.

Powertrain

Benz provided something for everyone. Two diesels (a 240D four-cylinder and a five-cylinder 300D) were accompanied by three petrols: 200 and 230 four-cylinders plus 250 and 280 sixes. Power outputs for the 200s and 230s were 80 kW with more torque from the 230. The 230E had 100 kW (with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection); 108 and 136 kW for the 250 and 280E; and 53 and 67 kW for the two diesels. The automatics are easy-going but do slow down acceleration.

Which one to get

Some say the best engine is the 230 but this should ideally have fuel injection (230E) for better fuel consumption. The diesels struggle to keep up with traffic (0-100 km/h in 24,1 seconds for the 240D) so if you fancy an oiler, opt for a 300D. The fuel consumption is only 5% higher than the slowcoach 240D.

Later models had alloy wheels but most prefer the classic body-coloured hubcaps on steel rims. Options included rear-seat headrests, a passenger-side door mirror until 1981, cruise control, Becker radio and power steering.

What to watch out for

Solidly built, these Mercs are still prone to rust and coastal cars need to be garaged. The carburettor models use a Stromberg CD175, a reliable device. These will eventually require a rebuild and this may cost a thousand or two. Mileages of over 300 000 km are common and need not be a deterrent but first do a compression test. Clutches may be the first component to require replacement so check for slippage.

Availability and prices

Condition is everything with rusty vehicles going for R10 000 – sometimes merely as parts – to pristine, cared for examples with mileages under 200 000 km fetching around R60 000. Prices should continue to rise, however, as these are some of the most practical, comfortable everyday driving classics available, worth significantly more than the successor W124. Fortunately, there are lots around and often come to market. In many cases, the cars were purchased as “the last car I will ever buy new” and are sold as part of a deceased estate only 30 to 40 years later. Parts are not cheap but less expensive than most new-car items.   

Interesting facts

In August 1977, our team members who tested the 250 AT had this to say: “The Mercedes W123 series cars are the traditional Mercs in a modernised form, introducing many improvements, yet keeping to a pattern which has become traditional and highly successful.” This remains true today; these cars will be seen on our roads for decades to come. There is a large discrepancy in pricing due to the high demand for vehicles in a pristine condition and unease of buying a high-mileage model with some rust. Repair work and engine or gearbox overhaul may be pricey but the chances are it will be well worth the expense.

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