The Carchive: The Mercedes W123 Sedans

It’s been a long, heavy week, and boy am I looking forward to taking an hour away from 2016. Let’s jump aboard the skiff of research, put the oars in the rowlocks of time and skull slowly across the lake of automotive history, before reaching up on the rocky shore of The Carchive.
Today we’re looking at a quality brochure for a quality product. Resplendent in vivid orange, this document simply screamed to be plucked from the mass of flotsam and jetsam surrounding it. We’re off to 1970’s Germany for a ride in a W123 Mercedes-Benz.

“Research, designs and workmanship of unbeatable quality go into a Mercedes. It is unique, incomparable- the perfect car”
The Mercedes-Benz W123. You could call it the car that truly popularised the three-pointed star. In its lifetime, and quite a long way beyond, this car has been a lasting presence on the world stage. Over the years it has been celebrated for its quality, its durability and its fitness for purpose everywhere from Nuremberg to Nairobi.
It’s rather refreshing to read a brochure which makes no mention of image or lifestyle. There is no flowery, atmospheric language here, just dry, Germanic product description. They are pretty heavy on their use of the word “Perfect”, though.
“A fine combination of many superb characteristics makes up the technical superiority of a Mercedes-Benz car, not just a few clever features. That means perfection, not just cosmetics.”
I’m not actually sure they meant to use “perfect” or any of its derivations. Perfection is, surely, unachievable and the Germans would never seek pursuit of an argument, surely? There are people on this very forum today ( and must have been at least several folk back then) who strenuously object to the body-coloured hub-cap centres that Mercedes insisted in afflicting their mid-size sedan with.
I expect the phrase they were looking for was “nothing left unconsidered”, which was a far more accurate summing up of the attention to detail enjoyed by Mercedes-Benz products of the 1970s.
“Perfect motoring means more than just driving fast. More than just skill and agility. For perfect motoring you need a car that is equal to everything the traffic demands of it”
Great pains are taken within this publication to mention the thought given to caring for the car’s occupants. The use of inverted commas when speaking of their “comfortable seating” would usually imply irony, but apparently Mercedes “constantly made use of medical knowledge” in seat design. They then go on to explain why the driver might initially find the seats a little hard, but would later love to live the tough but kind nature of MB soft furnishings.
Safety was seen as being very marketable, too, with mention given to the front and rear impact-absorbing crumple zones as well as the rigid passenger compartment with its terrific roll-over stability. There’s even a possible dig at the Swedish safety stance: “the Mercedes has a classic elegance, Intelligence applied through technology, solves safety problems better than masses of individual elements, however impressive, put together as shapeless “tanks”.
“The wide range of powerful power units means every driver can have a car tailored to his own needs and wishes. So a Mercedes is a made-to-measure car. Unclassifiable- except that in a Mercedes-Benz you always travel first class”
This particular brochure deals with the least exotic of the gas-fuelled machines, from the four-cylinder 200 to smooth the six-pot 250. The evergreen, indestructible diesel models are beyond our scope during this particular Carchive visit.
Looking at the W123 in general, though, causes me to ponder the Mercedes-Benz identity. Though this brochure is older than me, it’s probably still the W123 that I identify most of all as being the stereotypical Mercedes. I still imagine it as a Berlin Taxi. It was identified as a popular whip in Botswana in a Top Gear special, before being subjected to Jezza and Cap’n Slow’s severe beatings.  Beyond it, the S-Class was, of course, the ultimate expression of the Mercedes Sedan, and the gullwing SL was probably the embodiment of Mercedes dynamic ambitions, but as a measure of what Mercedes-Benz actually means to the common man, the W123 is, in my mind, still the Most Mercedes-Benz of all Mercedes-Benzes.
What’s yours?
(All images are of original manufacturer’s publicity material, photographed by me, on the roof of an Audi. Copyright remains property of Mercedes-Benz, who really ought to go back to making A4 size brochures on nice foil paper.)

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  1. Rover 1 Avatar
    Rover 1

    The one thing to remember is how expensive Mercedes Benzes were back then, relative to other cars pricing.
    Commonly twice the price or more of their ‘on paper’ competitors.
    Something that didn’t really change until the advent of Lexus and the LS400.
    A local example here was that the slightly later W201 190E 2.0 litre basic spec,no A/C,wind up windows cost the same as a fully loaded LWB ZG Ford LTD

    1. Cool_Cadillac_Cat Avatar

      We found the window sticker for my wife’s, then GF, ’81 240D.
      The only things which may have been considered optional were the MB Tex seat, the 4-speed auto, and the A/C. Oh, had the base radio, too, AM and FM. Inexplicably, I think it had cruise control, too.
      Manual windows, manual seats, no sunroof, no passenger door mirror, no nothing. “Power” locks, but they all had the funky pneumatic system…up until the mid-90s, because my ’95 W124 had that same system.
      She bought it new, though it was a tester for the big Benz dealer in Dallas at the time.
      This is 1981 dollars. Today, that’s $57K and change for a base model vehicle with almost no extras.
      However…I’d wager that car is still mobile.

      1. duurtlang Avatar

        “However…I’d wager that car is still mobile.”
        That’s the whole point. At that time a car like a Mercedes wasn’t about gadgets. Besides image you bought a Mercedes because of the build quality, ride quality and its longevity. The key factors of a premium car. Gadgets and horsepower were secondary, at best.

        1. Cool_Cadillac_Cat Avatar

          I’ve since had an ’89 W126 4.2L and a ’95 W124 3.2L…both were solid, though the 126 was much more old-world, ingot-style…like a Mercedes should be.
          That car also had, in ’89, driver’s seat and steering wheel memory (telescoping only, but powered, and you did not have to be in Park to use it), and power front seat headrests. Was pre-step-on-the-brake-to-shift-from-Park-because-idiots system, too.
          Still had that aggravating vacuum-powered power lock system, though.

          1. Rover 1 Avatar
            Rover 1

            I like my W124’s power lock system, it means the locks stay useable even if the battery goes flat unlike some of the later versions which unlocked themselves in airport carparks, when the battery went flat from slow drain electrical systems.

          2. Cool_Cadillac_Cat Avatar

            However, I know the locks on the W123, when they lost vacuum, which was pretty regularly after a certain point, automatically unlocked, which isn’t good.
            At least they still have keys, though!

        2. Rover 1 Avatar
          Rover 1

          Highlighting the more than semantic difference between the words ‘premium’, ‘luxury’ and ‘quality’.
          Mercedes Benzes were always Quality from when many cars weren’t.

  2. nanoop Avatar

    The W123 was so Mercedes-Benz, Mercedes-Benz even forgot to stop the production line and produced it in parallel with the W124 for over a year – looks like people would still buy a new W123 over a new W124.

    1. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      Didn’t they do the same in the change-over from 114/115 to 123, and the change from 124 to 210?
      The W124 was in production in Pune, India and East London, South Africa for a year or two after the introduction of the W210 locally.

      1. nanoop Avatar

        I wasn’t sure and looked it up, and yes, you’re right. Was that common practice in the olden days, or a MB-specific thing? I considered it a “German taxi drivers are conservative” thing.

        1. Rover 1 Avatar
          Rover 1

          I don’t know, I think it might be a fairly common practice- to use up parts and meet final orders?

          1. nanoop Avatar

            Hmm, now that I think about it, I’d doubt that to be a common habit, since that would mean they had planned overlap, keeping production floors, qualified people and supply chains occupied in parallel. Hard to imagine from companies that are known to make their products annoying by shaving one coin off the user experience (times 500.000, I can see that…).
            From what I know from the 80ies and 90ies in Germany, the line for a model is stopped during the summer holidays (six weeks) and the regular workers are sent off, that’s mandatory (“Werksferien”, work’s or site’s holidays). While the workers are polulating Mediterranean beaches, the tooling and handling infrastructure for the new model is installed, and off they go with the new car production after the summer break.

  3. Adrian S Avatar
    Adrian S

    Any comments regarding Mercedes-Benz prices usually ignore the issues of huge import duties, exchange rates, and blatant profiteering by local distributors amongst other things.
    Not taking anything away from the Lexus LS400, but initial pricing in no way reflected the cost of development. Toyota had enough financial reserves to take a huge gamble, backed up by investing hugely in after sales service and thereby almost guaranteeing repeat sales to previous customers, not something that Jaguar, BMW, or Mercedes-Benz had not much bothered with.

    1. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      Was it such a gamble? Ford spent about the same amount of money buying and developing Jaguar, then sold it at a two thirds loss.

      1. Adrian S Avatar
        Adrian S

        It was a gamble, but Toyota (and the Japanese car industry in general) at that time could not do much wrong in terms of products and after sales service. The Japanese did not invent much new, just made products that did not fall to bits within a couple of years, or cost you your first born keep on the road.
        Why diid Ford buy Jaguar (and Volvo, and Land Rover etc)? So they could develop “premium/luxury” vehicles off cheap Ford platforms thinking people might be fooled into buying because of “Ye Old English” styling (in the case of Jaguar). The only thing that improved at Jaguar was that they no longer broke down every other week. This cynicism has been part of the (downfall of) American Motor Industry for the past 60 years.

  4. Desmo Avatar

    I had a W123/250/straight 6/manual/ w.carburettor(!). It was only built for one year. 1977. Then Mercedes replaced it by injection engine. Lately I was trying to find one as a hobby car, only to find out that over here in Germany they have all gone. Vehicle stock of this particular car -> officially zero.
    I will not try to buy another W123. Also because prices have gone mad. However, the best item of W123s were the seats. MB built in the best seats of any production car ever. This – together with sandwich sheet body – made up 99% of the quality feeling. Needless to say that they were way better than their 70s competitors. But of course they had their flaws. They were rusting (it´s a myth that W123s are stainless), and they were gas guzzlers. My one took 16 mpg plus engine oil.

    1. Adrian S Avatar
      Adrian S

      I saw an orange 250 near my place today. Automatic of course, showing 365,000km and tidy enough for it’s age. A few hours later while walking over the nearby freeway, I saw it again heading toward me so I waited for it to pass below. I’ve always loved 123s.
      I think most 6 cylinder carburettored cars of that era were not particularly good on fuel.

      1. desmo Avatar

        I had a W123/230E/4cyl automatic/injection afterwards.
        No changes on consumption. Only that it was slower 🙂

        1. Adrian S Avatar
          Adrian S

          They both had about 100KW, and the 230E “should” have been been better on fuel. The 250 engine was not highly regarded, but the automatic I drove once in the late 80’s seemed to go OK (non-emissioned NZ spec). I would love a 280E, but Aussie anti-pollution regs strangled performance and economy

  5. OttoNobedder Avatar

    I think you meant to spell it ‘scull’ although the Urban Dictionary says Skulling is fun also
    An Australian term for guzzling down a large alcoholic beverage, (usually beer) in a large glass or mug without taking a breath.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Damn spell-check. I’ll leave it as is, though. Let’s go Aussie.

      1. Rover 1 Avatar
        Rover 1

        How did I miss this? Common term in NZ too.

  6. theskig Avatar

    If I have to explain an alien what a car is I will show him a picture of a W123.
    That’s THE CAR.

  7. peugeotdude505 Avatar

    I got the shirt 🙂

    1. Adrian S Avatar
      Adrian S


  8. Texlenin Avatar

    What’s the problem? They’re just up-market dog dishes…….:-)