Meet A One-Family 1980 Mercedes-Benz 300TD That Resists Hipster Labeling
Photography by Ian Wood
Some cars stay cool forever, but not always for the same reasons. With examples of such ever-stylish machines as this 300TD, the collective ownership of the model shifts over time, and its desirability is hinged on different things along the way accordingly: whether a brand-new yuppy-mobile with a pair of retrievers in the back, a grandmother’s reliable old ‘Benz, or a surfer’s hip alternative to a Type 2 VW today, the estate variant of this indomitable chassis has been, and is, a lot of things to a lot of people. And if the Whole Foods parking lots in Southern California have told me anything about the classic car market lately, it’s that the W123-generation Mercs have captured the attention of the organic granola crowd too.
In the case of this specific W123’s owner, let’s call him Alan, all signs point to the kind of situation wherein a gleaming paint job convinced some poor guy to overpay for a classic car that is very much “in” at the moment. Indeed, it’s true that this 1980 300TD has been lightly restored—the body was stripped and smoothed and repainted in its original Mango Green, and there are plenty of genuine replacement trim pieces and gaskets and seals and knobs, etc. to look at inside and out—and the man who drives it on the weekends with his family is an industrial designer whose aesthetic-focused output is decidedly high-end and fashionable. This is no “creative-type buys a cool old European car” story though, and it wasn’t even a recent purchase either—this was the car that Alan grew up in, and below is a photo of his sister coming home from the hospital in its backseat—it was always, and continues to be, a one-family car.
Keen eyes will spot the RUF stickers on the rear quarter window glass celebrating the German manufacturer’s 25th and 50th anniversaries, and the explanation for why these have been stuck to a Mercedes in Beverly Hills is a good place to start this story. It takes us back to 1970 and to the factory doors of another Stuttgart staple: Porsche.
Almost a full decade before Alan was born, his mom found herself in the lobby of the Porsche factory, waiting to take European delivery of her brand-new 1970 911T. The plan was to pick up the car in Germany, do a little driving tour of Europe in it, ship it back to her home in the United States, and sell it for a profit that would cover the expenses of the vacation. Back then there was relatively easy money to be made in bringing European-spec cars across the Atlantic, and these kinds of adventures are still viable today even in the face of price-correcting globalization. She didn’t stick to the plan though, for Alois Ruf was never part of the itinerary. She met him while waiting for her car, and presumably he was at the factory to take a look at Porsche’s production at a time when the business was just starting to dabble in their modification.
Having at least one shared interest then, they hit it off, and so rather than following through with her schedule of events Alan’s mom remained in Germany for a while, dating Alois and driving the 911. In fact, that car was one of the very first 901s that he started doing in-depth developmental work to, for when she met him he was not the figurehead of high-performance that he is today, and was chiefly involved with jobs like converting Volkswagens to run on three cylinders rather than four. Making an already slow German car even slower by reducing power? That’s about as diametrically opposed as possible to what Ruf does today.
The relationship eventually came to an end some years later—Alois is now Alan’s godfather—and Alan’s mom returned home to the ‘States, got married, and started her family. Alan was born in 1979, and it was in that same year that the Mercedes was purchased, back then as a new car. She would daily drive it for decades regardless of whatever else was in and out of the driveway, and when she moved from California to Texas around the year 2000, the car came with her. It took on the role of a secondary vehicle at that point, living out a retirement of sorts in the garage with the occasional drive around the block to keep things from seizing up or going dry. Alan remained in California, but after his mom was hospitalized for a throat issue that was making it difficult to swallow, he flew right out to see her. Arriving at her Lone Star home, he caught a glimpse of the family’s old Mercedes socked away in the shadows of the garage. The situation and the resurgence of memories prompted Alan to make plans for him and his mom to take it on a some road trips together after he gave it a light restoration. She was on-board with the idea, and signed over the title so he could start the process of rejuvenation for the dutiful old family wagon.
The throat issue was the manifestation of cancer, and his mom passed before she and Alan could carry out their vision. Heartbroken but determined because of it, Alan stuck to their plan and had the green 300TD shipped back out to California where the work could begin in earnest.
It wasn’t in need mechanically, but with decades of familial duty in its history the car had sustained its fair share of visible wear and tear over the years. His father, who first bought the car, was an architect one could probably call eccentric, and had a predilection for neatness and record, such it is that the family’s Benz is documented down to the Hirschmann antenna tags and the first fuel fill up. He kept the brochures he looked at before buying the car, every even tangentially relevant receipt, calendars, stickers, tags, notes, everything. Despite that though, there’s only so much one can do about kids and their relationships with the material world!
So this is how a young creative-type in SoCal restores a W123 and resists the hipster label despite the surface look of things. He fulfilled his promise to his mom by refreshing the wagon—it is a beautiful sight, but decidedly still an “honest” car unlike the sins of so many other restorations—and now the road trips involve his own kids. You could say things have come full circle for this rectangle.