Journal: Why The W123 Is Still The Epitome Of Mercedes-Benz Quality

Why The W123 Is Still The Epitome Of Mercedes-Benz Quality

By Mark Cosovich
November 28, 2017
21 comments

These photographs appear in the book “Mercedes-Benz W123: The Finest Saloon Car of the 20th Century

“Engineered like no other car in the world.”

That was the sales tagline for the company when these cars were launched, and the entirety of the W123 model range comprised an unprecedented diversity of vehicles. Equipped with four and six-cylinder petrol engines (both carbureted and fuel-injected), as well as four and five-cylinder diesel motors (including turbodiesels), there was plenty of choice when it came to propulsion, and there were also four body styles to choose from in addition to the built-to-order and other specialty vehicles.

Before getting too specific, no appraisal of the W123 can be considered fair without a brief outline of how Daimler-Benz was able to launch such an extensive and comprehensive range of this model in the mid-1970s.

Since the company’s support of national socialism during WW2 brought devastation upon the company by the time of its completion, at one of their first director’s meetings in 1945, an announcement was made: “The company now ceases to exist.” Heavy allied bombing of Daimler factories had rutted production capacity. The U.S Air Force had flattened most of the Sindelfingen plant for instance, which had by the end of of the war been reduced to using forced labor on little to no wages and in appalling conditions. The once-proud heritage of the two major inventors of the motor car was seemingly at its end.

However, a new way, and quite possibly the only way forward, was for the company to use its superb engineering abilities to produce vehicles of a quality and reliability the world had not yet seen, and to particularly emphasize safety features, which were rarely even considered at the time. Daimler-Benz were to plough this lonely furrow, when the vast majority of their competitors had little regard to the longevity or safety of their products.

In Europe, the company’s commercial vehicles would take full advantage of their proven diesel designs, and these stalwart, utilitarian machines provided the financial security for the company to spend many millions of Deutsche Marks on their passenger car development. Regardless of how good the cars were or were going to be though, in many places—and particularly in the U.K.—a German car was seen by many as tacit support of their recent enemy. It was going to take time and a very special car to break into these markets indeed.

After the U.K. joined the E.U. in the early 1970s and holidays on continental Europe became the norm, driving a Mercedes was slowly becoming accepted as a very sensible thing to do. The zeitgeist was shifting, and the cars would soon stand on their own merits in public opinion.

Then, in 1976, the W123 models were launched (part of the brand’s “new-look” push). It was the first time a Mercedes-Benz had a friendly face, in comparison to their history to that point of technologically advanced but rather dour and stern-looking automobiles. The W123 was approachable, inviting, and just plain pleasant to look at. The engineering of these cars was also an accomplishment of course, and waiting lists for this new generation were quite long—over a year for most models in the beginning. All the technical development and “rebranding” had finally paid off.

Here was a superbly-engineered saloon car that also came in coupe and estate versions that was built for supreme safety and longevity, which in turn are of course long term economic investments in the sense of brand identity and reputation. On the other hand, if you build a car that rarely needs replacing, then you might have a hard time selling the new ones!

The range of the 123 chassis was continually tweaked over the span of its production, with newer engines introduced in 1980, as well as a general upgrading of trims and specifications, and at the end of production in ’84/’85, there were still waiting lists for these vehicles, which must be some sort of record for a production saloon car.

All this was not to last of course, the replacement models (W201 and W124) were to be very different in concept: easier to produce, and significantly cheaper to build, with less of the build quality W123 owners had come to expect and enjoy. Of course, economy and performance are always objectives in car design, with particular attention being paid to a newer type of customer, that perhaps didn’t think in the same ways as those who had come before.

It was a slippery slope, and as expected by many, it has led to reliability and longevity becoming comprised in pursuit of other objectives. Many cars and car companies were only too willing to slip into the shoes of the extremely well-built W123 model, but few and arguably none have achieved as much.

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shado73ibastAngelogordwheelsTheElJacko Recent comment authors
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shado73
shado73

As good as this chassis is, it definitely has its share of problems. Being an axe ASE tech, I’m no stranger to things under the hood, but my weakest point is vacuum. And of course that’s the biggest issue I’ve had with my 81 300D. I’ve been slowly resorting it over the past 10 years that I’ve had it, while it’s also my daily driver. The odometer stopped working about 6 years ago at 1,209,xxx miles. At roughly 65k a year, she should be right around 1.5 million miles. The drivetrain is tired though, so I’m building a drivetrain to… Read more »

ibast
ibast

The article is a little misleading. The w123 wasn’t engineered in it’s own right. It was development of the W114. And it was “just” an E-class. Don’t get me wrong, both the W114 and the W123 are good cars, but they had their problems. And the W123 did solve a lot of the w114s problems.

gordwheels
gordwheels

My 84 Mercedes 300D was / is my most driven car ever. I used it for sales work that involved going to client’s homes to do estimates. She was a solid vehicle that drew out a lot of stories and admiring looks from other people. I look back fondly on the many years and miles we shared. My wife loved driving her and one day she got pulled over for exceeding the speed limit. That was easy to do because the car pulled smoothly at any speed and would go MUCH faster than it felt. The police officer asked her… Read more »

Alican Güven

When i was 16 i drowe 115 220D, at 19 124 250D. I never have 123, but my father always tells stories about his 123 models, includes 200 / 230-4 / 230-6. Growing with Mercedes.

dukeodie
dukeodie

Wife and I have 3-all diesels.Hers-300D/230k,mine-300D-Turbo and a 1977 300CD which is being rodded,I call them the forever car.Very easy to work on yourself,I have spent many hours under them-extremely simple and straightforward.The main problem is the vacuum system/lack of maintence.Keep it up with fresh filters,marvel w/fillup,oil changes.Brakes are easy to do.Change all rubber body bushings,good for another 20-25yrs.

Dwayne Lindsay

Neighbor has a wagon, bought it new when his son was accepted at a college 6+ hours away, Made the trip up and back a minimum of 5 times a year, for 4 years, then his daughter and now it’s hauling the grand kids to the same campus… In between it’s been to the beach, mountains and everywhere else under the sun, still on the original drive train, looks good, runs great.

Alexandre Goncalves
Alexandre Goncalves

I had a 1981 W123 300D (Wagon) – only rust kept me from enjoying it more….

Everyday I see one or two W123 and start thinking that one day I’ll get another one!

Jim Levitt
Jim Levitt

Tanks on four rubber tires. As long as you kept the rust away, these would last almost forever.

Sotirios Bakaimis
Sotirios Bakaimis

rust at that time was a common characteristc on all vehicles

Harv Falkenstine
Harv Falkenstine

I have owned a few of these over the years and my older brother just got rid of his and replaced it with a lower mileage 300SD. Growing up as an Army brat and then spending three tours on active duty in Germany, the W123 is an old friend. At a recent Cars and Coffee in Tucson, I spied a red 300TD with low mileage and immaculately maintained. Surrounded by Hot Rods, Porsches, Ferraris and other exotics, it stood out like a quiet, calm, confident friend. ..The current Mercedes-Benz High Mileage champ is Gregorios Sachinidis, a Greek taxi driver who… Read more »

Screwdriver
Screwdriver

The reality here is simply that the W123 was the last, best step in the engineering of cars that featured minimal plastic and electronics, designed manually by the very best of German talent. The W124 was the first, relatively small step away from this, in a new world where fuel efficiency and computer simulated design would ultimately strip Stuttgart of the goodwill it had earned over past decades. While the W124 was admittedly far superior to everything that followed, it cannot match the W123 on character and simplicity. It’s clear that Mercedes Benz has lost its way, tragically having forgotten… Read more »

mark cosovich
mark cosovich

How the mighty have fallen, W123 was the entry level model in the 70s even a basic 200 had all these qualities, Your comments are very correct, However does Daimler A.g. even care anymore, they have joined the “Pile them high and sell them cheap” brigade I’m not even sure they are doing that well?

SteveLittlefield
SteveLittlefield

Great comments! I agree and take your point a step further. While I love Mercedes, Porsche and BMW up until 1990, I wouldn’t own anything German after that time. German cars & motorcycles contained a beautiful logic that could be found whenever you took anything apart. They were a joy to service and repair. The mechanical design always made sense. Everything came apart and went back together with ease. The engineers who designed early German machines must have serviced and repaired their own stuff, because the old machines respected the mechanic. Not so, today. Gratuitous complexity is now the essence… Read more »

Sotirios Bakaimis
Sotirios Bakaimis

couldn’t agree less

Horacio Romeo
Horacio Romeo

I’d still be very happy to have a 300TDT in good condition. A great estate!

kjassiturbo
kjassiturbo

The W124 is known to be extremely reliable in its own right. The W201 was an absolute trainwreck, however. This generation of cars from Mercedes, from 1976 to 1994 is the pinnacle of European passenger car engineering. W124s routinely go over 500,000 km. I don’t know where you get the information that W124 compromised the quality of the W123.

TheElJacko
TheElJacko

It’s true. I am on the way to be hopefully MB specialist for these older Mercs. W123 like any other has it’s weaknesses, but not something big, HVAC system can cause big problems. On the other hand, W124/W201 suspension lasts much shorter than on w123. Springs weaken, all the bushings are weaker, and whatever suspension part starts to go bad, you can feel it, it’s all wiggly and unstable. W123 has much less of these problems. Take electronics, some engines (the worst is M104) has some kind of biodegradable cable insulation, so many of them did degrade exposing live wires… Read more »

Anders Lauge Prip

I have had a W123 230 coupé and a W124 280 wagon, and to me the W124 exceeds the W123 in build quality and construction. There is so many clever solutions on a W124 that surprises you. Like a line of the coolant is running through the washer fluid canister; result: nice warm washer fluid for extra efficiency and function on those freezing mornings.

mark cosovich
mark cosovich

I can’t see how a W124 with electonically controlled fuel injection “Exceeds the W123 in build quality/ construction” Once it fails ( And they do) the car is dead, and not repairable, unlike the W123 which is still loved the World over because of it’s simplicity and excellence in construction. Sometimes “Less is more”

Angelo
Angelo

I overheated in the middle of the Mojave desert when that silly washer fluid heating element ruptured! My W123 has been far more reliable than my W124, but the W124 feels infinitely more refined.