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