Currently we think of the Mercedes-Benz w123 as the perfect Mercedes model which is pretty much a flawless classic. It is a car that resides in the super league of renown young classic cars. It is true they outlasted most other cars from that era and have a reputation for “superior” build quality and “reliability”. The w123 has indeed a large place in many people’s heart and often bring about memories and stories when nice examples roll by on the street. However the cult status of the w123 has maybe become a little skewered and starting negative discussions of the model is frowned upon in quite ideological ways. In hindsight this classic’s reputation might have become a little biased, as with most renowned classics (read: Ferrari).
Don’t worry I’m not trying to discredit the w123, but trying to convey a more realistic perspective of the model as a car looking away from the icon status. As any car or man-made object, the w123 is not perfect and comes with its quarks and weird engineering.
I was looking through an old review from 1977 of the 280E in Motor Sport Magazine written when the w123 was brand new. This is the perfect time to look into an unbiased opinion for the times and comparison to other cars at the market. If you want to read the full article, it can be found at https://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/march-1977/37/mercedes-280e-w123
I’ll give some of the highlights opinion from the review under with my own comments on the matter:
Complaint 1: One complaint is that the car is too expensive for the time, you could get more luxury and more performance from example Jaguar for less money. Also the extra equipment is expensive and 280 base model without electrical windows or sunroof starts at £8495 which is roughly £52700 in today’s money. Quite a lot!
Comment: This makes sense in 1977, but as time has shown, the Jaguar had many issues especially with QC and electrical system. Mercedes is a better built car, but is not as sporty with smaller (more boring?) engines and less equipment in general. In hindsight when you look at how long many of these cars have lasted, maybe it was not so expensive after all?
Complaint 2: Another complaint in the article is the low power of the 280 engine (remember this early version had only 177hp compared tot he 186hp of later models) and the author misses a bit the V8 power for this top w123 model which only clocks in 0-100km/h in 10s. The kick down is pointed out to be bit slow and the author recommends to keep in S when overtaking. Fuel efficiency was also not the best at its time where the author also points out that the engine is quite thirsty with 16-18mpg (14-12 L/100km).
Comment: I quite can understand the lack of performance when compared to cheaper Jaguars and BMWs at the time, but Mercedes never wanted this to be a sports car. That was reserved to the SL and top of the line S-class. The upgrades to the M110 engine in 1981 did increased its power and probably lowered fuel consumption a bit. I run mine 280CE from 1984 usually around 10 L/100km. The kick down is indeed slow, much faster to manually stick in S with the auto transmission.
Complaint 3: Plain interior and cheap plastic. The author points out the spartan interior, sparse use of real wood and really nasty cheap plastic used on the side door pockets. Also the boot has a cheap looking tool kit compared to a BMW.
Comment: The interior is very plain, but has kept the styling somehow timeless and looks nice too this day. I personally really enjoy the large air vents int the dash. The cheap plastic and nasty on the doors rarely breaks, except the glove compartment-lid. It always breaks and is definitely cheap plastic!
The author credits the seats for being quite firm and good, but I think the seat comfort can be quite uncomfortable on long rides. I wonder how other cars were at this time?
Complaint 4: Road and engine noise. The complaint is that Jaguars are superior in this department. Especially the wind noise from the and large flat mirrors and poor engine noise insulation is pointed out.
Comment: Agreed, quite some wind noise especially in the coupe version. The wheel sills can clearly be heard on gravel roads. Also the engine valve tick is clearly audible in to the passenger compartment. They should have put a bit more sound proofing, but it does save weight.
Recognition 1: Rev happy engine. The straight six is very rev happy going up to 6500 before the red-line. The author also points out the engine has superior smoothness to V8s at the time.
Comment: A bit contradiction to the first complaint, but I see the point. I think the M110 feels fast and can keep up with modern traffic pain free. The straight inline 6s have perfect balance and are superior to any other engine configuration. It’s one among economic reasons why Mercedes has reintroduced them in their new cars and stopped V6 production.
Recognition 2: Brilliant suspension and road handling. The w123 utilizes the latest technology from the S-class at a cheaper standpoint. There is little body roll and the ride feels more comfortable than harsh BMWs while still being agile. Also the car has wet weather stability than the S-class. Super maneuverability with the recirculating-ball servo. Also impeccable braking with large disk breaks on all four wheels.
Comment: This I totally agree with! You can toss the w123 around mountainous roads at full speed without being daunted, there is a clear indication when you are pushing the limit with the classic wheel whine without the car going sideways. There is a reason why there were so many w123 Taxis going around back then, they can easily turn on a dime in the city. I was not aware that the ride was better than the S-class (w116) in wet. KUDOS!
NOTE: I should point out that you can get two different dampers to w123: Comfort and Firm. I will highly recommend the latter due to less body roll. And go for the Bilstein versions!
Recognition 3: Business as usual with effortless automatic door locks, boot and filler cap. Simple control of the functions such as lights, wipers and mirror adjustment. No fuzz about. The headlights can be adjusted wit a single knob
Comment: This makes Mercedes so easy to operate so you can focus on the driving without getting lost trying to find the door knobs. It makes the car a bit spartan though, and many really enjoys the weird quarks of old Porsche and Italian classics.
There is much more details in the magazine. I hope this gives some more nuances of a classic car such as the w123. Happy reading.
Cheers, Robs out!