Changes in parts supply mean the evergreen W123 is now getting costly to revive. We highlight the pros and cons of this cruiser, known for its intergalactic mileage potential...
Few cars are more relaxing to drive than a well-maintained W123. You won’t get anywhere quickly, unless you opt for a 280, but you won’t care either. Life exists at another pace. They roll a bit in the bends, but should cope with brisk driving, not that you’ll want to. It’s all about getting from A to B in as unstressed a state as possible. Manuals are OK, but M-B’s own four-speed automatic is a delight with smooth changes and a marked reluctance to kick-down unless you really want it to. The diesels are all rather sluggish if stupendously tough, so you’ll really want a petrol. The 200 isn’t exactly sprightly so the 230 is the one to have. The 280 is perhaps not really worth the greater thirst unless you really must have six cylinders. Brakes are good with plenty of power and ABS was optional.
Power (bhp@rpm) 182bhp@6000rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 176lb ft@4500rpm
Top speed 124mph
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
Corrosion and exports are the reasons for the disappearance of the W123. They’re still very popular as taxis in far flung parts of the world. The survival rate here is low, so finding one is the challenge. Keeping it going not helped by Mercedes-Benz recently deleting some parts lines and increasing the price on others. These are now very costly cars to restore. Saloons are most common, estates and coupes are both rare and desirable.
Rot in the sills is very common and can spread into the inner rear wheel arches and around the jacking points, which is a tricky area to repair correctly. Check carefully around the subframe, anti-roll bar and mountings too. Mercedes-Benz used a thick, rubbery protection for much of the underside, but rot can merrily munch the metal unseen behind it. You’ll need to prod these areas with your hand to see if they crunch. Open the bootlid to inspect the inner rear wings and run your hand beneath the rear screen on the inside of the bootlid. The rear screen seal can leak and allow this area to rot out. Not a problem on estates, so just check the outer rear wings and boot floor and that the back end isn’t sagging –it should self-level. Fuel tanks can also be prone to rust and can be expensive to replace.
There is a vast range of tough, overhead cam engines from 2-litre petrol/diesel to 2.8-litre, six-cylinder petrol. Diesels are slow – none are turbocharged in UK form and the 3-litre, five-cylinder still has only 88bhp. 2.3-litre, four-cylinder petrol is most numerous and a good compromise. Watch for noisy timing chains, service history is always good to have.
Watch for the headlamps losing the silver backing. The glass lens is held in places with clips, so restoration is possible. Poor silvering lowers light output and can be an MoT failure. A headlamp can be removed in seconds. The bonnet lifts in two stages – flick the clips on the hinges to open the bonnet to a full 90 degrees so you don’t clout your head on the grille. Watch for rot on the leading edge of the bonnet, front valance and front inner and outer wings.
Steering is by box but any play can be exaggerated by the large steering wheel. Some can be adjusted out, but if that creates tight spots, a new steering box will be needed – £1800 for a genuine one. Front end clonks will usually be balljoint or bush related. The ride should be superb.
Exhausts are now hard to find and you should bet on paying around £600 for a genuine full system – more for a 280. Some don’t like aftermarket stainless systems as the back pressure can differ and they can sound a bit tinny. Continuing on the cost theme, genuine wings are £250 or more, but pattern parts can be had for significantly less.
People are drawn to the sleek looks of the coupé, but the saloon and estate have plenty of classic appeal of their own, especially as rarity is now very much a factor. You need to buy with care though as restoration costs can be eye-watering, far out-stripping any likely sale value. Avoid rust and you’ll own a robust classic that’ll only rise in value.