On January 29, 1886, German engineer Karl Benz applied for a patent for his design for a horseless carriage. With a gasoline engine powering its rear wheels, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen is significant not only because it marked the beginning of Mercedes-Benz, but because it’s widely considered to be the first car as we know it. In the 130 years since, Mercedes has built some of the fastest, safest, most beautiful, and technologically innovative cars in the world. But amid all the well-known greatest hits, there’s a model that shares its birthday with the original Benz that’s only just beginning to get its due.
On January 29, 1976, Mercedes unveiled a new midsize car to replace its long-serving W115 model. Known by its internal designation as the W123, the car’s sober good looks and size seemed like a logical evolutionary step over the outgoing model. Mercedes invited a small group of journalists to the south of France for the occasion, and while the company had high expectations for the model, what no one could’ve realized is that Mercedes was about to trap lightning in a bottle. From parent company Daimler’s official history:
At its launch in January 1976, the Mercedes-Benz 123 model series offered a persuasive combination of elegance and multiple technical innovations. The saloon was the first model to become available. The range was expanded a year later by the Coupé and, for the first time, an Estate model. Over the course of the next ten years almost 2.7 million vehicles were built, among them also long-wheelbase saloons and chassis for special bodies. The era of the 123 model series marks a particularly successful chapter in the success story of the E-Class, as the intermediate model from Mercedes-Benz was called from 1993 onwards. The new E-Class of 2016 continues this success story.
For millions around the world, the W123 was the right car at the right time, and over the next decade, the car would introduce Mercedes to more people than ever before, and solidify its position as the the dominant luxury automaker in the world.
That isn’t to say the W123 was strictly a luxury car. It was offered in a variety of trims, from cloth seats, manual windows, and radio-delete stripper models to leather-trimmed sporty coupes, offering something for nearly everyone. Over the last 40 years, it’s pulled duty as a taxi, police car, ambulance, limousines, rally car, green car, and even post-apocalyptic movie star. If there’s anything more astonishing than that, it’s that thousands of these cars are still being used as daily drivers today.
German cars had a small but ardent fanbase in the U.S. long before the W123 cars entered the picture, but the term “German Reliability” didn’t really come into play until the W123. It was marketed as a luxury car in the American market, and at over $12,000 in base trim (around $49,000 today), it cost about as much as a Cadillac Seville. But the American auto industry had a quality control crisis on its hands, and at the height of the Malaise Era, the Mercedes stood out. Even low-end models had power windows and locks, incredibly durable leather-like MB-Tex vinyl upholstery, and real wood trim. And at a time when the gas crisis was still fresh on the minds of car buyers, Mercedes’s four- and five-cylinder diesel engines introduced a generation of American buyers to oil-burning engines.
In fact, the diesel powerplants are key to the W123’s longevity. The OM615, 616 (four cylinder), and 617 (five cylinder) mills were engineered to an incredibly high standard for the era. And while they couldn’t match the acceleration of the gas-powered cars, the diesels have been known to top 1 million miles with little more than routine maintenance. This reputation made the W123 (in far more affordable trim) incredibly popular throughout the Middle East and Africa. Today, you’ll find a number of them still logging hard miles both on- and off-road.
By the end of the ’70s, BMW had exploded on the scene with the success of its 3 and 5 Series models, offering more modern-looking alternatives to the Mercedes, along with some genuine performance credentials. To compete, Mercedes sunk nearly $1 billion into developing a smaller model, known as the W201, or 190-Series (the predecessor to the C-Class), which debuted in 1982. A newer, more modern midsize sedan called the E-Class would arrive in 1986 to replace the W123. With angular styling and a greater focus on technology, the E-Class seemed to make the outgoing model old news. But then a funny thing happened: The W123 refused to disappear.
On top of the bulletproof engines, the W123 was built to the point of over-engineering. Nothing depreciates faster than a late-model luxury car, but as W123s found their way to their second or third owners, they just kept going. In an era when safety and build quality seemed to be an afterthought, by the end of their production run, W123s came equipped with side-impact crash protection, crumple zones, anti-lock brakes, and even a driver side air bag. Despite the dated exterior, the car’s safety features and better-than-average rust resistance made it a compelling used buy in its first decade out of production.
By then, the cars were old and cheap enough to have made it into the hands of original owners’ kids, and tinkerers who began to experiment with the car’s diesel powertrain. It was among one of the first cars largely modified to run on biodiesel, a trend that remains popular to this day. And as it got older, its conservative styling began to be appreciated in a new light, seeming to embody the old-school traditional Mercedes-Benz charm that had since disappeared to make way for competitive luxury-focused tech-forward models. Sometime in the past decade, budget-minded vintage car fans scanning Craigslist for a cheap classic began to fall for the W123’s charm, a trend that’s still growing.
But the days of cheap running W123s may soon be coming to an end. Maybe its because there are so many of them still on the road, or maybe it’s because most of the world can’t remember a time before them anymore, but sometime in the last decade or so, the W123s have begun to get the respect they deserve. They aren’t yuppie status symbols in the West, or taxicabs everywhere else, they’re survivors. Try to think of another common ’70s-era daily driver you see on a regular basis. Other than the Volvo 240, there really isn’t a car that’s held up to time better than the Mercedes. Now at 40, it’s finally recognized for what it is: a true classic.
Building a comfortable, reliable car is difficult enough. Building one that can do what it’s built to do and hold up for 40 years is nothing short of remarkable. Karl Benz’s first car may be firmly written into the history books, but its direct descendent that came 90 years later has worked harder than virtually any other car in history, and makes a pretty convincing claim as the greatest car ever built. From Scandinavia to the tip of Africa, and from Death Valley to New York City, the W123 was here, is here, and as long as there are people who are around to change its oil and timing belt every now and again, will always be here.
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