The last Mercedes-Benz? Or to be more specific: The last proper Mercedes-Benz? The question may be a little populistic, but no less relevant on an internet site with a passion for all things classic car, and an admitted – maybe even proud – resentment of the modern car.
I seem to have noticed, that among the most hardcore of Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts, there’s a broad consent that the W108 model is the last real and proper Mercedes-Benz. I have yet to understand the reasoning behind this opinion, but it seems to revolve largely around design. I fully accept that the W108 is an aesthetically very pleasing automobile with classic lines which encompass all those mandatory Mercedes-Benz elements and design cues. Paul Bracq – the talented designer responsible for the W108 – managed to cleverly relaunch several fundamental design elements from the predecessor, while sending the tailfins on an early retirement. “Tailfins?”, you might ask. But they were in fact missed by many when the new design first saw the light of day. Back then, the W108 represented the very pinnacle within the art of mechanical engineering. Technical insight, knowledge and precision engineering of various materials justified the rather high retail prices of the W108 models, and further contributed to their general image of being practically unbreakable with high reliability and life expectancy.
But in 1976 another chapter was introduced to the “Mercedes-Benz Hall of Fame”. They launched the W123. Initially only as a four-door saloon, which was shortly after joined by the elegant coupé with a shortened wheelbase. Then in 1978, the W123 opened up a whole new market segment for Mercedes-Benz with the estate version. But regardless of bodywork, they all shared the same ultra simple and unadorned character which practically became synonym for conservative German design language. The subtle design went hand in hand with the skyhigh quality which Mercedes-Benz had perfected over the years. In fact, from a quality perspective, the W123 might very well be the best built Mercedes-Benz in history – and that’s really saying something! There was a profound “If-one-screw-is-needed-we-will-use-two” philosophy. This was regarded as pure luxury back then, rather than fancy gadgets, extras and accessories of which the W123 had none – just a highly functional, quality interior with the famed view of the three-pointed star at the far end of the bonnet. That, and of course the soothing knowledge that your Mercedes-Benz would soldier on for an eternity. While the price of entrance wasn’t cheap, it was widely accepted that the high price of a W123 was fair. The Mercedes-Benz brand was one which people would happily – almost involuntarily – strive to own.
The W123 was offered with a multitude of engines: 200, 230, 250, 280 and some both with or without fuel injection. Despite of all these engine variants, the W123 was never really a particularly fast car. Frankly, most variants offered somewhat restrained progress at best. Even though the top-of-the-range 280E with fuel injection had a respectable 182hp on tap from its twincam straight-6, it was hardly a sporty or involving driving experience. But then that was never really the objective either. The W123 was all about offering the upper middleclass a reliable, comfortable and quietly elegant means of transport.
However, it wasn’t really the petrol engines which were to be the W123’s hallmark, but rather the diesel versions. Mercedes-Benz had stacked their bets on their diesel engines, and they were to provide the W123 with its image of indestructability. Almost regardless of engine size, if you opted for diesel, the speed potential was limited even further. But that was the price you paid for imperishable reliability. The bet paid off as well – just ask any older cab driver, rebels in Lebanon or an African poacher. The last two are probably still driving a W123 at this very moment!
For me, the W123 is the last proper Mercedes-Benz. It’s reputation obviously has a lot to do with it, but visually it all comes down to the chrome bumpers. It was also the last thoroughly mechanical car to leave Stuttgart, before more and more electrical components started to creep in while plastic did the same. The W124 which came after, was the first indication that their unmatchable level of quality was perhaps starting to slip. Since then, Mercedes-Benz have had to rely heavily on their previous reputation for reliability, mechanical excellence and unfalsified luxury. The W123 still stands proud as the bearer of all that – an eternity machine.