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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.

Mercedes-Benz W108 – Iconic design, but not the “last” M-B.

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 Mercedes-Benz W123 series.

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.

M-B design evolution – On a high with chromed bumpers, and a clear decline thereafter?

 

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6 Responses

  1. Frederik Håkonsen Thyme
    I think that the w126, w124, R129 and w140 are also great models from Mercedes. The “problem” is that they are very complex compared with the w123 and therefore less reilable (although still very reliable compared with other brands). What really hurt the later of these models was the biodigradedable wiringharness. This was ment to help mother nature but ended up hurting the brands well known reliablity. Today most of the remaining cars have had the issue fixed and now rust is the biggest problem… But if you want to keep it simple – the w123 is the way to go.
    Reply
  2. Anders Bilidt
    I would be inclined to agree – the W123 is the last to full embrace all those old-world Mercedes-Benx virtues. I must admit though, that I quite like a early W126 on Barok alloys as well. But among the saloons, it’s the W116 which is my dream Merc. While mine would have to be a V8, I would be perfectly happy settling with a 350SE – preferably in brown with thick velour seats thank you very much… ;-)
    Reply
  3. Dave Leadbetter
    The W123 saloon is nice enough but I’d venture that the coupes and estates are the really special examples of design that satisfy both form and function. They may well be the very pinnacle of Mercedes’ achievements and here is no doubt that things went downhill thereafter, but I think the W201 (190) series is worth an honourable mention and is still very affordable compared to the climbing asking prices of W123s. The W201 seems to be similarly regarded as being over engineered and there a few in daily use around here that seem to bear this out. Certainly anything they produced after the 1980s seems to be best regarded as landfill in comparison.
    Reply
  4. YrHmblHst
    Im certainly no expert on Mercedes, nor actually even much of a ‘fan’ , tho my wifes DD is a late model C class. Be that as it may, i know ‘Mercedes people’ and to a one, they draw the line at the point that belt mouldings became plastic as opposed to heavy chrome plated metal and the door glass became a thin single pane. The whole raison d’etre of the Benz mystique is fine quality in materials and assembly. Open the door to an older one, and the quality of material and solidity of construction come thru. Even the trim covering the edges of the door panels and such are heavy chromed metal. The door closes with a nice ‘thud’. Walk by and ‘thump’ a fender with the back of a knuckle and see what i mean.
    Their engineering really isnt that special – in fact, as is typical of many German machines, its occasionally needlessly complicated, somewhat convoluted and one might even say a bit fussy at times. But the pre-plastic cars are amazingly well built.
    Reply
  5. Tony Wawryk
    I’d go along with the general sentiment expressed here – the “newest” MB I would consider is a W123 Coupe; there was a lovely white example on offer at a Brooklands auction recently with an estimate of only £7-9,000 – a relative bargain, I would suggest, and prices can only go one way.
    Reply
  6. Claus Ebberfeld
    I’ve only owned two Mercedes-Benz’es, both older than the W123, but would not consider myself a Mercedes man. I agree with
    that the great motivator regarding the marque is the quality that permeates though everything in the car and that the W123 is fine in that respect.

    However as a pure design I think the successor W124 was better resolved, especially in coupé form.

    In the real world I would personally stick to the older models, as both W123 and W124 (not to speak of even later models, of which I also like a lot…) are so numerous.

    Reply

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