1985 Mercedes-Benz 300TD
When I first read David Drucker's piece on W124-series Benzes, my interest was definitely piqued. One of my first cars was a previous generation 300TD, a big maroon diesel belching beast that's probably still running around to this very day. Then I read this small piece of soul-wrenching blasphemy:
"Fairness requires that I present an opposing point of view, and as it happens, I have one. First: you can keep the Diesels. They’re slow, noisy, and hard to start. And the smoke is embarrassing. And second: the W123 wagon--the 300TD through the 1985 model--could be the most boring vehicle of its type since the first generation International Travelall. That it was burdened with a Diesel engine can only be ascribed to our government’s Draconian CAFE regulations. But regardless of motive, the Series 123 300TD was doubly cursed, and I don’t want one. And here in Scarsdale, where Mercedes-Benzes are fairly thick on the ground, neither does anybody else.
"It’s not that nobody in these parts needs a station wagon. (Everyone, everywhere, needs a station wagon; most folks just don’t know it yet.) No, Scarsdale has plenty of station wagons, just about every one of them a Volvo. My guess is that the locals see the 300TD as being about as exciting as yesterday’s yawn. Since station wagons themselves are perceived as being pretty dull, it’s only natural that the less boring ones get the nod. That staid old Volvo finds itself in that position indicates that some of the Turbo’s panache has rubbed off on the lesser models."
Mr. Drucker is absolutely correct that, on paper, the W123-series 300TD was about as exciting as waterlogged Melba toast. 0-60 times were best measured epochally and referenced apocryphally ("It may get to freeway speed before the next mass extinction!"). Driving one with its characteristic black plumes of diesel smoke emanating from the tailpipe in California and parts of New York may run afoul of public health regulations that prohibit second-hand smoke. It handles precisely how you would expect a heavy station wagon with an inscrutably byzantine pneumatic suspension system would handle.
None of that matters. That was never the point.
What the W123-series 300TD lacks in power, handling, and refinement, it more than makes up for in sheer, unadulterated bulletproof versatility and reliability. When people get together and say, "Hmm, I should get my diesel wagon to run on vegetable oil," do they use a W124 to get the job done? No--they grab a W123. When people in developing countries get together and say, "Hmm, I need a taxi that will last me the rest of my natural born days," do they grab a W124? Sure, some do--the smart ones, though, grab a cheaper and simpler W123.
See those station wagons to the right? That picture was taken in Albania. In Greece, a taxi driver bought one of the first W123s for his work. After an astonishing 4.6 million kilometers, or 2.75 million miles, he retired it. Granted, it was a 240D, but the point still stands. The W123-series 300TD isn't exciting because you can measure its acceleration in geologic time--it's exciting because it will last that long. If you're looking for bulletproof, dependable transportation, a W123 is about as good as it gets. Best of all, since it looks, drives, and sounds like some sort of Soviet-era tank, you're going to be more inclined to treat it like one, which, frankly, is a heck of a lot more fun than treating a Mercedes with dignity and respect.
Now, in the interest of fairness, though the W123 was a tank, it was, at least in my experience, a bit temperamental. When my ex and I were handed the keys to her family's old '85 300TD, it had nearly 250,000 miles on it. The good news was that the engine was still running strong and the interior was in absolutely inspired shape. The bad news was that, after 250,000 miles, everything else was beginning to show its age. Worse yet, owing to the very same convoluted CAFE laws that Mr. Drucker touched upon, the 300TD in our mutual possession was a "California" model, tuned to California's comparatively draconian emissions standards. For most cars, this wouldn't be a huge problem--the engine would be slightly detuned and that would be that. Mercedes, on the other hand, decided to engage in a rather impressive bit of over-engineering--instead of just detuning the engine a little (which they did), they also took it upon themselves to replace half of the surrounding parts with California-only versions. For example, the California-spec 300TD used a dual-diaphragm vacuum pump; the rest of the country only used a single-diaphragm model, with a totally different belt and bolt pattern. Needless to say, when it came time to order a replacement vacuum pump, instead of junkyard diving, I had to order one, wait for it to get shipped, and pay extra for the privilege.
The madness, for better or worse, didn't end there. The door locks were pneumatically powered. This was great, at least on paper, if the battery ever died--as long as the vacuum pump worked and there was circulation in the system, you could open and close the doors. Unfortunately, that was only in play when the engine was on; otherwise, you were fighting a vacuum each and every time you tried to unlock a door, especially in cold weather. Speaking of cold weather, there was the small matter of getting a diesel-powered wagon started. This involved an intricate symphony of glow plugs, a $600 starter (yep - had to replace that), and a battery that seemed large enough to power a U-boat during extended cruises in the Atlantic. Unfortunately, it frequently took a bit of time and effort to get the symphony warmed up; once the music started, I frequently had to wait for about 10 minutes or until the end of the first movement, whichever came last, before I could actually shift the car into a gear (any gear, really) and actually propel it somewhere. Speaking of gears, MB's D-S-L gear selection seemed to initially make sense--Drive, Second, Low, right? Not so fast! It was a four-speed automatic (not bad for '85), so that "S" stood for "Slope", which gave you second and third gear.
In many respects, my experience with a W123 diesel reminds me a bit of Unix. You can tell by looking at it that much thought and effort went into designing and building the car for maximum reliability and toughness. You can also tell that, in return, it expects you to know precisely what you're doing, and will hold you personally responsible if you don't. Since my only experience with automotive repair at that point was a '94 Dodge Shadow, which was about as mechanically complicated as you would expect a re-skinned K-car to be (engine pictured to the right--it's the rock in the middle), it didn't take long before the wagon's demanding German engineering made shorter work of my patience and skill than the Wehrmacht made of the US Army's II Corps' during the Battle of Kasserine Pass. Simply put, I didn't have the skills to be a Mercedes diesel mechanic, and that car made it a regular point to remind me of that.
Even so, I harbor no ill will toward that wagon. Even after my numerous, futile attempts at repairing minor issues with it, it still started, still ran, and was sold under its own power to someone with a larger budget, a little more time, and significantly more experience than me. I'm certain that, somewhere, somebody is still driving that old wagon to its 400,000th mile and beyond.
This is why I defend the venerable W123, and why you should too.
The top picture is from Flickr's kiezpro; my old wagon was the same color. 300td.org's Flickrstream provided the picture of Albanian taxis, as well as the picture of a 300TD slugging it out in a mud bog somewhere in Guinea. The "Dodge Shadow engine," meanwhile, is from Martin LaBar.