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1985 Mercedes-Benz 300TD

Maroon300td 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.

2312370430_ae2ab32274_b 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.

2091268060_2289085ca3_o 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.

90632001_46c99752b8_b 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.

--David Colborne

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Along with the Volkswagen Bus, the Mercedes-Benz W123 has to be one of the most honest looking cars of the 20th century...

Great story, David, and you'll get no argument from me about the virtues of this model. In fact, over time I've even grown to like the way the wagon looks. (I've always liked the sedan, and think the coupe is absolutely lovely.) Given even the most casual nod in the direction of regular maintenance, a W123 could be the last car a middle-aged person would need to buy. Indeed, a couple of years ago I came *that* close to buying a 240D with four-speed. Alas, even without the drain of the automatic, it was zero-to-sixty in three tries, so I passed.

David C.'s post is exceptionally well-written - and of course it's always nice to get the military history snippets, but I just can't get on-board. I want to like the W123, I really do. I recognize its virtues, but it just doesn't capture my heart, its looks, virtues, and drawbacks are just too close to the Volvo 240 to escape my feelings for that car.

Car & Driver fawned all over it, though. I have the March 1980 issue in front of me, and the lovefest contained within the 300TD Wagon road test is almost embarrassing.

"The TD begins to amaze, to bring on grins of disbelief, to entertain when it's up to speed and moving down the road ... in the alchemy of creating the TD, something very nice happened. ... The TD is so wonderfully balanced and so good in all respects, it is not only the best station wagon we've tested, it ranks right up there as one of the all-time best *cars* in our experience."

Larry Griffin added, "It is so good it makes me proud to be a member of the species that conceived and built it."

Price (in 1980 dollars)? $26,547. 0-60? 19.5 seconds. EPA estimated fuel mileage? 23 MPG.

To C&D's credit, they make clear acceleration is not the car's forte. But wow ... I'm a lover and defender of old cars, but even I have never felt that way about the W123, gas or diesel.

One snippet I should have added but didn't:

A friend of mine needed a washer and dryer moved to his place. All we had at our disposal for this mission was his '87 Samurai and the '85 300TD. We figured we'd try to fit them in the back of the wagon and hope for the best - honestly, I didn't think we'd pull it off.

The washer and dryer BOTH fit. The rear end sagged a little but the muffler was still above the ground.

Show me another Benz, save for the "Sprinter" or one of their trucks, that you would even THINK of hauling laundry equipment with. Was it expensive? You bet - it was a Benz! Was it slow? You bet - it was a diesel! Was its gas mileage somewhat meager? Sure, by today's standards, it was pretty miserable. For the early '80s, though, getting a full sized station wagon that could get over 15-18 MPG was pretty impressive.

This is not an enthusiast's car. The 0-60 time alone should tell you that. It's a transportation appliance, and as a transportation appliance, it's a phenomenal success. It runs reliably and it runs forever, which is all it needs to do.

About the vacuum door locks: if I remember right, they were something of a fad there for a while, and VW used them in the 90s. Even German engineering has its occasional mis-steps.

i kinda like these cars, i really really appreciate the unkillability of them. its almost as good as an old holden of some sort (carbie and leaded petrol please)

its also probably worth mentioning that a mercedes diesel ran in the 24 hours of lemons AFTER it had various foreign substances poured into the oil: http://jalopnik.com/5041045/peoples-curse-fails-to-kill-diesel-benz-once+angry-mob-has-change-of-heart

[unrealtournamentvoice]
UNSTOPPABLE
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Great story. I loved the picture from Albania. I was in Petra, Jordan last autumn and it was the same thing: W123s everywhere, and most of them immaculate.

I've always been a bigger W124 fan than a W123 fan. But maybe I'm starting to come around. Over the weekend I looked at an all-original 1977 280E sedan for sale with 90,000 miles. The doors closed in such a precise, confidence-building manner I can't imagine another car being built to that standard today. However, any interest I was building in the car was immediately put off by the dated creamy yellow exterior color.

My friend's 97 VW Jetta has vacuum door locks. So does my new 95 Audi S6. I think it's a german thing. :\ Why they didn't just use solonoids is beyond me.

power door locks? you mean such luxuries exist? but why? I don't understand.

I'm convinced that the mercedes is durable. I have yet to be convinced that any car with Bosch electrics is actually reliable. I'll give you this. A diesel does not have a bosch distributor so it could be considered to be 33% more reliable than the same car non-diesel, EXCEPT that it has glow plugs made by Bosch. So in the end the net gain in reliability is trumped.

$600 starter? Both California model starters are under $200 ($250 with the core charge) at BuyMBParts.

Surely you aren't quoting us dealer prices as a complaint?

(And the pneumatic locks? Every Mercedes had that, since at least 1968 ... and I think they're pretty sweet, myself.

Also, the rear suspension is hydraulic, not pneumatic.

And finally, if starting took ten minutes something was broken. If it doesn't start after the first glow cycle, and you're not in Calgary or a once-a-millennium cold snap, the system is broken at some level.)

Mochi: Other companies make glow plugs, and since they're a wear item, any MB you buy will have had them replaced several times, so take heart! (Also, glow plugs are just resistors, and even Bosch can't really screw that up.)

At least your '85 had the turbo and 120 horsepower, unlike the 77-81 models with the old NA engine and 76 horsepower.

(I drive a 115 body 300D, and it's a dream once it's up to speed. But God, yes, slow to get there. On the plus side, you can drive your cat at 100% every day, and it's fun to take mountain curves with the pedal flat on the firewall without being insanely dangerous!)

Sigivald - thanks for bringing up the price of the starter. I was wondering if somebody was going to catch that. Like you suspected, that would be the dealer-installed price. As I mentioned earlier, repairing the MB was well outside of my skill set. When the starter died on it, I discovered that I didn't have half of the tools I needed, nor any clue on how I was supposed to get it out of there. My memory on what the complications were is somewhat hazy - we're talking about a car that I last dealt with a decade ago - but I seem to remember either not having a large enough Allen wrench (no leverage) or something to that effect. Consequently, I had to take the car into the shop to get it fixed. I had just moved to Boise at the time, so I didn't know if there was an independent MB mechanic that I could trust; consequently, I just took it into the dealer.

Also, regarding the 10 minute start time, the car (especially after the new starter was installed) would start fairly quickly. That said, we had to let it sit for a while to warm up before we drove it anywhere. If we didn't, it would be extremely sluggish until everything worked loose. The start-up time listed above includes the warm-up period (absolutely necessary with an older diesel, according to just about everybody I talked to about it, including a diesel mechanic and a rancher who's owned nothing but diesels for three decades now) and a little poetic license for narrative purposes. The warm-up period listed applied during winter in Boise, by the way, as well as a rather nasty sub-zero winter snap in Nevada.

my husband just purchased an 85 300TD wagon with 3rd row seats for me - Euro spec - one owner. i am looking for reasons to admire her (already lovingly referred to as 'yellow bird' by my husband). thanks for this! i'm sure i will come around... he insists that this car is AMAZING....

The W123 is as well made as a classic can be. But must solid build quality feel this heavy? And must we pay Mercedes parts prices to get Mercedes reliability in an older car?

Three words: Volvo 740 GLT.

I had an 83 300TD tank, er, wagon for many years. Bought it used and donated it with about 250,000 miles on the odometer a few years ago. I live in Southern California so there really was never any cold to prevent the glow plugs from easily doing their job. It always started. Not most of the time, but all the time. No matter what was wrong with the car, the engine always started and once started it never stalled. The clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk of that engine was somehow linked to the rotation of the earth around the sun - just as precise and just as reliable. Even when I turned the ignition and sparks flew out of the ac/heater control unit the engine started right up and clunked along like a innocent looking dog that just dropped a deadly gas bomb. “Oh, is the dashboard on fire? I hadn’t noticed…clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk….” Great handling, braking and gas mileage that was even more impressive considering that the vehicle seemed to have been carved out of a solid chunk of lead. I was driving about 35mph when someone ran a stop sign and cut me off. I barely hit the brakes when I t-boned the woman in her late model Nissan minivan. While her car was totaled, I had a broken plastic bezel around one of the headlights and the engine in ole Stinky never missed a beat. She was equally at home picking up the kids from school or picking up the cider blocks from Home Depot. Of course there was the smoke issue. You’d think in Prius loving Los Angeles driving a heavy smoker would not always be the best bet for fitting in with the more socially aware. While I’m sure that was sometimes the case, it seems a fairly well maintained older looking Mercedes was more often giving the benefit more than one might assume. Perhaps they just thought that I was going to have it converted to run on vegetable oil any day now. In the end, there were two main reasons for getting rid of it – 1) The AC seemed to require constant attention (and money). I’ve gotten a little spoiled to that luxury to just live without it. 2) I had the perfect excuse to get rid of Stinky with the changing of the tax write off restrictions when donating a car. I gave it away for a tax deduction two weeks prior to the end of the more generous write offs allowed for such donations. I don’t feel too bad about giving her away for a mere tax write off, but sometimes late at night…clunk, clunk…I can still hear her out there…clunk, clunk, clunk…Rod Serling is smoking a cigarette near the on ramp of the Autobahn hitching a ride from the mysterious Diesel vampire…clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk…riding off together towards Stuttgart.

Sorry for being picky, but that 240 D Athens-taxi you're talking about, the one ran an incredible amount of miles, was a W115, a car from an earlier series.

And speaking about the 300TD being slow - I am using one right now (519 thou on the clock in kilometers, that is 324 thousand miles, engine never taken apart, almost no smoke, albeit kept in shape with new injection units, timing chain, correct adjustment and filters), and it is a supercar compared to my mint 200D W115. 88 horsepowers compared to 55... Now That is Slow. :-)

Cheers
Zsolt (from Budapest, Hungary)

anybody know of an after market or conversion suspension for my 1980 300td non-turbo wagon? I love the tank, I mean car and want to keep it eons..just don't know what to do about my bounce-mobile!

Hi Renee, i found a guy in the Los Angeles area Craigslist who installs regular rear suspension kit for $349 that replaces the complicated standard 300td Wagon suspension.

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