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Mercedes-Benz W123 40th Birthday

Written by Andy Roberts.

For many years the W123 series Mercedes-Benz was an omnipresent sight across the globe, the taxi that would take Euro-executives to their hotel, the Polizei car that would gong you for speeding or even the ambulance that might save your life. 40 years after the first examples graced showrooms, they are widely regarded as one of the finest vehicles to bear the Tri-Star emblem.

The W123 had the challenging tasks of replacing the well-respected W114/W115 series and luring BMW 520 and Audi C1 100 drivers into their local Mercedes-Benz dealerships with the promise of sheer quality.  Lesser machinery attempted to evoke the illusion of 'prestige' via an elaborate list of fittings but this was not the W123's way. A 200D cost £4,939.74, over £200 more than a Rover 3500 SD1, but even a glove box lock was an optional extra and for £8,495 the 280E was devoid of electric windows, a sunroof or a radio.  But then a buyer would have also noted a general absence of sagging headlining and panel gaps as any W123 was the product of sheer craftsmanship. 

W123aDevelopment of the car modestly described by the factory as 'quite possibly a masterpiece' commenced in 1968, shortly after the W114 debuted. The front suspension was derived from the W116; there were discs on all four wheels and any model in the range rode and handled as well as any mass-market car in the world.  As with all great Mercedes-Benzes, the detailing would have graced any coach built vehicle; the tail lights were ridged in order that dirt would not settle on their surface and the steering wheel was designed to be approximately the same size as the shoulders of the average driver in order to absorb any impact. One legacy from the company's previous saloons was the option of a column gear lever but this was rarely specified.

The W123 was launched on 27th January 1976, with a 12-month waiting list for domestic customers alone. Dealers were known to lurk outside the factory, offering generous incentives to factory workers in exchange for their discounted models and other potential buyers were known to offer 5,000 DM over the list price. The saloon was joined by the CE Coupe in Spring 1976 and, in the following year, the LWB version that was often seen at airports.

W123bAt the 1977 Frankfurt Show Mercedes-Benz launched the 'Touring', the company’s first in-house estate car, although Stuttgart's management initially feared that such coachwork would debase the marque's image. Late 1979 saw the debut of the 300D Turbo Diesel and by 1980 the W123 was outselling the VW Golf in its homeland.

And once the motorist had finally taken delivery he/she would have automotive proof that a car designed with safety as a prime concern need not drive with the charisma of a public information film about correct zebra crossing use.  Andrew Cowan's victory in the 1977 London-Sydney Marathon in his 280E bestowed a certain amount of glamour upon the entire range but any W123 was proof that automotive quality did not mean having a car that looked like a mobile gin palace.  The last example left the factory in January 1986 after 2,696,914 units and the ultimate tribute was paid by West Germany's taxi drivers. Cabbies were so enraged by the drop in quality of its W124 successor that they actually took to the streets in protest.


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