Buyers Guide Mercedes-Benz W123

Buyers Guide Mercedes-Benz W123

It has often been said that in the event of nuclear war, the only things that will survive are cockroaches and Mercedes-Benz W123s. Hopefully this theory will never be put to the test, but one thing is certain: few companies have been as consistent as Mercedes-Benz when it comes to developing thoroughly engineered cars. But W123s aren’t as bomb-proof as you might think.


Mercedes-Benz W123 / S123 / C123


Dave Bambury is the W123 model register captain and the regional officer of the Yorkshire-South area for the Mercedes-Benz Club (mercedes-benz-club.co.uk); he helped us to put this guide together in conjunction with the Doncaster-based Cole Brothers and W123 expert Martyn Marrocco. Dave comments: “The youngest W123s are more than 35 years old, and while there are some excellent examples to choose from, there are also quite a few neglected cars which will cost a lot to repair. There’s a perception that with a classic Mercedes you can buy whatever parts you might need, but that’s not the case; many parts are unavailable at any price.


1985 Mercedes-Benz 300 CD C123

“Structural corrosion and major mechanical faults aren’t unusual, with diffs, engines and gearboxes often very tired. The cost of genuine parts is usually high, and pattern parts can be a false economy. Parts availability is also patchy, whether genuine or pattern, new or used. You’d be forgiven for thinking that there are plenty of used bits available, but the scruffiest W123s are often exported rather than broken; these cars are still used a lot overseas. Make a list of any parts that might be required, and see if they’re available through dealers or independent parts suppliers.

Often the W123 no longer appears in the dropdown box on such websites, but a phone call or a visit can frequently pay dividends. “The ownership issues that you face are the same regardless of engine or bodystyle. There are some parts to be had, but your search will take you far and wide and you need to be persistent. The key is to compile a list of reputable sources and engineering facilities that can refurbish mechanical parts such as gearboxes, steering boxes, hydraulic lines and maintenance parts, which is where membership of the Mercedes-Benz Club will pay dividends.”


Which one?

There’s an element of having to buy whatever you can find, unless you’re prepared to bide your time and wait for the right engine, transmission and bodystyle to come onto the market. The estates are sought after but now extremely rare, as Dave Bambury relates: “The Mercedes-Benz-Club has an annual W123 meet and we’ve seen reducing numbers of estates turning up. We’ve gone from five in 2017 to two in 2019, and in 2021 we were down to just one. They have become a rarity and they now command a high price in really good condition.”

The most sought after W123s are the coupés, but these account for less than 5% of production. When new these were much more costly than the saloon, and values now reflect this, as do restoration costs. The key is to buy on condition rather than specification, because any car requiring significant remedial work will cost you plenty.

Post-1980 facelifted W123s have more efficient engines and better rustproofing; earlier models are now almost extinct anyway. With taller gear ratios, cruising is more relaxed and economy is better too. Collectors want 280s, whereas diesels and 200s are generally shunned, while the 230 and 230E provide a good usable classic that’s reasonably perky but not too thirsty.


Key checks: bodywork

The W123 was rustproofed reasonably well, and the paintwork was among the best available anywhere. But age has caught up with some examples, with pre-1981 cars likely to be badly affected by corrosion. Post-1981 W123s are also likely to be rusty, despite them benefitting from higher-quality steel and improved anti-corrosion protection.

Panel availability is reasonable and the quality is usually good, although some pattern stuff can be tricky to fit and it tends to corrode more readily, so stick with genuine parts if you can. However, with pattern front wings costing around £250 per pair (check out bcpautomotive.com for more) and genuine items around three times that (they’re still available through dealers at £350 apiece), it’s easy to see why owners opt for pattern parts. Incidentally, the same front wings are used for saloons, estates and coupés.

The areas most likely to give problems include the battery tray, spare wheel well and jacking points. In the case of the former, if left to corrode it’ll take the bulkhead with it, while rotten jacking points mean an automatic MoT failure.

Also check behind the headlights, around the front suspension mounts, the inner front wings and in the rear wheelarches. A good source of parts is centralpanels.co.uk, which currently has an array of structural panels available, including front inner wings (£48 each), full sills (£50 apiece) plus front and rear floorpans (£39 per side). They also have inner and outer rear wheelarch repair sections (£45 and £25 respectively). Also in their repertoire are door repair sections (£20 each) and lower front valances for just £16.

On estates, the tailgates rot and so do the fuel tanks. You’ll be doing well to find a decent replacement tailgate (Dave knows someone who has been looking for one for three years), and the same goes for fuel tanks; when they were last listed they were £1100.

Bumpers can corrode badly, normally from the inside out, so check there’s no bubbling in the chrome. Also, cars with a factory-fitted sliding sunroof (which is most of them) need particular scrutiny as the roofs can leak and the drain tubes rust, allowing water to be chanelled straight into the footwells. Repairs are involved and costly; it’s easy to spend £2000-£5000 getting everything working properly.


W123 TIMELINE

  • 1976 The W123 saloon debuts in 200D, 220D, 240D and 300D diesel forms, or there are 200, 230, 250, 280 and 280E petrol editions.
  • 1977 A coupé arrives in 230C, 280C, 280CE and 300CD forms.
  • 1978 An estate appears, in 230T, 250T, 280TE and 240TD guises, and Crayford reveals a convertible W123 coupé. Just 12 are made.
  • 1979 The 220D dies and the eight-seater 250, 240D and 300D go on sale.
  • 1980 A facelift brings a new (M102) engine, better rustproofing, wheelarch liners and an ABS option. The 230C, 280C and 230T die; the 200T and 300TD debut.
  • 1981 The turbocharged 300CD is introduced for the US.
  • 1982 There’s now a five-speed manual option, power steering becomes standard, new all-cloth seats improve rear leg room, and the 250T is dropped.
  • 1985 The W124 replaces the W123 in November, after almost 2.7 million of the latter had been made. Of these, 199,517 were estates, 99,884 were coupés, 13,700 were long-wheelbase saloons and 8373 were chassis supplied for special bodies.

Key checks: mechanicals

With 12 engines throughout the lifetime of the W123 (see separate panel), including petrol and diesel units, some packing four cylinders, some five and some six (all in-line), there’s plenty of choice. All are well engineered and last well if properly maintained, but there’s the problem; neglected W123s aren’t rare. Any W123 engine is straightforward enough to rebuild on a DIY basis, but the overhead-cam 280 unit is complicated (and costly) to overhaul, while the fuel injection systems need expert attention.

The oil should have been changed every 4000 miles, and the timing chain every 60,000 miles; failure to do so means the chain can fail, wrecking the engine. A decent engine rebuild costs £3000-£5000, with decent used engines very scarce. Ensure that Beru or Bosch HT lead sets are fitted because nothing else lasts as long. Budget £70 for a four-cylinder engine or around £100 if it’s a straight-six.

The plastic and aluminium radiators fur up; you may get away with just flushing it through, but if a new one is required, decent aftermarket items cost £150+, while genuine Behr items are more than double this, if you can find one. Head gasket failure is common, especially with the 280; rebuilding this head can easily swallow £2000.

The 250’s four-choke carb is a pain to set up and despite a reputation for indestructability, the four-cylinder engines typically last just 150,000 miles between rebuilds; six-pot editions will do 200,000 miles or more. Any W123 engine should be quiet and smoke-free; the first sign of wear is usually worn valve stem seals, leading to smoking when applying the throttle after the over-run. Although seal kits cost less than £30, fitting the seals is a complex job. Budget £1000 for a professional top-end overhaul.

The original Eberspacher exhaust systems are no longer available; even used exhaust sections fetch £70-£100. Aftermarket systems cost from £300, or you can buy a stainless steel exhaust for £400-£600.

Most W123s came with a four-speed gearbox, manual or auto, although some facelifted (post-June 1980) cars featured a five-speed manual. All these transmissions are extremely tough, so any whining or signs of vagueness/jumping out of gear either mean the car has been to the moon and back or has been treated badly. The rest of the transmission is very strong, with a final drive rebuild weighing in at £1200, although usable second-hand items are available from £200. Gearboxes are durable, especially the autos, with decent used transmissions available from around £500 plus fitting; a rebuild costs closer to £2000. Branded clutch kits are readily available; 123spareparts.co.uk offers three-piece LUK kits for around £110, Sachs at £160 and QH for £230.

Power assistance was optional for the recirculating-ball steering until 1982; then it became standard, although most cars had it from 1978. Make sure there’s no play, because if all the adjustment has been taken up, a £500 steering box rebuild will be required, with replacement boxes no longer available.

At the front there are wishbones with coil springs, telescopic dampers and an anti-roll bar; the rear suspension comprises semi-trailing arms, telescopic dampers and an anti-roll bar. Estates came with self-levelling suspension at the rear, and if this fails bank on spending £2000+ to fix it. The system loses pressure and replacement spheres are £250 each (there are two), the shock absorbers are £200 apiece, and a second-hand control unit costs £350. When set up properly the self-levelling suspension is effective, but it’s possible to converted to coil springs for around £800.

Any car on its original rubber bushes will need a fresh set; they’re £2-£10 each, but there’s a lot of them. Rot is common in the bottom spring mounts for the rear trailing arms, and repairs involve removing much of the rear suspension, complete with the hubs. That’s why the bill can easily run to £2000; to remove the hubs you’ll need a £500 tool to remove the rear wheel bearings. Dave Bambury adds: “I replaced the complete front suspension of my 300D four years ago, for £3000 which included new bushes, dampers and springs. I did the work through a specialist supplier with the help of a friendly mechanic. The dealership quoted £6000.”

Most W123s have steel wheels with embellishers. The latter get kerbed and corrode; decent used replacements are incredibly rare, which is why you’ll pay around £100 each for them, if you can find any. It’s essential that decent tyres are fitted; opt for Michelin or Continental as the suspension was designed with these brands in mind.

All W123s feature servo-assisted discs all round. It’s a straightforward system that shouldn’t give problems, although calipers can seize, leading to a soft pedal and a lack of reassurance when slowing. Master cylinders can also fail, leading to a soft pedal; replacements are available for less than £50.


Key checks: trim and electrics

There were five different trim finishes; MB Tex (a tough leather-look vinyl), velour, leather, half-cloth (mixed with vinyl) or full cloth, while on coupés there were standard or lowered seats. With each finish offered in a variety of colours, tracking down matching replacement used trim is virtually impossible, and any new covers that you might find will be stupidly expensive. All trim is durable, but neglected cars will soon look tatty. Check that the complex front seats haven’t collapsed; the driver’s is especially prone to failing. The springs break but while new bases are available, it’s an involved job putting everything right.

Interiors get damp because of failed windscreen seals, but pattern replacements are available for £55 (front or rear), and fitting them is straightforward enough. The side window seals can also perish and these are harder to replace as well as significantly more costly at around £300 for a saloon. Coupé seals are much harder to find – and far more costly, too.

While many W123s didn’t feature a lot of equipment, what is fitted tends to be reliable. Many cars have electric windows and a few have air-con, while most feature central locking. This latter system is vacuum-operated and it’s leak-prone. On coupés it also locks the front seats in place; an automatic MoT failure beckons if the system packs in. Tracking down faults can be time-consuming, although parts costs tend to be low.


The market

Dave Bambury comments: “In recent years, W123 values have been rising steadily for good-quality examples, whereas scruffy cars have been going down a bit. Coupés still command a noticeable premium, but saloons are rising in value, especially in good condition.”

There aren’t very many W123s for sale in the UK at any one time, but shopping in Europe will provide much more choice. You’ll probably have to settle for left-hand drive though, and there will be lots of paperwork and duties to contend with; check out the guide to importing that we published in issue 6. The values here are Europe-wide rather than just the UK, so bear in mind that you might have to add some import costs to our figures.

Worthwhile projects start at £5000 or so; anything cheaper is likely to be a breaker. For your five grand you can secure something that’s structurally sound but which will need some fresh panels or some significant mechanical work, such as a rebuilt transmission or an engine rebuild. At this end of the market the value is set by the condition of the car rather than its spec.

Increase your budget to £7000 and you can secure a tidy W123 saloon or a cosmetically challenged estate; maybe even a scruffy coupé. A truly superb saloon can command £15,000, but this is really just the start point for a really nice estate or coupé; track down an excellent example of either of these and it’s easy to spend £20,000-£25,000, although collectors’ pieces can attract price tags of twice as much. Whether they actually sell is another matter.


LIVING WITH ONE

Dave Bambury bought his manual-gearbox 300D way back in 1988; even then it took him two years to find a suitable car (not the one pictured). He comments: “I wanted to tow a caravan with the car and I knew that with a petrol engine the fuel consumption would be high; the five-cylinder OM617 diesel unit is torquey and relatively economical as it’ll return up to 33mpg. the car has served us well, towing our caravan as far as the Mediterranean. These cars are still comfortable, and while you would be well advised to stay out of the outside lane of our busy motorways, they do perform well in current conditions.”


RESTORING

While consumables are easily sourced, other W123 parts can be a lot harder to find. Mercedes dealers often list parts at some tempting prices, but often they’re out of stock with little chance of ever being available again. But there are lots of parts out there in dealerships, often overseas, and in the store rooms of independent specialists. As a result, searching online such as through eBay, can be very rewarding.

Dave Bambury adds: “Over the years, I’ve accumulated my own stock of spares, many through my son searching the inventories of specialists and dealerships in the US, but be aware that importing attracts a handling charge and import duty, and the parts supply in the US is also getting worse. Bright trim is particularly scarce and costly re-chroming may be the only option. A trip to the Techno Classica Essen in Germany or breakers in Europe are other possible sources of second-hand parts. Joining the Mercedes-Benz Club is also essential, as it puts you in touch with other owners so that you can share information and help each other to source parts.”

Owners’ clubs

The Mercedes-Benz Club mercedes-benz-club.co.uk

Mercedes-Benz Owners mercedesclub.org.uk

REAL CARS FOR SALE

£3800

1985 280 CE auto. One of the last registered, 75,600 miles. Light restoration project, runs well but needs some welding.

£8995

1984 230 E, manual gearbox. Lots of money spent over the past 18 months; 140,000 miles; lots of invoices. Newtiming chain.

£34,950

230 TE. Fully restored including sunroof and self-levelling suspension, 130,000 miles. Red with black MB-Tex interior.

Many thanks to Dave Bambury of the Mercedes-Benz Club for all of his help, along with the Cole Brothers and Martyn Marrocco.


KEY SPECIALISTS

  • Cannstat, Hertfordshire 07500 801 192 classicmercedesparts.co.uk
  • Charles Ironside, Hampshire 07950 379 560 charlesironside.co.uk
  • Cheshire Classic Benz, Cheshire 01625 260 913 ccbenz.co.uk
  • Derrick Wells, Suffolk 01449 774 222 derrickwells.com
  • Holford Motor Co, Essex 01708 397 670 holfordmotors.co.uk
  • John Haynes Auto Technics, W Sussex 01903 500 000 john-haynes.com
  • Martyn Marocco, N Yorks. 01653 692 309 facebook.com/martynmarrocco.co.uk
  • Mercseller.com, Hertfordshire 01923 463 620 mercseller.com
  • Stuttgart Garage, Pontypridd 01443 401 838 stuttgartgarage.co.uk
  • W123 World, Swansea 01792 846 888 facebook.com/W123World
W123 vital statistics 230 E 280 280 CE 240 D 300 TD
Engine 2299cc/4-cyl 2746cc/6-cyl 2746cc/6-cyl 2399cc/4-cyl 3006cc/5-cyl
Power (bhp@rpm) 136 @ 5100 156 @ 5500 185 @ 5800 65 @ 4200 80 @ 4000
Torque (lb/ft@rpm) 151 @ 3500 164 @ 4000 172 @ 4500 101 @ 2400 127 @ 2400
Top speed (mph) 112 118 124 89 92
0-60mph (seconds) 11.6 10.6 9.9 22 19.9
Consumption (mpg) 27 23 22 26 26
Gearbox 4/5-sp man, 5-sp auto 4-sp man, 4-sp auto 4/6-sp man, 4-sp auto 4/6-sp man, 4-sp auto 4/6-sp man, 4-sp auto
Length (mm) 4730 4730 4640 4730 4730
Width (mm) 1790 1790 1790 1790 1790
Height (mm) 1440 1440 1440 1440 1420
Weight (kg) 1360 1466 1460 1386 1665

W123 engines

Engine code W123 model Specification

  • M102 200 1997cc 4-cyl petrol, single-carb
  • M115 200 1988cc 4-cyl petrol, single-carb
  • M115 230 2307cc 4-cyl petrol, single-carb
  • M102 230E 2299cc 4-cyl petrol, K-Jetronic fuel injection
  • M123 250 2525cc 6-cyl petrol, twin-carb
  • M110 280 2746cc 6-cyl petrol, twin carb
  • M110 280E 2746cc 6-cyl petrol, K-Jetronic fuel injection
  • OM615 200D 1988cc 4-cyl diesel
  • OM615 220D 2197cc 4-cyl diesel
  • OM616 240D 2404cc 4-cyl diesel
  • OM616 240TD 2404cc 4-cyl diesel
  • OM617 300D 3005cc 5-cyl diesel
  • OM617A 300D Turbo 2998cc 5-cyl diesel, LHD only
4523
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