‘Engineered like no other car in the world’? The bold claim was popular in print and television when the Mercedes-Benz’s long-running and hugely popular mid-size luxury saloon, code named W123, was in production. The ad copy was no doubt the work of a brand team set on emphasising the marque’s Teutonic approach to design but it was an approach that clearly paid off: nearly 20 years after the last one rolled out of the East London plant, W123 saloons are still in daily use on SA roads and the rest of Africa, while most of its peers, such as BMW’s 5 series and Audi’s 500, have long been languishing in scrap yards. And with more than 70 000 made here in SA, this mid-size Mercedes was as much a part of the SA landscape as a 3-litre Ford or a Toyota Hilux. No upcoming mid-tier executive could be seen in anything else really while the range of models, from basic carb-fed 200 in manual guise to a luxury six-cylinder 280E in full house spec, ensured it had wide appeal, from Dominees and farmers, to doctors and boardroom directors.
So what made them so popular? Anyone who's driven one will vouch for its solid, well-screwed-together feel and its capacious, comfortable interior – not to mention its superb road manners – while long-term owners will likely tell you that it simply keeps on going. Truth is a W123 is from an era when Mercedes built its cars up to a standard and not down to a price. And that made it tough, reliable and capable of lasting... something Germany’s huge army of taxi drivers quickly came to realise as they placed orders for the entry-level diesel variants, which accounted for over 400 000 of the 2.7 million W123s built.
South Africa got the W123 in 1977, with 40% of it made from local content, as per the industry regulations of the time which also stipulated that engine blocks be cast at the country’s ADE unit in Atlantis. East London was home to the only ex-Germany factory (at the time) and local management took their reputation seriously with quality control generally regarded as one up on that at the maker’s main plant in Sindelfingen. While the 280E was the flagship of the range with turbine-like, six-cylinder performance that was good for 190km/h ability, not to mention a suite of luxury appointments such as air-con and leather as standard, it was also priced accordingly – R32 066 when 2-litre 200 (which had followed) in manual spec was pegged at R18 097. More popular was the 230E, which came about with Daimler-Benz’s M-102 fuel injected 2.3-litre engine that pushed out an impressive 100kW and was good for 0-100 in a fraction over 12 seconds and a top speed of 173km/h.
The super stylish CE (coupe) and TE (estate/wagon) were never officially marketed in SA however they were available as a special import. This specialness didn’t come cheap though with the range topping 280TE costing just over R51 000 in 1982… that was more than a Porsche 911 and double the price of a regular 280E sedan.
A good, reliable car that although not 100% original, wouldn't embarrass at a local car show or cruising around town. Minor rust bubble developing on the lower right-hand corner of the front windscreen. Window rubbers slightly perished but trim in good condition. Slight dent/scratch on left rear wheel arch. Seats have been re-covered in leather and could do with some re-tucking and a dash of leather care. No cracks in the dashboard. Drives very well.
Papers are in order and status reflects 'Used/gebruik'. Licence is up to date.
Available to view by appointment in Johannesburg.
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