A W123-generation Mercedes-Benz might not seem like a born racer, but this 280E and its hands-on owner were keen to prove otherwise.
Words: Wilhelm Lutjeharms
Images: Oliver Hirtenfelder
This feels illegal. I’m driving a 1982 Mercedes-Benz through traffic, but there is no air-conditioning to cool me and I can clearly hear every stone and piece of dirt the semi-slick tyres are chucking into the wheelarches. And every time I look in the rear view mirror, a full roll cage blocks my view. I already like this car. I’m driving a road-registered W123 280E racer.
In 1971, Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher (the founders of AMG) developed a Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.8 and entered it in the 24 Hours of Spa endurance race. Its class win and second place overall is a story every Mercedes-Benz and AMG enthusiast is familiar with. However, if AMG had overlooked the W109, it is highly likely that it would have shocked the world in a similar fashion with the younger W123 saloon, which went on sale in 1975. These thoughts run through my head as this W123’s owner talks me through his example.
"Almost everything is period. I want to reflect what someone living in the mid '80s could have done to the W123,” he explains. My hands are gripping a rather big steering wheel while I confess to him that I always find it difficult to really push someone else’s pride and joy. He quickly puts my concern to rest. “Soon I'll be participating in an endurance race. I would rather have something break today than during the race.” You don’t need more encouragement than that.
One careful racer owner
The black Cobra racing seat holds me firmly in place, my elbows bent just enough to gain the necessary leverage for the steering wheel. Looking around the stripped out cabin, it is surprising how neat and clean the owner has kept it after a couple of years of racing. He even politely asks photographer Oliver Hirtenfelder to take off his shoes when navigating the roll cage jungle in the rear for some interior shots!
To the left of the bucket seat is the open gearlever – connected to a standard four-speed manual gearbox – and the compulsory engine cut-off switch, plus the ignition and fan switch. It certainly does not look like a standard W123 in here! However, although most of the Mercedes’ dashboard has been removed, the air vents – without any ventilation pipes leading to them – and analogue dials remind you of this car’s age, which is reaffirmed by the odometer reading of 324 000 km.
The owner was not wrong when he said it gets hot in here. It is a mild summer’s day in Johannesburg, but with the car’s fixed perspex windows and the aforementioned lack of air conditioning, I can understand why there is a water pipe positioned next to the four-point harness’s top mounting point. In a hot and sweaty, three-hour endurance race you would really need that fluid!
Under the bonnet, which is kept in place by two quick-release pins, the 2 746cc six-cylinder engine is standard. Even the airbox is original, usually the first part to be replaced in a racing car to improve its breathing. This model was a suitable base for the project, as the 280E was the top of the range W123. In fact, until a few weeks ago, even the exhaust system was standard. Now that has changed, and the result of the freer flowing system is a power increase of around 11kW and a more memorable exhaust note. From just under 3 000rpm, the exhaust’s tune changes into a harsh scream as the rev needle swings around the dial in a very un-W123 manner. The combination of the exhaust sound and the rev happy nature of the six-cylinder engine confirm the best place for this car is the race track.
I smoothly put my right foot down and hold it there, before changing gear just past 6 500rpm. This is definitely the quickest W123 I’ve driven. But it’s not just its pace... The differential has been welded and is now permanently locked, making manoeuvring the car fairly tricky at slow speeds, but I sense you can power out of corners a little earlier. The front wheels have been given three degrees of negative camber, boosting grip mid corner, but at the rear, the camber settings have been left unchanged. “The rear camber is not adjustable on a W123 without modification. As is the case with most rear-wheel drive cars with independent rear suspension, the camber increases naturally with lower springs.”
The 280E’s standard recirculating ball power steering is used, too. Interestingly, the owner has raced this W123 only once without the assistance of power steering. It was such a physical exercise with those fat, semi-slick Bridgestones (in size 225/50 on their 15-inch rims), he vowed never to do it again!
It is this car’s provenance and originality that really make it special, though. There is still all the paperwork detailing the car’s full service history, including every receipt for new light bulbs, fuses and so on. One service technician curiously wrote the previous owner’s name, Mrs Marilyn Robinson, on the inside of the bonnet, a name which has stuck during the car’s ownership. The fact that the owner’s manual is still in the glove box and that the beige exterior colour matches the interior and the roll cage, the latter applied by the owner, give the car a coherency and an aura of respectability. All the dials and the clock still function properly, too. And while the mechanical parts on the inside of the doors have been removed, the trim has been kept, giving that side of the cabin an almost cosy feel. Then open the boot and you’ll see that although it has been stripped to further reduce weight, the interior light still works.
The owner did most of the work himself. A lot of the interior rubber, which kept the W123’s cabin isolated from tyre roar and road noise, had to be warmed and then scraped off, while the original interior and leather seats found new homes. The result is a reduction in kerb weight from 1 475kg to around 1 200kg, depending on the amount of fuel on board. Speaking of which, over the past few years of racing, the owner’s main expenses have been tyres (one set lasts just one race weekend) and fuel.
Participating in a regional series called the Midas Historic Tour, in the pre-1977 historic saloons class, the owner first got the idea for this project when he saw another W123 racer. He was one of the W123 pioneers and now there are a number of older Mercedes taking part. “You wouldn’t think it, but these Mercedes naturally adapt to the track with their independent suspension, and they are bulletproof, which is the real beauty of these machines,” he reflects.
Young at heart
Recently the M110 straight-six engine was opened for the first time, as it was smoking a little. The owner was worried a lot would have to be done, however the cylinder head just needed an overhaul – the rings, bores, valves and camshafts all looked fine. When one rear door was dented during a race, he simply visited a scrapyard, sourced a door from another W123 in the exact same colour and then fitted it to his own car without a problem.
A while later on the flight back to Cape Town, a whirlwind of thoughts spins through my mind. The owner and his friends have really proven that motor racing, and all the fun it brings, does not necessarily have to cost an arm and a leg. You just need to pick the right car.
Specifications – Mercedes-Benz 280E (W123)
Engine: 2.7-litre, six-cylinder, petrol (M110)
Power: 136kW at 5 800rpm
Torque: 240Nm at 4 500rpm
Transmission: 4-speed manual, RWD
0-100kph: 9.9 seconds
Top speed: 200kph
Kerb weight: 1 475kg (now ± 1200 kg)
Years produced: 1975 - 1985