Once a mainstay of 1980s company car schemes for executives across the land, the ‘built–to–a–standard, not–to-a–price’ Mercedes 123-series sedan is an up–and–coming modern classic. One that’s both hugely accessible and practical for younger enthusiasts. In fact, interest is so strong the model now has its own club here in SA.
By Graeme Hurst
TV adverts. Especially car-related ones. That’s my abiding petrolhead memory of growing up in the 1980s here in SA. Remember the ‘Get the freedom of the city’ strapline that flowed from the box after a flash of red, yellow and blue Golfs in urban settings? Or the amusing series of Castrol ads involving Boet and Swaar – proprietors of the dusty Horing Boom Oasis petrol station – and various characters who turn up in search of a ‘can of the best’? Just some of my favourites but the absolute standout has to be the W123 Mercedes plunging off Chapman’s Peak one night after its driver lost control. The 1990 advertisement was Mercedes-Benz SA’s recreation of Christopher White’s dramatic accident while negotiating the famous Cape Town mountain pass one evening two years earlier.
And, apart from the alarming swirl of mountain, air and sea scenery shot through the windscreen as the luxury saloon cartwheels down the 100m-high rockface, the most memorable part of the advert was the click of the driver’s door being opened moments after it came to rest and the narration: “Christopher White survived this 100m plunge for two reasons. He was wearing his seatbelt and he was driving a Mercedes-Benz.”
It was arguably the ultimate proof of the German carmaker’s “Engineered like no other car in the world” marketing line. And a clue as to why so many of the 70,000 W123s screwed together at the company’s East London plant after its 1977 launch would still be plying our roads 30 years after the ad first flighted; long after the model’s contemporaries retired to a scrapyard (when did you last see an E12 5-series?).
And these tough, built-to-last cars are not just plying our roads in the hands of the same owner; many of today’s 123 drivers were borne long after production gave way to the 124 series in 1986. Those owners range from student surfer types in need of reliable and capacious wheels for less than R30k to young car enthusiasts keen on an everyday classic that won’t shed value like a modern hatchback. In both cases a W123’s ability to rack up intergalactic mileages is hugely appealing.
Model wise the W123 was a broad church with the early carb-fed four-cylinder 230 and six-cylinder 250 giving way to the 200 and fuel-injected 230E four-cylinders in ’81, by when the twin-cam–engined 2.8-litre 280E was the flagship of the series. And, unusually for the time here in SA, there were two diesel-powered derivatives: the five-cylinder 300D (popular with well-off farmers) and its rather pedestrian four-pot 240D brother.
And there was a range of body styles including the two-door CE and the station wagon T-series. Officially both of those weren’t on offer here but they could be imported if the owner’s pockets could stretch to cover the exorbitant, industry–protecting import tariffs at the time….in 1982 a 280TE was available locally for R52 000! That was Porsche 911 money and almost twice what you’d have shelled out for the already-pricey 280E sedan. Which is why TEs were very much an automotive statement for the Sandton horsey set, in much the same way as a Range Rover was.
Fast forward to today and R52k won’t get you a TE (those are hugely coveted with good ones well north of double that…assuming you can find an owner willing to part with one) or a CE for that matter but it will get you a very tidy 200 or even a 230E. One of the latter in auto guise is regarded as the sweet spot of the range thanks to the 100kW output from its 2.3-litre engine which, along with the reduced mass in four-cylinder form, gives ample performance even on the Reef. And some sanity at the pumps, unlike the thirsty 280E. What’s more, the 200 and 230E models tended to be owner-driven (as opposed to the company-owned 280E) and so often more coveted and passed down the family in mint condition.
And it’s the 230E that’s spiked the values lately. When it was first tested locally back in 1984 it cost a shade over R23k in auto form. That was some R6k over a non-aircon manual 200. An immaculate one of the latter might make R80k to a collector today but equivalent condition 230Es have broken the 100k mark, and more. Just last week a pristine 58 000kms-from-new, one-owner–for–29 years 1985 example in Hellelfenbein (Light Ivory) was snapped up after being listed online for R189k!
Mega money for sure but arguably the mileage and condition means it’s a unique opportunity to time travel back to a 1980s Cargo Motors showroom. And that memorable night on Chapman’s Peak, in the event things go wrong when you’re behind the wheel…