Words and images by Francis Rule.
My old Mercedes is a w123 230E sedan – affectionately referred to by most people these days as the “Moroccan Taxi” model. If you go for a wander around Northern Africa or to parts of Eastern Europe, you’ll still find them faithfully ferrying passengers around with up to a million miles on the clock.
There really isn’t anything very special about this car. Styling wise, she really does look exactly like what a primary school aged kid might draw. There’s two wheels at the front, two at the back and a big, boxy chassis which holds the whole show together.
But the standard features are well made, and satisfying enough that it is a pleasure to be in. The ‘leccy windows roll up all strong and silent, and the hefty “thunk” they make when they hit home hint at having enough horsepower to take a finger off. They bring out the nerd in me. I find myself mucking around with them when I’m stuck in traffic. The horn belts out a note with the timbre of an opera Tenor – while the very original stereo sounds raspy. Thin and wheezy like a pack-a-day smoker. It’s not much good for anything other than talkback radio. Which feels appropriate.
The central locking is hilariously useless. It runs on a vacuum system. Perched up beneath the parcel wall in the boot there is a plastic, dimpled reservoir. The theory being that it stores enough vacuum to actuate the lock mechanism in each door along with the filler cap. In practice the effect is that it holds enough air to LOCK the car but, if you leave for any longer than it takes to buy a cup of coffee, the system runs out of puff and the act of unlocking becomes a manual procedure.
One very German oddity is the air-raid siren that goes off if you remove the keys with the lights on. Somewhere under the dash there lies a piezo speaker engineered to make your ears bleed if you commit this sin of forgetfulness. My Mum borrowed the Merc recently and claims a “bit of wee” came out thanks to this feature.
I found this car on Facebook Marketplace and had it shipped to Vic sight unseen In January last year. It started life as a chauffeured ambassador’s car at the British consulate in Hong Kong. When Hong Kong left the Brit’s control in the mid ‘90s, the car was shipped back to South Australia by a former employee who thought it would make a functional keepsake. The gentleman who had it until 2020 drove it regularly until he fell ill. He has since passed away, but I was lucky enough to speak to him over the phone and he filled me in on the various characters who had sat in the back-seat over the years. He claims that it was once involved in a car-chase, and that Jackie Chan was picked up from it in the airport. There’s no proof that either event ever took place, but i’m more than happy to keep the rumour going. I’m pretty certain that unless it was getting away from someone on a pushbike, it would have been a very short star case. “Leisurely” would be a hopeful describer of the Merc’s performance.
I do however have a photo of it at the consulate, and there’s lots of little details on the car that speak to its heritage. The nicely worn out and wonky “HK” vinyl sticker on the boot is one. While the log book, service stickers and mudflaps at the rear are all in Cantonese. If anyone out there would be willing to help me decipher the log-book I’d be very pleased to know if it has ever had the timing chain replaced…
My favourite bit of provenance would have to be the handful of Hong Kong currency I’ve found nestled in the back seat and under the carpet. It all lives and jingles away happily in the ash tray now.
I’ve been pretty keen on old cars since I was a kid. I’ve had a couple of very exciting, very unreliable Minis and a Rover P6. While they were amazingly good fun to drive and steeped in character – they also required a fully kitted out garage and deep pockets to keep them ticking over. They were also impossible to leave parked on the street unless you could make peace with the fact that the emblems will be nicked and bonnet dented every time someone sprawls themselves across it for a photo op.
But the Merc doesn’t get that kind of attention – aside from the odd nod from the kind of codger who might have come across one as a taxi back in the day. I like that it isn’t ostentatious or noisy. No one falls in love with a W123 because they’re particularly pretty or flamboyant. Even their fans don’t seem to talk about them with any great, burning passion. Love for a W123 comes on slow. It is a learnt love, earned over years of stolid reliability, even loyalty. Sure, some of the sillier bits of plastic break, the seats are spongy from new, the interior feels more functional than plush and the little petrol and diesel models are glacially slow. But they just don’t seem to give up. Ever.
The dear departed previous owner of this vehicle told me one of Mercedes’ slogans in the late ‘70s was “All cars wear out, ours just do it later”. Well, so far so good. In the one window of good weather and less stringent restrictions, I managed to ferry four people over 1200 trouble free ks in the Merc… Something I’d never have dreamed of doing in any of my other classics.
Getting the Merc to roadworthy wasn’t too tricky. The infuriatingly finicky details that Vic Roads like to fuss over lead to a few hiccups. A very expensive ($200) hairline crack in an indicator lens, another crack on a seatbelt buckle and a new muffler were all surprises. Otherwise the bulk of the work was what you’d expect for a car that had been surviving in the less stringent habitat of South Australian safety laws… I treated her to new shocks all round, a new fuel pump, new tyers, new rotors and rebuilt brake pistons. Probably the biggest drama was a bacterial infection in the fuel tank (I had no idea this could happen) … in which old fuel that had been sitting in the car had somehow become a petrie dish for vehicular emphysema. This required filling the tank to the brim with vinegar which was left to sit for a few days before being flushed thoroughly. Then swishing around a solution of kerosine to “season” the metal.
W123 Mercs are just starting to appreciate in value. Even five years ago 6-8 grand would get you a nice clean example of a sedan. But now that same car fetches around the mid-teens while the more desirable Station Wagon and coupe models go (and go quickly) for 20 to 30 grand.
Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree seem to turn up pretty good results, I found mine after about two months of casual hunting. Carsales and other commercial sites tend to be more pricey – but right now looking on the Gumtrees of the world is a good move as those who aren’t in the know looking to flog them from deceased estates still throw them up for more affordable sums.