Buyer's Guide: Timeless Beauty - The W123 Sedan, Coupe, & Station Wagon - 1975-1985

Rubin Howard

W123 LEAD.jpgIn 1975, Mercedes-Benz revealed what would become one of the company’s most successful automobile series ever built – the renowned W123. Originally penned by Friedrich Geiger and Bruno Sacco, the new W123 stunned the public with its modern design, while at the same time maintaining the humble and versatile personality traits of its predecessor, the W114/W115 chassis range. In all, 2.7 million units were built, making the W123 one of the most successful Mercedes-Benz lines ever sold. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of W123 ownership is the diversity of body styles and engine choices available. Manufactured as a sedan (W123), coupé (C123), station wagon (S123), and limousine (V123), as well as the F123 chassis (based on the lengthened limousine platform, intended for use in ambulance and hearse conversions), there was a 123 for every purpose. The utility of the chassis was surreal, and the vehicle quickly made its way from use as personal transportation and taxis to rally events. Through its nine-year production run, the W123 remained virtually unchanged in appearance, while the available powerplants went through several changes.  



Seen from a design perspective, the W123 is descended from its older automotive brother – the W116 S-Class. (See W116 Buyers Guide, The Star, July-August 2020, pages 66-69). The W123’s identifying visual characteristics include bold horizontal wraparound headlights, large ribbed taillights, an iconic Mercedes-Benz grille and free-standing three-pointed star hood ornament, simple body length horizontal side trim, and color-matched painted hubcaps or aluminum Bundt wheels. When launched, the versatile W123 range included a 230, 240D, 300D, and 280E until August of 1979. In 1978, the coupé was added to the lineup, creating the 280CE and 300CD models, followed by a station wagon in 1979. By 1980, the turbodiesel engine from the W116 300SD was carried over to the station wagon, and subsequently the sedan and coupé in 1981. In Europe, many more engine choices were available. The W123 quickly became a sales hit; in fact, a prospective customer faced wait times from between nine and twelve months when the vehicle was initially released. This spawned a black market for impatient buyers with deeper pockets who were willing to spend more money in order to receive their W123 sooner. 

Features & Safety Equipment 

There was a wide variety of standard and optional features to be had on the W123 series. Exterior color choices were plentiful, with certain colors depending on the production year. Also noteworthy, interiors could be trimmed in four different upholstery choices, including MB-Tex, leather, cloth, and velour. Early interiors were trimmed with black textured plastic; later cars were embellished with strips of veneer on the dashboard, alongside veneer paneling surrounding the controls and shift bezel. Some higher-end models were equipped with four power windows and a child lock, while others relied on simple manual windows, or employed a combination of the two (power front windows, manual crank rear windows). The seats in early vehicles featured “cat-ear” headrests, while later models were supplied with headrests in a more conventional rectangular shape. Station wagons could be optioned with third-row rear-facing seats. (See “Buried Treasure,” The Star, July-August 2020, pages 42-49). Manual sunroofs were a popular option; their simplicity has stood the test of time well. Manual and automatic climate control systems were available – automatic climate control systems are common in models sold in the United States. Several rare options included heated front seats, a cabin pre-heating system, and rear headrests. Acolumn-shifter could also be special ordered. 

All models were equipped with disc brakes. An antilock braking system (ABS) – in development during the initial release of the W123 – would become available from August 1980 onwards. All W123 vehicles were equipped with the company’s patented safety steering wheel. Early models were manufactured with larger steering wheels with a padded cover, later models received a slightly smaller and updated steering wheel with a collapsible steering column. A driver’s-side airbag was made available as an expensive option starting in September 1982. Seat belt buckles were also updated throughout the series run. 


W123: A Modern Perspective 

The W123 has had the past 40 years to make a name for itself. While many models have passed through to oblivion, the W123 “Million-Mile Mercedes” is the one that stayed. It is not uncommon to see a high-mileage example still faithfully serving in daily duties, and one might even argue that these vehicles have developed a cult following. (See “Travelin’ Man”, The Star, July-August 2019, pages 50-55, and “Our Old Friend”, The Star, September-October 2019, pages 44-49). The W123 still embodies the value-for-money proposition when it comes to the classic Mercedes-Benz market. Well cared-for vehicles are still available for reasonable money, although you may discover that a well-maintained station wagon painted in a rare and desirable color will demand a healthy premium over the market price when it comes up for sale. You may even stumble upon a vegetable-oil conversion diesel, trailing the unmistakable aroma of old French fries everywhere it roams. Another key advantage is that the W123 is a completely analog automobile: there are no modules or engine management systems destined for failure. All components are generally simple to service, and a great deal of information is available via the Internet, service manuals, and through the W123 fan community. Parts are readily available. 

The W123’s appeal has morphed from aging executive-class conveyance to become the millennial’s chariot of choice. Now driven by celebrities, showcased in several recent films and television series, and featured in endless editorial fashion shoots, the sturdy and reliable Mercedes-Benz W123 is once again the car to have, just as it was back in 1976. Each one of these vehicles has an incredible story to tell; they have been around long enough to have played an essential role in many people’s lives. Whether it’s Lady Gaga’s China Blue family heirloom 300D, or Wendy and Scott Patterson’s 1984 300TD “Ruby,” showcased on pages 30-35 of this issue, these vehicles win our hearts with their understated personalities, and impress us with their ability to serve us so faithfully. Let’s face it, these cars will outlast us all. 


Reasons to buy 

  • There is a body style for everyone: sedan, coupé, station wagon, limo, ambulance or hearse conversion cars. 
  • There is also a specification for everyone; a tame Astral Silver on blue MB-Tex, or a Mimosa Yellow on Avocado MB-Tex and Plaid? Gasoline, Diesel? Automatic or Manual Transmission? 
  • One of the most robust vehicles ever made by Mercedes-Benz. 
  • Attractive design with proven safety and dependability.
  • Simple to work on, encourages owners to work on their cars. 
  • Cars and parts are readily available at reasonable prices. 
  • A W123 makes an affordable entry point into the world of vintage Mercedes-Benz ownership.  

Reasons Not to Buy

  • Rust spreads quickly if not tended in a timely manner. 
  • Performance may seem modest by today’s standards. 
  • There are many neglected examples; prospective buyers tend to overlook the condition of suspension and transmission.  
  • Alternative-fuel conversions may not be the best choice. 



  • Inspect the body and undercarriage carefully for signs of collision and corrosion; mechanical issues can be repaired, but it makes it worth your while to start with the cleanest body you can find.
  • Rust is commonly found in floor pans, bottom of doors, inside fenders and wheel wells, inside sunroof tray, battery tray,  the rear hatch (in station wagons) as well as the bottom of the spare tire well. 
  • Inspect door and window seals for signs of aging and cracking; water intrusion can lead to corrosion. 
  • Oil consumption is an issue; high mileage engines may burn oil; seals may cause oil seepage. Inspect for blowby if possible. 
  • Vacuum issues (particularly in diesels) – first indicator is improperly functioning door locks. 
  • Suspension components are often neglected. 
  • Check automatic transmissions to detect rough or abrupt shifting. 
  • Test automatic climate control systems for proper functions, as well as A/C compressor. 
  • Cracked dashboards are extremely common; replacements are expensive. 
  • Rear and side windows for station wagons can be expensive if chipped. 


The last word

Take your time, choose wisely, and you can enjoy the timeless beauty, unmatched durability and simple charms of perhaps the finest Mercedes-Benz of the modern era, the W123 range.


W123 Chronology1975-1985 
1975SeptemberEuropean market 200, 230, 250 sedans released
1976September240D, 230, 280E, 300D replace W115 chassis in U.S. 
1977SeptemberU.S.-market 300CD coupe and 280CE coupe arrive
1978AugustU.S.-market 230 discontinued
1978SeptemberU.S.-market 300TD station wagon arrives
1979AprilR04 a/c compressor replaces York compressor
1979AugustElectronic glow plugs system released; diesel horsepower increased
1979SeptemberModulator shift control replaces mechanical linkage on automatic transmissions
1980September300TD turbodiesel wagon released; 722.3 automatic transmission released; third-generation Automatic Climate Control
1981August300D and 300CD get turbodiesel engine
1982SeptemberAll model interiors, seats and carpeting upgraded
1983September240D discontinued
1984August300D & variants get 2.88:1 differential; vacuum system and turbocharger upgraded; vacuum controls refined; 722.3 automatic transmission get new torque converter;  California cars get trap oxidizer; 722.4 automatic transmission
1985SeptemberU.S.-market 123 chassis production ends
1985NovemberEuropean-market 123 chassis production end


Specifications: W123 Sedans • U.S Models

300D Turbo1981-1985123.133617.952120170

Specifications: C123 Coupés  • U.S Models

300CD Turbo1981-1985123.153617.952120170

Specifications: S123 Wagons  •  U.S Models

300TD Turbo1980-1985123.193617.952120170