The Odyssey of Homer’s Car – 1978 Caledonia Green W123 230

Derick TeeKing
David Gooley, Susan Morehouse, Andy Chan
Maybe there was some magic in the unusual color named Caledonia Green that Mercedes-Benz used on its cars in the 1970s: How else to explain why a W123 of that shade – purchased on the East Coast of the United States in 1978 by a man named Homer Polhamus – eventually wound up as the show-winning pride of Andy Chan, an enthusiast in San Francisco who remembered another W123 of exactly that same hue, with which he had grown up in Hong Kong?

The Odyssey of Homer’s Car

A tale of two families and their 1978 Caledonia Green W123 230s

 

Article Derick TeeKing

Images David Gooley, Susan Morehouse & Andy Chan

 

Maybe there was some magic in the unusual color named Caledonia Green that Mercedes-Benz used on its cars in the 1970s: How else to explain why a W123 of that shade – purchased on the East Coast of the United States in 1978 by a man named Homer Polhamus – eventually wound up as the show-winning pride of Andy Chan, an enthusiast in San Francisco who remembered another W123 of exactly that same hue, with which he had grown up in Hong Kong?

The new generation    

In 1976, the W123 was the latest product in the Mercedes-Benz lineup. It was the world’s most advanced mid-size sedan in terms of engineering and design and one of two classes of Mercedes-Benz four-door cars at the time: The company manufactured cars specifically for the luxury and executive markets. Production’s end of the mid-size Stroke 8 (W114/115) ushered in a “New Generation” of sedans filled with the latest in engineering, including new passive-safety features and luxury conveniences to protect and cosset its occupants. Four years earlier, the W116 S-Class sedans had solidified Mercedes-Benz as the very best in terms of large modern luxury automobiles; however, newer technology and advanced engineering had been developed since the W116’s introduction. The W123 picked up from the advancements that the W116 had started in 1972.

Hong Kong in the mid-1970s was a thriving business hub and gateway to Asia’s inexpensive manufacturing. The global oil crisis was over and the British Crown colony was experiencing double-digit GDP growth. Its ports were some of the busiest in the world, rivaling those of New York and Singapore. It was then that Grace Chan realized her 1967 Fiat 124 was no longer suitable for shuttling clients from Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport to her apparel-manufacturing offices in central Kowloon. A successful business needed a car of equal status.

Chan ordered her new Mercedes-Benz in March 1976 after waiting several months for the W123’s release. Her sister had a Mercedes-Benz 200 of the Stroke 8 variety and – call it sibling rivalry – Chan wanted something better. She wanted the best of the best – the newest in luxury, safety and styling. She had seen brochures of the upcoming W123 sedans, which Daimler marketing executives heralded as “the new generation of Mercedes-Benz” encapsulating “the lean look of tomorrow.” Three months later, Chan’s carbureted 230 arrived in Caledonia Green paint and Moss MB-Tex upholstery, with manual windows and an optional Becker Europa radio.

Soon the W123 sedans were everywhere in Hong Kong. In all of the world’s busiest industrial and financial capitals, the W123 quickly became a popular choice among corporate executives, successful small-business owners and celebrities alike. It was prestigious enough to impress clients and colleagues, yet practical enough to be driven by the owner with relative ease. In addition, it was durable and easy to maintain. In Hong Kong, it was the perfect choice for someone who didn’t want the larger, typically chauffeur-driven W116 S-Class. It was the perfect choice for Chan and her family.

Development of the W123

At the time, W123 was – and is still considered to be – a handsome piece of automobile design engineering. It was penned by Friedrich Geiger, who had designed the iconic 300SL Gullwing and Roadster (W198) of the 1950s and assisted Paul Bracq in designs for the Pagoda SL (W113) and the massive 600 Grosser (W100). The W123 was created during a time when engineers had as much influence as stylists regarding the shape of the car.

Nothing was superfluous. As early as 1968, Mercedes-Benz design engineers had defined the brief for the W123, mandating a combination of “maximum safety, exemplary comfort and ease of maintenance” – qualities which today define every E-class. And like the new 2017 E300 (W213), occupant safety was the highest priority. Rigid crumple zones, exceptional visibility and a safety-cocoon interior were all incorporated.

By 1973, full-sized clay models revealed the near-final iteration of the W123’s exterior design. It combined short front and rear overhangs, well-balanced hood-to-trunk proportions, and a fortress-like stance. While it lacked the Baroque elegance and elongated horizontal lines of the S-Class (W116), the W123 had an elegant presence that clearly symbolized Mercedes-Benz’s design sensibility.

The car measured 186 inches in length (190.6 with 5-mph bumpers in the U.S.) and 110 inches in wheelbase, closely matching the measurements of the current W205 C-Class (W205). Despite weighing just 3,070 pounds by official specs, the 230 had a driving stability that betrayed its relatively light mass.

The W123 came with a variety of gasoline and diesel engines powering sedans, station wagons and coupes. A total of 26 standard variants existed (not including the three “Lang” (long-wheelbase) versions, 16 using gasoline engines and 10 using diesel power. There were a dozen sedans, eight wagons and six coupes.

The most popular W123s were the 230/230Es and 200s, primarily for their relatively decent fuel economy, low initial cost and ease of maintenance. Of the 1.28 million gasoline W123s, nearly 200,000 were carbureted 230s (1976-1981) and another 245,000 were fuel-injected 230Es (1980-1985). The 230 and 230E made up more than one-third of all gasoline W123s and over 16 percent of the total 2.7 million W123s produced. The 230 was popular for its fine combination of efficiency and power. The reliability of the W123s in general was evidenced by their rapid adoption for taxi use around the world. Even today they continue to serve as taxis and other utilitarian transport in most global cities, developing nations and third-world capitals.

The 230 was only offered in the United States during 1977 and 1978 model years. Oddly, the 230 is not listed in the 1977 and 1978 U.S. Mercedes-Benz large-format product catalogs. Perhaps Mercedes-Benz of North America wanted to keep it a secret. The 230 was price-positioned above the 240D but below the 300D and 280E; depending on the delivery location, its base price was around $14,000 – $55,000 in today’s dollars – about the same base price as the 2017 E300 4Matic (W213). Options included a Becker Europa AM/FM radio, air conditioning (manually adjustable), sliding sunroof (manual), and front-center folding armrest. Mercedes-Benz’s famous Bundt alloy wheels were not available due to the 230’s factory-specified tire size being too narrow (175/70x14) to accommodate the wider tires required for factory alloy wheels.

By late 1978, Mercedes-Benz of North America abandoned the 230, leaving a product gap to be filled by diesels. In the United States, the 240D sedan, with 62 horsepower and the 300D sedan with 77 horsepower, offered similar performance to the gasoline-powered 230’s 85 horsepower. The 230 had, alas, become unnecessary to the Mercedes-Benz lineup in the United States.

The car of Chan’s memories

As a child in Hong Kong, Andy Chan played with his Corgi brand Mercedes-Benz toy cars on the rear parcel shelf of his mother’s 230, staring at the animated hustle and bustle of the densely populated city through the rear window’s expansive glass lined with a defroster. He imagined himself driving through Hong Kong’s crowded streets with his 230, albeit in 1:43 scale. He loved his mother’s car and it served as a safe playground while it crawled through the city’s congested streets and always-heavy traffic. Sadly for Andy, his mother replaced her 230 in 1983 with what was then the newest of the new, the more modern W126 long-wheelbase sedan (a story for another time).

Andy, a longtime San Francisco Bay Area Section MBCA member, is well-known for numerous concours wins with his Mercedes-Benzes. In 2011, he entered his 1977 280E at the Palo Alto Concours d’Elegance: The 280E was Andy’s first classic-car purchase and light-restoration project. And though it was not his mother’s beloved 230, it was a W123 – and not Caledonia Green, but painted a period-correct Pastel Blue. His competition in Palo Alto that day was fierce, including an unrestored, all-original 230 with only 27,000 miles on the odometer. Andy was in awe. The Caledonia Green 230 with Moss-Green MB-Tex interior was the exact match to the W123 Andy had grown up with. He was in love. He had to have that car.

Fortunately, the unrestored 230 was owned by Carol Polhamus of Santa Cruz, who had inherited the car from her aunt Betty and her uncle Homer, the original owners. Andy’s restored 280E won in its class; the 230 came in second due to slight imperfections and oxidization on its original paint from years of living in Florida. It was as honest as the day it was first purchased, including owner’s manuals, service books and a weathered window label. It even contained one of the original pieces of Samsonite luggage that Polhamus’s uncle purchased when he first bought the car because the luggage was the exact same shade as the moss-green interior.

Polhamus told Andy that her uncle had died not too many years after buying the car and her Aunt Betty could never bring herself to part with it, though she didn’t drive herself; her aunt simply covered the car and parked it in the back of the garage. That was where Polhamus found it when she came to handle her aunt’s estate after her death.

During numerous conversations about the car, Andy’s enthusiasm for Mercedes-Benz – and the care he lavished on his cars – made a personal connection with Carol. She didn’t have the space or need for the car but wanted the family’s heirloom to go to someone who would bestow the love the car deserved. She trusted in Andy’s future stewardship of the 230 enough to forgo an offer from the Kemp Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. A mutually happy deal was struck.

Months later, in the autumn of 2011, Andy had breathed new life into the already exceptional 230 and showed it for the first time in a local concours d’elegance, where it won best in class.

With the memories of growing up in an identical model, he enjoyed every nostalgic moment he spent with the car, and the knowledge that it was simultaneously the repository of memories for a good friend, he continued to work on the car.

The original paint, fortunately generously applied as had been the practice in the day, was carefully compounded, waxed, and polished back to its original soft brilliance. Similarly, the interior was carefully restored with all components removed, deep-cleaned and reinstalled. The air conditioning was put back in running order and works as well now as it ever did.

All mechanical and wear parts were serviced or replaced so the car would run as faultlessly as it looked. Hours of time were spent just on the engine compartment, working with Q-tips, toothbrushes and detailing products.

Andy has made several modifications to Polhamus’s 230 to better reflect – and pay homage – to his mother’s original 230. He found and installed European bumpers and headlights along with rear headrests and mud flaps. A custom-ordered license plate with the registration number of the 230 with which he grew up – BM 2030 – now adorns the car. Since Andy’s acquisition of the 230, it has been awarded several first-, second- and third-place awards in various classes at concours events throughout Northern California. Judges and spectators have all reveled in the car’s authenticity and remarkable condition.

Recently, the car was photographed in and around Pebble Beach following the annual German car clubs and owners show, the Legends of the Autobahn. From these photographs, one can observe the understated elegance of the W123. With a restrained profile and solid stance, it is reserved, stately and timeless. Andy’s enduring 230 is now nearly 40 years old. It is Andy’s pride and joy, a tribute to Mercedes-Benz engineering and design, and a carefully preserved tangible connection to the memories of two families from opposite sides of the world.

 

 

SPECIFICATIONS

1978 Mercedes-Benz W123 230 (1976-1980)

TYPE: Four-door, five-passenger sedan

ENGINE: Naturally aspirated 2,307cc single-barrel carburetor, 8-valve, inline-4

TRANSMISSION: 4-speed automatic  (manual optional)

HORSEPOWER: 109  at 4,800 rpm   TORQUE: 136 lb-ft at 3,000 rpm

WHEELBASE: 110 in   LENGTH: 186 in   WIDTH: 70 in

CURB WEIGHT: 3,070 lb

ZERO-60 mph: 13 sec   TOP SPEED: 103 mph

FUEL ECONOMY (Observed): 17 mpg combined

 

At top, Andy Chan’s W123 230.

The car’s first owners, Homer and Betty Polhamus, pictured in 1959.

The 230 today, in seldom-seen original Caledonian Green. The car’s timeless elegance harmonizes perfectly with the eternal sea on the California coast.

 

Grace Chan in Hong Kong with her children – Andy at left.

This car at its first home in Florida.

Andy today with Carol Polhamus, niece of its original owner.

 

The design of the W123 four-door sedan was both practical and dignified, equally at home in Hong Kong; Cocoa, Florida; and today in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

The show-winning condition of the car today underscores Carol Polhamus’s decision to entrust her family heirloom to Andy Chan’s enthusiastic stewardship.

The optional air conditioning made sense in both Florida and Hong Kong.

Homer Polhamus bought matching Samsonite luggage for his wife to use with the car.

 

If the exterior looks great and the interior is faultless, the engine compartment is an unbelievable jewel box, with each of the thousands of pieces perfectly done.

 

 

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