The diary of a high-mileage Mercedes-Benz W123 230E

22 May 2024 - 12:07
By Brenwin Naidu
The story does get somewhat happier despite what this image implies.
Image: Brenwin Naidu The story does get somewhat happier despite what this image implies.

Usually when a car is described as showing wear that is incongruent with its mileage, it should be avoided.

But if you change your inflection, that descriptor can also be used positively. As in: "Wow, this old car is in a far less crap condition than expected for something with more than 500,000km on its odometer."

Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you about my 1984 Mercedes-Benz 230E, a car that seems to have held up rather well over a well-used life. And with many more days on the cards.

Believe it or not, the four-speed manual sedan has about 529,000km on the clock. But looking at the upholstery and how the interior has aged overall, you might not say so.

Seriously, I have seen a good number of W123 examples in my life, with half the mileage, in far poorer states of fettle. Gear levers worn smooth, sunken seats, MB-Tex upholstery that looked like Edward Scissorhands had given it a deep tissue massage to the background of Barry White's greatest hits.

Friedrich Geiger and Bruno Sacco designed a true masterpiece with the W123.
Image: Brenwin Naidu Friedrich Geiger and Bruno Sacco designed a true masterpiece with the W123.

Aside from an easily fixable tear on the driver's side bolster and a few cracks on the dashboard, my sweet ol' chariot has an interior sans major blemishes.

The exterior, though, could tell a few stories. There is a tiny corrosion spot on the rear left lower section of the windscreen, which seems to be where they are all prone to rusting.

That will need to be addressed at some point. The rear left fender has a scuff I can only assume happened in a moment of absent-mindedness.

But a separate "fix" on the same panel leaves me more curious. It's a patch-up relying on a neatly sliced piece of metal, pop-riveted into the body, painted over in white. Part of me dreads what might be found when we rip off that inelegant piece of handywork, but let's hope for the best.

Aside from those three issues, the body appears straight, without any evidence of terminal rust in any of the crevices. I guess those imperfections add a slight "patina" to the mix. Because my intention at this point is to treat it as a daily, without being overly precious about those cosmetics.

One of the first people I told about the car was veteran motoring journalist Stuart Johnston, himself the long-time owner of a beautiful yellow W123 200 manual. I'd spoken to him about the prospect for many years and he was pleased to hear I had taken the plunge, and also quite appreciative of my plan to embrace the exterior battle scars.

Upholstery that does not evidence 500,0000 kilometres.
Image: Brenwin Naidu Upholstery that does not evidence 500,0000 kilometres.

I found the car on Facebook Marketplace and decided to give the seller a call. Arriving to view, the W123 looked a bit sorry for itself, covered in dust, without its wheel covers, parked in the back corner.

In the boot were wheel covers for a Mercedes-Benz W126 as well as the appropriate, original set belonging to the car. My plan is to put these on once the car gets a detail.

Apparently my W123 had been standing for the last decade as its previous owners — purportedly since the vehicle was new — had passed on.

It started right up after a new battery was put in, settling down to a silky smooth idling tone and without any smoke from the exhaust. Good sign. Seemed to drive OK, too, as revealed during a short around-the-block. Of course, real issues would only be pinpointed once the car was on a lift. It would definitely need new tyres as the ones it wore dated back to the year 2009. They had plenty of tread but were consumed by dry rot.

Clearly, for this 230E to have achieved such a mileage, it must have been the recipient of some care over the years. There was a sticker for a German car specialist workshop on the rear windscreen. I called them and spoke to two of the older hands on the team. When they heard the surname of the previous owner and the mileage of the vehicle, they seemed to instantly know the car. However, they conceded they had not seen it through their garage in many, many years.

Odometer of the author's 230E.
Image: Brenwin Naidu Odometer of the author's 230E.

I decided the white 230E was worth taking on. The seller was kind enough to throw in the new battery, in addition to giving it a basic once-over, including an oil service, to ensure it would at least get home.

Remarkable how nicely it drove for something of such an age and mileage that had been without real care for an extended period of time. The four-speed entered each gate smoothly, the brakes (with plenty of meat still on the pads) had a steady, progressive feel. Aside from a minor rattle between 2,000rpm and 3,000rpm (silencer, probably), it was quite hushed.

Pattern still legible on shifter, new key-chain might be needed.
Image: Brenwin Naidu Pattern still legible on shifter, new key-chain might be needed.

Cause for concern in stop-start traffic was the temperature gauge rose closer to 100º when it should have been at a cool 80º. At least the fan kicked in as it was supposed to. A persistent tick was traced to the Tempomat (cruise control) actuator, which I disconnected. This was diagnosed expertly via WhatsApp by a very helpful, gracious classic Mercedes-Benz specialist.

I tried not to let my mind run away with too much worry about my W123's issues because a full mechanical check-up was on the agenda.

That was expedited when, about a month into ownership, a small oily patch was found by the driver's side wheel. My heart sank as I found it was seeping brake fluid. Not badly enough to empty the reservoir but reason enough to stress. That necessitated a journey by flat-bed truck to my chosen classic Mercedes-Benz surgery in the east of Johannesburg.

I asked my trusted technician to be straight: was it worth saving the 230E? He remarked, after his short drive and inspection on the lift, that he had encountered much worse.

That was all I needed to hear. The source of the brake fluid leak was the front right brake caliper. In addition, the car needed radiator refurbishment, front ball joints, rear propshaft coupling, centre propshaft bearing, right-side CV boot, rear stabiliser links, right-side tie-rod and a new exhaust silencer. Oh, the steering box was leaking, so was the differential. Both were treated to new seals and gaskets.

All to be expected, I guess, on a car that has driven to the moon and half way back (just about).

If you do the sums, the price of a usable W123, factoring in basic potential repairs, works out to much, much less than a year's worth of instalments and insurance on a new entry-level budget car. That's how I'm choosing to spin it in my mind, anyway.

I'll spill more ink about my 230E once I've completed the rebonding process after the recent repairs.

I don't feel even slightly regretful about the car though, unlike my last old Mercedes-Benz. Which is a good sign.