REVIEW | This 1981 Mercedes 240D is analogue perfection

Thomas Falkiner falls for the old-school charms of this W123 series oil-burner

09 December 2019 - 22:48
By Thomas Falkiner
The 240D sits majestically in the Johannesburg twilight.
Image: Thomas Falkiner The 240D sits majestically in the Johannesburg twilight.

What you’re looking at here is the most produced variant of the Mercedes-Benz W123: a car that many regard as the most rugged and over-engineered automobile that mankind has ever had the genius to pen.

According to internet fact gods Wikipedia, of the 2,375,410 four-door models built between 1976 and 1986, 455,000 of them wore the 240D badge.

Why so many? Offering a blend of good fuel economy and mechanical simplicity meant that it soon found favour with taxi companies looking for a car that was cheap to run and easy to maintain.

To this day, the 240D remains a revered form of public transport in many third-world countries due to its bulletproof mechanicals: they’re simple to work on and can, with regular oil changes, rack up mileages that would make even a space shuttle blush. Seeing cars with 1,000,000km on the clock isn’t uncommon.

The OM616 diesel engine is capable of clocking up some serious mileage.
Image: Thomas Falkiner The OM616 diesel engine is capable of clocking up some serious mileage.

What’s under the hood?

Pop that heavy bonnet and you will find a 2.4-litre four-cylinder diesel engine known internally as the OM616. Unlike most diesel motors you’ve likely been exposed to over the years, this one makes do without a turbocharger, which means (a) it’s pretty damn noisy and (b) it’s not exactly the last word in power and torque. Speaking of which, the OM616 makes 54kW and 137Nm – in a car that weighs roughly 1,385kg. I think you get the picture.

Anyway, as I alluded to before, the beauty of this naturally aspirated oil-burner lies in its rugged and simplistic design. For instance, there are no electronics to conk out - other than the glow plugs needed in cold starting scenarios. Heck, you don’t even really need a battery: unplug it once the OM616 rattles to life and this motor will keep on turning until you push the emergency shutoff lever located next to the camshaft cover.

The throttle linkage is mechanical (simple to adjust and refurbish), while the filters are easy to locate and refresh. If a modern motor can be likened to Lady Gaga surrounded by a swarm of bodyguards, then the OM616 is Jefferson Airplane performing in the late 1960s – totally accessible and easy to get to know better.

Performance is best described as glacial.
Image: Thomas Falkiner Performance is best described as glacial.

How does it drive?

Performance-wise, the 240D is perhaps one of the slowest cars you will ever experience. In fact, one could describe the way it moves down the asphalt as glacial - even more so if equipped with the optional automatic gearbox.

Fortunately, the tidy white example loaned to me by Mercedes-Benz specialists Carcol Executive Auto came with the more desirable four-speed manual transmission that makes hill starts a slightly less stressful experience.

Even so, acceleration remains slow enough to frustrate those sitting behind you: I was hooted at numerous times by people not familiar with the languid ways of cars powered by naturally aspirated diesel engines. I was also beaten off the line by a group of road cyclists who dropped me like they were riding superbikes.

But once you eventually build up some momentum, the 240D will comfortably cruise though urban areas at a reasonably steady 60km/h. Point it down the highway and you can hold 115km/h all day long before things start getting a bit too loud and frantic. Just remember to keep the momentum going – having to lift off the accelerator (especially on an uphill) will see you lose speed at a frightening rate.

Although not built for speed, the 240D is most certainly a champion of ride comfort. Johannesburg is a city notorious for its crap roads and this Mercedes rolls over them all with not a squeak or clonk of protest, thanks to its softly sprung suspension and 14-inch steel wheels shod with high profile 195/70 tyres.

Potholes, unfilled cable trenches, random scabs of concrete dropped by ill-maintained cement mixers - while all of the above give modern cars anxiety disorder, the 240D simply shrugs them off in a way I imagine tanks shrugged off battlefield debris back in the Second World War. It’s a highlight of this vehicle and one that definitely makes it a truly viable everyday driver.

For such a burly chunk of metal, I was surprised at just how easy the 240D is to manoeuvre. The power-assisted steering is light (seriously, you can swing that oversized steering wheel around with one finger) and turning circle impressively tight – I have driven hatchbacks that require more space to turn around in.

The instrument cluster is simple and easy to read.
Image: Thomas Falkiner The instrument cluster is simple and easy to read.

Did you get good fuel consumption?

After a long week of mostly city driving, I was able to get the 240D down to roughly 7.5l/100km, which is pretty good for a car of its size - even by modern standards. With a good tune-up I think I could get this figure down even lower.

The MB-Tex upholstery is ageless and the seats are comfortable.
Image: Thomas Falkiner The MB-Tex upholstery is ageless and the seats are comfortable.

What’s life like on the inside?

Slotting in lower down the rungs of the W123 model hierarchy, the cabin of the 240D is expectantly stark. Aside from the massive centrally mounted speedometer, the instrument cluster offers readouts for fuel level, water temperature and oil pressure. There’s also an analogue clock. Move your attention to the centre console and you’ll notice dual-zone ventilation controls, a rear-window demister switch and, well, that’s it.

Air-conditioning was optional and unfortunately this particular 240D wasn’t specced with it, which means that even after five minutes of driving the back of your shirt starts to dampen with sweat. Living without AC is possible, but on especially hot days the lack of cool air is punishing. In the autumn/winter months the 240D will be perfectly liveable.

Interior build quality will blow your mind. For a car nearly four decades old, everything still feels and operates with an almost nuke-proof solidity. It sounds clichéd to use that old adage, ‘They don’t make ‘em like they used to,’ but in the case of the W123 it really couldn’t ring more true. This 240D sported Mercedes-Benz MB-Tex upholstery and looks as fresh as it did back in the 1980s.

The steel-sprung front seats are comfortable and the armrest between them gives your elbow something to dig into on long drives. Much like the rest of the package, the cabin of the 240D is a basic place that prioritises function over form.

A whiff of diesel smoke is not unusual on hard acceleration.
Image: Thomas Falkiner A whiff of diesel smoke is not unusual on hard acceleration.

Does it smell like an old farm tractor?

The 240D is no modern-day Audi TDI. Nope, it’s an old-school diesel product, which means that you do experience a fair amount of diesel smoke – especially under acceleration. So be prepared for the occasional whiff of eau de sulfur.

The 240D makes a slow but enduring everyday classic driver.
Image: Thomas Falkiner The 240D makes a slow but enduring everyday classic driver.

Would you buy one?

I would. After driving it for a few days, the 240D really got under my skin with its comfortable ride, honest cabin and overriding feeling of dependability. Even that agricultural diesel clatter became a somewhat enduring (if not comforting) soundtrack to which I looked forward to hearing on my daily commute.

It may be nearly 40 years old, but when ensconced behind the wheel I felt like I could honestly drive this car anywhere. Cape Town. Cairo. Dirt. Tar. Anywhere. It started first time every time and even when caught in stop-start urban traffic never ran hot.

While it may be terminally slow compared to modern vehicles, the beauty of the 240D lies in its bombproof construction and decent fuel consumption. In a heavily digital world it stands out for being totally and utterly mechanical in every way. It is to cars what a wind-up chronograph is to an Apple Watch, a Moka Pot to a Nespresso machine - and that, to me at least, makes it deeply cool.

- Thanks to Carcol Executive Auto for the loan of this vehicle for testing.