Today is a momentous day (in car terms) in the Hurst-Warner household: I woke up to a text from my other half (who’s out in South Africa for the week), saying ‘deal done: R34k’, followed by another from our bank confirming that we are a further 34,000 Rand into the red, in the face of a looming global economic crisis!
The ‘deal’ signifies our respective official transition (early and late ’40s) to middle age, otherwise known in car terms as Mercedes-Benz time…
That thought has always conjured up images of motoring in a hefty and somewhat bland silver-coloured E- or S-class as it slushes through the gears and irons out bends and bumps in the road to sterilise the journey, but I like to think that the classic angle of our choice in three-pointed star ownership won’t tar us with that brush. Or that it will at least be seen as a stepping stone to fully embracing Stuttgart’s über-luxury saloons in the years to come.
You see our latest acquisition is one of the marque’s W123 280TE estates – a car both of us have coveted for years since an example of the model featured in the late-1970s/early-’80s television series Hart to Hart, starring Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers as wealthy Los Angeles jetsetters-cum-amateur detectives.
Back then the series helped to raise the profile of the estate version of what was a near-ubiquitous senior management company car on South Africa’s roads. It certainly looked decidedly classy and every bit part of a Hollywood film-star's life. Especially because I’d never seen one in the metal when the series was running or for years afterwards, for that matter.
That's because the estate variant was hugely expensive as it was imported (the saloons were built in Mercedes-Benz's East London plant in South Africa) and so they attracted punitive import tax (110% from memory) that was intended to protect the local motor industry.
I’m not sure how many were brought in, but local marque enthusiasts reckon no more than 100 or so were officially imported, possibly even fewer. The upside of the car's rarity was that all pukka Mercedes-Benz-sold South African TEs were fully-loaded with options, including air-conditioning, electric windows and a sun-roof – and came with the range-topping six-cylinder engine.
As a result, owning a TE was a serious lifestyle statement, matched only by having a Range Rover – which was also fully shipped over and seriously pricey – on the drive. Both models were typically bought by families who exuded an upper-class existence – father was a medical consultant, wife with an immaculate figure, children at private schools – along with the de rigueur pedigree Old English sheepdog and holiday home at South Africa’s prestigious Plettenberg Bay.
Fast-forward 30 years and they are rare cars on South Africa’s roads. Many of the 10s of thousands of W123 saloons produced are still in action either in the country or in the rest of Africa, where they're renowned for their bulletproof reputation and ability to rack up inter-galactic mileages.
Not so with TEs. A few tatty examples have become workhorses for tradesmen but the good ones that remain are fastidiously maintained by owners who know exactly what they've got.
Which is why we had to snap this one up pronto. Rob spotted it online a couple of weeks back and, conveniently, just 10 days before a business trip to Johannesburg where the car was for sale.
Johannesburg cars – particularly classics – can be a bit of a double-edged sword: the dry climate means that they're typically rust-free (compared to cars from South Africa's large coastal region) but the year-round sunshine can take its toll on the interior and windscreen seals etc. This one wasn't sold new to Jo'burg, but it came from the even hotter Northern Province where Mercedes-Benz owners are known to cherish their cars.
The body on this one certainly backs that up as it's rust free and largely unblemished. The interior is reasonable and the engine bay impressively clean and tidy.
The car's not without it’s niggles, mind: the mileage is a slightly heady (‘though not in Merc terms) 245,000km, which equates to a reasonable 8500km per year, and a previous owner has added a set of chromed wheelarch trims that I’d be suspicious of had the car been in a wetter climate. It’s also lost its steel wheels with elegant body-coloured hubcaps, for a set of aftermarket alloys. Both those and the wheelarch trims will have to go of course.
The plan is to use it while we’re out in South Africa in January and get it registered in our native Cape Town before putting it away for our eventual return, armed with a period Becker Mexico radio cassette player, if my partner’s recent eBay search history is anything to go by…
I’m up for that, although I’m not sure about the Old English sheepdog that he’s keen on to complete the period look.