Embracing the three-pointed star

10

Author: Graeme HurstPublished:

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.

Comments

chiplamb

Graeme, I'm sure Ed Ebel here in the USA can set you up with a nice period Becker - Ed used to work within the company and is now out on his own as an independent. Highly recommended! http://www.beckerautosound.com/ . The top of the range Becker for that year and model car is more than likely the Grand Prix Automatic, model 612. Best of luck, Chip

Chris Martin

Nice buy Graeme. I am envious. Since I sold my Crayford converted W116 Estate and then had my W123 280E written off in a flood, I had been looking for one of these. Here in Australia, they were always seen as an expensive car too, and for all the same reasons a few good ones survive, and the rest have been run into the ground.
I gave up the hunt recently when I found a mint 280E sedan, too good to pass up, but I would still grab a wagon too if a good one did turn up.
Similar climate here too, so as long as you are not buying from a surfer (parked at the beach all day) the sun damage to plastic and window seals is the biggest worry.
You are right about the wheel arch trims and wheels, they have to go pronto. I remember when I lived in London and Euro Car Parts had their first warehouse in Park Royal they used to sell those chrome trims for a few quid a set and they were only ever used to either hide rusty arches, or as a 'pimp my ride' bling add-on, not a good look.
You don't say what year model it is, but I note the chrome air vents in front of the windscreen which date it as pre '83 I think, later ones are black, but a period correct stereo would be either the Becker Grand Prix Electronic, (as fitted in my current '85, and my previous '84) or the black front Mexico as I had in an earlier 1980 model. I have a spare one of these in the garage which may be for sale, but will need a service. The popular 'Pinstripe' Mexico was correctly a seventies thing, and probably does not belong in yours anyway. I have a mint one of those too, which I am getting modified with a discreet iPod input to be fitted in my '76 SLC.
On another point, I notice it does not have the hydraulic self-levelling rear suspension, (there would be a pump on the front of the right hand camshaft) but it does have a tow-bar, so depending on the size and weight of the previous owner's boat or caravan it may nbe a good idea to check everything in the rear suspension.
Last, always get the timing chains replaced at recommended schedule, if there are not all service receipts and evidence of when this was last done, it may be smart to get them replaced now. Chain failure can be catastrophic.
I have had at least one of these models for the last twenty five years, so feel free to email any questions.
Here's a couple of links for further info on Becker stereos.
http://www.soundlabsgroup.com.au/c/Becker
and
www.koenigs-klassik.de/indexe.html
Best of luck with the wagon.
Chris M.

 

Col O'Firth

What about the tow bar? Will that come off?

Valve Bounce

I succumbed to 'Mercedes-Benz time' a few years ago and it's been thoroughly enjoyable. Just watch out for those Mercedes Classic dept. prices, I know it's quality gear but be prepared, sometimes it really takes your breath away; fuel pump for your W111, of course that's £800 sir, ignition leads £700, alternator £900...it's best to get to know a breaker fast.

Btw The Mercedes-Benz Club is brilliant, it's got to be one of the friendliest owners clubs and very knowledgeable technical team.

Mike Gulett

I love old Mercedes and saw Clark Gable's Mercedes in person recently and wrote about it here:

http://mycarquest.com/2011/11/clark-gables-mercedes.html

Maurice Ital

Is it only me who finds the W123 dreary? The very definition of tedious.

Just utterly, soul-destroyingly dull. OK, it was bullet-proof and would last a lifetime, but who among us wants to spend their life with a car that saps your will to live every day?

Don't know if I've ever seen a Benz that I've liked. Even their superficially interesting stuff leaves me cold. I remember C4 had an F1 themed evening many years ago, and some chap noted that the BRM V16 was doomed to failure because the firm copied the M-B route to racing success: thoroughness over inspiration; everything signed in triplicate.

And have you seen the rubbish it makes these days? Graceless garbage: I would gladly choose death over a C-Class. I think most C-Class owners already have

I had so many more points to make but the whole subject of M-B makes me drowsy.

(Yawn)

DUB123

These were the cars I grew up with, starting with an automatic 200, and ending up with a 280E.
Dull? Yes, but unbreakable ( I know....I tried very hard!)
Boringly great cars, devoid of interest to those who are not initiated.

Always wanted a 300D estate automatic-apparently John Lennon had the first one in the U.S.A.

martinh

With Maurice Ital on this. If this is where you´re headed Graeme, sell the Tractions!

I´m 58, still waiting for M-B to make a car that I would choose to have over a near competitor.

Only ones which have come close,(Pagoda, 190 Cosworth) are relatively easily eclipsed by 911 and E30 M3 respectively.

Is this because most M-Bs are generally bought by people who have no interest in cars or driving? Unless slowly, erratically, in the middle lane? The automobile equivalent of a golf sweater?

I guess that Schwabian values don´t match mine.

Zagato

I am going to have to be a Liberal Democrat and sit on the fence here. Although it is true that nearly all Mercs do have something deeply boring about them (and that many owners seem to think that when they buy the Merc they also buy the road and can keep in any lane they choose at any speed they choose), no-one with an ounce of engineering appreciation can fail to be impressed with the stupendous build quality of these cars prior to the 1990s when it all went to pot.
The way the doors close on an old Merc is worth the asking price alone and makes anything from any British or Italian manufacturer from the same period feel like wet cardboard in comparison. Every now and again I am overtaken by an irresistible urge to go and buy another one, usually a boring 190 2.6 saloon, which not only goes surprisingly well but also handles far better than you might think. I am slightly ashamed to admit it, but I also think they look quite handsome and they never cost me more than a grand. I'll stop now before I bore you all to death...

Zagato

muphen

Hello Graeme, I am a big fan of the MB 230E W123.
Please, I would like to contact you if possible and seek your expertise and help to buy a good one.

R34k, that was unbelievably cheap. Going through Gumtree and the other car stuff, I was finding it hard that such a car could for less than R40k but seeing you got one , I am intrigued.

I live in Zambia but frequently travel to SA, Joburg in particular.

muphen@gmail.com
muphen at gmail . com

Cheers.
Stephen Mukwatu.

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