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It took Mercedes-Benz a long time to get over its inherent suspicion of the estate-car market.
The attitude had its roots in the local feeling towards the kombi, which in West Germany tended to be a Ford, an Opel or a VW driven by tradesmen who needed to carry tools or samples.
What was seen in the UK as a car for wealthy private individuals who needed a prestigious dual-purpose vehicle was nothing more than a posh van in Germany.
Notwithstanding the fact that hundreds of thousands of Mercedes cars earned their living as taxi-cabs, Daimler-Benz AG felt it had an upmarket image to protect.
The limited success of the ‘Fintail’ Universal and W114 station wagons (built by firms outside of the Mercedes empire with DBAG’s permission) had proven that there was an appetite for a five-door Benz.
As the 1960s turned into the ’70s there was increasing evidence that the market for large estate cars was growing in Europe, with strong sales for Peugeot and Citroën.
Even in West Germany the market increased from 4000 sales a year to 21,000 between 1973 and 1977. In other words, it was a sector that Mercedes-Benz could no longer ignore.
What the likes of Binz and Crayford could produce on its behalf the mighty DBAG could better do itself with a fully engineered factory product.
So a high-level decision was taken that the mid-’70s replacement for its top-selling W114/W115 range would feature factory-built and engineered station wagon variants.
In fact theT (for Tourism and Transport) version of the W123 was launched at Frankfurt in 1977, almost a year after the saloons. It would not be seen in the UK in right-hand-drive form until late in the spring of ’78.
Had it not been for Jonathan Ashman, we might never have seen the T wagons at all.
Recently named by Autosport as one of the 50 most influential people in motorsport history (because of the still-existing 2-litre Touring Car rules he devised in 1990), Ashman did 11 years with the RAC Motor Sports Association, organising and stewarding Grands Prix.
He is a former head of the FIA Touring Car Commission whose unassuming manner tends to belie his powerful connections.
Before he became a racing rule-maker and entrepreneur he was best known for his rallying exploits, most famously Andrew Cowan’s winning 280E in the 1977 London-Sydney Marathon and personally giving the unlikely 350 and 450SLCs their debuts.
Ashman started his career at the Mercedes-Benz UK headquarters in Brentford in the early ’70s.
“I did a business studies degree,” he says. “It was two years at college, one year in work then one year back at college. I lived in Ealing near the Great West Road, where you had BMW, Alfa and Mercedes.
“I wrote to Mercedes first; they wrote back and said, ‘Yes, we’d love to have you.’ This was 1970. I had a great time because they didn’t have many people interested in cars.”
Ashman finished college two years later and had a gap year driving to South Africa in a Ford Escort Mexico with his girlfriend.
“It performed perfectly,” he recalls fondly, “and was so light it would skim over the sand.”
Back in the UK, Porsche was advertising for somebody in the accounts department.
“I got an interview, and afterwards popped in to Brentford to the see my friends at Mercedes,” he recalls. “When I told them I had been for an interview at Porsche they insisted that I come back and work for them at £2460 a year, which was good money at the time.”
Ashman started at Brentford in April 1973 when Mercedes-Benz GB was still a wholly owned subsidiary of the Tilling Group.
That agreement ended in December 1973, when DBAG bought all of the assets and ran the business itself, putting in a German managing director from 1 January 1974.
“In Germany every MD has an assistant; not a secretary, but a right-hand man,” Ashman explains. “I fitted the bill. I moved over to the car marketing department five years later.”
As car product marketing executive Ashman, then still not yet 30, decided the specifications and prices, what would be offered as standard equipment and what would be optional.
“I was in a lucky position,” he admits, “because the three people who were above me were all commercial-vehicle people, whereas the cars almost looked after themselves. So I was left alone to do what I thought was right.”
Larger-volume models would automatically be produced in right-hand drive: “But where lower-volume models were concerned – such as, say, the long-wheelbase airport taxis – they would ask if we wanted any.
“If enough of the other right-hand-drive countries such as Hong Kong wanted them, they would make right-hand drives, although they were always delayed by six months. The one exception was the W126 SEC coupé that, for some reason, came out the same month in left-hand drive and right.”
Ashman would get invited over to Stuttgart when the first right-hand-drive prototypes were ready.
“They wanted my opinion because I could drive them fairly quickly and I was more at home with right-hand drive than the test drivers.”
Making right-handed versions of cars that were designed as left-hookers can be fraught with problems, even for Mercedes-Benz.
“The worst was the W124,” reveals Ashman. “It was the first right-hand-drive car with a foot-operated handbrake. There was no room for a central handbrake or the dash-mounted one: they said there was no choice because the transmission tunnel was biased for left-hand drive, as was the exhaust, which all hindered the space available for operating the parking brake.”
That was the early ’80s, when 123-series estate sales were still going strong.
Ashman, friendly with the research and development department in Stuttgart, had first heard a W123 estate was coming in the mid-’70s.
The T was earmarked to be built at Bremen in the old Borgward factory where Mercedes-Benz produced its vans.
“A letter came through from the factory asking if we wanted right-hand-drive estates,” he says. “I knew they would be easy to sell, yet the instant reaction of our MD was ‘absolutely not’.
“He was German and took the attitude that only plumbers have estate cars, and that it would damage the reputation of Mercedes in the UK. At that point I thought I was going mad: here was a vehicle we had been dreaming of, and my bosses were about to tell Germany we didn’t want right-hand-drive estate cars!”
In the end it was agreed that a market research report would be commissioned, according to Ashman: “I thought, ‘Great, I’m happy now.’ Until the report came back saying there was no market for a luxury estate in that sector.”
Only after pleading the case with his immediate bosses was it decided that the T wagons would be imported.
“I had to do a proposal on models and prices and decide what should be the premium over the saloon,” he says.
“It went to the board meeting, where they accepted my prices on the 240TD, the 250T and the 280TE, but significantly reduced the price on the 200T because they were so worried they wouldn’t sell any otherwise.
“I think the gap between a 200 saloon and 200T was maybe £150, so I knew what the problem was going to be: we wouldn’t be able to get enough of them.”
Proportionally, the UK became one of the best markets for the estates.
“The T wagon was relatively low volume and they couldn’t just turn the tap on and off,” Ashman says.
“When we wanted more cars they had to take cars that were earmarked for other right-hand-drive markets.”
While the 200T was a loss-leader, across the range the T wagons were still between 20% and 65% more expensive than rival estate cars from Volvo, Citroën, Ford and Peugeot.
In the UK you could have 2.8-litre Ford Granada GL V6 estate for the price of a stripped-back 200T, although that equation didn’t take into account the high residual values of the Mercedes.
The 121mph 280TE, widely accepted as the best and fastest production estate car available, was roughly double the price of the 200 T.
“We kept the 200T fairly basic but my bosses were really worried by the way I specced-up the 280TE due to the price,” he remembers.
“I was always pleading with them that people at that level of the market don’t want a long list of options, they just want a car with everything on it and they will pay the price.
“You are not going to attract them by making it £3000 less and then selling them options. Once a third of buyers were buying an option that flagged it up for me that it should be standard.”
Ashman stayed in marketing at Mercedes-Benz until 1984, having been instrumental in getting the G-Wagen into the UK.
“I was involved in the G by doing a lot of the test driving in Austria. When I specced-up a 280GE it was twice the price of a Range Rover and I never dreamt they would sell.”
To help salesmen with a type of product they had never dealt with before, Ashman procured a Land-Rover, Range Rover and Land Cruiser and sent them to an off-road school, pitched against the new German rival.
“The course was designed so that nothing could get through,” he says, “but the G-Wagen always got the furthest.”
In 1984, Mercedes-Benz centralised its then sprawling UK operation in Milton Keynes: “I lived in Holland Park; I didn’t fancy that.”
Ashman moved to be sales director of Toyota from 1984 -’88 and was about to get a high-level job with Renault in Acton when he was offered the post of head of commercial motorsport at the RAC.
“Having just done the Safari Rally twice in a Subaru, and with so many friends such as Andrew Cowan and David Richards in the sport, I had to take the job – even though it was two thirds the money of Renault,” he admits.
Ashman retains a strong bond with Mercedes and is just about to swap his Mark Cosovich-supplied 280CE for one of the rare 450SLC 5.0 lightweights, which he feels will be more suitable for the sprints and driving tests he still enters.
Ahead of our meeting, Cosovich assembled probably the biggest gathering of T wagons you will find anywhere in Europe, from rare project cars such as the USA-only 300 Turbo to fully loaded 280TEs and, the pride of his fleet, the 19,000-mile 230TE pictured here, thought to be the best of its type you will find anywhere.
“An elderly lady bought it for her son to drive her to the garden centre once a week,” says Swansea W123 guru Cosovich, who has the specimen-condition wagon for sale for offers over £50k.
How times have changed. I recall buying these cars for £500 or maybe £1000 when, at 15 years old (and with 150,000 miles), they were still sound.
They were throwaway items; in the rare event that something major broke you just went out and bought another. They had such an air of rugged yet refined competence about them that it was hard to think of them as ‘classic’.
Today the youngest examples are 35 years old. Even with values riding high restoring a T is not a commercial proposition.
This is due not only to the complicated nature of the car – “It would be easier and cheaper to restore a Pagoda,” reckons Cosovich – but also to Mercedes-Benz’s current approach to parts pricing.
Cosovich illustrates the point by showing me a tiny piece of new aluminium trim from the centre of the grille that will set you back £40 on its own.
On the other hand the 230TE, in many ways the best compromise between power, refinement and economy, compares so favourably to modern cars that it’s hard not to judge it by modern standards.
Quiet, lively and smooth, its all-round vision, tight turning circle and speed-bump flattening ride would be a revelation to those raised on the teeth-chattering obsession with ‘sporty’ handling that afflicts 21st-century cars.
“I used to find the estate more chuckable,” says Ashman. “Maybe because of the self-levelling.”
Outwardly, with its chrome bumpers and roof bars, it has aged rather better than the W123 saloon.
When you reacquaint yourself with the finish, the detail engineering and the sheer solidity of the thing (does any car have doors that shut with a more satisfying thunk?) the price-tag begins to look very fair, even modest.
Cosovich says he couldn’t restore one to this level for £50,000.
Maybe, taking everything into consideration, the 123-series wagon is still the best estate car in the world?
Images: Olgun Kordal
Thanks to Mark Cosovich
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