Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Choosing a modern classic from Mercedes with Julian Parish – Part two

Welcome to part two of Julian Parish's guide to choosing a modern classic from Mercedes. A member of the Guild of Motoring Writers and a Mercedes enthusiast, Julian has all the knowledge needed to give a practical overview of which Mercedes will be right for you. If you need to catch up with part one, you can find it here. Now, on to part two:

W123 and W124 part of a story of mid-sized saloons from Mercedes lasting 50 years.

Getting started

In the first half of this two-part blog, we looked at three series of Mercedes’ mid-sized cars from the 1970s to mid-1990s: the Mercedes-Benz190 (W201), W123 and W124 series. These were the forerunners of the modern C and E-Class models and any of them can make a superb introduction to the pleasures of classic motoring. 

Now, though, it is time to look more closely at some of the most common problems you may find, and what to look out for when buying. We’ll also tell you about where to find out more and even have a special offer to make the decision easier still!

New 190, with larger, but more traditionally
styled W123 saloon beside it.
Once you’ve narrowed down at least the series of car you want to consider, what should you look out for? Take your time and aim to see a good range of cars: even poor examples will help you learn more about what to watch out for. However impressive the engineering, the oldest of these cars have been on the road for more than 40 years and many will have covered high mileages – plenty of time for problems to set in, especially if previous owners have skimped on regular maintenance. So inspect each car carefully and be sure to ask for a test drive – something to which no serious seller should object.

It is hard to believe that this 190E has covered nearly 200,000 miles.


First impressions count for a lot with any car, and these Mercedes are no different. Stand back from the car and check for even panel gaps and a consistent paint colour and finish; if the car doesn’t look right, it may have suffered accident damage.

There is a big difference though between the W123 cars and the later 190 and W124 series. The W123 cars tend to suffer more from rust, especially on cars built until 1981, which used poorer-quality steel and had less rust protection applied when new. The W123 also had far more chrome trim – which adds to its appeal for many buyers now – but this can corrode, and some of these parts are costly to replace. Be wary of add-on chrome wheelarch trims (more popular in North America than in Europe), which can harbour rust.

Check along the side of the car for even
panel gaps and paintwork.
(Author's Collection)
Chrome side window trim adds to appeal
of C123 but is expensive to replace.
(Author's Collection)

The key spots to look at are the same across all the cars: look for rust around the wheelarches, on the wings and along the sills. One of the best guides to the condition of any Mercedes of this era is the jacking points. Remove the covers and look inside: if they are already rusting, it’s very likely that the sills will also be affected. Examine the edges of the front and rear screens, too, and on estate models the rearmost side window trims, for more traces of corrosion. Try and look underneath the car if you can, for signs of rust on the subframes and exhaust system.

The 190 and W124, especially in post-facelift guise, and on the 190 16-valve models, made more use of plastic body trim panels: these can crack or allow moisture to get in, with the result that corrosion can take hold on the metal panels underneath them.

A fine pickle! Severely corroded jacking point
and sill on 190. (Courtesy MTSV)
Rusting side window on S123 estate.
(Author's Collection)


With the huge mileages which all these Mercedes are capable of covering, it is by no means rare for unscrupulous sellers to wind back the mileage recorder. Ask yourself whether the overall condition of the interior matches the mileage shown: look at the condition of the driver’s seat bolster and for excessive wear on the steering wheel rim, gearlever and pedal rubbers. Check, too, for signs of damp on the seats, carpet or headlining, particularly on cars fitted with a sunroof, which can be a source of leaks.

Each of these series of Mercedes was offered with different types of upholstery: the legendary MB-Tex, a vinyl trim which is virtually indestructible, but can appear austere; leather, which is also hard-wearing; standard or – on the W124 and 190 – Sportline cloth, which can be vulnerable to soiling, especially in light colours; and velour, which was a luxury option in period and sets off cars such as the C123 coupés very well, but is less durable. Take note of any missing trim: some interior parts are now hard to find, especially in less popular colours.

Don’t forget to open the boot and check the condition of the spare wheel well. The boot floor is especially prone to rust on the 190.

Leather interior trim – seen here on a 
W123 250 saloon – is classy and
durable. (Author's Collection)
Rust is commonly found in the spare
wheel well on the 190. (Courtesy MTSV)


Many fans of this era of Mercedes love the relative simplicity of their electrical systems. The older the car you are looking at, and often the lower down the model range you go, the fewer electrical accessories they tend to have. Many W123 models were delivered with manual windows, for example. In the W124 series, however, the top-end six- and eight-cylinder models often came fully equipped, so be sure to check that all the switches work as they should.

If the car you are considering is fitted with air-conditioning, has the system been overhauled and upgraded to use the current R134a refrigerant? If not, budget for an expensive service job.

Engine and mechanicals

Over the 20 years which these three series span, Mercedes fitted a huge number of different engines, but they generally have an excellent reputation. A quick look under the bonnet – which you can raise to a 90-degree service position for easier access – will often give you a good idea of how well the car has been looked after. Are there signs of oil or coolant leaks, loose hoses or corrosion under the battery, for example?

The naturally aspirated diesels, while slow by today’s standards, are some of the toughest engines ever built, easily capable of well over half a million miles.

The petrol units are not far behind, especially the mainstream four-cylinder models. Regular maintenance is essential though: on the M102 unit fitted to many models, this includes changing the simplex timing chain (fitted until 1987) every 60,000 miles. On the later six-cylinder W124 models, the engine wiring loom disintegrates over time and may need to be replaced.

Most of these cars used sophisticated but conventional suspensions, but the S123 and S124 estates, as well as the 190E 2.3-16 and 2.5-16, were originally fitted with self-levelling rear suspension. If the car sags at the rear or feels excessively hard, there may be fluid leaks in the system or problems with the pressure accumulators and pumps.

Remember to check the tyres: ideally these should be recent, with plenty of tread, and all from the same, reputable manufacturer. If the car you are considering is equipped with alloy wheels, are these free from corrosion and kerbing damage? If not, you may be able to cover the cost of refurbishing them when negotiating the price of the car.

With the bonnet in its service position,
access is easy. (Author's Collection)
If you can get underneath the car, check
for cracked springs and corrosion
on the suspension. (Courtesy MTSV)

Is restoration worthwhile?

For most of these cars, the answer today is probably not. The cost of a full-scale restoration, using high-quality OEM parts, will outweigh the value of the finished car. Unless you can afford a ‘money no object’ restoration to the exact specification you want, for most models it’s more sensible to keep looking, as there are enough cars out there.

The most sought-after models in each of these three series are, however, gradually increasing in value. The day may soon come when it does, in fact, make economic sense to restore a W123 series 280CE or 280TE or a 190E 2.3-16 or 2.5-16, for example.

 Completely stripped-down W123 bodyshell on display
at a classic car show in Germany. (Author's Collection)

Don't forget the paperwork

However good the car may look, having the right paperwork is essential. The VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) stamped on the car should match the number on the vehicle registration document. All Mercedes-Benz cars came with a data card, specifying the exact finish and equipment fitted; again, this should tally with the option codes stamped on the engine slam panel.

Finding a complete service history for a 40-year-old car may not always be possible, but evidence of recommissioning work after a period when the car has been laid up, or of recent service jobs, is all valuable. Make sure, too, that the car has a current MoT or similar roadworthiness certificate and note any ‘advisories’ indicating work which should be carried out.

VIN plate for a UK-market W123 250
automatic saloon. (Author's Collection)

Option codes plate for the author’s own
190E 2.6. (Author's Collection)

Find out more

Choosing and maintaining a modern classic from Mercedes is made all the easier thanks to the flourishing community of enthusiasts, parts suppliers and independent specialists catering to the marque. There are several newsstand magazines dedicated to Mercedes, all of which regularly feature the W123, W124 and 190, while the official Mercedes-Benz Clubs in the UK and USA are among the biggest and most professionally run single-marque car clubs.

If this feature has whetted your appetite to find out more about these great cars, why not take advantage of the special offer from Veloce Publishing on our Essential Buyer’s Guides, handy pocket-sized guides which tell you all you need to know about choosing and buying each of these models. Our latest guides cover each of the series described here, but in much more detail. 

If your mind is already set on the W123, Veloce also publishes the definitive guide to its history and development, from renowned motoring historian Brian Long.

There you have it – a round up of things to consider if you're looking to invest in a Mercedes-Benz. Along with those books mentioned by Julian, Brian Long has multiple other volumes charting the history of many other Mercedes series, and we also have Essential Buyer's Guides for 280-560SL & SLC, SL, and SLK, with one for the S-Class (another Julian Parish translation) set to publish in the spring.

About Julian Parish

Julian Parish is the author of six books for Veloce, including the Essential Buyer’s Guides to the Mercedes-Benz 190 and W123 series. A member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, he also translated the Essential Buyer’s Guide to the Mercedes-Benz W124 series from German into English. 

Julian lives in France, and as well as his automotive guides, he is the author of two popular travel guides, France: The Essential Guide for Car Enthusiasts, and The Essential Guide to Driving in Europe, and the Drive Guide Guru blog and website.


All photos courtesy Mercedes-Benz Classic, except where otherwise shown.


No comments :

Post a Comment