Monday, 7 January 2019

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

Happy New Year to you all, and welcome to our first blog of 2019! 

As our very successful Essential Buyer's Guide series show (we've sold more than 175,000 copies worldwide!), here at Veloce we take buying a car very seriously, especially when it comes to classics – modern or otherwise. And if you're considering buying a Mercedes-Benz, then you're in the right place. Julian Parish, author of three Mercedes-Benz EBGs, and translator of a fourth, has written a practical two-part guide to help you decide which Mercedes is right for you – just keep reading for part one …



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

Why choose Mercedes?

Whether it’s the latest S-Class saloon or a stylish ‘Pagoda’ SL from the Sixties, for many motorists there is nothing to match the prestige and sense of occasion that comes from driving a car with the three-pointed star. When it comes to Mercedes’ historic cars and even its so-called ‘modern classics’ built until the mid-1990s, the manufacturer’s engineering and build quality is unrivalled.

More than a quarter of a century later, its cars from the 1970s to mid-1990s can make a superb introduction to the pleasures of classic motoring: the Mercedes-Benz 190 (W201), W123 and W124 series – forerunners of the modern C and E-Class models – on which this blog focuses are among the most durable and reliable cars of their generation and can still be enjoyed today. 

The three series featured here include saloons, estates, coupés and convertibles, all with space for at least four passengers (we’ll leave the two-seater SL models for another time). If your partner or children are anxious about travelling in an older car, Mercedes was among the first manufacturers to invest massively in safety features, with anti-dive braking systems, deformable crumple zones and all-round seat belts, even on the earliest W123 models, which are now 40 years old. 

Many of these three series of cars are still available at surprisingly affordable prices (but don’t wait too long!). Parts availability is generally excellent, and service items at least are not too expensive. There is a wide choice of cars on sale and plenty of independent specialists to help keep your car running well. In the first half of this two-part blog, we’ll help you choose the right model. 

We even have a special offer to make the decision easier still!



Deciding which model is right for you

Which body style?

Like the W124 that followed it, the W123 was available in saloon, coupé and estate form.

Each of these three series of cars has its fans, so how should you decide which is right for you? Let’s begin with the body style:

If open-air motoring with room for all the family is your priority, there is only one convertible available: the A124 model, introduced in autumn 1991 and available with a range of fuel-injected four- and six-cylinder petrol engines. The multi-layered hood ensures that the car can be driven in comfort throughout the year, while pop-up hoops behind the rear seats contribute to safety in the event of an accident. 


Electric folding hood on stylish A124 convertible.
If you are keen to enjoy one of Mercedes’ stylish two-door models but prefer a fixed roof (perhaps with the optional sunroof fitted to many cars), you can choose between the C123 and later C124 coupés. Both series have Mercedes’ famous pillarless styling, but the C123 stands out for its generous chrome trim. Make sure though that the horseshoe-shaped side window trim is in good condition: a replacement will run to nearly £1000! Most C123 coupés came in four-cylinder 230CE and six-cylinder 280CE form, but in North America, the coupé was also sold in diesel-engined 300CD spec, latterly with a turbo, to meet the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements there. The C124 models which followed are more modern to look at (which you may or may not prefer), but also have a more up-to-date feel on the road and increased power, especially in the case of the six-cylinder E320 models.


All these Mercedes coupés – from Stroke Eight (background) through C123 (centre) to C124 (foreground) had elegant, pillarless lines.

Not worried about the looks of a coupé or convertible, or in need of more space? Opting for a saloon gives you the biggest choice of all among Mercedes’ mid-sized modern classics: the 190 (W201), W123 and W124 series were all available as four-door saloons, with a huge range of diesel and petrol-engines, all the way up to the mighty 5-litre V8 fitted to the 500E/ E500. The mainstream models (particularly those with four-cylinder petrol engines) can be one of the most affordable ways of driving behind the three-pointed star, with all the quality and comfort of their two-door relatives but for less initial outlay. The 190 (aka the ‘Baby Benz’) is noticeably smaller than the other two series though, so make sure it’s roomy enough inside for your family.

190 saloon has least interior room, especially in the rear seats. (Courtesy Julian Parish)

None of Mercedes’ saloons from this era had folding rear seats, so if you need more luggage room, an estate is the obvious answer. The 190 was unique in that it was offered only as a four-door saloon, but there is plenty of choice to be found in the S123 and S124 models, with a wide range of petrol and diesel engines and, in both cases, an optional fold-out seat in the luggage compartment. This feature makes Mercedes’ estates one of the few classics able to carry a family of seven in comfort and safety and has helped drive up prices for these models today. Many of these estates have had a hard working life, so take your time if you are looking for a car in good condition with moderate mileage and a full history.


Fold-out seat in luggage compartment was available on both S123 and S124 estates.



Which engine?

Whichever Mercedes you decide on, nothing will affect the experience of driving it more than the engine you choose. 

Mercedes’ diesel engines, especially in naturally aspirated form, are among some of the longest-lived units ever produced, and have plenty of fans for their solid, imperturbable quality and moderate fuel consumption. But if you are buying a car now for high days and holidays, think carefully before choosing a diesel: the smaller four-cylinder versions especially are very slow by modern standards, developing as little as 55bhp in the W123 200D. More and more European cities are placing access restrictions on older diesels: that may not worry you now but could make it harder to sell on your car in a few years’ time.


Countless German taxi drivers relied on Mercedes’ long-lived diesels, such as this W123 in service in Stuttgart.

Most buyers today will probably opt for a petrol engine. The four-cylinder units are dependable and reasonably refined, although not particularly fast. Mercedes’ in-line sixes add more performance, but above all an extraordinarily smooth power delivery. Among the mainstream cars, the twin-cam engine fitted to the W123 280E and the 24-valve unit fitted to the W124 300E-24 are the sportiest powerplants, especially if mated to a five-speed manual transmission.


M102 four-cylinder petrol engine was fitted at different times to all three series in this feature.

If performance is your main goal, the selection is narrower, but choosing is certainly no hardship! Mercedes took the 190 into touring car racing with great success and produced an outstanding sports saloon in the form of the 190E 2.3-16, with its Cosworth-developed 16-valve engine and uprated suspension. Mercedes’ traditional customers may not have liked the bodykit and spoilers of the 2.3-16 and the larger-engined 2.5-16 which succeeded it, but it remains a compelling alternative to contemporary rivals such as BMW’s E30 M3.


Spoilers and bodykit fitted to 16-valve 190 models (here a 190E 2.5-16) were not to all buyers’ tastes.

With the larger W124 series, Mercedes took a different approach, shoehorning its 5-litre V8 under the bonnet of the 500E saloon and taking its performance to a different level altogether. Built with help from Porsche, this was a European muscle car with uprated handling to match its extra power. If the 500E is just a bit too much for you (or your wallet!), you may want to look for one of the rare six-cylinder E36 AMG models (available in the other body styles as well) or the 400E/E420 saloon with its 4.2-litre V8 and totally standard exterior appearance. This model was only sold in LHD, primarily for the North American market.


W124 E500 cornering fast on the test track.


Which transmission?

For decades, Mercedes had the reputation of building the best automatic transmissions in the business, offering the smoothest if not always the fastest changes. They are well suited to the refined character of the six-cylinder petrol engines or the torquey turbodiesels. In addition, the W123 and W124 series were fitted with a foot-operated parking brake, which many drivers find awkward for hill starts on cars fitted with manual transmission. There are no such worries with the 190, however, which has a conventional centre-mounted handbrake; the Getrag manual gearbox (with its unusual dogleg first) is a good match for the sporting 190E 2.3-16 and 2.5-16 models. 

All the Mercedes presented in this feature came with rear-wheel drive. If you regularly need to drive your Mercedes in wintry conditions but want a more luxurious all-rounder than the rugged G-Wagen, look out for one of the rare 4Matic saloons or estates, fitted with all-wheel drive. This transmission can be more expensive to maintain in later life, but a 300TE 4-Matic can make an interesting classic alternative to BMW’s 525iX and later cross-country estates from Audi and Volvo. 


Cutaway view of the 4Matic transmission offered on selected W124 models.



Which trim level and generation?


All three series of cars presented here hark back to the time before Mercedes introduced trim levels such as Avantgarde and Elegance, or the complex equipment packs it offers nowadays. Individual buyers chose the specific options they wanted, and there can be a huge difference between a basic ‘poverty-spec’ 190 or W123 200 saloon and a ‘fully-loaded’ late-model W124 E320 Coupé. The newer the car, the more equipment it is likely to have, but certain options – such as leather upholstery, a sunroof or period radio (usually from Becker) – will always add to a car’s appeal. 


Fully optioned 190E 2.3-16 with air conditioning, Becker stereo, four electric windows and heated front seats. (Courtesy Julian Parish)



Mercedes traditionally kept each of its models in production for many years (the R107 SL roadster lasted an astonishing 18 years!), with one or two facelifts along the way. In the case of the 190 and W124 series, for example, cars following the major facelift (in 1988 and 1989 respectively) can be recognised by the plastic cladding panels fitted to the lower side of the body. Mercedes also improved its cars on a continuous basis, with smaller cosmetic changes, enhanced standard equipment and even new engines being introduced between these major facelifts.

When buying now, it makes sense to buy on condition and history above all else. Be ready to settle for a different colour or forego a particular item of equipment if you find a car in the right condition. Even accepting a slightly different model or year of production may be the best decision. In general, though, cars in original specification are worth more than modified vehicles, unless the body or mechanical parts were fitted in period by top-end firms such as AMG or Brabus.


Late-model W124 saloon, with plastic side panels and Mercedes star on bonnet rather than grille.

Find out more

In the second part of this blog, we will introduce some of the main points to look for when choosing one of these Mercedes, covering in turn the exterior, interior and the engine and mechanical components. 


But if this feature has already whetted your appetite to find out more about these great cars, why not take advantage of our special Essential Buyer’s Guide offer? Get three guides – one for each of the models mentioned in this blog – for the price of just two, saving you £12.99.

You can find out more about each book and the special offer over on Julian's Drive Guide Guru website, and you can purchase direct from us.


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

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.

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

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