Mercedes-Benz W123. Picture: SUPPLIED
Mercedes-Benz W123. Picture: SUPPLIED

THE other day I needed a lift to an event that was likely to involve wine and, with my cellphone smashed to smithereens this meant hailing a taxi in the old-fashioned way instead of firing up the Uber app. So I wandered out of my flat and on to the street, where I found young Themba resting behind the wheel of his taxi. It was an elderly Mercedes-Benz 230E and had more than 466,000km on the clock. This, for reasons that I will explain, had me in mind of a lobster.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that generation of Mercedes-Benz, known to Benz anoraks as the W123.

They were manufactured between 1976 and 1985. There are two reasons you continue to see them absolutely everywhere.

One is that it remains the most popular model Mercedes-Benz — 2.7-million units were sold, more than 77,000 of which were built in East London.

The other reason they’re still everywhere is that they are, I increasingly believe, the pinnacle of automotive engineering to date.

They enjoy what biologists call "negligible senescence", along with a handful of living things on earth. Some kinds of fish (sturgeon and rockfish) have been observed to live up to more than 200 years.

Certain tortoises have been observed to live more than 250 years (observing biological longevity is difficult for short-lived humans) and some species of hydra are said by biologists to be biologically immortal — which means the only way they will ever die is if something kills them.

The same is true of some trees, with a Bristlecone Pine in California in 2012 put at 5,062 years. Some Aspen tree root systems send up trunk after trunk after they die, which means a Utah colony of Aspens is probably biologically immortal too, and has been dated at 80,000 years.

In the insane, unedited world of social media it is often said that lobsters are immortal. This is not true. Lobsters do exhibit negligible senescence (there is no increase in death rates, or decrease in reproductive ability as they get older) but apparently the effort of shedding an increasingly large exoskeleton kills 15% of lobsters.

Eventually, the effort to shed becomes altogether too much, the exoskeleton becomes infected and the animal dies at the average age of 50 years and with 20kg in mass.

Which brings me back to why the W123 is so special. It is widely regarded among motoring writers to be the last utterly bomb-proof luxury car built.


I AM aware that there are Toyota Corollas and Hiluxes out there that can offer equally impressive dependability, but these are not luxury cars. The 1980s E-Class, properly cared for, might be immortal.

So what’s happened since then? Why was Mercedes Benz building a functionally immortal car in the late 70s and 80s but today’s offerings seem so fragile and weak? Why have we gone backwards?

Let’s be honest. A 10-year-old car these days wears its age with great weariness. I own a 2007 Jeep and it’s positively creaky.

The internet will tell you with relish that this is because of planned obsolescence — the idea that cars are engineered to last for only a certain period of time, forcing people to buy a new one.

This strikes me as highly unlikely, because any reading of statistics will tell you that new cars are pretty much as reliable now as they have ever been.

I believe that any obsolescence that comes from the manufacturer is a result of rapid and impressive innovation in one of the world’s most dynamic industries. It quickly makes the new look decidedly old-hat.

There are also some very deliberate design programmes that "facelift" current models with usually cosmetic changes to ensure that a three-year-old car is already looking its age.

This is definitely planned — designers are usually about to submit their initial designs for the next new model just as a new car is being launched.

I believe the greatest threat to vehicle longevity is the arrival of small-capacity motors with high compression and turbochargers and the like. These engines are the result of government-mandated drives to reduce exhaust emissions, and have forced manufacturers to venture into engineering margins that they might previously have left well alone.

Recently I read in CAR Magazine that some manufacturers are sending their cars to customers filled with suboptimal (in engineering terms) engine oils that nonetheless help the car squeeze into a different European Union tax bracket as a result of marginally reduced CO² emissions.

Manufacturers are increasingly directing their engineers to design for hugely complex legislation, not for the best engineering outcome.

In the process they are throwing out the idea that seems too obvious to me — there is no greener car than one that doesn’t need to be replaced.

This engineering-for-laws does not make for indestructible cars. While emissions must go down, buyers are still car people and they want more power, better safety, standard sat-nav, electric seats and so forth — all of which means lots and lots of weight.

Manufacturers are caught between the rock of their customers’ expectations and the hard place of punitive European Union legislation.

Recently I drove something called the Opel Adam, yet another Euro car with a turbocharged three-cylinder engine smaller than one litre in displacement. It’s a bloody brilliant little thing, easily the best Opel I have driven in years.

It’s a small city car, but it’s got a striking exterior and a funky, fun interior let down only by indicator stalks from a 1980s Ascona.

It was also brilliant to drive, a really fun, ferrety little thing with a very pointy/grippy front end and a firmish ride that the youth will no doubt find hilarious. Mine had black rims and, frankly, it looked the business.


THERE is plenty to recommend the Adam: 85kW and 170Nm is enough in such a little thing and in the twisty bits it’s a proper giggle. Fuel consumption, as always with such cars, depends on your driving style.

Official figures say it will do 5.1 litres per 100km on a combined cycle and, I suppose, if you are biologically dead it might.

But there I was, pootling through town the other day, with the car in fifth gear and me driving at 45km/h, enjoying all that torque from just 1,200rpm, which in the old days we called "lugging", and I did wonder; will this car still be around in 30 years?

It’s not Opel’s fault that I think it probably won’t, no matter how much fun the Adam might be.

That’s why I decided that when I come to replace my Jeep, as I inevitably will, I’ll be in the market for a mid-80s Mercedes-Benz 230E, with automatic transmission.

I think it might be the best car ever made, because it’s the full-stop at the end of a rather amazing age, when automotive engineers built cars for people, not bureaucrats.

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