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Mercs I Would Consider: The W123 280E

December 28, 2012 by Matt

Mercedes Benz MB Merc W123 280E Euro Green

So, to make an ever-so-slight detour from the theme of this series, the Mercedes W123 280E isn’t really “worthy of enthusiast consideration” if the enthusiast in question highly prioritizes performance. Its target market is the discerning enthusiast, someone who knows performance is only part of a car’s appeal and values qualities like substance and craftsmanship.

Mercedes Benz MB Merc W123 280E Green

I have a personal connection with the 280E: It was my parents’ first car that I really related to. Sure, before the Merc came along, we lived in the US and my brothers and I were shuttled around in “The Big Blue Whale,” a massive Chevy Caprice station wagon typical of the era. Don’t remember much of that one except its girth, the fact that it had rear-facing seats in the “way back” and the fact that my parents were…less than thrilled with its reliability. But then we moved to France in the mid-’80s and needed a family car. Fortunately, our landlord was looking to unload his, so he cut my parents a very good deal on a late-model 280E, dark green, with exactly the same trim and wheels you see in the image at top.

Mercedes Benz MB Merc W123 280E Engine Motor DOHC I6 Straight 6 M110

A few memories stand out. In the ’80s, something like 90% of all European cars were equipped with manual transmissions, and our 280E had an automatic. It was a point of distinction I was very proud of at my young age. I remember the way the door handles felt to pull to open, and the legendary bank-vault thunk of the doors closing. My dad liked the Merc, and when I asked why it was debadged (as is typical of many European cars), he told me it was because the car came with the most powerful engine Mercedes put in that bodystyle, and without the badges would-be theives would mistake it for a lesser-engined model and move on. Sneaky, clever, exciting. The most significant memory, though, was of the sound of the engine as my dad wound it out, accelerating away from a toll station on the Autoroute up into the Alps, heading to church in Monaco on a Sunday morning. The 185-hp, 2.8l straight-6 engine sounded absolutely fantastic, and the surge of power was noteworthy, especially in a fully-laden car accelerating uphill.

Mercedes Benz MB Merc W123 280E Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

Above all, it was a quality item, built to last forever. Yes, the tape player would overheat and eat cassettes a few hours into a long car ride, and yes, the exhaust system did come apart just after the downpipe and scare my mom half to death in midtown Nice, necessitating a quick search for the nearest muffler shop, but overall, our 280E was a beautifully-made piece of superior German engineering. I wouldn’t object in the slightest to the idea of owning another.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting Mercedes models worthy of enthusiast consideration. Read the other installments here:

Filed under: Car Stories, Mercedes, Mercs I Would Consider


  1. Tamerlane says:

    My neighbor across the street when I was a child had a side business importing grey market cars. And 95% of them were these Mercs. It was so weird to see 8 of these on his long driveway all at once, all identical other than color.

  2. John D says:

    I hear where you’re coming from, but even though your memories are certainly valid and indisputable, I think perhaps this particular car made an inordinately large impression on you at a young age. It is a nice car in it’s own way…but I would have to attribute your fondness for it as more of a ‘first love’ situation that one looks back on with fond memories than a hallmark of superior craftsmanship and automotive prowess. If you came across one now I suspect there would be a few confirmations of your hallowed memories, along with quite a few more disappointments when the rest of it doesn’t live up to the impressions held in the halo of fond memory. It’s inevitable, really. It was the car that first caught your attention. But you have since has so many more automotive experiences that I can’t help but think your standards are now raised and incongruent with the reality of your early impressions of the old Merc. I mean seriously…you remember a 185hp engine in a two ton Merc as having a ‘noteworthy surge of power’ going up a hill? Seriously? All this is just my opinion, of course, and you may yet prove me wrong, but maybe you’d like to reconsider your recollections a bit here…? ;)

    On a more practical note: what are those four circular items on the passenger side of the engine bay? They look like either horns or fans…

    • Matt says:

      Well it’s all incremental isn’t it? What feels like barely a nudge now, power-wise, was much more noteworthy when I was 8 years old, y’know? Just like we get desensitized to movie sex and violence as we get older—same difference with respect to engine power for those of us who move in “fast car” circles. Also, the DOHC (!) straight-6 was butter-smooth and made a great, refined noise, too, which contributed to the impression of power.

      Re:superior craftsmanship, you…have experienced a “ridiculously overengineered” Merc from that era, yes? If you haven’t, the quality is truly outstanding, and holds up well even today.

      I was wondering the same about the engine bay. My best guess is fans, but then they’d be blowing on…the A/C compressor and the passenger side headlight area. Curious.

  3. Ronald says:

    Those are BOSCH horns nice sounding horns. An aluminum version is also available.

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