My Ride: Mark's 1979 Mercedes-Benz 300D

300d
w123
my_ride
mercedes-benz
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#1

The Find

I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that I recently found myself with a new 25-mile daily commute and no proper car to do it in. Plus I’d spent 99% of my money on a house remodel. No car and very little cash. What’s a fellow to do?

A sensible person might visit the local Honda dealer and arrange to lease a new Civic or some such for a $150 a month and call it done. But a sensible person I am not – so, as I was flipping through eBay Motors one evening, I saw the following listing and a different notion came to mind:

I’ve owned a few W123 Benzes in the past and found them to be terrific all-around transportation: pretty cheap to acquire, easy to work on, an abundance of parts, insane build quality, mildly entertaining to drive.

And, while the seller’s description was a little short on details, I could glean enough from the photos to see that this wasn’t your typical beater 300D. For example, the original Becker radio was still in place (and working), and the wood trim wasn’t missing, cracked or faded. And the body panels were pretty straight. And the rubber trim was still tight around the bumpers.

And the best part: the starting bid was set at just $3750.

Of course, having lived with these cars in the past, I knew that there would likely be issues like dash cracks and sagging seat springs to deal with (or ignore). Plus, the seller admitted the AC, a particularly troublesome area for these early W123s, was kaput.

But a nice 300D with everything well-sorted is upwards of $10,000 these days – or even double that if you want something crazy nice, like this pristine example currently on offer from Mercedes Motoring:

My thought was, if I could somehow get the car for under $5000 and then do most of the needed fixes myself, it could be a very affordable way into an interesting daily driver.

So the night before the auction ended, I took the plunge, and, as I watched nervously the following day as the auction ticked toward its close, no one decided to challenge me. It was mine at $3750.

My theory is that, while my spidey sense (and prior W123 experience) was telling me this was a pretty good car, the seller’s description was just vague (and honest) enough to scare most serious bidders away.

Or perhaps I had simply made a very foolish mistake.


#2

Congratulations on returning to the W123 family!


#3

Closing the Deal

After winning the auction, I sent the seller the required $500 deposit through PayPal and then, via email, arranged to meet him at his credit union a few days later to finalize the deal.

One of the nice things about buying a car through eBay, especially a local car, is that you can inspect it in person prior to completing the purchase. And if you discover that the seller has made any gross misrepresentations, you can safely walk away before handing over your cash. (It may take a bit of work to get your deposit back, but in my experience eBay will go to bat for you if you demonstrate that the seller’s listing was significantly flawed.)

Since I had nabbed this 300D on the cheap, my main concern was not to nitpick but rather to ensure that there were no major surprises. (That’s because, unless you are picking up a highly collectable model, like a vintage Porsche 911, or you enjoy tackling a huge project on your own, it hardly ever makes sense to buy an example that needs major repairs. You’ll simply never come close to recouping the time and money it takes to get it back on the road.)

It was easy to spot the 300D waiting in the bank parking lot. Its upright lines, bright chrome details and pastel blue paint made it an obvious outlier among the modern silver and gray transportation lozenges parked all around it. The seller, a friendly-looking guy in hospital scrubs, sat nearby and waved as I approached.

My first impression was strong. The car looked at least as good in person as it had in photos. But I know from experience that it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the moment and overlook critical details, so I immediately got to work with a careful, hands-on examination of the car.

First, I walked around it to inspect the paint and body panels. Again, this is a bargain W123, so I wasn’t looking for perfection but just for some basic evidence that the car hadn’t been wrecked or neglected. Fortunately, I found no evidence of either. A general lack of overspray, discoloration and orange peel indicated that the paint was likely original, and the only flaws present (some fairly minor scratches and rock chips) were the same that had been previously disclosed. Even the brightwork around the doors and windows was still pretty shiny, confirmation that the car had mainly been garaged.

W123s are prone to rust, even those from a dry climate, so I looked for any evidence of corrosion that I could find. I ran my fingers along the wheel wells and rocker panels, peeked under the spare tire in the trunk, and poked around under the hood, especially near the battery tray and the hood hinges. Everything was clean. Then I opened each of the doors, bent down and pushed back the seals along the bottom of each, a notorious hiding spot for W123 rust. Honestly, I was expecting to find some there – you almost always do. If it’s not too far along, it’s relatively easy to touch up. But, again, there was none to be found.

So far, so good.

Taking a seat behind the wheel, I found myself listing ever so slightly to the left, a sure sign of a broken seat spring. This is another common W123 issue, and one that I’ve tackled in the past with relative ease, so certainly not a deal killer. On the plus side, the blue MB-tex seat covers were all in very good shape, even if the original horsehair pads beneath them were starting to crumble (which I can address at the same time as the springs). Likewise, the door panels, headliner and carpets were all excellent. Even the material covering the rear parcel tray was looking fresh and unfaded, quite a rarity in all but the most well-preserved examples.

From pictures, I knew that the installed dash mat likely hid some cracks – a very common issue with older MBs, especially those with blue interiors and dashboards. And, sure enough, there were several fissures to be found. It’s a purely cosmetic issue and something I can live with since I am planning to drive the car daily and wouldn’t want to subject a pristine example to that sort of wear.

At this point, I was definitely still in, so the next obvious step was to take the car for a spin.

I gave the glow plugs a moment to warm and then brought the car’s venerable five-cylinder OM617 diesel engine to life. It fired immediately and settled into a fairly smooth (for a diesel) idle, its thrum and clatter both familiar and, somehow, comforting. I glanced in the rear view mirror to confirm there was no unusual smoke emanating from the tailpipe.

I slipped the gear lever into reverse, and the transmission engaged without any clunks or delay – though a bit of play in the lever told me that the shifter bushings ought to be replaced (a pretty simple fix).

Pulling out into traffic, I punched the throttle, and the car pulled steadily and smoothly through the gears. No hard shifts or flaring. As expected, there was some play in the wheel, but the car tracked straight and absorbed bumps without drama or unusual creaks or thunks. The gauges and indicators all worked as expected. The brake pedal was firm and hauled the car down from speed effectively, with no pulling.

I fiddled with the HVAC switches to ensure that, as the seller had noted, everything but the AC was working. Even the original Becker AM/FM was fully operational.

While I drove, the seller, an affable guy in his thirties, rode shotgun and told me about his experiences with the car. After picking it up for $7500 from an LA-area dealer, he had driven it about 5000 miles over four years, tinkering with it now and then using MercedesSource guides and parts, but mainly just enjoying the occasional weekend cruise. During his ownership, it had visited the shop just once to replace the starter.

When we got back to the credit union parking lot, I was pretty confident that this was a solid car, a solid seller and a solid deal. We stepped into the air conditioned lobby, where the seller signed the title over to me, and I handed him a wad of cash.

For better or for worse, the car was officially mine.


#4

Sounds like a lot of Benz for $3750. We want photos!


#5

Lotsa photos coming soon! : )