There’s a powerful sense of urgency in getting this Curbside Classic written. It’s to document the remarkable horde of old Mercedes W123 diesels hereabouts, most of them proudly sporting a biodiesel sticker. But the biodiesel fad was already waning substantially when I shot this car a year ago. And since the $1/gallon federal subsidy for biodiesel disappeared with the new year, biodiesel itself is at risk of becoming a CC (canola classic?). Congress is currently considering a renewal, but regardless, Mercedes W123s will still be around. In fact they may well be the last internal combustion engine cars running long after Peak Oil is a distant warm and fuzzy memory. Without being uncharitable, these cars are the automotive cockroaches: they’ll eat the grease out of your dirty frying pan, and you can’t hardly kill them.
It’s hard to put the old Mercedes biodiesel wave in towns like Eugene into proper perspective. The run up in oil prices two years ago was the grand blowout of a trend that had been developing for quite some time. Environmentally-responsible car drivers were torn about which way to assuage their CO output/guilt, and two main factions emerged: the Prius camp and the old Mercedes bio-dieselers. Clearly, income was a factor: buying a new Prius was more expensive and dramatically less troublesome. But a new Prius still uses the evil dino-juice, even if it sips it. For the hard core COncerned drivers, only a renewable organic source like biofuel would do, to be burned in a recycled old car. Enter the W123, which descended on Eugene like a plague of noisy locusts.
Wholesale buyers scouted the land (California and Arizona, primarily) and waves of tired old Benzes showed up in Eugene, not unlike the first exodus of hippies that left SF and LA and ended up here in 1969 or so. There are (were?) even two dedicated used-Mercedes biodiesel car lots (see photos) whose stock of cars is not moving much these days, and we have a dedicated biofuel station whose owners also own a (struggling) biodiesel plant nearby. They started out using only the old cooking oil of a large potato chip plant, but eventually had to augment from virgin stocks. And they’re fingering their prayer beads in hopes that Congress delivers that tax credit.
Anyway, at its peak, clattering old Mercedes were as common as Tibetan prayer flags. But there’s been a precipitous decline, and exhausted old Benzes sitting idly in driveways and curbside are becoming an epidemic. But fear not; old Benzes don’t die, they go into hibernation or dormancy, to be awakened when the next oil shock hits. Suddenly, they’ll be hot commodities again, selling for handsome prices, and the mechanics who know how to keep them clattering will be busy again. I’ve seen this happen a few times in my life: the first boom in 1974, when this W123’s predecessors and Peugeot 504 diesels were the ticket in Southern California. The hot set up then was to put a big auxiliary tank in the trunk, and drive down to Tijuana once a month or so to fill up for 15 cents a gallon of subsidized Pemex.
In the second crunch of 1980-1981, I saw new diesel Rabbits selling for $11k, almost double the sticker price. And you wouldn’t believe some of the obscure vintage diesel iron that appeared again on the streets in 2008. I’ll save them for a future CC, but I will reveal that none of them were Olds diesels. They lacked the other old diesel’s ability to weather an extended hibernation and magically spring back to life. But then big Detroit iron tends to be out of favor with this particular crowd, except for some very early old Ford diesel pickups. Probably just as well.
The irony of financially-challenged youthful idealists driving old Mercedes is not totally lost on me, because of my associations of these cars when they were brand new. I was in LA at the time, running a tv station. And a 240D was the cheapest way to buy the hot Mercedes cachet. So I inevitably had at least two General Sales Managers who fell under the spell of the three-pointed star, and bought themselves Stuttgart taxi cabs for highly inflated prices. And I could barely keep a straight face every time I heard them coming (two blocks away), or even worse, rode with them to a sales call.
Don’t get me wrong, these Mercedes 240’s are the best damn diesel taxi cabs that drivers in third world countries ever got their hands on, even with a half million miles on them. But they were not exactly the executive car to impress other folks with, unless they were under the spell too. The whole cowl would vibrate when the big four rattled to life, after waiting half a minute or so for the old glow plugs to warm up. And then they quivered their way down the street as if a slug with the DTs.
My most memorable ride in my GSM’s pristine yellow 240D was four or five of us going to meet some ad agency folks for a lunch up at a new golf course built on top of the old dump where I vividly remember taking my rain-soaked rotting couch a few years earlier. It was way up a steep slope on top of Mulholland Pass, off the 405. The Mercedes’ 65 horses barely topped 40 or 45 up the freeway, and I truly wondered whether it was going to chug us up the winding road to the upscale club house. This is a luxury car? I kept asking myself. I shouldn’t have worried though; W123’s always make their destination, sooner or later.
It reminded me of riding in hired 180D and 190D taxis in Austria in the fifties for family outings, but somehow a diesel clattering along in first or second gear up a scenic Alpine road was more authentic or culturally appropriate than a 240D hauling a load of suits to a power lunch in LA. No matter; the biodieselers of Eugene are thankful for all the Sales Managers who unloaded their wallets to drive a gen-u-ine Mercedes (with vinyl upholstery) in 1982.
If you’re getting the impression I’m somewhat disdainful of these cars, don’t. Perhaps some of the folks that bought them, though. Old Mercedes Diesels have my utter respect, even if I’ve never had one. In another life, I could have immersed myself in them, like my brother did for years. Aren’t siblings in some ways alter-egos? Anyway, he would scour the ads and later Craigslist for old Diesels in Arizona and Texas that seemed to have an expensive impediment to further service, take a one-way trip with his little bag of tricks,coax them back to life, and resell them them to embracing new young owners in Iowa. He singlehandedly created his own little swarm of oil burners in Fairfield. And he drives his with free almond oil that was used for massage and colonics at the ayurvedic spa there. Leaves a nice smell.
What more can be said about the absolute integrity of these cars, in terms of their material and build quality? All the superlatives have long become cliches. Their heavy dull steering; seats as hard as a wooden pew but yet comfortable; their jerky-herky transmissions; the suspensions that drink up pot-holes as if they were a tonic for eternal youth. And of course that reassuring throb of the engine, a device more akin to a perpetual motion machine than a mere mortal internal combustion engine.
The W123 was the end of the road of the old school diesel Mercedes that started with the 260D in in 1936. The W124 was still very well built, but was a quantum jump in dynamic qualities, and featured a new generation of diesel engines. The W123 is a living piece of history, of a time when a Mercedes implied such superior quality and workmanship that its shortcomings were duly embraced: consciously by those that bought it for its practical virtues; willfully denied among those that bought it for its implied prestige; and celebrated by its recently rediscovered biodiesel devotees. The cult of old Mercedes diesels may be temporarily in decline, but its not likely we’ve seen the last of them.