By on December 16, 2019

1981 Mercedes-Benz W123 wagon in California junkyard, RH front view - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe oldest Mercedes-Benz W123 diesels are getting pretty close to 45 years of age, which means that— finally— they’re wearing out and becoming easy to find in the big self-service car graveyards that I frequent. Most of these proto-E-Classes sold in North America were sedans, but the wagons developed something of a cult following and I keep my eyes open for discarded examples.

Here’s an ’81 300TD turbodiesel that seems to have been going strong when it got crashed.

1981 Mercedes-Benz W123 wagon in California junkyard, LH rear view - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsCrunch! In an instant, this wagon lost 95 percent of its resale value. Repairs could have been performed, but the price tag of all the extensive bodywork would have dwarfed the cost of another daily-driver-quality 300TD.

1981 Mercedes-Benz W123 wagon in California junkyard, speedometer - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsBy diesel W123 standards, this car was just getting broken in when the crash happened. Junkyard shoppers tend to grab the instrument clusters out of these cars soon after they hit the yards (for later sale on eBay), so I don’t always get to see the final mileage figure.

1981 Mercedes-Benz W123 wagon in California junkyard, air cleaner - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsMouse poop and peach pits abound in the engine compartment, so I think this car sat outdoors for a few years after the crash.

1981 Mercedes-Benz W123 wagon in California junkyard, OM617 engine - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThis may be the most reliable car engine ever made, period: the OM617 five-cylinder diesel. This one is the frivolously powerful turbocharged version, rated at 119 horsepower and 170 pound-feet; the naturally aspirated version made… well, if you have to ask, you’re not sufficiently patient to drive one.

1981 Mercedes-Benz W123 wagon in California junkyard, front seats - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsBecause the seats have the immortal MB-Tex fake-leather covering, they show few signs of wear. If you had all your clothes made out of MB-Tex, you’d never need to get a new outfit as long as you lived.

1981 Mercedes-Benz W123 wagon in California junkyard, TURBODIESEL badge - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsMaybe 15 years ago, many of these cars got destroyed by attempts to convert them to run on waste vegetable oil; if you know what you’re doing, this conversion works very well. Unfortunately, most who took on such projects didn’t know what they were doing, and plenty of diesel Benzes met premature deaths.

If you want to check out more of these Junkyard Finds, you’ll find links to more than 1,800 of them at the Junkyard Home of the Murilee Martin Lifestyle Brand™.

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28 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1981 Mercedes-Benz 300TD Wagon...”


  • avatar
    Lie2me

    262K miles, that’s amazing. Does MB make anything near as good today? I think I know the answer

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      I don’t think anyone makes anything that good these days. Manufacturers are only worried about the first two buyers, as anyone farther down the chain isn’t really their customer. 15 years or 180,000 – 200,000 miles is good enough for them.

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        That good? I wish, I’m of the opinion that well maintained cars are only good to about a 120K anything over that is due to luck and pampering, except maybe trucks

        • 0 avatar
          jack4x

          Coming up on 250,000 on my wife’s Sienna without a major repair.

          My father has had 2 Acura TLs, the first he took to 200k and it was still running well, he traded for a 2014 that now has 150k or so without problems.

          There are still good cars out there. No comment on a modern MB, as I have never and probably will never own one.

        • 0 avatar
          JimZ

          What exactly do you mean? If you think a car with 120k + miles should require *zero* repairs forever, you’re going to be disappointed by everybody.

          • 0 avatar
            tomLU86

            Good point. At some point, it will need a repair. The inconvenience/safety, frequency, and cost of repairs are what differentiate good from bad.

            My family and I generally have had fewer repairs with car that we bought new. The few bad ones have ALL been used (though most of them have been good, not as good as new though).

            And I’m talking in the 40k-100k range, not under 50k, after warranty.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      amazing maybe for the era, but 262k isn’t all that out of the ordinary.

      besides, it’s easy for a drivetrain to last forever when it makes so little power.

      • 0 avatar
        Ryoku75

        Then theres the typical vintage-Euro owner who has no problem replacing or babying said drivetrain. I always ask myself “yes it has 299,999 miles, but what did it cost to get there?”

        I dont like modern Mercedes much, but they are leaps and bounds better than this third world box.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    I’m always impressed when one of these cars remains roadworthy for more than 20 years, since at that point even a minor accident totals them.

    I do my best to avoid accidents, but it seems like about every 10 years someone manages to find me and hit me.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      A 10 year old car in good condition is a scary position to be in. They have little insurable value in a total accident scenario, but are probably worth $10-20K in value to you

      • 0 avatar
        indi500fan

        I’ve got a 15 yr old Caddy and 20 yr old S10 that fit that category.

      • 0 avatar
        Greg Hamilton

        I have a ten year old car now in excellent condition. I’m not going to replace it any time soon, because as Jack Baruth would say, “privilege.” I have another car as well. However, I am well aware that I am a t-bone away from losing it. Those are the odds–much better odds than riding a motorcycle. The odds are I get to enjoy the car.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        That’s just life with a well-kept older car. I’ve probably got $8000 in my Legend over 4 years. It’s only worth $4000 at most and I could lose it altogether at any time. I don’t even bother to keep collision coverage on it. It’s just how it is.

  • avatar
    iNeon

    15 years ago, pull-a-part was filled with rusted-out and too-far-gone w123/116/115 and 126s. They’re not just getting to the junkyards– they’ve already cycled-through.

    I loved my w123, but it was, in truth– nothing more than a money pit with easily-shined surfaces. That last is the key to these cars’ status as ‘forever cars’– they’re, universally, flashy trash.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      What were the better alternatives of this era?

    • 0 avatar
      tomLU86

      iNeon, may I ask, what time period did your W123 span? How many miles? What region?

      Lately I’ve become enamored of these cars. They are slow, but to me they convey “solidity”. If I could get another car, an old toy, these are my current ‘top of list’.

      When I was a teen, I thought they were nice, but very slow and very expensive–I’d rather have had a 320i–but I really wanted a Rabbit GTI (I eventually got it’s successor).

      It sounds like, in your experience, they are not as rugged perhaps. My sense is brake jobs and shocks may cost more, but with routine maintenance, in a salt-free environment, these cars will last forever–and they had nice original paint jobs (which probably will not)

      Anyway, if you like, I’m interested in your repair experience.

      Thanks

      • 0 avatar
        iNeon

        The Volvo bricks were better alternatives. Those have all been used-up, too.

        My w123 was a 1979 240D with 128k when I purchased it from an estate in 2004. First, it needed fuel system work to remove the algae. Then the brakes. Then suspension work. Then came the vacuum system work.

        The cooling system needed work— the electrical needed work, too— the straw that broke the camel’s back was when the A/C compressor seized and sheared-off the mounting bolts in the process.

        These cars were not for the feint of heart, even 15 years ago. it is disingenuous to propagate the w123 reliability/longevity myth. These cars -are- rewarding for anyone that likes the satisfaction of successful diagnosis/busted knuckles/sheared-off fasteners and age-related trim issues. They’re death to one’s free time and hobby budget.

        P.S. Didn’t get to the crumbling plastics, rubber or foamy parts— those were problematic, too.

        Sold the car to a diesel mechanic in 2009 @ 155k. Trunk full of spares. Loved the experience, but these cars are exhausting.

        • 0 avatar
          Ryoku75

          Save for the AC compressor sheering off, what you described pretty much mirrors my experiences with several RWD Volvos. It was like owning a “classic car” but without the car actually being a classic (1990-1992 isnt old enough to me).

          “it is disingenuous to propagate the w123 reliability/longevity myth.”
          The internet works so oddly with these myths, now that redblock Volvos are largely dead or overpriced the 850/V70 line up has been deemed “reliable used bargains”, they’re not.

          • 0 avatar
            iNeon

            Never had the experience of hot engine oil dripping from a key cylinder onto your nicest wool pant? Buy a diesel w123 :P

            That last… just… grr, man.

          • 0 avatar
            Ryoku75

            Nah never had my pants ruined thankfully, when working on one of the nylon fuel lines the engine sprayed gas all over itself, surprised the thing didnt burn up.

            In the case of the 850/S70 apocalypse, at least I wont miss them. Derek Kriendler of TTAC, Steve Lang iirc, a friend of mine who owned a few turbo Volvos, all three were burned out by one of those things. They have all of the issues of a Benz/Saab without the redeeming features.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    “If you had all your clothes made out of MB-Tex, you’d never need to get a new outfit as long as you lived.”

    On the other hand, you’d look like 1986-era Judas Priest.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    Haven’t seen one of these in years in Upstate, NY area. They seemed to dry up in the late 90’s early 00’s.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    I had a very similar 1982 300 Turbodiesel to this one. Same exterior and interior colors and appointments. I bought it in 2002 for $1700 with 200k miles on i5 not including significant deferred maintenance for my 150 mile daily round trip daily commute
    It was a good commute car most of the time. The only work I out sourced was a valve adjustment. Other than that, I did all the maintenance myself. I do remember the alternator fail on my way to work. These engines did not require any electrical power to run. After arriving at work, I arranged to have the battery charged by our maintenance staff. After leaving work that day with a fully charged battery, I prepared the return trip home by turning off everything that needed power, headlights (it was day so I didn’t need them), fan, radio, etc. I then proceeded to drive the 75 miles home. When I arrived there, I tried to restart the engine, It turned over instantly – a tribute to the pure mechanical diesel engine. I ded get a new alternator the next day and was back in business.
    Looking back, I can see why diesels are no longer economically viable for regular cars. First, the 1982 had no emissions treatment system. Under current laws, diesel engine do not get a pass here and require a costly and very sophisticated emission treatment system.
    Second, these BBs cost about $30K at the time. I have a 2014 Accord 4cyl,
    2.4L sedan with the same room that delivers better fuel economy and develops more power that I paid $21.5K for. it also is much quieter and had way more standard equipment.
    Lastly, I would like to note that the 4 speed auto tranny on the 300 turbodiesel was quite rough, especially shifting from 3rd to 4th gear. In comparison, the CVT on the Accord “shifts” very smoothly even when pressing the go pedal and activating the fake shifts to prevent the dreaded “rubber banding” that some commenters on this site can seem to put behind.
    So, yes these were great daily drivers back in the day, but gasoline enignes we have progressed so much since then that this technology is completely obsolete now.

  • avatar
    Garak

    The famous W123 taxicab Mercedes. I saw these used as taxis until the 2010’s, usually they disappeared when the drivers retired.

    The typical model sold around where I live had 60 horsepower when new. They weren’t exactly the fastest cars on the road.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    ! WAH ! .

    I need those seats ! .

    It looks like it took quite a hit .

    Mercedes like everything else, rusted away in the salt belt and yes, they like all German cars always need touching so if that bothers you buy a nice Toyota, soulless but you just turn the key and motor on, never needing to worry about the endless and myriad little things needing attention .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    55_wrench

    1984 Merc 300D turbo, bought in 2002 for a 120 mile round trip commute.

    I put 170k on it before i replaced it, 383K on the odo.

    Fantastic daily driver and I still miss it. The problem was cosmetic more than mechanical. Clearcoat was failing and the Palomino MB Tex was turning pink with sun exposure…too much money to get it right for a car that had close to 400K on it.
    Pretty much all it ever needed was brakes, one set of Bilsteins and an occasional valve adjustment.

    I never even changed the tranny fluid the whole time I had it and it shifted like a dream right up to the day I let it go.

    There was a 3mm ding on the roof that had rusted by the time I bought it…and after 9 years it never spread…go figure.

    But my brother has me beat..he bought a 1978 Toyota 3/4 ton longbed brand new and still has it, north of 575K at this time.

  • avatar
    Mike6024

    I would fill it with gear and go on a week-long camping trip.

  • avatar
    Mike6024

    I would fill it with gear and go on a week-long camping trip.

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