Junkyard Find: 1978 Mercedes-Benz 240 D
The engine of the current Mitsubishi Mirage, much derided for its alleged slowness, must pull a bit more than 27 pounds of car for each of its 78 horsepower. That's underpowered, yes? Not compared to the Mercedes-Benz W123 equipped with a naturally-aspirated four-cylinder diesel engine! That's the car we're going to admire for this week's Junkyard Find.
Under the hood, a 2.4-liter SOHC oil-burner rated at sixty-two horsepower (and a somewhat more useful 97 pound-feet of torque).
The car has a curb weight of 3,080 pounds, which results in a power-to-weight ratio of a miserable 49.68 pounds per straining horse (I couldn't bring myself to round that figure up to 50 lb/hp). I took my driver-training course in a dual-brake-pedal VW Rabbit Diesel, which I recall being terrifyingly slow… but that car had a comparatively muscular 40.73 lb/hp ratio.
At least this one has the four-on-the-floor manual transmission to make it slightly quicker and more efficient. I've found these cars with automatics, but the manuals are more common.
In Europe, diesel-powered W123s became legendary as long-lived taxis. With the endless two-lane blacktop drives in sparsely populated Wyoming, the big range of this car must have been useful.
Daimler-Benz didn't start using the E-Class name until later on, nearly a decade into the reign of this car's W124 successor, so we can consider this the E-Class's parent.
The odometer shows just over 130,000 miles, which seems ridiculously low for a diesel Mercedes-Benz of this era (I've found two oil-burner W126s with better than 500k miles: an '81 300SD and an '85 300SD).
Either the last owner couldn't do math (250,000 kilometers works out to about 155,342 miles) or this car's odometer is broken, swapped or rolled back.
Here's a nod to the W123 diesel's cab-driving heritage.
The interior is in very nice condition, which is consistent with low miles.
Of course, that MB-Tex faux-leather seat fabric is nearly indestructible, even under the searing Wyoming sun.
There's a bit of body rust here and there, not enough to keep this car off the road but enough to knock its resale value way down.
These cars were built to last forever, and they were priced accordingly. The list price for a 1978 240 D with manual transmission was $11,516, or about $54,687 in inflation-adjusted 2023 dollars.
You could get the 300 D version (with 3.0-liter five-cylinder diesel rated at 77 hp/115 lb-ft plus mandatory automatic transmission) for $15,967, around $75,823 now.
If you wanted a new American-market W123 sedan that ran on gasoline in 1978, you could buy the 230 ($12,447/$59,108) or the 280E ($16,467/$78,198).
These cars were in some demand for use in veggie-oil conversions, a decade or two back, but that fad seems to have passed.
The last model year for the 240 D in the United States was 1983.
[Images: The author]
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Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.
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