Junkyard Find: 1978 Mercedes-Benz 240 D

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

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.

I found this '78 in the same Wyoming self-service boneyard that gave us the 1938 Oldsmobile Touring Sedan Junkyard Find last August.

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
Murilee Martin

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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  • ChristianWimmer ChristianWimmer on Feb 07, 2023

    The 240D was frigging FAST…

    …compared to the base 200D and 220D models which we had in Europe. The 200D had 55-horsepower and the 220D had 60-horsepower. Later the 200D got a power boost to 60-horsepower which resulted in Mercedes axing the 220D.

    It was a 60-horsepower 200D which I once got to drive. The car belonged to a friend and had the manual transmission. 0-100 km/h according to Mercedes was 33 seconds. Ok, it was surprisingly agile - from 0 to 80 km/h (could keep up with modern traffic), BUT 80 to 100 km/h took forever! At 80 km/h and in the proper gear you could be flooring the pedal and the needle barely moved upwards. So I guess for a city vehicle or roads limited to 80 km/h it’ll do fine - and we have many such roads in Germany.

  • Bob Bob on Feb 08, 2023

    My first Mercedes was a 78 300d, yeah that was slow. Then I had a 300sd and I thought it was rocket with the turbo despite being so big. Then in grad school got a 190e 2.3 now I was in heaven it was really fast. That was until I borrowed a friend's new 1990 corvette convertible. Yeah, none of those mercedes were fast!!! But all were very solid awesome safe cars

  • Grg I am not sure that this would hold up in snow country. It used to be that people in snow country would not be caught dead in a white car. Now that white cars have become popular in the north, I can't tell you how many times I have seen white cars driving in the snow without lights. Almost all cars are less visible in a snow storm, or for that matter, rain storm, without lights. White ones become nearly invisible.
  • Douglas I have a 2018 BMW 740e PHEV, and love it. It has a modest electric only range compared to newer PHEV's (about 18 miles), but that gets me to the office and back each day. It has a small gas tank to make room for the battery, so only holds about 11 gallons. I easily go 600 or more miles per tank. I love it, and being able to take long road trips without having to plug in (it just operates like a regular Hybrid if you never plug it in). It charges in 75 minutes in my garage from a Level 2 charger I bought on Amazon for $350. Had an electrician add a dryer outlet beside the breaker box. It's the best of both worlds and I would definitely want a PHEV for my next car. 104,000 miles and ZERO problems with the powertrain components (so far).
  • Panther Platform I had a 98 Lincoln Mark VIII so I have a soft spot for this. The Mark VIII styling was not appreciated by all.
  • Grant P Farrell Oh no the dealership kept the car for hours on two occasions before giving me a loaner for two months while they supposedly replaced the ECU. I hate cords so I've only connected it wirelessly. Next I'm gonna try using the usb-c in the center console and leaving the phone plugged in in there, not as convenient but it might lower my blood pressure.
  • Jeff Tiny electrical parts are ruining today's cars! What can they ...