Text: Inigo S. Roces / Photos: Mercedes-Benz | posted June 07, 2016 07:45
The most successful Mercedes-Benz platform
Among the most popular automobile chassis codes of history — like Type 993, E30, or even AE86 — is easily 123. This code was used for the Mercedes-Benz midsize vehicle made from 1976-1985. Some may recognize it more as W123, denoting the four-door sedan. Yet it also came in coupé (C123), station wagon (S123), long-wheelbase (V123), or even as a bare chassis for conversion into an ambulance or hearse (F123). Though some Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts may refer to it as an early E-Class, it never actually carried the E-Class name. It was its successor, the W124, that was officially introduced as the E-Class.
The 123 succeeded the W114 / W115, carrying over some technical aspects, but bearing a longer wheelbase and larger exterior dimensions. The 123 made a drastic departure from the distinctive oblong, stacked headlights of its predecessor, replacing them with quad round headlights and ridged, wraparound taillights that proved to be popular in SL models. It maintained familiar cues like the grille and the trademark chrome line running the length of the body. Propelling the W123 were engines carried over from the W115, with a couple of new ones added later in the model's lifecycle.
Inside, the 123 offered then novel safety features as standard like crumple zones, a collapsible steering column, power-assisted (vacuum servo) disc brakes all as standard equipment. Power steering would be equipped as standard in 1982, while luxurious options were a driver airbag, seatbelts, power windows, and vacuum powered central locking.
When the W123 was first launched, Mercedes-Benz was understandably cautious, starting off with low production numbers to keep costs down. Because of this scarcity, a black market had developed in Germany for the model, with customers opting to pay more to acquire a used one rather than wait twelve months for a brand new one.
The 123 was a truly flexible platform, and Mercedes-Benz capitalized on it by further expanding the model line with body styles like a coupe, long wheelbase sedan, and station wagon. In fact, the sedan was built on its own, separate assembly lines while the coupe and station wagon shared the same assembly line. Timely updates like cosmetic changes, newer engines, and fuel injection kept it competitive with the times.
Keeping up with the various models and trims required some understanding of the Mercedes nomenclature. Unlike the current crop of Mercedes models, the badge of the model actually stood for engine displacement. Thus, a 2.0-liter sedan would be called a 200, a 2.0-liter diesel sedan would be called a 200D. The alphabet soup grew with additions like the C for Coupe, E for Einspritzung (fuel injection), and T for Tourismus und Transport (estate/station wagon). If it was a later Turbodiesel engine, that would be appended to the badge. This would result in models like the 230CE, or 300TD Turbodiesel.
The 123's success in the Philippines is largely due to the enviable reputation the brand cultivated among the elite. The Dollar Crises of the late 60s drove up the prices of all German imports, making Mercedes-Benz luxury vehicles only accessible to the elite. Our own Inside Man, Tito Hermoso, noted, “Thanks to Mercedes' strong links with celebrities and Hollywood ever since the film 'North by Northwest', the celebrity aura enraptured the Filipino Yuppies.”
As such, any budding yuppie, self-made man or banker in the 70s and 80s aspired to commute in a "Benz." Commercial Motors, then distributor of Mercedes-Benz, was in the right place and the right time, having secured the rights to assemble the W123 in its facility in Pasig. It may have been “bare bones” at that time, but the three-pointed star on the hood was all one needed to channel the illustrious lives lived by the characters of the "Dallas" television soap opera. Or closer to home, emulating the late comedy king, Dolphy Quizon, often seen driving an S123.
It's likely that, to bring these heady (perhaps delusional) owners back down to earth, the infamous nickname, “Chedeng" — a Filipino nickname for anyone named Mercedes — was christened in jest, much to the owner's chargin.
Today, 40 years hence and with some 2.7-million units built, it's no surprise that many 123s roam today's roads. It continues to be used as a taxi in many Middle Eastern countries owing to its reliability and broad availability of parts. It's also gaining ground among collectors, since its 40th anniversary now qualifies it as a “classic” or “vintage,” depending on the car club.
In spite of whatever Kelly Blue Book value or designation auto experts may bequeath upon it, perhaps the most popular and valuable distinction it can receive is, “our favorite old family car.” That perhaps best sums up the role the 123 has played in many car enthusiasts' lives, and ascribes far more value than any cash offer can hope to duplicate.