#ThrowbackThursday: The dominee’s Mercedes (2015)

Love it or hate, the Mercedes-Benz W123 is probably one of the best cars mankind has ever built.
Love it or hate, the Mercedes-Benz W123 is probably one of the best cars mankind has ever built.
Image: Supplied

Join us as we take a look back through our archives. This week, the calendar flips to September 20 2015. In Sunday Times Motoring, the legendary veteran motoring journalist Stuart Johnston penned an ode to a true icon: the Mercedes-Benz W123. It’s a model he knows intimately – being the proud owner of one.

I remember the flutterings of incomprehensibility amongst my mates when I first embarked on my love affair with a W123. Denis Droppa, editor of Star Motoring, said to me: “Hey Stu, I always figured you for a beat-up old Mustang or something, rather than this … uh … old lady’s jammie.”

That was Droppavitch at his best: subtle, well-meaning, but telling it like it is. Then I took my other great motor-journo mate, Egmont Sippel, for a spin. Actually “spin” is the wrong terminology for a short ride pertaining to a Merc of this vintage – a cruise around the harbour would give you a better idea of the wafting sensations these cars invoke in their passengers.

“Yeah, old Johnnie. You have to get into the zone when you drive one of these,” said Sippie. The way he said it, I knew that the esteemed motoring editor of Rapport could not for the life of him relate to a car that could not be flung around the Franschhoek Pass with rapier-like precision. But he was like, aah, well, whatever blows your ears back.

But the guy who put it all into perspective was the maniacal race-driver and son of filmmakers Koos Roets and Katinka Heyns. I was chatting to Reghardt Roets one day when he was working for a hot-shot tuning house in Randburg, and pointed out my beautiful yellow Merc, parked incongruously alongside supercharged Chev Luminas and M3s with great bulging wheel-arch extensions.

“Ja,” said Roets, who has the wild-eyed look of a dog you see patrolling the fences of scrapyards in Beaufort West. “The dominee’s car.”

Man, that put it all into perspective. This was the Merc that the congregation saved and scrimped for to make their dominee feel like he’d really arrived. It was the base-line Merc at the time, which meant it was almost affordable, but it had the three-pointed star attached to the bonnet and that brought status like nothing else.

Dominees drove them, and yes, little old ladies whose hair was frosting from ash-blond to iron grey. This was what I was after, a car that had been pampered way beyond its value. I have owned two W123s – I love using that Benz factory-type code, it’s like you are discussing a World War II submarine or something – and both have given me amazing service, though both have gobbled fuel in a manner which I could relate to back in my whisky-swilling days.

The thing was, for the kind of money you would spend on a BMW 3-Series that had been pulled through its owner’s armpit, or a Mazda Sting that had cigarette burns all over its grubby, velour-upholstered seats, you could find yourself riding in a pristine luxury mobile, albeit about two decades out of fashion.

W123 interiors are comfortable and hard wearing. Dashboards do tend to crack though.
W123 interiors are comfortable and hard wearing. Dashboards do tend to crack though.
Image: Supplied

So that’s what I did: bought a 200 manual model back in 2003, the last of the carburettor-fitted Mercs, and I have never looked back. Actually, I have looked back often in the rear-view mirror because, in an old W123 – even the most potent 280E six-cylinder model – you don’t change lanes or do anything else suddenly without checking that all is clear at the bow end of the ship. A ship indeed.

There is nothing quite like the floating sensation these cars give you as you sail along, your head resting comfortably against the B-pillar, your right arm on the substantial arm rest, and your behind squirming for traction in seats that resemble the Gomma Gomma furniture that was all the rage back in 1977, the year the W123 series broke cover here.

Those cars came in 200 and 230E guise, and in six-cylinder form wearing 250 and 280 badges. Owning one meant you were an executive well past the junior phase, but still not quite into the top echelon commanded by S-Class drivers. They were on sale here from 1978 to 1985 and many people rate them as the best cars Mercedes-Benz has ever built – “the last of the solid Mercs”.

I tend to go along with that, because the upholstery on mine seems as if it will survive into the next Ice Age still looking as if it just left the trim shop in East London. In the six years I’ve owned my 1985 model – bought for just R25,000 – I’ve had the cooling fan welded up so it runs all the time in traffic (R350) and a clutch master cylinder kit replaced (R1,000).

I renewed all four tyres when I bought the car from a little old blue-rinse lady who lived in Vanderbijlpark. The previous one – which I had bought in 2003 – went to my ex-wife, who needed something indestructible. Ja, these Mercs. Like my old Levi’s and leather jackets, I have found that if you keep something long enough they come back into fashion – which is why the editor of this inaugural publication asked me to relate my W123 experiences here.

Nowadays, if I drive down 4th Avenue in Parkhurst or Camps Bay Drive or somewhere equally happening, the kids at the pavement café go: “Yeah! Nice ride!” 


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