Here’s something that will last forever: the famous 1970s-era Mercedes station wagon. Mercedes-Benz’s first wagon model belonged to its W123 series and was specified by the use of the letter “T” in its model designation, such as the 300TD and 230TE labels, among others. (T stood for transport and touristik, according to Mercedes.)
We all adore its long, quirky, European body and cool square edges—see one parked on the street, and someone in your group will squeal, “Oh! I love those old wagons!” But I’m not talking about a car that will endure for an eternity in hearts and minds.
I mean it literally. This thing will. Not. Die.
“You cannot kill them,” Phil Skinner, Kelley Blue Book’s collector car market editor, said recently. “They just keep on running. It’s Mercedes technology—and on a station wagon! It’s the perfect combination.”
Jonathan Klinger, a spokesman for car insurer Hagerty, said almost the exact same thing.
“If you say ‘overbuilt, overengineered, bulletproof,’ this is the era and the series that comes to mind,” he said. “This is literally the car you cannot kill.”
When they came out in April 1978, they were the most expensive station wagons on the market; Mercedes sold them at a little more than 26,000 deutsche marks a pop (roughly $15,000). These were the cars that started Americans on the road to their current luxury SUV obsession—the first modern vehicles that were both practical and relatively luxurious. Up until then, it was one or the other.
“At the time, if you wanted to go to the Hamptons with the kids and the dog, you really didn’t have a lot of options,” said Mike Kunz, manager of the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, Calif. “You could have bought a Jeep, but that was in no way a luxury vehicle. It was crude, really.”
The W123 line helped introduce new technology such as antilock brakes (optional from August 1980), a retractable steering column, and the driver air bag (optional from 1982). (Some of those technologies, like ABS, were introduced either later or not at all for U.S.-bound cars at the time.) Many had wood interior trim with a passenger side exterior mirror, power windows, central locking, and rear-facing extra seats. How novel! Mercedes sold a five-speed manual transmission in Europe and a four-speed automatic transmission in the U.S. (The naturally aspirated 300TD wagon had only a brief career in North America, as a turbocharged model replaced it in 1981.)
Bottom line? They appealed to people who needed a workhorse they could use and abuse.
“Earlier station wagons had really cool styling, but you rarely see them,” Klinger said. “They had a utilitarian purpose to haul a lot of people. They got used up and thrown away.”
Or used up and put in film. The crazy bad guy People Eater used a modified W123 Lang on his chase across the desert in the latest Mad Max movie.
Lately there’s been a gentle re-interest in the ol’ wagons, if only because they look so distinctive and aren’t as ubiquitous as classic Ford Mustangs or Porsche 911s. Klinger said this phenomenon tends to happen 30 years or so after a particular model’s debut—people want to collect cars they know their buddies won’t be able to emulate.
“It just happens naturally for a lot of old cars,” he said.
In fact, Mercedes sold only 6,830 of the little 230T wagons produced from 1978 to 1980, but it sold more than 28,000 of the 300TD Turbodiesel version from 1980 to 1986 before they went out of production. All told, Mercedes made just fewer than 200,000 of the wagon variants during production worldwide.
“It kind of has that little sweet spot where it can be a collector vehicle or it can be someone’s daily driver—or it can be both,” Klinger said. “And let’s face it, there’s not a huge following of early minivans.”
It’s also a tribute to the wagons’ fortitude. By all accounts, Mercedes outdid itself when it engineered this metal machine. (Compare that with fellow renowned preppy heartbreakers, the Jeep Grand Wagoneers.) They’re not powerful, and they’re not quick, but it’s simple in the kind of genius way all of the best things are. And as the saying goes: If you take care of them, they’ll take care of you.
If you’re looking to buy, look for something with the fewest miles possible and an extensive service record. Assuming the mechanics are sound, you can follow routine preventive maintenance and expect to get hundreds of thousands of miles out of these puppies. Klinger said he has even seen taxi drivers in Europe with more than a million miles on theirs.
You can also expect yours to hold its value. If you average out the entire generation of the W123 chassis Mercedes 300TD station wagon, for instance, the value for those in “average” condition (which means a presentable and drivable example) has increased 5.19 percent since 2010, according to Hagerty.
You can buy one in mint condition for $20,000 to $25,000, or you can buy one that has a few love-scratches but still runs for as low as $5,000. And, just like their drive personality, they’re not going anywhere.
“We don’t especially see them going up like crazy on the collector market, and that’s OK,” Klinger said. “They hold their value. You’re not going to lose money just because you want to have something a little different than other people out on the road.”