The Two Mares From the Wild Fellow’s Forest

How do two of Stuttgart’s finest compare?

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Some time back I harvested a set of detailed photos of a Mercedes W-123. It wasn’t until recently I had a chance to take a corresponding set of its replacement. Alas the correspondence is not complete. Some details are paired for comparison and the rest are dumped in a ragbag of two slideshows. The conclusion is that in replacing the W-123 Mercedes merely wanted to bring to bear new engineering methods without changing the principles. In most areas the joins and joint concepts are the same. The biggest difference is in how the bumpers are conceived. The later car has integrated bumpers. The brightwork was excised for the W-124 which had most impact around the side glass. This allowed for greater smoothness and went towards knocking 200 kg off the newer model. After this stylistic and engineering development brightwork around the side glass became decorative.

For the W-123 the shiny stuff is there to protect delicate edges. The window frames of the W-124 do without. I don’t know how they are constructed: welded billets or are they cut from big steel sheets to use fewer bits?

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The A-pillar still plunges into a gap between three panels on the W-124.  My feeling is the earlier car does it more pleasingly. The newer car’s advantage is that it is smoother and still solid though the mirror-sail panel now stands on a bare patch of bodycolour.

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The gutter is gone and it is the heavy, sturdy construction which saves the  W-124 from missing its brightwork. They must have done serious work on rubber strips to make this new solution work and to endure.

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The later car has all the same themes. There is no sense in the W-124 being a critique of the W-123. It’s the same car with the results of new, objective research being applied. That doesn’t make it very loveable though. This is the Ulm design school thinking at work, perhaps.

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A deeper boot lid implies better torsional rigidity in the W-124 despite the weight loss. There is a visible weld point under the lamp. How did that get left to pass into production? The solution is to get rid of the body work between the lamps and bumper by having bigger lamps and bigger bumper mouldings.

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The above slide show collects the impressions of a stern car which epitomises the cliché “hewn from a single billet”. This effect emerges from the accumulation of the local forms and decisions taken on the size of the radii. There are fewer elements on the W-124 than on the W-123 but it expresses the same theme. What one gets on reflection was that the W-210 interrupted this evolution both in the use of the Mercedes form language and the apparent quality of the construction.

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The W-123 remains a design which benefits from the unselfconscious use of materials that were deployed functionally  but which have decorative appeal. The car is not quite modern, is it, not like a CX? That accolade goes to the successor that shows the danger of the underestimation of those things that lend humanity and warmth to form. The high level of fit and finish save it. For manufacturers unable to follow suit, the loss of brightwork was a disaster. Even Mercedes put it back – in self-adhesive strips depending on the trim-level.


Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

13 thoughts on “The Two Mares From the Wild Fellow’s Forest”

  1. It’s probably because of the era in my life, but, I have always been a very keen admirer of the W-124. it’s not quite the same as ‘love’ maybe, but it was the first modern Merc that I think of in that way.

    1. The same for me. It is one of those lifetime milestone cars. At the time I believed in progress. From a subjective standpoint I established my references for authenticity around 1985-1995.

    2. Welcome to the club… Also for me, the W124 is one of the references. I like its plain surfaces and defined edges more than the multitude of small-scale details on the W123. However, I think most of the concepts were already present in the smaller W201 a few years earlier. It’s much closer to the W124 than to the W123 or the W126 S-Class.

    3. These quintessential Sacco cars are monuments. Each passing year only reinforces their stature. However, as much as I appreciate the W124, I consider the smaller W201 to be the greater technical and stylistic achievement. To have miniaturised a full-size Mercedes (and its a dainty thing by modern standards) so convincingly is a phenomenal achievement. The fact that they incorporated the hugely expensive and technically correct (despite LJKS’s objections) five link rear suspension into a cheaper model suggests the sort of ‘oh sod the expense’ ethos that must have prevailed in Dr Antonio Fessia’s Lancia engineering labs during the 1960s.

      I’d like to believe the blessed one cries himself to sleep at night on those days he accidentally passes one of these cars from the sensual embrace of his Maybach-spec S-Class on the daily commute to his underground Sindelfingen lair.

  2. The W124 is a great piece of design. This article rightly highlights the similarities to its much-admired predecessor, which is true. But it is like a formal Mercedes sedan after a thorough introduction to aero.

    This was, for a while, the dominant trend in car design, and every new model would quote its drag coefficient alongside other vital statistics (the Audi 100 came with a window sticker proclaiming its 0.30 number).

    I think it has aged very well. A few years ago I nearly bought a W124 estate, but dithered. Finding one in the desired spec (straight six petrol, rear jump seats) was not easy. The market was separating between breakers and bangers at one end, and pricey cherished examples at the other.

  3. To me Mercedes used to be the epitome of quality in cars. My granddad had a W-108 when I was little and that was a big leg up from my parents Type 1 VW and my other granddads Ford Taunus. Later he exchanged it for a W-108. When W-108 was replaced by W-123 I was working as an apprentice in a Mercedes shop, where the owner had a W-112 as his summer car.
    So for me the W-123 is the peak of that, even though the W-124 is very impressing to me.

    These days I have a hard time imagining the MB as so much better quality than the rest.

  4. I prefer the W124 to the ‘123. There was a whiff of chintz to the ‘123 that’s utterly absent from the gloriously rational, solid ‘124. The early versions of the former car, with their strange twin round headlights amid fake louvres behind glass, were slightly too faddish for my liking, despite the admittedly very competent modelling that lent the sheetmetal its high-quality looks. The saloon also appeared a bit too dainty, with its rear being too sober in comparison with the frontal aspect. If I had to choose any ‘123 model, it’d probably be a T-Modell. Or a coupé. Finding the right ‘124 variant would be much more difficult, however.

  5. For me the big tell that ages the W123 is the shape of the rear wheel arch. The W124 benefits from having been conceived in the post-Countach era when car designers realised it was legitimate for wheel aches to be kind of square-ish.

    I find it interesting that the later W202 essentially took the rear light and bootlid shutline design of the W124 and extended the lights upwards to fill the boot top quadrants. And it just didn’t work, because somehow that combination of shapes needs the severity of the W124 design, rather than the softer forms of the W202. Perhaps Richard can explain what’s going on there.

    I enjoyed looking at the many W124s and occasional W123s and W201s that are still doing fine service as taxis on the island of Madeira. Even got to ride in the back of a W123; the dashboard was pleasingly sparse.

    Eóin: I remember reading those Car magazine Mercedes reviews in the 1980s. Every review was obliged to mention the outsize steering wheel, the overloaded single column stalk and the sparse interior. If it was a Setright review he’d mention the multi-link rear suspension as you said. The only thing I can remember about the actual nature of his objection was something about how taking the geometry of the suspension arms to their logical extremes highlighted how wrong it all was in his opinion.

    By the way there are some really interesting YouTube videos covering the design and development of the W126, W201 and W124 holy trinity. You really get the sense that the engineers and designers spent years iterating until it was right. And rather like those old NASA films that show how they got to the moon on the back of thousands of people being clever at maths and handy with a slide rule, you get the sense that the Mercedes engineers in those days conceived something, built it then tested it and if it didn’t work they went back to step one. How brave those asymmetrical wing mirrors and jumping monoblade windscreen wiper look now. “The Best or Nothing” indeed.

    1. I will give the 202 some attention: initially, my suspicion is that the bigger lamp was cheaper to do and made for a simpler pressing. The ball corner of the W-124 was avoided.

    2. The W202 (a Murat Günak effort, by the way) is a strange beast. There isn’t anything actually ‘wrong’ with it (those rear lights aren’t good, but they’re not that terrible, either), but I just can’t warm up to it. It’s obviously a masterpiece next to the W210, but for some reason it fails to shine on its own merits, despite essentially being a small W140 with slightly odd rear lights, which doesn’t sound bad at all.

  6. Two of my all-time favorite Mercedes. But to me, what was so remarkable at the time the w-124 replaced the 2-123 was the sheer leap forward taken with the w-124. The w-123, as great and (now, in hindsight) timeless as it is, seemed to be pretty dated by the early 80s, especially after introductions of the w-126 and w-201. Now here comes its replacement, as modern as anything. And no chrome (or blacked out) trim, sheer and clean (but not simple) forms, and not budget looking in any way whatsoever. I remember being in awe over its forms and details. A true masterpiece from Bruno Sacco.

    I still love the w-123, but the w-124 has held its appeal for me ever since its introduction.

  7. I daily drive a ’94 E280 in Almandine Red, which I’ve had for eight years.

    It alway seemed to me that shape of the W124 came about from engineering requirements than from actually being styled.

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