GFORCENERD

Even 45 Years Later, the Mercedes-Benz 280 TE Remains the King of Station Wagons

Editor’s Note: Our Motor1 colleagues in Germany recently visited an old friend, the Mercedes-Benz W123 wagon. Here’s the experience in a special “first drive” review of this legendary Mercedes Estate.

I imagine that some of you feel like I do when it comes to these older Mercedes-Benz models. Why on earth didn’t I buy one when they were cheap? That would be around 10 to 15 years ago, when every German car from the 1980s wasn’t being traded as if a 100-pound sack of diamonds was stuffed under the back seat.

The W123 is a prime example of this phoenix-from-the-ashes kind of automotive turnaround. At the end of the 1990s, a Mercedes W123 coupe was the cool car me and my schoolyard friends coveted. But we were largely alone in this opinion—only a classmate of my brother, who was a few years older, drove a 280 CE in manganese brown with light velour upholstery. He was the idol for a 15-year-old boy named Wagner. Yes, I’m talking about me.

Coupes in good condition—especially with six-cylinder engines—were not cheap even at that time (from today’s perspective they were practically given away), which is why my brother, who was 19 at the time and not exactly in a good financial position, decided to buy a sedan. Nobody really wanted one, and they were cheap.

So in March 1998, he bought a wheat yellow 1982 Mercedes-Benz W123 280 E, dressed inside with forest green and packing a four-speed manual transmission. It was in quite good condition with 185,000 kilometers on the clock; he got it for around $1,000. After spending much of our childhood in the old man’s pea-green Mercedes 240 D, we felt like kings driving the 280.

If I remember correctly, the T-model station wagons weren’t exactly hot commodities in the used market 25 years ago. Tattooed furniture restorers, organic farmers, or urban cowboys with full beards weren’t coming out of the woodwork to get one like they are now, but at some point over the last two decades, this forefather of the E-Class station wagon became cool.

Just take this classic white 280 TE shown here. Built in 1979 and showing nearly 50,000 kilometers on the clock, you’ll easily spend $48,000 to buy it today. Of course, the condition is so shockingly wonderful that you’re afraid to even breathe near the car. And it’s got a four-speed manual to boot.

Mercedes-Benz 280 TE (1979) in the test

The History:

The very first Mercedes-Benz T-model wagon was highly controversial among the company’s executives prior to its launch. There was a fear that a mundane workhorse would not fit the Daimler image. Bruno Sacco, the legendary designer primarily responsible for the W123 wagon said: “There were two factions at the time. One absolutely wanted the station wagon, the other not at all. But Werner Breitschwerdt [Mercedes CEO at the time] wanted the car and finally pushed it through.”

The boss proved to have the right instinct. In the first full year of production, the target of 18,000 units was exceeded by more than 10,000. Throughout the entire production run, 200,000 wagons were built. This makes it the second most popular variant of the 123 series, ahead of the coupe.

Mercedes-Benz 280 TE (1979) in the test Mercedes-Benz 280 TE (1979) in the test Mercedes-Benz 280 TE (1979) in the test

The 280 TE is the classic wagon everyone wants today, and you know what? It was also extremely popular back then despite the almost $4,000 premium for the six-cylinder engine. 19,789 units of this—the king of the 123 wagons if you will—were built between 1977 and 1985. Most of them were in 1979, 4,059 units to be exact. The base price at the time was just under $20,000.

For that, you got a 2.7-liter straight-six engine with hemispherical combustion chambers, two overhead camshafts, a crankshaft with seven bearings, 24 valves, an aluminum cross-flow cylinder head, and, unlike the other six-cylinder 250 E, two exhaust tailpipes (the 280 station wagon, however, has to make do with one pipe). With mechanical Bosch K-Jetronic injection, as in this case, the engine produces 185 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque.

The “First” Drive:

That was plenty for my 15-year-old self, but the Wagner of 2024, who is quite spoiled for performance by virtue of his job, understands it’s still plenty adequate today. Still, memories of this engine from my youth clash with reality. The 280 TE pulls with reassurance and moves easily with traffic, but it doesn’t seem particularly fast.

Mercedes-Benz 280 TE (1979) in the test

Let’s face the facts: It takes 10.2 seconds to reach 62 mph, which is barely enough to beat modern small cars. And the noises it makes aren’t exactly a paragon of grandeur. It runs a bit rough, making more noise than sound, if you know what I mean. And this isn’t an age-related thing; during its lifetime the engine was said to run rough, consume a lot of fuel, and have weak acceleration under 4,000 rpm. Auto Motor und Sport, for example, complained: “Lame at the bottom, snappy at the top.”

I notice that it does get lively at the top of the rev range when I reach the hilly curves of the Swabian Alps. I feel a bit shabby as I chase the old warhorse over the hills—perhaps a bit too harshly—but it handles my treatment with surprising ease. Thanks to the exemplary care provided by Mercedes-Benz Heritage, it’s in astoundingly good condition for a 45-year old machine.

I don’t have a tachometer, so I just pay attention to the gear shift recommendations on the speedometer. Take first to 55 kph, second to 85, third to 145. Cogs are definitely moving, though it all sounds like work being done with enormous protest. I find it better to pick up the gearshift a little earlier and more often, which, like the huge steering wheel, is made of a relatively indefinable plastic material. But it moves cleanly, tightly, and briefly through the gears.

Mercedes-Benz 280 TE (1979) in the test

Back then, tachometers were only available on request. Instead, gear shift recommendations were shown on the speedometer.

Mercedes-Benz 280 TE (1979) in the test

Only the 280 TE had stylish chrome air intake grilles.

The changes feel amazingly modern. And this 280 doesn’t drive like a museum piece from the distant past. The servo-assisted recirculating ball steering is connected to tiny 14-inch inch wheels, so there are some limitations to feedback here. And you have to saw the wheel quite vigorously to effect change. Admittedly, the 195/70-series tires aren’t the epitome of grip.

But actually, the big practical Benz staggers through the demanding mountain roads with astonishing self-confidence, agility, and—I’ll just say it now—great pleasure. Especially on downhill routes, it always surprises me with its relatively stable, easy-to-control brakes and safe handling.

Mercedes-Benz W123 Taxi

The 123 par excellence: Taxi and diesel, mostly as the 200 D or 240 D.

Inside, you sit like a king. Well, at least I do. Proud as punch and more moved than I’d like to admit, I’m an extremely relaxed king. This is due to the wonderful suspension (hardly anyone builds comfort-oriented cars these days) and the fantastic all-around visibility.

Sadly, the seating position doesn’t contribute to my comfort. Adjustments for the steering wheel and seat height are a pious wish, forcing me into a “monkey on the grindstone” driving position with the wheel wedged between my thighs. It’s not any better in the back. When I was a young child, the W123 always seemed so spacious to me. It was probably because I was still small and my dad wasn’t particularly tall. Behind me, however, it looks like this:

Mercedes-Benz 280 TE (1979) in the test

But the oppressive feeling of scraping extremities is more than made up for by all the childhood memories. Despite the basic equipment with fabric upholstery, the bamboo interior is high-quality, friendly, and quite classy. It’s no modern E-Class, but compared to the never-ending green of the 240 D, this is paradise.

The window cranks and the ashtrays on the side create even more cozy, nostalgic warmth. I didn’t smoke at the age of 8, but my parents were always delighted when I stuffed my ashtray with chewing gum and Werther’s Real Candy wrappers.

Mercedes-Benz 280 TE (1979) in the test Mercedes-Benz 280 TE (1979) in the test

Anyone with loads of children will be happy about the third bench seat. The two additional seats fold out of the trunk floor facing the opposite direction of travel. In addition, hydropneumatic level control was standard from the start. It would also have been a bad fit for the premium image if the station wagon had buckled at the back when loaded like a staggering weightlifter.

On that front, I’m sad to not have a boot full of luggage for this review. After this short interlude with an old friend from my past, I can easily imagine setting off for a trip in the 280 TE, somewhere far away. It’s hard to imagine any such trip being undertaken in a more dignified and classy way.

If only I’d thought about this 15 years ago, before prices went bonkers and when my bank account wasn’t so brutally beaten to submission.

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