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To Turbo Or Not To Turbo? Battle Of the 5-Cylinder Benzes

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Welcome back to Shitbox Showdown! It’s May the 4th, which apparently holds some significance for fans of some science fiction movies, but us cool kids know that 5/4 belongs to Dave Brubeck. So in honor of weird time signatures, let’s “Take Five” and look at a couple of five-cylinder cars.

But first, I want to apologize for the kerfuffle with the poll yesterday. I clicked on some doohickey wrong, and broke it. I can balance SU carbs by ear, and wax enthusiastic about Procol Harum’s music, and discuss the symbolism in T.S. Eliot poems, and bake a mean chocolate chip cookie, but I’m an idiot when it comes to this tech stuff. Special thanks to Jason for fixing it. I’ll try to get it right today.

Speaking of yesterday (when Shitbox Showdown wasn’t such an easy game to play), let’s see how the vote went down.

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Again with the Saab! That’s twice now I’ve put some charismatic old diesel up against these Swedish weirdos, and they’ve both lost. I will find something to defeat a Saab some day. Just gotta find the right McEnroe to go up against Borg.

But let’s see what we have today. Let me tell you, it’s not easy to find five-cylinder cars in our price range any more. I had a line on an Acura Vigor, but they went and sold it this morning and the ad disappeared. (The nerve.) And I almost chose an Audi 5000 here in town, but it’s over-budget at $2900, and I’m trying not to keep this strictly local. Facebook Marketplace turned up nothing at all, and Craigslist wasn’t much better.

While looking for these cars, I started thinking of other ways to add up to ten cylinders with two cars. Obviously 6-4 is an easy split. 5-5 takes some doing, as I found out. 8-2 is theoretically possible, but I’d have to find an old rear-engined Fiat or a Citroën 2CV or derivative in our price range. 3-7? Nope, 3 is easy, just find a Geo Metro, but no 7-cylinder engines exist in cars. 1-9 has the same problem; you could use a King Midget for a single cylinder, but the only 9s I know of are radial aircraft engines or big diesel marine engines. 10-0? Possible, if I could find a cheap Ford van with a V10 and a half-dead Nissan Leaf. (Or an RX-7, but that’s cheating.)

But that’s neither here nor there. Today, your choice is between a Mercedes, and… a Mercedes.

1977 Mercedes-Benz 300D – $2500

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter diesel inline 5, 4 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Northridge, CA

Odometer reading: ad says 36,000, but I suspect they forgot a zero

Runs/drives? “Drives perfect”

The one, the only, the legendary W123. Built like a tank, drives like a tank, and kinda looks like a tank, come to think of it. Such an early 1980s yuppie icon that Jackson Browne featured it on the cover of his 1983 album Lawyers In Love. Designed by legendary Mercedes design boss Bruno Sacco, and powered by a range of stout inline engines including this nigh-invincible 5 cylinder diesel, these cars may very well just keep trundling along until the end of time.

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It’s not fast. This is an eighty-horsepower engine in a thirty-five-hundred-pound car. But the feel of  these things is inexorable, relentless; it doesn’t so much accelerate as acquire velocity, and it feels like no force in the universe could stop it from doing so. It’s very civilized. But a Hyundai Accent will blow your doors off.

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This one looks a bit unfinished. The interior door panels are off, and the carpet is AWOL, and I don’t know what’s up with the holes on the sides for the bump strip. Is that tape covering the holes? Or did somebody fill the holes and primer over them? It’s bizarre. But if it runs as well as the seller claims, and the interior pieces are included, it could make a nice inexpensive entry into the world of Mercedes diesels.

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It’s a world I keep threatening to enter. I keep getting a jones for these old Benzes; one of these days I’ll show up with one, and my wife will want to kill me. So I’d better make it something more put-together-looking than this one.

1984 Mercedes-Benz 300SD – $2500

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter turbodiesel inline 5, 4 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Fountain Valley, CA

Odometer reading: 286,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

If the W123 was just too, too common for you, you could step up to the W126-chassis S-class. For twelve years, this car was just about the best big sedan you could get. Available with a variety of inline sixes and V8s in Europe, the S-class was initially limited in the US to a small V8 or the venerable inline 5 diesel, fitted with a turbocharger to improve the acceleration from tectonic to merely slow. But in an S-class, you always arrive precisely when you are meant to, so why hurry? They’ll wait.

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We can’t tell a whole lot about this car from the few photos provided (other than the manicured Orange County neighborhood in which it resides), but the list of recent replacement parts is impressive: the transmission, battery, and tires are all new. That, combined with the bulletproof diesel engine and the car’s overall phemonenal build quality, should keep it on the road for a good long time.

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Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges, and the paint is essentially matte at this point, but those are just signs of a life well-lived. If you can show me another car that has this much presence and authority to it at nearly 300,000 miles, I’d be surprised.

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So there they are, our two old odd-number-cylindered Germans. Neither one is exactly five-by-five, but neither one is a disaster either. Which one is a better choice? That’s up to you.

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45 Responses

  1. I picked the 300sd due to it is more complete and more of a touch up car.

    For $2500 you can drive around. Stop at MACCO get a cheap paint job and fix the interior if you want to. Probably can get new covers if the padding and frame is good

    Side Note: I was logged in but had to login to post. Had to stop my troubleshooting mind from trying to diagnose it.

    1. I’ve never seen a Mercedes diesel of that era in decent drivable condition for less than $2,000. Maybe drivable and missing both rocker panels and the bottom edge of all the doors. Or with a huge dent and obvious alignment problems…

      Around here, once past their peak desirability days, these were generally snatched up by frugals who wanted to run on waste veggie oil or home converted biodiesel.

  2. w126, as it appears to offer a bit more amenities and the fresh parts are a nice addition. Unfortunately both don’t have a sunroof, which would have been a nice touch. Watch out for the hidden rust on clogged drains by the front fenders. Do they ever look crumbled once the fenders are off.
    Great way to increase the output from the turbo…exchange the stock unit with a Holset, either adjust just IP or get one rebuild with bigger pump elements and it is possible to almost double the power, superturbodiesel.com helps.

  3. Ugh.
    Neither of those does anything for me at all considering the engines in each, but the W126 just lacks something that the W123 had in spades.

    Gimme the style of the W123, I can always Cummins swap it.

  4. My first car was an ’85 300D with an unknown number of miles in excess of 270,000 on it that I paid $2,500 for. It looked very cool, and was very much a mechanical nightmare. If they run, they run. But if they have problems, those problems will try to kill you.

  5. The W123, when finished, would have more of a presence to it when you arrive at your destination. Too bad that you’ll die of old age on the way there because of how slow it is.

    I’d buy the W126. The grey color is meh, but these beasts really need the turbo.

  6. Turbo, definitely, even if it’s about to detonate. I’ve driven a non-turbo diesel Benz before. 0-60…actually, 0-30 time was “maybe”. Probably the least safe car I’ve driven on surface streets. Never dared to take it on a highway.

  7. I am always amused by comments by the experts (not being sarcastic), who talk about spending thousands of dollars on upgrades even up to the point of engine replacements on pieces of shit like these. It is where technical expertise/theory supersedes practicality/common sense.

    The other great one is fretting over the repair costs. If you pay 2-5k for an ancient car, unless it can be fixed with a half assed, near zero cost repair, salvage the damn thing.

  8. I’m a bit alarmed by the fact that the 300D is the most intact car visible in the pictures.

    The seller seems to be divesting himself of a number of mostly diesel Mercedes in various stages of projectness:
    https://losangeles.craigslist.org/lac/cto/d/northridge-mercedes-for-sale-500sl-240d/7469720386.html
    query=%22no+emails+no+shipping%22&purveyor=owner

    I voted for the SD: faster despite being bigger, plus it seems to be actually on the road and complete and whatnot (though at 284k even an old-school Benz will keep the dust off your wallet and toolbox).

  9. Maybe if the W123 was a manual, I’d take it. Since it is not, I would prefers the well-worn but seemingly functional S-Class over an absolute hooptie of a 300D(And before you claim these cars were built like a bank vault, there are things that can and WILL go wrong on these cars, namely the vacuum lines which power damn near everything and the more complex comfort items like the climate control unit).

    1. I looked at a similar era Mercedes diesel, and the vacuum system was a nightmare. Nothing worked, you couldn’t open the trunk, the car wouldn’t turn off on its own, sometimes it would lock. It was a little disconcerting to turn the key off and see all the gauges go dark, but the engine keep rattling away.

  10. I’d pick the 300 SD. Both are great choices, but upgrading the injector pump to larger threads on the 300 SD could be the ticket to a reliable 300 horsepower. Myna Performance out in Finland upgrades the injector pumps for a not-so-small amount of money. And with a conversion kit, you could run it on waste fryer oil.

    I once owned a 300 SDL, with the 3.0L inline-6 turbodiesel, making all of 149 horsepower. Unlike the two choices in this topic, it had “normal” acceleration. At about 3,900 lbs, it could accelerate from 0-60 mph in around 11 seconds with a glacially-slow take off, but 30-80 mph felt like a car that did 0-60 mph in around 8 seconds. It would do 120 mph all day long without a hiccup, and got 30 mpg @ 70 mph. It felt like driving a floating Lay-Z-Boy. Considering that dynamically it was like driving a rolling bank vault, the performance and fuel economy were both quite impressive given what a monstrosity of a vehicle it was. Parts were dreadfully expensive.

  11. Bringing back nightmares of my ’84 300TD. Oh I grew to hate that thing. I always thought my experience may have been different had my car been a 240D with the manual. Still, the thoughts of chasing parts from arrogant jackasses who are doing you a favor to rip you off 10 ways from Sunday is enough to keep me from going there again.

    Chose the big S class here, but I’d have picked the “just shoot me” option had it been available.

    Too bad there wasn’t an Audi Coupe GT and 1993 VW EuroVan 5 speed to choose from. I might have picked the “just shoot me” simply because I couldn’t choose between them! Probably end up with a similar experience (chasing parts and mysterious problems), but at least the vehicles themselves would be more interesting (to me) than a heavy slow sedan that drank expensive fuel, hopefully justifying the frustration when something goes awry.

  12. S-class for me. If you’re going to do a diesel Mercedes, do it big. The host of new parts and the fact that it doesn’t seem like someone else has been poking around in there helps sweeten the deal

  13. Having owned two 300Ds and having bought a pristine custard-yellow 240D for my ex-wife (who promptly rear-ended someone in it, just like she’d done in the car it replaced, one of several signs that I should have called an attorney years before I did), I was prepared to vote for this one. But the 300SD is so much cleaner and more complete, and still has the bombproof 5-cylinder diesel. No comparison.

    1. I am surprised to find myself in disagreement. I am so sick to death of gray cars that I actually prefer brown now.

      Anyway, I have less than no interest in either of these, but I’ll take the older one just because it looks slightly more eccentric than the Yuppie’s Aspiration from ’84.

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