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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter turbodiesel inline 5, 4 speed automatic, RWD
Location: Fountain Valley, CA
Odometer reading: 286,000 miles
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.
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.
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.
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.