Mercedes W123 300TD
Sturdy, reliable and seemingly infused with DNA from a tardigrade, the Mercedes-Benz W123 series of executive vehicles represents a golden age in German engineering. Coveted for their reliability and mechanical simplicity, interest in the W123 has seen a recent increase, making high-quality examples of all flavors desirable. While some W123 owners have aspirations of a concours win, others have more adventurous plans.
Bought from “the California equivalent of the little old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays - a little old man who only used it when he drove to Malibu to go surfing on the weekends, ” this 1985 Mercedes-Benz 300TD has new life with owner Neil Markwardt, who discovered the massive wheel wells offered an opportunity.
“I wanted the ability to do some proper exploring, now that I'm somewhere with much more exploring to be had, ” Markwardt said in an email exchange, having recently moved to The Golden State from Texas.
The 1985 Mercedes-Benz 300TD stopped at the park’s northern border.
As an engineer who had several enjoyable years running an SAE Baja team in graduate school, modifying the 300TD for off-road duty was well within his skill set.
Taking advantage of the large wheel wells, Markwardt slipped BFG KM2 mud terrain tires (215/75/15) onto his 1985 Benz, which wrap around 15-inch-by-6-inch steel wheels. The fit wasn’t perfect - the wheels had to be machined and spacers added for a proper fit. Up front, a thicker spring pad was added to increase the ride height by about 1.5 inches. The self-leveling suspension was also adjusted to give the rear a slight lift. Underneath, a Mercedes skid plate for the oil pan was installed for more protection, and Hella FF700 lights were also added.
Markwardt replaced the battery and alternator after buying the Mercedes in April 2016 and has had no issues over his 7, 000 miles of ownership - and that was with buying the wagon with 198, 000 on the clock. After the modifications were made, he ventured to Joshua Tree National Park for some off-the-pavement fun.
The Benz stuffed a tire shortly after this picture was taken.
The trip started in Santa Barbara, with Joshua Tree National Park 250 miles and five hours away. Just outside the park, Markwardt stopped to swap to the BFG KM2s. The first night was spent on some Bureau of Land Management property outside the park’s southern entrance, as the campsites were packed.
Day two was the real test for the 300TD - the Old Dale mining district. The terrain started out OK but did get gradually more hilly and rougher, Markwardt said.
An ominous sign.
Day three began with an ominous sign annotated with a handwritten note. It read: “WARNING: About 20 or so minutes in there is a curve and a very technical section: rock shelf, large rocks, etc. VERY HIGH clearance. Followed by at least 2 more very uneven, rocky bits. I had a Forrester and I turned around.”
The yellow-and-black sign and handwritten note did not deter Markwardt. The 300TD forged ahead.
It was “very easy going, as the sign said, and then abruptly not, ” Markwardt wrote. “After walking up and down, talking about lines and variously scratching our butts for a bit, I went for it and got stuck basically immediately - one rear wheel was on loose sandy stuff with very little weight on it, and the open diff meant it was time for some help.”
Plate bumpers, a locking differential and a proper roof rack are all in the works for Markwardt’s 1985 Mercedes.
A Toyota FJ Cruiser came to the rescue. Not wanting to stall anyone else on the road, Markwardt and the 300TD headed back north through the park with the car still in one piece.
“Aside from getting a bit stuck in the canyon the one time, there were no issues at all, ” Markwardt said.
Since the trip, he’s started designing plate bumpers and a front winch. He’s also planning rear mounts for a pair of jerrycans. The paint may be in poor shape, and there may be spots of rust, but Markwardt has no plans to fix those. This is a car that works - and works hard. Maybe it will soldier on for another 198, 000 miles.
“I've also been thinking hard about how best to put a locking diff in it - adapting a Ford 8.8 IRS diff with an Eaton E-locker would be totally within my fab abilities, and it would be a huge capability improvement, ” Markwardt added. “A proper roof rack is definitely on the list, as well.”