Behind the Wheel of a Perfect 1978 Mercedes-Benz 300D
A creampuff dreamboat time machine from Mercedes Motoring.
Some of the hills surrounding Los Angeles’ Elysian Heights neighborhood have angles of ascent more treacherous than those I recently tackled in the uber-offroad-capable Bentley Bentayga SUV. Cresting these mini-mountains is akin to clicking to the top of an intimidating roller coaster—a sharp climb into the sky unaware of what’s beyond the crest.
You can only find out if you make it to the top, but that’s not a sure proposition in my current means of conquest, a 3500 lb ingot of over-engineered, mid-Seventies German metal equipped with a three-liter diesel motor with a grand total of 77 horsepower. The transmission believes it’s uncivilized to shift into first gear and the whole thing is running 195-section all-season tires with about as much traction as the O’Malley campaign.
And yet the experience is glorious. That’s because the car isn’t some clapped-out survivor from Mercedes’s decade-long, 2.7 million-strong run of W123 sedans, coupes, and wagons. It’s an Astral Silver and M-B Tex™ Blue1978 300D that has been paid obsessive attention by Jimmy George “J.G.” Francis and his corps of artisans at Glendale, California’s Mercedes Motoring.
With just 43,000 miles on the clock from new and having recently undergone a $30,000 overhaul at the behest of its owner, a prominent New York collector and entertainer whose name is rumored to rhyme with Terry Mindmeld, the car is astoundingly perfect. Astounding because at first it seems bananas to lavish this kind of spare-no-expense attention on something so seemingly plebian. Then, of course, you remember that, in 1978, a 300D was a $21,000 car in the United States. Inflation would make that an $80,000 vehicle today.
Those of us who recall these cars in their Seventies showroom prime, as opposed to their indestructible-but-usually-degraded present, remember just how special they really were. Growing up, my struggling middle class suburban family split time between a rattle-trap slack-back Nova and creaky Malibu Classic wagon. Our “Aunt” Edith, a wealthy, WASP-y friend of my mother’s, lived with her children in a stately Neo-Georgian on the East Side and drove about in stolid leisure in her metallic copper 300D. When I first closed the door of her Benz it felt as if I’d sealed myself into a wood, vinyl, and horsehair crypt. And I never wanted to emerge.
JG’s 300D was better than that—better than new, even. In part, that’s because it was like a new car that had somehow lived a life but remained perfectly fresh. The knobs on the Becker AM/FM stereo were worn but the power antenna mounted to the trunk extended and receded perfectly. The transmission clunked into gear on acceleration just like Aunt Edith’s did when she first bought it, a mechanical acknowledgement of forward progress.
And, oh, the ride—that magical Mercedes ride controlled by a steering wheel about the size of the London Eye ferris wheel. It’s somehow firmly planted but gently compliant, like a tank riding on Tempurpedic mattresses. Did it creak? It creaked. Did it bounce? It did not bounce.
But the engine is where you see most clearly that this 300D had been loved into transcendence. There are few cars I can recognize from their running note alone: an IROC Camaro, a Volkswagen Beetle, and a Seventies or Eighties Mercedes-Benz diesel. It sounds (and smells) like a coal-fired 19th century factory producing iron maracas (or this place in an earthquake). The motor was in such a state of tune that I could idle in front of a local outdoor vegan café without stroller-wielding, vaping, dirt-loving hippie moms pulling the organic cotton blankets over their infants’ heads.
I drove to the home of a fellow automotive journalist and fellow Eighties survivor to pick him up for lunch. I plowed up his hill expecting to see him waiting on his doorstep, summoned by that unmistakable note like a sailor Sirened to a stony shore. But I had to ring the doorbell.
“Did you drive the Benz?” he asked. “I heard something go by, but it was so quiet I thought it might be a UPS truck.”
Like I said: glorious.