erschienen am 14.07.2007 im Telegraph
Feel free to take a Cotswold Screwdriver to the Mercedes W123 E-class, writes James May
One of the few things motoring journalists can’t really tell you about a new car is how well made it is. Obviously, we can rattle on about the noise the door makes when it shuts, we can lament excess shininess or sharp edges on the dashboard plastics, we can even tell you that the boot lid fell off or the gearknob exploded in the course of a test drive, but none of this will tell you how well the thing will be hanging together in 10 years‘ time.
On re-reading launch reports of the Triumph Stag, for example (no, really), I find nothing to say that this car will be prone to overheating and cylinder-head gasket failure. More recently, I didn’t spot in my detailed examination of the then-new Alfa 156 that the minor electrical connections weren’t up to much. And no one realised that the Peugeot 205 GTi would snap its cambelts and consume its own engine if you were unlucky. It was left to owners to discover this sort of thing the hard way.
In fact, the only way to tell how well a car was mantled in the first place is to dismantle it again, and the only person to have done this with any regularity was the man whose name shall be called manual, ie John Haynes. For the rest of us, turning up at a swanky car-launch venue with a trolley jack, two axle stands and a 99-piece socket set tends to arouse suspicion.
Still, about 20 years too late, and for reasons that will become clear later in the year, I have just disassembled a substantial part of a 1985 Mercedes W123, the E-class before the one before the last one. People who mend old cars have told me that this Mercedes was one of the best-built cars in history. It harks from a time when Mercedes avowedly over-engineered everything, when the customer paid a premium for that and was rewarded with a monastic interior and wind-up windows. You bought one of these Mercs if you enjoyed the nagging suspicion that everything, including the bits you couldn’t see, had been done properly.
I can now confirm that it was. Taking the old E-class apart was a lengthy and baffling exercise, because there was always another hidden bolt, another screw, another fiendishly recalcitrant clip. The glovebox lid, for example, would not yield even to Jeremy Clarkson and his Cotswolds Screwdriver*; it would come off only by reversing the process by which it was attached in the first place. In isolation, it seems like an unnecessarily complex one, but time has proved it to be unbelievably fit for purpose.
So yes, the W123 E-class is a superbly well-made artefact on a par with some cathedrals, and it has got me thinking. I now know what old people are on about when they lament the passing of the mendable appliance. This week I have been forced by manufacturing timidity into discarding a kettle, a toaster and a pair of binoculars. The kettle leaked, the toaster suffered a simple internal electrical failure and the binoculars had water in them but, as none of them had been built to be rebuilt one day, there was nothing I could do about it. Dualit toasters and the Rowlett model I have bought, for all their knowing ponciness, are held together with self-tapping screws and other things that can be removed and replaced endlessly. Like George Washington’s axe or the yard broom of two heads and three handles fame, they are infinitely repairable.
Because the Mercedes was built properly, it came apart properly. And because it came apart properly, it would go back together again. No doubt in the 22 years that my example had roamed the Earth, quite a few parts had been replaced – it certainly didn’t have its original gearbox, and various small components were obviously of newer vintage. But somebody once told me that only half of Westminster Abbey is the original building. So what? It’s still Westminster Abbey. Whoever engineered my Mercedes must have wanted it to last for a very long time.
This is, I suspect, an increasingly unfashionable approach to making anything in large volumes. Sooner or later, and as with the kettle, the toaster, the laser printer and the washing machine, the car, even a superbly made one, crashes headlong into the argument about economic viability. But why? We drive around in a car for maybe 10 or 15 years, then decide we’re bored with it or it’s somehow not worth maintaining any more. So we throw it away – the whole car!
But look at the life of a typical W123 Mercedes like mine. It enjoyed what we would think of as a full life in the west before starting a new one as a taxi in the developing world, after which it began yet another existence in the hands of a private owner with the odometer already indicating a trip to the Moon.
There is no reason why it shouldn’t last until the end of time, and that would make it a very green machine indeed.