Every time I go on a Gambler 500 rally I see a vehicle or two that really get the gears turning in my head. More often than not, I end up on Facebook Marketplace only days later looking for whatever oddball vehicle I couldn’t stop thinking about. Sometimes it’s a Ford Ranger, sometimes it’s a Festiva turned into a kart. One of my unicorns for a while has been a diesel Mercedes Benz W123.
When the opportunity hit in April I traded my Passat TDI wagon project (a decision I’d later regret). Then I raced to purchase a 1982 Mercedes-Benz 240D. This old car had 161,000 miles, light rust, a ton of new parts, a wonderful stereo, and a glorious four speed manual transmission. I felt like I was meeting a hero. This hero was covered in bed liner with a rough interior. I had no problems making it my newest Gambler car.
Upon bringing home the Mercedes, I immediately made it my daily driver. To my surprise, the old car turned far more heads than any Gambler car before it but the Festiva kart. Classic car fans loved the fact I was keeping an old car alive. Rally fans loved the fact I was turning it into an off-roader. I suppose the car had a little something for everyone.
The ultimate test of any Gambler car for me is the road trip to an event. If a car can comfortably go down a highway for several hours without breaking then the rest is easy. As luck would have it, there would be an off-roading event a couple months after I got the car, which required a six-hour drive south. I decided to use it to test out the W123, which was finally covered in Gambler 500 logos.
Making the W123 Mercedes-Benz 240D Prove Itself
Now with a destination and a date, it was time to make the car into something cool! I decided to stay minimalist for my test run. The W123 would get my roof rack, a flight stick gear knob, off-road lights, and of course, RGB everything! Should the car pass the test, I would go full on rally livery, making a mock Camel Trophy car.
The most exciting part for me was creating the flight stick shift knob. I’ve been wanting to make one for years and missed out on the opportunity with the Festiva. I wasn’t going to let it pass me again. Eyeballing the stock gear knob, I noticed the shaft the rest of the knob clung to was perfectly sized to fit inside the flight stick I bought for this idea. I hacked up the knob and sure enough, the shaft fit inside the stick’s shell perfectly. I stuffed a bunch of tape around the shaft to add weight and to stop the stick from spinning around. It worked better than I thought. The end result was unique and fun to throw gears around with!
The rack was a pretty simple design that mounted to the car’s rain gutters, but as the rack was made to accommodate van roofs, it made a comically large gap between the rails and the roof. Remember when cars had rain gutters? Oh well, it held on tight and it works! Next I strapped my basket to it then installed some round LED off-road lights.
Wrapping up the car’s build (if you can call it that) was my now-signature RGB LED interior lights, stickers, and of course, more Gambler 500 logos.
I set out for my latest adventure on a bright and sunny morning. I lubed the sunroof one more time, opened it all the way up, and hit the highway. The 240D’s engine required practically full throttle at all times to keep up with traffic, but the car was pretty comfortable and ate up the miles with ease. I played my tunes through the car’s custom stereo and I couldn’t have been happier. Well, that’s how it was for the first couple hours…
Something Sounds Expensive
Throughout the trip I encountered one of the many construction zones that dot Illinois, forcing me to slow down. One of these construction zones featured jersey barriers that ran the entire length of the zone. These types of barriers are great at bouncing your car’s sounds right back at you. The sound the Mercedes threw back at me initially sounded like bad brakes, but a pump of the pedal confirmed the noise was something much much more expensive.
I neared the halfway point as I pulled off the highway to check the noise. My conclusion was that the clacking noise – which by this time had gotten loud enough that I could hear it clearly in the cabin – was something in the rear end, differential or the axles. Upon inspection the differential was searing hot and the oil we drained out was so burned you couldn’t be within ten feet of the car without feeling sick. The driveshaft had so much play that the shaft could effectively be in a different zip code than the differential it connected to. Our initial diagnosis was that the diff was cooked. However, as diffs are expensive and cannot usually be repaired in a parking lot, we changed the fluid then pushed forward anyway.
A few hours later we arrived at the off-road park for an awesome weekend of fun in the dirt. Amusingly, even though this wasn’t a Gambler 500 event, many cars would end up about as broken anyway. Some cars were so damaged they couldn’t even drive home under their own power.
The D Stands for Dirty
Even though my Mercedes-Benz 240D was wounded, it still held its own. It crossed through creeks, climbed steep hills, and played in the mud. This car went places no car with mere all-season tires should go and places I’m sure the Mercedes-Benz engineers never thought the car would end up. Despite this, the appeal of the old Benz wore thin very quickly.
After only a few minutes of off-roading the car lost its starter solenoid. Then, the throttle linkages became so sloppy that I couldn’t even go full throttle, and perhaps most annoying to me, the clutch friction zone migrated to point where the clutch effectively just became an on/off switch.
One part of the car I was excited to test was the backseat. After all, it appeared to be of a thick foam and large enough to comfortably accommodate me. I was happy to not have to worry about a tent. Oh, what a mistake that was. The foam may have been thick, however it was so uncomfortable to sleep on that not only did I never truly fall asleep but just about every muscle was in deep pain. I loved this car though so I was set on repairing it and improving it once I got home.
The diesel boat continued to do well throughout the weekend. It wasn’t nearly as good off-road as my trusty Smart Fortwo or the Ford Festiva kart, but it still did okay. The Mercedes’ biggest problems came from how low it sat and the very long rear overhang.
Despite the damage it took throughout the weekend, the W123 still finished the trip better than some others. The mud hydrolocked a Jeep XJ Cherokee. An El Camino on a Blazer frame blew the same tire roughly four times and ate about eight distributors. If I recall correctly, five vehicles in total lost their starters and an additional two vehicles seized their engines. A poor little Volvo earned a massive puncture in its fuel tank. Despite the weekend not at all being a Gambler it did turn out to be somewhat of a vehicular bloodbath.
The Long Way Home
A group of us decided to do something a bit different. To get home our convoy would take its own path at our own pace, discovering new places. This was good for the 240D as the clacking grew worse and attempting highway speed was definitely a bad idea. And against all odds, the car drove a few hundred more miles and made it in one piece. All I had to do was figure out how to get it fixed, or did I?
Not long after getting home, my new girlfriend and I decided we were going for the big one, the main Gambler 500 event out in Oregon. This trip would take us through over 5,000 miles of some of the best sights and roads in America. We looked at the Mercedes and thought to ourselves, “will this car even make that many miles without stranding us?”
The two of us thought long about our next steps and ultimately decided the 240D would be a one-hit wonder. I quenched my thirst for an old diesel Mercedes-Benz and even took it off-road. I wasn’t sure how much I would trust this beater to take me safely and comfortably across the country. Moreover, the repairs it needed would have been expensive, more expensive than I felt the car was worth. As if the car knew I was getting rid of it, the car snapped its hood release. Oh… I was so done with this thing. It made me wish I had kept that old Passat TDI and never went after this W123.
We would ultimately trade the Mercedes for something wildly different soon after. The car’s new owner can’t wait to take it on his first-ever Gambler. I got to meet a hero and had fun, even if it wasn’t everything I thought it would be. As for what we traded it for? Find out in my next entry of fun off-road adventures!
Mercedes is a lifelong tinkerer and adventurer. An addict of city cars, she is a living encyclopaedia of the smart fortwo. As of 2018 she's also motorcycle junkie with more motorcycles than places to store them. Her one true love is the Gambler 500.
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.
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 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.
“We were definitely the only dummies out there without 4WD,” Markwardt wrote on his Imgur post.
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.”
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.”
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How To Turn An Old Diesel Mercedes Into The Ultimate Off-Roading Wagon
If you want to travel far off the beaten path, you usually start with a big truck. Not so for Neil Markwardt, who’s slowly been making a 1985 Mercedes 300TD into the ultimate off-roading wagon. Here’s how he did it.
“I just love wagons, diesels, and getting weird looks,” he told Jalopnik. For a car that’s meant to take the kids to school, it’s been easier than it looks to lift it up and take it overlanding.
Markwardt bought “Manfred the Mercedes” about two years ago, and in that two years, it’s lived a surprisingly robust and dirty life. It’s been to Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Park (twice), the Tecopa Mines district just south of Death Valley, and up to Oregon and Northern California for last August’s big solar eclipse. He’s already planning some kind of Sierras expedition for the summer, too. But to him, it was the perfect car.
“I’ve always liked the general aura of indestructability around the W123, along with the weird five-cylinder engine and its distinctive clatter,” Markwardt told Jalopnik via email of his car. “They’re very mechanical, simple to work on, and just generally well engineered. It’s an ‘85 model, that was built one month after I was born.”
The car came with around 197,000 miles on it, but it led a shockingly gentle life before Markwardt got it. It needed some routine maintenance items, but was otherwise in good shape—especially on the inside. It even came equipped with a third row of jump seats, which feels like a must for any 1980s wagon.
“I bought it from the California equivalent of the little old lady who only drives it to church on Sundays,” said Markwardt. “A little old man who lived in Thousand Oaks and only ever drove it to go surfing in Malibu.”
Overlanding originally wasn’t in the plans, but then he saw just how big the wheel wells are. Markwardt had run an SAE Baja team in grad school, so he knew that was a big part of getting it to go off-road successfully.
“Adapting a vehicle to do something it was never intended to do can be a fun challenge,” Markwardt said.
And my goodness, this one looks fun. The build started with a mild lift and big tires about six months after Manfred was purchased.
He found 15x6 steel wheels in the Merc’s 5x112 bolt pattern for $35 a pop on Summit Racing, but 10-millimeter spacers were needed to make them fit as they had a deeper offset than the stock wheels. He also had to machine out the non-hub-centric wheel design to make it work with the hub-centric car.
Since the wheels required conical seat lugnuts instead of the stock Mercedes ball seat lugs, a set of longer BMW wheel bolts were sourced to clear the spacers and fit the tires on the car.
Fifteen-inch wheels in place of the stock 14-inchers then opened up a much wider selection of tires, so he picked up a set of BFGoodrich Mud Terrain KM2s in 215/75/15—the smallest size they had for that tire.
The meatier wheels and tires tires fit, but just barely, so it was time for what Markwardt deemed “precision adjustment of the fenders with a large hammer,” some manipulation of the steering stops and of course, a mild 2-inch lift.
That lift came thanks to stiffer spring perches in the front, polyurethane rear bump stops and stiffer springs designed for owners who eliminate the car’s hydraulic self-leveling system. However, Markwardt retained the W123's stock self-leveling struts for now, and that hydraulic self-leveling rear suspension has been both a blessing and a curse.
On one hand, you can haul up to around 1,000 pounds of cargo before the ride height is affected. On the other hand, a blowout can be catastrophic.
“It made the suspension lift quite easy (just twist the adjuster!),” Markwardt explained. “But it’s been a frequent headache and cut the Death Valley trip short when one of the struts blew out.”
That blowout made the trip back onto the pavement pretty hairy, as the rear of the car was left resting on its bump stops without any damping. While he made it home fine then, off-roading with an undamped suspension is a surefire way to get beached in the sand. Fortunately, Neil says that happened only once. The stock rear tires were also swapped back on to make it home, as the compressed suspension caused the tire to rub.
After the suspension was sorted enough, Markwardt added an utterly gorgeous roof rack made out of reclaimed Douglas fir tongue-and-groove flooring. Four Hella FF700 driving lights also made their way onto the front bumper for extra visiblity out in the land of no street lights. Maroon mudflaps were also added to match the pinstriping and interior.
To protect the car from any major, wagon-stranding kind of damage, he also added a Mercedes oil pan skidplate. A five-inch C-channel rear bumper was added to replace the stock bumper after it came off on the car’s second ever trip to the Tecopa Mines area.
This is just the start of the adventures in store for this big beautiful wagon. Markwardt told Jalopnik that he plans to remove the suspension hydraulics entirely before his summer trip:
The plan for this summer is to remove the hydraulics entirely, and replace the hydro struts with Fox 2.0 air shocks. The coil springs in the rear will still take most of the load, but the air shocks will allow me to adjust the damping (it needs to be way stiffer) and adjust the air pressure in the shocks to control the ride height.
He’ll have to fabricate custom shock mounts to make this work, but it should be worth it in the long run.
Markwardt also just finished welding up a meaty 9,500-pound winch-equipped front bumper for the car this week. He plans to replace both of the existing bumpers with custom steel plate ones.
Getting fabricated soon is a mount on top of the roof rack for a vintage Hi Lift jack from Markwardt’s great grandfather’s farm outside Hillsboro, Texas. The patina on this jack matches the look of the car better than a shiny new one, plus it’s got that cool family connection.
An injector rebuild is also on the short list of items to take care of soon.
Eventually, he wants to solve the biggest off-road limitation of the car: its open differential. Open differentials tend to send all the power to one tire when the rear wheels lose traction, which isn’t good for burnouts or off-roading. He wants a locking differential in its place (which forces both rear wheels to spin in unison regardless of which one has traction), but it hasn’t happened yet since there’s no good bolt-in replacement for the car.
Another thing that hasn’t happened yet is a manual transmission swap. Yes, he’s been wheeling this thing with the stock Mercedes automatic.
“I was planning on putting a Mercedes four-speed manual in it initially, but the first gear is too tall for the technical/steep stuff, so I’m sticking with the slushbox for now,” Markwardt said.
His dream drivetrain would keep the quirky five-cylinder diesel, but add the NSG370 six-speed manual transmission from a Jeep Wrangler that’s had the outboard parts of the transfer case taken off to make it a two-wheel-drive low-range gearbox.
Overall, this car’s transformation into an overland toy was shockingly simple. All I want to do now is go out into the wilderness in a good battle wagon after perusing Neil’s photos and hearing how simple it was to do, despite the fact that I’m already out of room for cars.
If you want to keep up with Manfred the Mercedes, Neil frequently posts updates on the car to his Imgur albums here.
We’re featuring the coolest project cars from across the internet on Build of the Week. What insane build have you been wrenching on lately? Drop me a line at stef dot schrader at jalopnik dot com with “Build of the Week” somewhere in the subject line if you’d like to be featured here.
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