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!