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Half-way round the world in a Mercedes-Benz W 123

Rally tour half-way round the world with the W 123

On 28 September 1977 the world’s toughest rally was won by two Mercedes-Benz upper mid-range saloons. Andrew Cowan and his team took first place in the Singapore Airlines London–Sydney Rally driving a 280 E (W 123) – now a sought-after modern classic – and Anthony (Tony) Fowkes and his crew came in second, also in a 280 E. There were six 280 E rally cars in all at the start, supervised by Erich Waxenberger and given works back-up, and four of them achieved top ten places at the finish.

Stuttgart. On 28 September 1977 the Mercedes star shone at its brightest outside the Sydney Opera House: Andrew Cowan and Tony Fowkes and their teams had won the London–Sydney marathon, both driving Mercedes-Benz 280 E (W 123) saloon cars. Two more of the Mercedes-Benz upper mid-range vehicles were among the top ten finishers. Alfred Kling and his team achieved sixth place with their Mercedes-Benz 280 E and Herbert Kleint’s crew came in eighth in a similar vehicle.

For the 123 model series, the rally was convincing proof both of the cars’ sporting endurance and performance and their comfort and reliability. This was a point emphasised by the Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler-Benz AG at the time, Dr Joachim Zahn, at the victory celebration in Stuttgart in 1977. It is these qualities that now make the 123 model series a sought-after modern Mercedes-Benz classic. The 123 series was launched in 1976 and remained in production until the beginning of 1986. It was available as a saloon (W 123), a coupé (C 123) and an estate (S 123), and also as a chassis base for special bodies.

From opera house to opera house

The start of the marathon 40 years ago was the overture to an event of operatic proportions: 69 cars set off from Covent Garden Opera House in London on 14 August 1977 to compete in the toughest rally in the world, with the teams needing to cover well over 30,000 kilometres across three continents in 30 days and nights. Three sea crossings were also on the agenda. The finish line of the 1977 Singapore Airlines London–Sydney Rally was situated at another famous music venue on the opposite side of the world: the Sydney Opera House in all its architectural splendour.

The saloons were fitted with new wheels (15-inch), plus sport shock absorbers and so-called tropical springs – both of which were available as optional equipment items. These measures combined to raise the cars’ ground clearance by 35 millimetres. Then, after test drives on the British Army training grounds in Bagshot, it was also decided to reinforce the upper and lower sections of the semi-trailing arms.

In place of the standard gearbox, the rally cars were fitted with the four-speed manual gearbox from the V8 engine used in the S-Class (W116) of the time. A striking addition was the robust sand plate mounted at the front in place of conventional bumpers. In order to facilitate servicing and the supply of replacement parts, both British teams drove left-hand-drive vehicles.

Even the quality of the fuel supplied along the route was factored into the planning: as the octane rating of the available fuel was liable to be as low as 82 RON, the vehicles’ ignition was specially adapted. The drivers also carried a canister of octane improver with them, with an auxiliary fuel tank in the vehicle allowing high-octane fuel to be mixed into the local petrol.

The original winning car from 1977 is on permanent display at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart. It is part of “Legend Room 7: Silver Arrows – Races and Records”.

Along with his mind bending engineering projects, he has 30 odd cars in his collection that need some miles put on the clock. Like the Ex Stirling Moss 904 Porsche GTS Carrera, the last of the road registered Le Mans cars. An Electron – a Hyundai Getz-based electric vehicle briefly produced by the Australian company, Blade Electric, but killed off due to government-introduced ESC requirements that the company couldn’t meet.