Bush-bashing in a Benz - Morley's World 469

By: Dave Morley

mercedes benz 3 mercedes benz 3

Morley picks up the phone and enters a whole new world of rash ideas

The phone rang. Bugger, I was in the middle of something. Even when that something is so close to nothing that it’d take a QC to argue otherwise, the phone ringing always catches me off guard. Call it experience. Call it a life lived close enough to the edge of legality and the corners of common-sense, that a bit of guilt occasionally creeps in.

As it turned out, the call did introduce me to content and concepts that I had every right to be leery of. No matter that it was from my old mate Watto. In fact, quite the opposite...

See, Watto and I go way back. He’s a Porsche fixer, I’m more of a Porsche wrecker. But between us, back in 2007 and 2008, we were Team Australia in the Transsyberia Rallye (in a Porsche. Now there’s symmetry in stupidity) that ran from Moscow to the Mongolian capital, Ulan Baator, over two weeks, 7500km and countless bowls of beetroot soup and cups of fermented mare’s milk. Oh how I wish I was making this up. Even just some of it.


Symmetry in stupidity exists

The point being that every time I’ve done anything with Watto, strange, dangerous, crazy mixed-up things have happened. And I don’t mean rarely; potentially bad things happen every time we get together. Cars bent in two (him) food poisoning (me) door handles-deep in a Mongolian swamp (us) blowing downtown Moscow red lights at a dollar-sixty (me again), broken bones (him) you name it, it’s happened live-to-air on the Morley-Watto Show.

"We need to get together,’ he started out.


"Don’t tell me," I second-guess him, "you’ve just had a stupid idea and, thanks to the way the universe works, my phone rang?"

"If you want to look at it that way," he admits.

"So what’s the Dickheadedness du Jour this time?"

"I reckon we oughta do one of those outback bashes."

Now I’ve just tipped from wary to outright scared.

"Sure, why not?" Damn! Why can I never think of an excuse when I need one? Even a hairy-arsed half-truth would do the trick most times. But... nothing.


Cockpit of the Team Australia Porsche

Which is how I came to agree to do the Victorian Variety Club Bash for 2022 which runs from Melbourne to Cairns via the gulf country. Now, this event and events like it are for a very good cause. In the case of this one, it’s to raise money to benefit kids who might otherwise go without, whether that’s in terms of education, health, safety or just the chance to have a good time. It’s worthy stuff, no mistake.

But it’s equally true that the guys and gals who raise money for the cause and then tackle the great Aussie outback in a completely unsuitable vehicle (and the less suitable the better, it seems) also seem to have a pretty damn good time. I the 1980s and, even though I was there to cover what was still a very novel event, I had my share of giggles, too.

| Read next: 2019 Variety Bash Victoria


So, no arguments from me about tackling the bash head-on. But there was always the question of what the hell we were going to use as transport.

Watto on a good day is about as much of a people person as I am on a bad day, so there was never going to be any of this four-to-a-car, huge team thing going on. It would be just me and him. Fair enough, did a very early Variety bash way back in and because of our previous shared calamities, we both knew we could trust each other when (not if) things turned brown and smelly.

Our skill sets seemed pretty complementary, too; he can rebuild an engine by the side of the road, I can drink beer. Perfect. We got this.


But again, I asked him, what are we going to drive in this potential doom-fest?

At first he was pretty cagey. He sent me to look at a rear-drive Mazda 929 on my side of town as the first possibility. It was a one-family car and while it drove okay, I was concerned about a shudder through the driveline that I was pretty convinced was coming from the tranny. Okay, so Watto could fix that in the shade of a camel if need be, but why ruin your day if you don’t have to? Beyond that, the old Ginza limo didn’t have enough headroom thanks to the factory sunroof, and it was kind of too nice to do to it what we had in mind. The latter would become a theme.

But not immediately. The next potential cab off the rank was a Porsche 924. The red-headed stepson of the Porsche family, the 924 was the car designed in the 1970s as a joint venture between Porsche and Volkswagen. Until VW – the company that gave us the Kombi – decided it couldn’t be bothered with something as slow as the 924. In fact, the model’s only real claim to distinction is that it was the first production Porsche to offer a fully automatic transmission. Great.


Clean as a whistle engine bay

Of course, these days, the old 924 isn’t hated on so much and has actually carved out a few admirers. I’m not one of them. Neither is Watto, for that matter, but it remains that his Porsche background and training meant he wouldn’t even need a camel if anything when bang in the mulga. So off he toddled to take a peek at the only 924 being advertised that week. He rang me to tell me to keep looking, cause when he opened the door of the Porker, the hinges pulled out of the A-pillar. Oops.

By now, we’re getting perilously close to go-or-no day. If we can’t find something soon, we might have to wait another year. Not an option, says Watto. And he means it, because next thing I know, he turns up at the MBC in a – and please don’t think I’m exaggerating here – bee-yootiful W124 Mercedes-Benz. Minty fresh, it was. Not a mark on it. Way. Too. Nice.

"Nice Krautwagen," says I. "Glad you like it," he says, "cos you’re going to Cairns in it".

Now I’m really looking forward to this bash caper. See, when I first started as a motoring scribbler back in the mid-80s, the W124 Benz was the current model. And I recall taking part in road tests and comparisons where the M-B always came out on top. Didn’t matter whether you threw it up against a BMW 5-Series, a long-wheelbase Audi or even the new XJ40 Jag, the W124 always wound up on the top step of the podium.


It was a classic case of unbeatable refinement, with more-than-enough performance and rock-solid build quality. It’s no mistake the W124 is regarded as the last of the bank-vault Benzes. Sure, there were quirks: That ocean-liner-spec steering wheel diameter and the four-speed auto that would take off in second if you used anything less than 100 per throttle when the light went green. But otherwise, these were tremendous old buses. Oh, and if you did apply yourself to the task and nail the gas from a standing start, I recall the earlier (SOHC) version of the 300E scooting across the quarter mile in 16.1 seconds. Again, that was a bit special back then. The best car in the world at the time? Undoubtedly. And now I’m going to Cairns in one.

The car in question is, as you can see from the photos, in pretty much new condition. There’s the odd old-fella scrape and ding here and there, but the previous owner obviously took the time and care to crash it very gently, so you’ve got to look hard for the blemishes. In any case, a few thousand kays over outback tracks to reach the gulf country and finally Cairns in the hands of me and Watto may not do the old girl’s aesthetics too many favours either.

Like most old Benzes, the interior is also in minty shape and, again, we’ll be doing our best to keep the red dust at bay so it cleans up all right after the event and joins Watto’s garage of full-timers. The theory at the moment is to ceramic-coat the paint and Glad-Wrap the interior for an easier process back home after the bash.


Only 220k on the minty dial

This is the 2.6-litre 260E, too, not the bigger 300E (three-litre) but still a six-cylinder. It was introduced in 1988 as a bit of a response to the rising prices of all cars back then, and aimed to give punters a slightly cheaper shot at a W124 without resorting to the 220E (itself a ripper car, too, but four-cylinder powered). Brand new in 1988, this car was a

92-grand proposition and that grew to 110-grand by 1990, so she was no bargain-bin special even then. The spec-sheet back then suggested the 260E possessed 121kW and 225Nm which, from the feel of it right now, seems about right. The 220,000km on the odometer don’t seem to have blunted this thing one bit, and I’m very pleased to note that the beautiful wafty ride and insulated- but-accurate front-end responses are all present and accounted for in 2022.

The real problem – and Watto’s well aware of it – is that this example of the mighty W124 is really too nice to be used as we intend to. I’ve actually suggested that I go out and find a tatty 220E that we can bash to Cairns in, while I make the gorgeous 260 a permanent part of the MBC collection. Watto agrees and is happy for me to do that, but deep down, I just

know that even if I found an equally good replacement in equally schmick mechanical nick, it’ll fail on us about day two of the bash. That’s just the universe for ya.


Too good to Bash, too good not to

Meantime, there are a few jobs we have to tackle to get the 260 ship-shape and ready for a good bashing through the bulldust. We have to fit bigger tyres with a more aggressive tread, a set of bash plates and a range of tow-hooks and recovery points. Watto has plans to raise the suspension slightly, but we won’t be going full bogan-spec with a snorkel,

bull-bar and fender-flares. Instead, we’ll be letting that legendary Merc engineering do the talking. ‘Cos if there’s one thing both of us have learned over the years, it’s that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Right now, my job is to find an extra wheel rim (the rules say we have to carry at least two spares) and I’ve just discovered that the W124 uses a 5 X 112mm stud pattern which is rare enough in itself but combined with the Benz’s curious offset, it makes for a one-off that I’m finding hard to locate. Still, if that’s the biggest challenge it throws at us...


Finding a damn spare rim for this W124 involved a whole lot of kicking-in doors. Never before has the SS ute earned its parts chaser tag so completely. I could have jumped on the phone but the problem with that is that you’re much more likely to be fobbed off by a bloke at the desk of a wrecking yard or second-hand wheel and tyre shop who’s already having a bad day without you phoning up for a wheel that they haven’t seen since Menzies was PM.


The rare stud pattern makes finding a second spare tricky

I find it’s much more likely that the fella is going to get off his butt and actually go out the back and search for me if I’m standing there in front of him. Also, I never get bored of visiting businesses like wreckers and such and, by and large, the blokes and blokettes who run these shops tend to be pretty good folks once you’ve broken the ice.

Anyway, what occurred to me while visiting a half-dozen wheel and tyre shops is just how far we’ve come in this department. I mean, I can remember when a 15-inch rim was a big ’un. But now! Man, you think a 20-inch hoop looks big on a Mazda rotary...Which it does, but you should see it when it’s just sitting in a showroom all by itself.

The other thing I noticed was that some of these shops were more museum than retail outlet. One in particular had every kind of goofy 1980s alloy wheels I could remember. And a few I couldn’t. It was absolutely wonderful to see some of these old designs again if only to remind myself why I avoided them in the day.


Advice to teenage self this month: Get yourself a system. A system will help you prevent cock-ups. It’s why the aviation industry has them for everything from starting the engines, to working on every aspect of the plane itself, right down to the correct sequence to open a door. Ever heard "cabin crew disarm doors and cross-check"? Yep, that’s a system to ensure
that the doors don’t blow themselves off their hinges in a non-emergency situation where you’re just trying to empty the plane and fill it with humanity again for the next high-altitude bus trip.

As a long-term motorcyclist, I understand systems as well. In my case, it’s FINK. That is: Fuel, Ignition, Neutral and Kill (switch). If I’ve followed my own system, before I even hit the starter button, I know that the fuel is switched on, the ignition is on, the bike is in neutral and the kill-switch is disabled. That way, I know that, all things being equal, the
engine will start, the bike won’t accidentally take off from under me when it does, and I won’t run out of petrol just as the first red light goes green.

A system can be as simple as remembering to bag and tag a part before removing the next one. It can also be pretty complex. But look at a workshop manual. Every process contained in that book is a system within itself. From the right way to reassemble a brake caliper to the torque sequence for tightening a cylinder head. You can’t beat the system.


SEND YOUR EMAILS TO: uniquecars@primecreative.com.au Yep, he’s gonna fix you up in no time...


From Unique Cars #469, Aug/Sep 2022


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