On 28 September 1977, a rather odd choice for a long-distance rally car won the day. Andrew Cowan and Tony Fowkes and their teams had won the London–Sydney marathon, both driving Mercedes-Benz 280E saloon cars (W123 in MB nomenclature). These are upper mid-market saloons, not 4×4 or anything like that.

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.

The rally was convincing proof both of the cars’ sporting endurance and performance and their comfort and reliability, a point emphasised by the chairman of Daimler-Benz AG at the time, Dr Joachim Zahn, at the victory celebration in Stuttgart in 1977.

Of course, now theIt 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 (W123), a coupé (C123) and an estate (S123), and also as a chassis base for special bodies.

Mercedes Benz 280E
The winner-to-be of the 1977 London–Sydney Rally on a gravel track in Australia. Andrew Cowan and his co-drivers Colin Makin and Mike Broad win the rally in their Mercedes-Benz 280 E (W123).

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.

This rally revisited the concept of the first London–Sydney Marathon, which was held in 1968 and also won by Andrew Cowan. But this second incarnation of the rally, organised by the British entrepreneur Wylton Dickson, was significantly longer and even more demanding than the first. It was publicised in 1976 as “the longest car rally in history”.

Mercedes 280E
Service stop for the 280Es.

Meticulous preparation

In 1977, Mercedes-Benz’ major successes with near-standard works rally cars lay some time in the past. Nevertheless, Erich Waxenberger followed the recipe for those bygone successes characterised by the winning tail-fin saloons and standard production SL models. Eight different Mercedes-Benz test departments were involved in readying the 280E for rally use (including bodyshell, brakes, engines and overall vehicle) as well as central customer services.

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. To help 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.

Tony Fowkes described his personal equipment in an interview with the weekly magazine India Today in September 1977: along with spare parts for the car, other essential items included malaria drugs, insect repellent, water purification tablets and toilet paper – as well as fruit and Kendal Mint Cake.

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”.

Mercedes-Benz Museum

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