Mercedes Diesel w123

There is a hidden world of structure, grace, and functionality in a car. What about simplicity? Designers talk about it. But each new model seems more complex than last year’s. This has frustrated tinkerers for some time now. While we could once replace components ourselves, today’s mechanics connect to the car’s computer and diagnose the problem in cyberspace.

Your days of rolling up your sleeves on weekends to change the oil are numbered, if not over. Technology is limiting our relationship with our automobiles. While many of us may not want to work on our cars, all of us are missing out on larger conversation about automotive technology and sustainability. If local mechanics or owners are unable to repair cars because of their increased complexity, this is a serious problem of job loss, fiscal loss, and wasted resources. As I see it, in the age of environmental and social responsibility, the car of the future should be assembled  from  simple components, and maintained locally.

But what if this future car has been around for over 30 years? The Mercedes w123 belongs to a generation of automobiles that I know intimately and love. I remember the first time I laid eyes on it. There could have been every other exotic car in the world in the same parking lot, and I would still have picked the cream colored land yacht evocative of Saddam Hussein’s motorcade. The Mercedes model w123 is the best car that ever set its rubber boots on the blacktop. The reason for my adoration? Look for it in the car’s seemingly archaic simplicity. Just by looking at it, you get a good feel about what’s under the hood. It has the body and mind of a bar brawler; comprised of extremely simple components and over 3,000 pounds of steel. Everything contained in the car, from the door locks to the engine components, is vacuum powered–a nuclear bomb could explode within reasonable distance and you could drive your charred self to a nearby fallout shelter. The diesel engine can be run on anything from corn oil to rotting plant mass, and has a lifespan of 500-700,000 miles. Even though the car was conceived in 1970’s, it receives the same gas mileage as a present-day petrol automobile. The Mercedes model w123 is the longest-lasting generation of beaters that planet earth has ever seen, and there is something to be said for that.

From a design standpoint, the Mercedes w123 exemplifies certain ideals that should be adopted in future automobiles. Because of its construction and design, the car is able to tolerate a lot of mistreatment, and has found its way into the hands of the rich and poor alike. And since it is void of any complex computer systems, it can be repaired in a multitude of different environments and configurations. It was designed so that it could be repaired with everyday farm equipment, or with just what you have lying around. The real key to the car’s sustainability is its Darwinian adaptability.

But what about electric, hydrogen, and other future cars that are supposed to save us from the big bad carbon dioxide molecule? Once you consider the amount of carbon that these cars and technologies take to create, versus their longevity and reliability, its easy to see how they aren’t that appealing.

What if future cars were not sold on aesthetics and sex appeal, but on function and workability? Instead of advertising beautifully polished objects, the showrooms for this future automobile would be showcasing cars that were being worked on. In this way the showroom becomes the shop, and the auto-mechanics the salesmen. This “shop” would not be showcasing shiny, new cars off the line but, instead, the oldest, dirtiest, worn-out pieces of working junk, thus reminding customers of their commitment to their possessions, and reassuring them that their car will perform for a long time to come.

Matthew Kihm is an industrial design graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he also read science, and took collaborative classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This, he says, gave him an understanding of design from a scientific standpoint. His goal is to use this dual interest to not merely create products but also improve America’s infrastructure.

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