Before the days of government-sponsored cash-for-clunkers programs, a lot of used cars in Western Europe got a second lease on life in North Africa and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Europe. We got a chance to sample what the car landscape is like in North Africa when we landed in Fes, Morocco, last week to attend a wedding.
Almost immediately after landing in Fes, we noticed that the amount of Mercedes-Benz w123s meandering around Moroccan roads is absolutely unthinkable. While wagons are uncommon and coupes are downright rare, we’re willing to bet that there are more w123 sedans registered in Morocco than in Germany.
Most w123s in Morocco are taxis and an overwhelming majority of them are low-spec 200D, 220D and 240Ds. 300Ds are few and far between and the OM617 five-cylinder engine is particularly sought after. To cater to the large w123-owning crowd, there are local mechanics that repair exclusively diesel-burning Mercedes. The work they carry out ranges from every day maintenance to complicated operations like fitting 190D gears in a 240D transmission casing, something a local taxi driver said is an increasingly common modification that improves performance ever so slightly.
Mechanics are one thing, but how do taxi drivers find parts for their cars? As we found out while trying to buy a window for our 1981 230E a few months ago, nearly every single w123 that gets junked in southern France gets sent to North Africa. Moroccans take things a step further with stores that sell only w123 parts. Counterfeit parts are a big problem, however.
Aside from their well-known longevity, w123s are appreciated for their roomy cabin. A taxi driver in Meknes told us that a 240D can seat up to six passengers plus the driver. To deal with the weight of seven adults, some w123s have had their rear suspension jacked up and others wear metal plaques and/or stickers to tell fellow motorists that they are incapable of going past 90 km/h (55 mph) with a full load.
Mercedes w124s are also common as taxis and we spotted a couple of w115s and w126s but we did not see a single w116 S-Class. This can likely be explained by the fact that the oil-burning 300SD model was never offered in Europe.
Larger taxis such as the Mercedes w123 are simply called big taxis. They take passengers on longer trips and sometimes function as taxi buses, meaning that they have predetermined stops. The second category is appropriately dubbed small taxis and they generally pick up more than one fare at a time. These are mostly Fiat Unos, including a slightly facelifted model that is no longer sold in Morocco, but Peugeot 205s and first-gen Dacia Logans are also widely used.
Although the Logan is recent, we rode in one that had a few thousand kilometers short of 400,000, or 248,000 miles. While w123s with 500,000 (310,000 miles) and 600,000 (372,000 miles) kilometers are the norm, the highest-mileage car we rode in was a 1990ish Fiat Uno with 747,000 kilometers (464,000 miles) on the original odometer.
As far as non-taxis go, first-gen Volkswagen Golfs (known as the Rabbit in the U.S.) and second-gen Jettas are a surprisingly frequent sight. 1980s Renaults are popular but vintage Peugeots such as the 504 are getting scarce. The most common Citroën we spotted was the BX, though interestingly enough most of them seemed to have had their hydraulic suspension components replaced with conventional springs.
The reign of the w123 as the king of taxis is coming to an end. To fight the country’s air pollution problem and to stimulate the local economy (Renault-Nissan builds Dacias in Tangiers), Morocco recently passed a law that makes it very complicated and almost prohibitively expensive to import cars that are over five years old.
For a multitude of reasons we did not manage to photograph all of the cars that we would have liked to – Dacia 1305 pickups, various DAFs, a couple of Simca 1100s and even a lone Renault Broadway managed to escape us. Similarly, we did not have time to visit a junkyard but we imagine that it’s a sight to behold.
Below is a gallery of the cars we photographed during our five-day long trip, as well as two videos. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you want high-res shots.
Traffic in front of the Fes train station, taken from the third floor of a hotel:
Traffic going up a big street in Meknes: