The gentle pace and easy elegance of this 170S make it the perfect classic from which to enjoy the view on a scenic South African drive.
In today’s technologically driven world, it is difficult to imagine what driving a car felt like during the first half of the 20th century. Roads were rudimentary and automotive development was still in its infancy.
Today we don’t think twice about grabbing the stylish key fob of our modern car and driving into town, or across a country – or even a continent. And if any problem with the car does surface, help is usually only a phone call away.
But during the late 1940s, such assistance was non-existent. You had to be very brave to take your car on a serious road trip. But this 1950 170S proves that it was, indeed, possible.
The developments we have seen in cars over the past 50 to 60 years are not remotely comparable to those in the first half of the 20th century, and the occurrence of World War Two made progress doubly slow. Cars in Europe, especially, changed little from the late 1930s to around the late 50s. Mercedes-Benz didn’t focus on the production of passenger cars during the war and it was a real challenge for the Stuttgart manufacturer to get its factory up and running again. The 170S, therefore, is a model caught in amber.
The owner of this car started his collection with Pontons, but soon his passion for the brand expanded and his interest in older models, more specifically this post-war 170S, was spiked. The S models arrived in 1949 (the 170V models were built from 1946) and featured improved suspension and engines using carburettors, to name a few things.
Interestingly, the body of the car actually dates back to the late 30s, and the ladder frame chassis goes back further than that, something the Pontons did away with.
But why use a chassis that was over 10 years old in the new 170 models? Mercedes-Benz found a way to safely store the rigs and moulds during World War Two, which gave them a head start after the fighting was over. As the predecessor to the Ponton models, the 170S also features great quantities of ash wood in the cabin, and particularly around the windows, which are neatly framed and give the car an almost organic feel. The material on the seats isn’t original, but the chairs still offer a degree of comfort, even without headrests.
Finding your way
The view from the driver’s seat is unlike that in any other Mercedes-Benz that followed, but is similar to cars of the 170’s era and older. These include the rounded front wings, the indicator lights (not original, but installed for safety reasons), and to your right – and in the centre of the car – the three-pointed star.
To start the 170S, you switch on the ignition, press the throttle pedal, and then press it a little harder to activate the starter switch with your foot. The clutch isn’t as tricky as I thought it would be, but the floor-mounted gearlever is truly something from yesteryear. It reminds me more of an old pickup truck than an elegant and curvy post-war saloon. It is long and has a huge bend halfway between the floor and the head.
The travel between each of the four forward gears is as long as the lever suggests, but after a few changes I become used to its operation, and start to relax behind the huge three-spoke steering wheel. Before I stepped into the car and closed the front door (its pivot point is on the B-pillar), the owner said there is little point in revving the engine – it is only a 1 767cm3, 38kW motor after all. However, I still feel inclined to press the accelerator, situated close to the transmission tunnel. But, unsurprisingly, the owner was right. Little happens apart from the speedometer needle slowly, but surely, climbing past the 60kph mark.
But there is enjoyment to be had from the engine’s sound. From the moment you press the throttle, the engine develops a deeper resonance, and the instant you lift off, the sound disappears. I will even go as far as describing it as being quite pleasing, especially when one takes the car’s age into account.
If you decide to venture on an extensive trip in the 170S, there are a few things to keep in mind. As was the case of the later Type 300s, the 170S features a central lubrication system for the suspension. An oil reservoir – located at the right-hand side of the engine bay – has pipes running to every moveable part of the chassis. Once every 200 km, an indicator pops up on the instrument panel alerting the driver to press a small pedal in the footwell. Once this pedal is pressed, it disperses oil to all the necessary joints. However, the system wasn’t particularly efficient and much of the oil would end up on the road. Needless to say, the system was soon discarded.
A few slight changes have been made to this car, but nothing that deviates substantially from its classic status. When the car was purchased 15 years ago, the engine was overhauled as it used an immense amount of oil, had little oil pressure and the rings had disintegrated. Some patchwork was done to the body, but other than that this Mercedes-Benz still proudly wears its original colour, with a deeper patina than you would expect from even a 71-year old vehicle.
The electrical system was also upgraded from six to 12 volts. This was necessary, mostly for safety reasons, as the car’s original system sometimes couldn’t cope with feeding power to features such as the windscreen wipers, headlights and indicators simultaneously. The latter were neatly mounted on the front wings, also for safety reasons. If you were not a Mercedes enthusiast, you would swear they were standard equipment, so neat is their finish. The original side pop-up indicator arms, situated in the middle of the B-pillars, were not in place when the owner bought the car. He had to rebuild this system and add new arms.
They were tricky to find, but fortunately at a swap meet of The Mercedes-Benz Club, he was able to purchase original Bosch items. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that the small, rear brake lights are also aftermarket units. The previous owner had them installed and according to the current owner they look out of place, but he admits they make the Mercedes more visible to other road users, especially at night. The car’s shock absorbers also came under scrutiny after purchase, but at a rather exorbitant amount per corner for Bilstein dampers from Germany, it was decided to overhaul and update the original items instead.
In the cabin, the grab handles (mounted on the B-pillars) also needed attention, so he made them look as close to the period items as possible. The Becker radio was one of the first units installed in a production car, and above it on the narrow dashboard, the windscreen wiper switch can be found on the left-hand side, a cigarette lighter to the right.
The three-pointed star on top of the grille has a significant base and acts as the opener for the radiator. Mercedes-Benz kept this design as a decorative feature for a long time before the simpler star and flat logo – here situated below the three-pointed star – took over.
This old school E-Class, the Ponton’s predecessor, is still a charming and reliable proposition.
*After experiencing this car for ourselves, the car has now left South Africa and made its way to the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.
Mercedes-Benz 170S (W136)
Engine: M136 1 767cm3 4-cyl
Power: 38kW @ 4 000rpm
Torque: 111N.m @ 1 800rpm
Transmission: 4-speed manual, RWD
Weight: 1 220kg
0-62mph: 32.0 seconds
Top speed: 120kph
Fuel consumption: 9,7 L/100 km
Years produced: 1949-1952