This wonderfully original 220S is a good reminder that some cars are just better than others.
Words: Wilhelm Lutjeharms
Images: Danie Nel
World War Two is probably the main historical reference point of the previous century. Many countries had to rebuild entire towns and cities after WWII, as well as infrastructure, while companies were also faced with the challenge of getting back up and running. But when Mercedes-Benz launched its "Ponton" range in the '50s, first with the four-cylinder W120/121s from August 1953 and then the 170mm longer, six-cylinder W180/105/128s from March 1954, it was clear the three-pointed star was back on its way to the top.
The 1959 220S saloon you see here is particularly special because it has had very little work done to it since it rolled off the production line in Germany over 50 years ago. There is something very alluring and inviting about a fully restored classic Mercedes-Benz, but I think there is something even more special about a car that tells stories through its originality.
This collector only did a small amount of work to the car after he purchased it from its second owner. Minor tasks included overhauling the brake system, as well as replacing the rear light lenses, the front colourless indicator lights and the steering knuckles. Apart from these necessary repairs, the car is in its original condition.
Before we set off for the photoshoot, I was shown a photograph taken the day the driver from the Mercedes-Benz dealership delivered this car to its first owner, a lady from the southern suburbs of Cape Town. Dressed in white, the smiling driver happily posed next to the car, in front of its new home. Today, the Ponton still proudly wears that same numberplate. Back in 1959, this 220S cost £1,503 (at the time South Africa was still using the pound as its currency) and the owner traded in her 1938 Packard 120 saloon, for which she only received £51, meaning she was left with a still substantial £1,452 to pay.
Stepping into the past
As we walked to the Ponton, the owner showed me the car’s original sales invoice. I notice that the extra set of wool carpets was a cost option – today they are still in mint condition. Upon opening the door, the smell alone transports you back to the '50s. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that nothing has been restored or re-upholstered. The dark red vinyl seats – or rather benches – have aged beautifully and their colour makes a strong and pleasing contrast to the pale cream steering wheel. The front seats show their age, but for a 53-year old car that has covered just shy of 100 000 km, they are still in a remarkably good condition. As might be expected, the rear seats are in fine shape, too.
I run my hand along the side window’s wooden frame to the smooth wooden dash. I cannot help but appreciate the craftsmanship. The wood beneath the windscreen has lost some of its colour owing to sun exposure, but apart from that, it still looks near perfect. Forgive the cliché, but they really do not build them like this anymore.
This classic, straight-six, Mercedes-Benz saloon is mechanically sound and fully operational – the attention to detail invested in it when new has not been lost. For example, the distinctive way in which the doors close... The owner says with a smile that I should be able to recognise this sound no matter what. He closes the door and with a double-click noise, it shuts. Nothing else sounds quite like it. He surmises that the doors on this car still function as its maker intended partly because they still have the original rubber seals, a feature that is usually at the top of the "to do" lists of most classic cars.
Spread across the shallow dashboard is an array of levers and organ stop type controls – I didn’t expect so much inside a car of this age. The first thing I notice is the tick-tock sound of the rectangular clock. To the right of it are levers that operate, among other things, the interior lights, the choke and the headlights. There is even a cigarette lighter on top of the dashboard. Clearly visible through the steering wheel are the horizontal speedometer, odometer and water temperature gauges, and amazingly, the dual-zone ventilation controls date back to 1959 and still work! Yet, arguably the most impressive thing about these controls is that they all feel sturdy and of a high quality when pushed, pulled or turned.
As there is no gearlever connected to the floor or the transmission tunnel, there is a lot of space at the front of the cabin. This gives an even roomier feel to the interior’s lower half. It also means that, if required, you can accommodate three people on both the front and rear benches, making this car a six seater!
Behind the wheel
If you are not used to column shifts, it might take a few minutes to adapt to the Ponton’s. The thin and elegant shifter is on the left of the steering column, first gear a firm push up, followed by a pull-down action for second gear. The shift action feels mechanical but in line with the rest of this Mercedes’ drive, which demands driver involvement.
In my opinion, the best feature of the lot is the chromed indicator spoke in the middle of the steering wheel. Connected to the steering wheel’s centre by the Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star, it is uncomplicated to use and adds to the relaxed experience of resting your hands on the two spokes. Although it doesn’t self-centre, it is a real pleasure bringing the chrome spokes back in line with the steering wheel’s spokes using just your fingertips. There is no clicking sound when the indicator is used, only a flashing light in the instrument panel and apart from a few, fine hairline cracks, the steering wheel doesn’t show its age, either.
Trundling through town, this six-cylinder Ponton, a predecessor of today’s S-Class, feels about the same size as a modern E-Class and with its slim A-pillars, visibility is good. Although the steering (not power assisted) is heavy to operate, you have enough leverage to complete any everyday manoeuvres thanks to the steering wheel’s surprising size, Mercedes’ figures stating it requires four turns lock-to-lock.
Heading to less congested roads, the 2.2-litre, straight-six’s torque becomes the real player. From 80kph – and already in fourth (top) gear – you press the throttle and surge forward in a respectable manner. As part of the German autobahn network was already in place by the late 50s, the Ponton is known as one of the first cars that could happily and safely run close to the magical 100mph (160kph) mark, and maintain it over some distance.
The ride of this well-kept 220S surprises with its smoothness, most of the bumps seemingly absorbed by your seat rather than the suspension. Over slight undulations it will absorb the initial bump followed by the springs in the seats for that typically floaty, classic Mercedes-Benz effect. And it was only through time spent out on the roads and driving this Ponton that I discovered the dip switch for the lights is foot operated, sited to the left of the foot pedals. Very functional indeed...
Full of Character
CAR magazine published a Ponton road test in September 1960. “It is comfortable and roomy, and from a purely driver’s viewpoint, most satisfying to drive,” it reported. “If not outstanding in any one aspect, it is probably as good a combination of sound workmanship, skilled design, efficiency and reliability for which German manufacturers are famous as can be found. Its price will appeal to family motorists to whom pride of ownership is as important as ‘getting there and back’”.
Some of these words still ring true for some of today’s Mercedes models.
Specifications – W108 Mercedes-Benz 220S Ponton
Engine: 2.2-litre, 6-cylinder, petrol
Power: 78kW at 5 200rpm
Torque: 172N.m at 3 500rpm
Transmission: 4-speed manual, RWD
0-100kph: 17.0 seconds
Top speed: 159kph
Kerb weight: 1 325kgYears produced: 1956-1959