In a few garages in the Southern Cape we uncover a very impressive Mercedes-Benz collection… and a collector with a problem.
This collector has a problem – he’s been running out of space for a few years. When his main garage was filled to capacity, he erected a purpose-built triple-gable structure that houses the oldest three vehicles in his collection: a 1913 Benz 10/30hp, a 1938 W142 320 and a 1935 W23 130.
The German carmaker has longstanding ties to the Republic, having built cars in East London, on the country’s south-east coast, for both local consumption and export since 1958.
An avid marque devotee, this collector can trace his first motoring memory back to the tender age of 2, “My father had a late-Fifties Mercedes 219 Ponton – I remember it to this day. We were on holiday driving over the Prince Alfred’s Pass, towing a caravan. Back then you still had to get out and open gates every so often.”
That experience clearly left an impression on him. In addition to his expansive road car fleet, he also owns several commercial vehicles and a vast model-car collection. “My aim is to have a scale model of every production Mercedes, plus race and show cars.”
The start – 1965 300 SEL Fintail
This collector set out to buy a Ponton as his first classic Mercedes, but came home with a Fintail. “I planned to drive the car every day, so when I saw the Fintail next to the Ponton, I figured the slightly more modern car would suit me better.” Arriving in 1996, a few years after he had finished studying and begun specialising in radiology, the Fintail laid the foundations for his collection.
“Back then I didn’t quite know the difference between all the models or the technical details, so I didn’t care too much about which Fintail I bought. I bought this car without realising that it is actually the long-wheelbase model, it has air suspension and the 300 engine. From here onwards my passion really took flight.
“The plan was to drive it every day because I live only a few kilometres from the office, but I soon realised it’s not a car you’d want to drive every day. It’s still in the condition I bought it in – I haven’t done anything major to it. It once stood for six months and then the air suspension gave in. I sent the necessary suspension parts to the US to be repaired and since then it hasn’t given any trouble. It’s lovely to drive!
“A few years ago the Mercedes-Benz Club of South Africa hosted a Fintail get-together at the Gariep Dam. I couldn’t believe it when a fellow club member turned up with the exact same car; after all, in terms of Mercedes-Benz numbers, not many 300SEL Fintails were manufactured, a total of 1 546.”
1963 (W111) 220 SEb Coupé and 1935 (W23)
“I found this 1963 W111 220 SEb Coupé, my second classic Mercedes, up north in Pretoria. The owner was about to get married, so I assume he needed the money. What’s interesting about this car is that it came with two rear sports seats, which were optional. The car was in fair condition when I bought it in the late Nineties, but I decided to have it modestly restored in 2000.”
The work, which included a full respray, was completed by Andre du Toit, renowned throughout South Africa for his restoration skills. The collector says that after he met Du Toit, his collection snowballed because he had found someone who could help him with restorations. Next he restored Scribante’s 1935 W23.
“The fact that the W111 is a manual makes it quite enjoyable to drive, because the contemporary automatics feel slow. The leather seats are still upholstered in the original material, but we had to redo the wood on the inside.”
1913 Benz 8/50PS
“The 1913 Benz was my third Mercedes. I saw it advertised in a newspaper as part of an upcoming auction but I was on holiday on the day of the sale, so I sent my brother-in-law to buy the car on my behalf. This was around 2000. There were many Bentleys and Rolls-Royces in the lot list; most bidders came for those and hardly anyone showed interest in the Benz, so I got it for a good price.
“The car was in a relatively good condition. Even though the Benz had been in South Africa since the Thirties, at one stage it had been scattered in pieces around a backyard – but fortunately enthusiasts built it up again. The restoration included a new cloth roof and an overhaul of the 2.6-litre engine.”
The early life of this 1913 Benz is shrouded in mystery. On the left-hand side of the car a brass plate states that the body was manufactured by Carosserie H Buhne of Berlin. After conducting some research, the collector discovered that this company was only founded after World War One, meaning it must have been rebodied relatively early in its life. Could it have been that the car was used during wartime and needed refurbishment?
The collector jokes that the car is not his any more, “It now belongs to my wife! In February 2017 she entered a rally solo; I taught her how to drive it a few days before the event and off she went!”
A year of persuading – 1938 (W142) 320
Unlike the 1913 Benz, the 1938 W142 320 was a complete body-off-chassis restoration. “I heard that this car was standing on a farm in Delmas, outside Johannesburg. The owner’s grandson phoned me to ask about the estimated value of the car because there were two other grandsons and apart from this Mercedes, a Bentley and Jaguar had been bequeathed to them as well. I told him I wanted to buy the car but it took a year of persuasion before he agreed to sell it to me. He finally called when I was on holiday and said he needed the money for the farm.
“The starter motor was missing, but otherwise the car was complete. I subsequently had it stripped down, and the 3.4-litre straight-six was opened and new rings were installed. There was a lot to do elsewhere; most parts had to be cleaned and overhauled. Currently it feels as if the one cylinder’s compression is not correct. Maybe it will get better over time but the question is, do we take it out and open the engine again or just send it to Germany to have it fully rebuilt?”
Research led him to a German enthusiast who runs a club for W142 owners. As it turns out there are only 11 cars known to survive – there were 13 examples, but two were converted to cabriolets. Another discovery was a stash of pictures that show the car attending club meetings as far back as the Seventies.
The elusive saloon – 1960 (W121) 190 Ponton
As we walk into the main garage we pass an eclectic blend of saloons, coupés, cabriolets and even an ambulance. After a wait of more than two decades he finally bought a Ponton, a late model – a 1960 W121 190. “It belonged to a previous club member who offered the car to me when he decided to sell it. Before owning this, I hadn’t driven a Ponton saloon. I also own the 1956 180D Ponton pick-up, which a few years ago on a 300-km drive with other Pontons from the club. There are still a number of things that need attention on the car, but it is virtually complete. I’m not a big fan of concours cars... I drive and use them all, so many of them have things that need to be sorted.”
Universal appeal – 1968 W111 230 S Fintail Estate
“A few years ago I decided I wanted to add a Fintail estate to the collection, but they are quite rare. A contact informed me that he had found an estate body for me in the UK, so I bought it immediately and imported it. Fortunately, it came with some interior parts at the rear of the car that were unique to it. Then I found a perfect engine in a matching-numbers 1967 W111 230 S Fintail saloon. This car was in a really good condition – and some club members were quite upset with me – but I took it apart and used it to build the estate. The result is now a 1968 W111 230 S Fintail estate, also referred to as the Universal, with the full seven-seater configuration.”
The keeper – 1970 W111 280 SE 3.5 Coupé
After sharing anecdotes of sourcing his two 600 Grossers and finding solutions to the challenges of keeping them on the road – “parts take time to import plus there’s only one specialist in the area and he’s very busy” – we come to his favourite car in the collection, the W111 280 SE 3.5 Coupé.
“If I had to choose one car that I’d never sell this would be it. Of all the cars I own it’s probably in the best condition and has the lowest mileage. Apparently a guy bought a building in Cape Town, and when he went into the underground car park he found it left there. He obtained the title and eventually it ended up on a specialist’s showroom floor. I was just about to head into the bush when a friend phoned me and said the car had gone on sale.
“I knew the car was in a good condition, so I didn’t waste time and clinched the deal telephonically. The car has only around 41 000 km on the odometer plus it hasn’t been restored, which is rare these days. It really is a lovely car to drive and one of the best cars I own for the open road. It has air-conditioning, is extremely relaxing behind the wheel and has a decent amount of power, offering 150 kW from the 3.5-litre V8 engine. This powertrain is also perfect for grand touring on the most beautiful roads we have in South Africa.”
Indeed, he likes to drive all of his cars regularly, low-mileage or not. He recently drove the W111 all the way to Cape Town during a two-day 800-km road trip. “Other than he W111 I’d choose the 1913 Benz to keep, but I’m only allowed to pick one, right?”