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The road to hell

Buying on an impulse: 1962 Mercedes-Benz 180c (W120-Series)

27/05/2013 05:53 |  Comments: 

Editor-in-chief

The guy behind the idea of the English-language Totalcar site, the totalcarmagazine.com, also serving as an editor at the Hungarian totalcar.hu , our mother site. Serial collector of sorry old things that have internal combustion engines in them, as a newfound religion, Zsolt is keeping a family under the terror of rust. Being in the business for the best part of the last 19 years, he landed at Totalcar after serving at a huge round of printed automotive magazines. Has a wife, two small(ish) children and a pet rabbit.

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  • Mercedes-Benz 220 D (1973)
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It’s deep winter, the car is 50 years old, and it’s parked up in a Swedish garage almost 3000 kilometres away from my house. I’ve just sent a letter to the owner that I’m embarking on the journey to his place to buy it. And it’ll have to get home under its own steam. Damn…

Let me start with an apology – I just wanted to get a nice birthday present for my beloved wife. And if you ask me how I ended up sitting behind the wheel of a half-century old Mercedes that wouldn't fire up, with all this taking place in a small Swedish village just a jump away from the Arctic Circle, but 2700 kilometres from home...well, I can't recall it. But there and then I just had a few minutes to decide whether I'm paying for it or not. To make things worse, my wife and my boss were both standing by, eagerly waiting for my answer...

Okay, this needs some explanation. See, I spent my early childhood years – four of them in total – in Baghdad, Iraq, where my father was doing some export-import business. That went on from 1968 to 1972, and while flying home to Hungary for the summer vacations each July, we had to make a transfer in Beirut. Now, that's a fantastic place, and it was even better before all that devastating war, so my parents usually pinched off a day or two to stroll around, do some shopping, refresh themselves a bit after the dusty and backward Baghdad.

At the time Beirut was full of Mercedes Ponton taxis (a nickname due to their novel unitary bodies that resembled pontoon bridges). For a car-frenzy kid like me, the equation was simple: Ponton = Beirut = a fantastic place. And those potato-shaped cars were considered to be old even then, which really added to their value in my eyes. But we never took a taxi like that we just walked , instead. And although our Arabian neighbour in the Mansour district of Baghdad also had a Ponton, and we were really good friends with him, I never got a chance to ride that one either.

I have had lots of old Mercs since then, W115's, W123's, many of my friends put their grimy hands on Fintails (W110-111's), old S-classes (W108's), but I never, ever got a chance to sample a moving Ponton, even from the passenger seat. And since it was one of the greatest romances of my childhood, I started to become more and more drafted into owning one.

But a Ponton is a horribly complicated car and its chassis members didn't get any rust proofing from the inside, so even nice-looking ones can secretly crumble like Morris Marinas. There are 27 greasing points in a Ponton's suspension and drivetrain, and if these are neglected, they will be certainly worn out. And to repair these is incredibly expensive because of the number and the quality of the pieces they are built up from. To buy a car like this is risky beyond imagination, even if you find a specimen that seems to be intact.

In the last twenty years I had almost bought three wrecks at different times, but I was always luckily pulled back from the edge of the cliff by my sober friends. But when I arrived on this grey car on E-bay, I didn't have the slightest inclination to buy a Ponton. In fact, I wanted to purchase that old Fiat 500 for my wife, but the value of these little lawnmowers went up so much that they started to reach into Mercedes 200-series (W115) territory. After some mediation my wife blurted out, “Although I love the Cinquecento since I had one ten years ago, we would be much better off with a classic Merc that we have also been missing for years. And the whole family could fit in that, don't forget.”

So I started to hunt for a nice 220 diesel on the internet. And after days of doing so, I stumbled on this one, a car that wasn't from 1972, but ten years earlier. It was just like the Beirut taxis of my youngest years, a smog-grey 180, made in 1962. The price was really low, and the bidding was to end in three days on the German E-bay. But there was a slight problem with its location. It said: Domsjö, Sweden. That's the other end of Europe. A frantic search followed, cars in this condition would cost around 7-10 thousand Euros in more central parts of the continent, but I had a suspicion that Germans will not be making high bids on this one, because they aren't crazy to travel 1000 kilometres for a grey Ponton under such harsh conditions. But I felt stupid enough to travel 2700.

The owner wrote in the description: “good engine, good suspension, beautiful interior, brakes renewed, engine renovated, no rust, bad paint”. I had a little less than 5000 Euros for the W115 Merc, so I set the limit for this car at 4500 Euros. I got the nod from my wife and – while we were having a birthday party for my son – I had a sweaty five minutes of Saturday night bidding at the computer.

I got back to the beloved ones utterly relieved. My bid didn't reach the hidden limit (Mindestpreis nicht erreicht), thus I saved a huge amount of dough for the family. By Sunday, all the excitement was over. Since the price of these Pontons keep crawling upwards, I sadly accepted that the last chance of owning the childhood dream car was gone. Then, in the evening, I got a letter from Sweden. “I saw your bid go to 4500. I wanted 6000, but for 5300 you can collect the car in ten days. Later I will be gone for a longer time”. No, buddy, you're not dragging me into this, I gave up the case, sorry – I thought.

All my colleagues knew what I'd been up to, so on the Monday meeting they were all ears. The negative answer seemed to surprise them; they really thought I would buy it. My boss and the deputy ed sat down with me for a talk after lunch. “Listen, I'll lend you the missing money, so that you can embark for the car right away,” said the latter. “And I'll find sponsors who'll fund the trip to Domsjö and back with the two cars, take that as a present from the company, because this story is worth the money,” added the former. We had a quick glance at a Domsjö web camera on the computer – it was like a scene out of a Jack London novel – then consulted the Google map. Yep, that's 2730 kilometres. It sounded crazy enough, so I wrote the letter of approval to Sweden. “We're coming for the car, thank you.”

Trailing the Merc across Europe was out of question – where is the story in that? It had to come home under its own steam. Some correspondence followed in which we settled that the car does drive, it's got proper brakes, wipers, lights, and the engine is sound. But we learned that there are summer tyres on it, whilst winter wheels are obligatory in Sweden up to middle of spring. And the vendor also wrote, “It is impossible to drive a car of this age to any length now, no matter how good it is. You must come with a trailer,” he added.

We are not so safety-oriented in Hungary, our threshold is a bit higher, so we'll see...

There was a week to find the sponsors and a test car with a boot big enough for all the rescue stuff we were to take along. Not accepting to be left out of this amusement, my boss wanted to come. We needed our colleague, Sipi to bring his service plates along for the Ponton. And, although I more or less service my cars myself, a somewhat better-trained mechanic also had to come along – my long-time friend, healer of thousands of old Merc's, Karesz (“caress”) was chosen. In the meantime I tried the winter wheels of my wife's Baby-Benz on a friend's 1959 190 SL undergoing a restoration, and they fit perfectly – how nice it is that Mercedes forgot to alter the dimensions of the wheel hubs of their cars since the middle of the 1930's. Winter tyre problem solved.

During the week of preparation my wife also started thinking, because she wanted to be the first who sits in the car with me. So she turned the internet inside out, and within two days she found a really cheap offer consisting of a plane, a train and a bus ticket (Malmö, Sundsvall, Örnsköldsvik). “See you in Domsjö, I'll call you!” she said, placing a farewell kiss on my weary face at three A.M. on the Friday morning we started.

We got an Insignia 4x4 Wagon for the journey from the Opel importer. The car was fine, it really had a soothing ride, ventilation was perfect, traction great, it munched up the distance like an ox heading to the Wild West pulling a cart. But its luggage space wasn't impressive at all, even though it is a big car by European standards. I stuffed a tow rope, a starting cable, a spare distributor cap, contact points, and a pulley belt in the spare wheel well, and one of the Mercedes winter wheels also travelled there. What about the Insignia's, you might ask? Well, we left that one at home.

But when I put the remaining three wheels, the hydraulic jack, the battery from my everyday car and the toolbox in the boot, there was hardly any space left. I had to plan for lengthy repairs at the side of the road in deadly minuses, so my bag of clothes didn't end up being too small either... And I there were three more people to pick up with similar heaps of stuff.

Our first thousand kilometres passed with some repackaging at every stop. My boss, Tibby wanted to drive, Karesz has a tendency to panic fits, so he also had to sit in the front. Thus the rear seat was left for us to share with Sipi, with about five bags separating us. Due to this, he was the person I saw the least during the trip. I don't want to go into details how we lost more and more time - after lots of high-speed driving, a ferry boat ride, crossing Denmark from south to north, we ended up in Copenhagen at 2 A.M., in an old fort functioning as a cheap hotel.

We woke up in the proximity of the Östersund Bridge, and within an hour we were treading the roads of Sweden. This is an endless country with a 110 km/h limit on the highway... We almost went crazy by the time we reached Sundsvall in the night. By that time we had been driving between huge walls of snow for hundreds of kilometres, and it was impossible to imagine that any classic car, be it even an old Volvo Amazon could survive in such an environment.

But I had the last letter from the vendor on my computer: “If you have already driven in Swedish winters as you said, and you really are bringing the winter wheels, I can't stop you from doing what you want. The car is driveable; it even has a fresh licence”. I started to get disheartened at this stage. I was risking almost all the spare money of my family. What if the car turns out to be a hopeless piece of crap? And one more issue: there were already about 100,000 Hungarian readers reading our online commentaries, waiting with white knuckles if I'd be crazy enough to buy the car. I couldn't let them down.

I had decided long before that if the old Mercedes will seem to be driveable to any extent, I'll buy it, and the rest is my risk. A Ponton Merc has a value of about 15-24 thousand Euros if it's nice, so I wasn't expecting to find an unmolested Pebble Beach case for the fourth of that. I just kept repeating to myself what the vendor wrote: no rust, no rust, no rust... Well, if there is no rust on an old car and the interior is as nice as it was on the pictures, the rest can be corrected in a few months, I surmised. But believe me, I was damn nervous. I had had about 35 old cars up to that time, so I could sense the weight of risk I was taking. And this car was much older than any I had bought before. Well, almost...

The sun was shining, the snow was sparkling, and everybody was in a great mood. Only my hands were sweating. If I had had my way, I would have started squeaking like a mouse. Instead, I called my wife. “Hi Kati, where are you?” I asked as if it was a normal Sunday and I was searching for her in the supermarket, not 2700 thousand kilometres away from home. “Between the road connecting Övik and Domsjö, I'm walking on the banking,” she replied.

In three minutes we found her – that really was a moving moment, but I don't want to get too sentimental, let's say it was good to see that we're in this together. It took 15 minutes of reorganizing to have all of us and her suitcase on board. Ten minutes later we were standing in front of the garage with the Swedish owner. The door opened, a grey rump and some pitted chrome trim appeared. We've arrived.

But things turned difficult in the coming minutes. I opened the doors to see how the body shapes up. No red spots anywhere, just some flying rust here and there with solid metal beneath. I slid under the car, but everything was covered in thick, fresh goo of black underbody sealant. Nothing to see here without some serious scraping. Not knowing any better, I did what I've wanted to do since I was about three – I eased myself on the edge of the seat that was as springy as the old couch in my grandmother's living room, slid behind the huge, black steering wheel (broken in four places around its perimeter), pressed the clutch (squeak), grabbed the column stick (wobble), and tried first, second, third, fourth and reverse.

Then I turned the key. The array of small instruments came to life, their little needles sprang to attention and a few small lights flickered. Choke, three steps on the accelerator, starter button. “Womm-womm-wommmmm-uhh...,” said the Merc, not feeling ready to play our game. The battery was pretty much flat.

After unpacking the Insignia and creating a really East-European flea market scene on a tidy Swedish driveway, we installed my own battery. The starter motor turned, the engine coughed, but it wouldn't catch. Karesz lit a cigarette, and to the horror of the locals, he disappeared under the bonnet and got to work on the carburettor and the ignition. We couldn't see him, but saw the smoke seeping from the engine bay and could just hope that it wasn't the car on fire.

After an incredible amount of swearing, spilling lots of petrol down the throat of the Solex (and some around it), repeated pushing of the starter button, another cigarette and even more swearing, the engine suddenly erupted with a controlled, but loud growl. The exhaust was leaking, that was apparent. And I also discovered some suspicious body sealant at the bottom of the A-post. I pressed it, and I could hear the crumbling of some material under the big patch of silicone rubber that must have been steel. A few decades earlier, maybe.

I had a sinking feeling in my stomach – the car had terrible, I mean really terrible paint, sprayed on without any preparation, and starting to flake everywhere. That area around the bottom of the A-post certainly needed welding. The driver's seat was sagging. The steering wheel was broken. There was petrol flowing from the top of the carburettor, and the starting procedure had been a nightmare.

But the body – apart from that suspicious area at the base of the post – seemed sound and unmolested, the engine was purring beautifully, it was taking the revs easily, there was absolutely no smoke coming from the tailpipe. The brake pedal was firm. And if I did not count the driver's seat and a broken Bakelite window surround, the interior looked really nice. All in all, it might have been worth 5300 Euros. If there was nothing more to come, mind you. But we had 2700 kilometres to go, and with a car as old as this, there is one rule: there are always heaps of problems which you never see when buying. 50 years is a lot of time for doing some serious bodging.

This was the moment when my beloved boss stuck the camera in my face, pressed the REC button, and in a devilish voice, asked: “Zsolt, are you buying it, are you buying it? There are 100,000 readers waiting for the answer! Are you happy? You'll be on the internet in half an hour!” I could have punched him in the face. In these serious, decisive moments one would like to be left alone with his thoughts, to be able to bring a well-weighted, manly decision, taking into consideration the readers' spirits and expectations, but at an equal measure the near future of his wife and two small children as well. And then an idiot comes into the picture and spoils the whole thing by sticking a Panasonic through the window.

I took the car for a short round, and it...well, it seemed to work, although all the heating cables were either disconnected or broken. An alarming sight, since the temperature was around -10 degrees Celsius at noon. At least the heater fans (there are two of them in this car, one for each side) worked. But believe me, I felt like being rowed down the Styx river by a man wearing a long black coat and a cowl over his head.

Death couldn't have been worse than that. Oh, did I mention that I bought it? Yes, I did. I just had to drive it home, but I'll cover that in a later article. Believe me it wasn't like walking the red carpet.

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