The road to Jerusalem with the Mercedes-Benz 170 V.
A wild dragon named Smoky.
After only the first kilometre of its test drive, the Mercedes-Benz 170 V, series W 136, was puffing out smoke like an angry dragon. “We were so excited about having our own that we had forgotten to top up the water.” Rudolph Meindl remembers. “That’s how the car came to be dubbed ‘Smoky’. It wasn’t to be the last time that the young lads, automobile novices all, would push Smoky to the limit. “We drove him to extremes, and as a result he drove us a long way!”
A roadmovie with happy end.
With daring drives through stony deserts, being arrested, having to go to hospital – and a happy ending – the journey in question has all the makings of a good road movie. It all started one day in July 1963, when 21-year-old Rudolph Meindl and his buddies Herbert Walter, Fritz Bachinger and Harry Demuth were sitting in a bar in their home village of Kirchanschöring in the Traunstein district of Bavaria, planning their summer holiday: driving to Jerusalem in their own car!”
Having been raised as devout Catholics, this was our big goal”, explains Meindl, now 70. The bar owner was listening in and offered the adventures his 1947 Mercedes-Benz 170 V for 250 deutschmarks.
Admittedly, it wasn’t just a valid vehicle inspection certificate it was lacking, it didn’t have any tires either – but no problem! Since Rudolph’s father Lukas was the founder of the Meindl shoe company, new tires were quickly organized. “My father always drove Mercedes-Benz cars. He was a frugal man, but every nine years he bought himself the latest Mercedes-Benz car”, says Rudolph Meindl.
But Smoky still needed an inspection certificate. “In fact we got a vehicle inspection report from the head of the local registration office – but no disc for the license plate! He sent us on our way with a wink, saying we had to sort that out for ourselves.” The lads drove to a scrap yard, cut a vehicle inspection disc out of an old license plate and affixed it to their Smoky.
“I hope the offence is statute-barred by now”, chuckles Rudolph Meindl. For safety, the friends parked the car just the other side of the border, near Salzburg. “There was still no inspection test system in Austria at that time!”
Four friends. 5,500 kilometres. One Smoky.
And so the four young men – full of thirst for adventure but a little apprehensive too, and with little technical understanding of the Mercedes-Benz – set off on their journey east. A distance of around 5,500 kilometres to Jerusalem lay before them. “After just 150 kilometres, on the first steep hill in the Gastein Valley, Smoky started having problems again.” Four men, their luggage, ample supplies of food and a guitar on the roof, as well as two spare tires – one each side – fastened by rope near the windshield, were too much for Smoky. “Two of us got out and waked up the hill, and Smoky managed the rest, thank goodness.”
Soon, however, the rear shock absorbers were completely worn down, and the engine was showing serious signs of the onset of decrepitude. To avoid further burdening Smoky’s rear axle, from Slovenia onward two of the four friends travelled up front on the fenders, firmly ensconced as in a deck chair. “After that we couldn’t go faster than 60 km/h.”
In the idle run through Göreme.
But the 16-year-old Mercedes-Benz 170 V was still thirsty for gasoline: around 17 litres per 100 kilometres. Funds were limited, with each of the four having 500 marks to their name. More money would be needed soon – and the intrepid travellers didn’t shy away from getting it: “Giving blood had saved the day previously on our hitchhiking trips, and it did the same this time.” However, Rudolph Meindl and one of his friends developed jaundice after arriving home. “At least we had some money again though.” To save on gasoline and make life easier for Smoky, they drove from the highlands of Anatolia through Cappadocia at night by coasting down the numerous zigzag roads.
Together with other rock sites, the area around Göreme – famous for its bizarre “fairy chimney” formations, rock-hewn churches hollowed out of rocks and subterranean towns – was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. The adventurers must have had a guardian angel watching over them on their travels. “We were scarcely round the first rotary in the valley when the steering just went! The hardy disk in Smoky’s steering column had broken. Had this happened in the mountains, we wouldn’t be here to talk about it.”
Adventures aside, the journey was a cultural one too, taking in Sofia in Bulgaria; Edirne, Istanbul and Ankara in Turkey; and Aleppo, Homs and Damascus in Syria. And finally they reached Jerusalem, where they stayed a week, visiting the Via Dolorosa, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Wailing Wall. Then Baghdad was calling, but getting there involved driving through stony and sandy desert – and completely finished Smoky off!
Game over. They promised a passing truck driver the jack and tires if he would tow them to the police station on the Syrian-Iraqi border. “We hadn’t noticed that we had driven into the heart of the Kurdish region, already then a trouble spot.”
A giveaway Mercedes-Benz.
Which is why the tourists were keen to get out again quickly. But what was going to happen to the clapped-out car? “My father had signed a document and deposited 1,000 marks with the customs authorities as a security bond to ensure that we weren’t exporting the vehicle illegally”, explains Meindl.
“So we gave away the car to the Iraqi government, who issued us with a certificate with which my father was later able to reclaim his money.” No sooner was deal done than Smoky was cannibalized. Nothing but memories were left of the Mercedes-Benz 170 V.
Thumbs up for the journey home.
The four adventurers, on the other hand, still had a considerable journey ahead of them. They were guided through Syria to the Turkish border, where the Turkish police, too, were cautious. “We were under house arrest for four days, until I was able to telephone the German embassy. They wanted to avoid negative headlines, in case – as Germans – anything should happen to us.”
Finally, the homeward journey began, but without Smoky this meant hitchhiking again. The 1,500 kilometres to Istanbul were no problem. Then Harry had to go to hospital. “I stayed with him, while the other two continued on their way home”, remembers Rudolph Meindl.
A noble chauffeur.
At the Greek-Yugoslav border, he could hardly believe his eyes. “A Mercedes-Benz 220 Coupé pulled up right next to me.” The driver, a count from Frankfurt, was returning from vacation with his wife and was captivated by the adventurous Rudolph Meindl. “He gave me a lift. I can picture it all to this day: the steering-column gear shift, the ivory-coloured steering wheel – a magnificent car!”
In Belgrade, Meindl managed to infect the Count with his spirit of adventure: “He delivered his wife to a five-star hotel and spent the night with me in the park under the open sky!” That was a bonding experience – and so, eight weeks after setting off in the old 170, Rudolph Meindl returned to Kirchanschöring in a Mercedes-Benz 220 Coupé, complete with aristocratic chauffeur.