• Two Stroke Eights return from a brief overland outing.

    In the star-studded village.

    In the small Croatian municipality of Imotski, the density of Mercedes-Benz vehicles is higher than anywhere else in the world. But why? We drove to the Dalmatian highlands and found the answer: it’s a love story.

    Text: Jörg Heuer | Photos: Alexander Babic

Unique magic.

To explore the magic of the Mercedes-Benz village, it’s best to fly into Split. Upon landing in this Croatian town on the Adriatic, we pick up a rental car. One with a star, of course. That will make things much easier later on. We drive around 80 kilometres through the Dalmatian highlands in a south-easterly direction. Not far from our final destination, we start encountering an unusually high number of Mercedes-Benz vehicles. New cars, used cars – and a noteworthy number of classics, young and old. And the closer we get to Imotski, the more stars of bygone eras we see. And not just on the tarmac, either. They’re in the fields, the meadows and even in the vineyards. Did we miss a classic car rally, or is there perhaps a period drama being filmed here? No, this is just a day like any other. A Friday. Everything is just like it always is. And that’s exactly the point: it’s Imotski’s little secret.

Blue Lake on the outskirts of the town is one of Imotski’s most impressive sights.

Wonder of nature: Blue Lake on the outskirts of the town is one of Imotski’s most impressive sights.

Clerical classic: priest Ivan Turić is frequently on the move in his 280 SL.

Clerical classic: priest Ivan Turić is frequently on the move in his 280 SL.

A priest in a “Pagoda”.

With a little luck, the first person you’ll bump into in Imotski is Ivan Turić (78). He’s the town’s priest, who is normally on the roads of his parish in his 280 SL Roadster from 1969. The gold-coloured Pagoda with its automatic transmission and its almost magical patina make for the “perfect work vehicle”, explains the priest with an appreciative glance at our rental car: “Pagodas and the curved roofs of these temples from the Far East are like gateways to heaven. Isn’t that beautiful? But why are there so many Mercedes-Benz cars here? Well, they didn’t fall from the sky, that’s for sure!”

A nonchalant lifestyle.

The two-seater hardtop with light-brown leather is his “ favourite star”, but not his only one. In the priest’s garages, you will also find a 280 SL (R 107) and a 450 SLC (C 107) – all from the 1970s and 1980s. Are you a happy man, Monsignore? “Yes, I think I am. I have a weak spot for beautiful, aesthetic things, and Mercedes-Benz is simply the king of the road. In my eyes, the Pagoda is a rolling masterpiece,” says the holy man clad in black with a wooden crucifix around his neck.

With “God bless Mercedes” and a smile on his face, the priest drives on, leaving us looking on in astonishment. The next star-spangled moment is just around the corner when we meet a group of Imotski’s residents in front of their family home: Ivan Topić (53), owner of a small construction company, his wife Ružica (52), a self-employed hairdresser, daughters Matea (19), studying to be a teacher, and Ana (21), a law student, and son Mile (23), studying archaeology.

Mercedes clan: The Topić family in front of their house in Imotski. They own 13 classic cars.

Mercedes clan: the Topić family in front of their house in Imotski. They own 13 classic cars.

An “elixir of life”.

All around the house are the family’s vehicles. They are the answer to the many questions we have. Historical Mercedes-Benz vehicles are about “lifestyle”, they are an “elixir of life” and the “expression of a certain nonchalance”, explain the daughters, mother and son, drinking an ice-cold cola on their terrace. The sun is shining and there’s a mild breeze in the air. How many Mercedes-Benz classics does the family currently own? “Thirteen. A few ‘Stroke Eights’ and SL models, as well as a G-Class model. Twelve of them are in drivable condition, and one is currently being restored,” answers Ivan, visibly proud.

Men with a Mercedes-Benz.

Imotski is home to 8,000 people. And there are roughly the same number of Mercedes-Benz vehicles registered in the star-studded village. The town is surrounded by the Blue and Red Lakes – which are regarded as the most beautiful lakes in all of Croatia – not to mention vineyards and steep rock faces. It is also where Croatia’s World Cup football stars Ante Rebić and Ivan Strinić come from, as well as the place with the greatest ratio of Mercedes-Benz vehicles per capita in the world. There’s a special reason behind the fact that there are as many people here as there are Mercedes-Benz cars: at the end of the 1960s, many men – Ivan Topić’s father included – left the structurally weak region to serve as so-called “guest workers” in western Europe, in many cases in Germany.

The recruitment agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and the then socialist Yugoslavia was settled in October 1968. With the wage as a tradesman, car mechanic, builder or waiter, the guest workers kept their families above water.

And when they returned back home from their work locations, they brought their trophies with them: their Mercedes-Benz, a symbol of success in a foreign country. A symbol of their hard work. “And also of their excellent taste in cars,” points out Ivan Topić with a smile.

A heart of cocoa can be found elsewhere – here the cappuccinos are decorated with the Mercedes star.

Cocoa star: a heart of cocoa can be found elsewhere – here the cappuccinos are decorated with the Mercedes star.

Cappuccino with a star.

In Imotski, he explains, there was apparently even an unwritten rule that no one should return without a star on their bonnet. And that’s how the Mercedes-Benz brand became the status symbol of many of the families. Grandfather and father alike have long since passed on their passion for Mercedes-Benz to their children and grandchildren. And much more than that: the cars in which the youngsters learn to drive these days, or those that the fire brigade or even the funeral parlour use, are almost all from the Mercedes-Benz brand. During some friendly football matches, the centre circles of some local pitches have been known to have a Mercedes star in place of the kick-off spot. In the cafés, bars and restaurants, cappuccinos don’t come with a cocoa-powder heart as they do elsewhere – here they come with a three-pointed star.

Large cult following of the brand.

And when the bells start ringing at the church ahead of Sunday mass, many of the religious residents turn up in their freshly washed and polished Mercedes-Benz classics. An everyday occurrence and totally normal. In Imotski, at least.

“Yes, there is a large cult following of the brand here. We associate it with so many positive emotions,” says Ivan Topić, who is also the president of the local classic car club. By the way, do you actually have to own a historical Mercedes-Benz in order to become a member? “You don’t really have to,” answers the president casually. “But I would recommend it.”

Driving to church in a classic car on Sundays.

Tradition: driving to church in a classic car on Sundays.

The Topić family – father, two daughters and son – at the café in the village centre.

Chilling out: the Topić family – father, two daughters and son – at the café in the village centre.

A brand with emotions.

What’s his personal favourite among the vehicles? “Our astral-silver metallic 240 D 3.0 from 1974, five cylinders, 80 PS.” He has a special emotional connection with this car, he explains. His father, who went to work on building sites in Germany, bought the car at the time. It was brand new and he financed it with a credit which he paid off in two years. His father died six years later, but he had previously promised his son that he could have it. And Ivan Topić has already promised his son, Mile, will have the Stroke Eight one day too. And his own son should in turn inherit the vehicle. At least, that’s the plan.

“Back to the roots.”

“It’s an unwritten rule of our family,” says Mile with a grin. “This isn’t just any old car. It’s a piece of family history. But not one which should be locked away languishing in a garage. We drive it around a lot. It’s just fun.” A close friend of the Topić family and a Mercedes-Benz enthusiast himself, Mirko Perkušić (68) left in 1968 to work in Germany along with many other youngsters his age, he tells. Once there, he worked as a painter and decorator. He was 18 years old at the time. He worked in Karlsruhe and later in Switzerland, and only came back to Imotski three years ago. “Throughout my life, I’ve only ever driven cars from Mercedes-Benz, and have owned 27 of them,” says the repatriate. The first one, which he acquired as a young man living in Germany, was a black 180 D ‘Pontoon’ from 1956. Today, he drives the same model in the same paint finish. “Back to my roots,” he explains. “Already as a young man, I really fell in love with this model series.”

So old love never dies? “I’m the living proof of that,” he answers. Be it for his shopping or his doctor’s appointments, his trip into town for a cappuccino with a star or a visit to the 4,000-seater Gospin Dolac stadium when NK Imotski are playing, Mirko Perkušić always takes the Pontoon. “It’s not just my wife that I’m married to,” he sums up in amusement. “I have a special relationship to my car too.” At the weekend, Ivan Topić happily drums up a few people for an outing. There’s a lot of heart and soul put into these tours. They are simply part and parcel of life in Imotski. For example this Saturday: 22 Mercedes-Benz vehicles from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s glisten in the sun. Mirko Perkušić is ready in his black Pontoon, as too is the priest in his gold-glinting Pagoda, while the Topić family have their Stroke Eights and G-Class model lined up at the start.

On the outings, the ladies serve hearty home-made fare.

Refreshment: on the outings, the ladies serve hearty home-made fare.

Outing with some tasty treats.

The tour starts as a convoy through the winding roads and tracks. And during the breaks at rustic locations with beautiful views, the ham, bread and mountains of meat taste especially good. All prepared according to age-old recipes. That’s the tradition whenever there are meetings of kindred spirits here. “Why do my whole family and so many other residents of our town drive only Mercedes-Benz?” asks Ivan Topić. With a smile, he looks into the group of like-minded people. The answer comes almost tenderly from the mouth of the big, burly chap: “It’s a love story.”

Image gallery.