“I took a drive in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The views were immense and wide.” If you don’t listen too closely, the first words of Karen Blixen’s best-seller can be adapted to this old car. In exactly the spot where her tragic love story with Denys Finch Hatton really took place. The day is going to be hot again. You can feel that already and it’s not even 8.00 am. Brenda, the maid, is baking sweet-smelling pancakes in the kitchen for the children, while the gardener is raking together the dry leaves. During their period of service abroad, German diplomats live in an official residence which includes their own staff, that’s just the way it is. Christian Resch is such a diplomat. He is the Deputy German Ambassador for Somalia. But since there is no embassy in Somalia, the smart man takes care of business from neighbouring Kenya.
Through the back door to the carport, past a brand-new gleaming white Nissan Patrol. It’s what his wife will use in a minute to take the kids to the day-care centre. Behind it, there is another car which used to be gleaming white, maybe, but now it’s just, shall we say, white. The 200 built in 1981 has taken some knocks over the decades. The countless previous owners always kept it running – but didn’t take care of it. The old boy from the glory days of the upper middle-range saloon class needs some coolant. Our destination for today: Lake Naivasha, a trip of 100 kilometres. The leisure and safari gear is next to the food box in the enormous boot which is a little porous underneath. But it’s holding up. “Hakuna Matata” is what the fun-loving Kenyans say, meaning something like “No worries” which, strictly speaking, indicates that there is a situation in which you could worry. But not today.
With a clack, Resch opens the massive door with the conical-pin door lock and sits down in the world of blue plush and clear lacquered natural wood. It’s still possible to feel the dream of every wealthy middle-class driver in the late 1970s; an old Mercedes-Benz keeps its stoic superiority for a lifetime. What’s that? Where is the steering wheel? Ah. Kenya is a former British colony, so they drive and sit on the right as they do in the kingdom. The man from Berlin had the blue dashboard carpeting made in Nairobi but not to protect the dashboard from the sun rays. Rather to cover up what the rays of sun have done to the dashboard in the last 35 years. He pumps the accelerator a few times, turns the key – and the powerful M 102 engine awakens harshly. A familiar, mechanical sound. A hearty pull to release the parking brake. Press down the clutch, shift into gear and off we go.
The Stromberg carburettor has just been adjusted by the resident mechanic and now it uses a mere 17 litres per 100 km. In the city. Which is not surprising because here, every 100 metres, high bumps have been set in the tarmac in order to keep down the speed of the commuters. Hakuna Matata. If you drive over these bumps at more than 20 km/h, you will lose both axles. Nairobi’s drivers approach at full speed, brake abruptly and then speed up again until the next bump. Premium-grade petrol is quite cheap in Africa. The African private vehicle of the diplomat was supposed to be robust, cheap, inexpensive and well used. The Mercedes-Benz meets all three criteria perfectly. Resch bought it three years ago from an Indian and what happened to it before that is apparent only in the paintwork. The tachometer broke at around 114,000. During a construction period of ten years, the W 123 model was manufactured over 2.7 million times as a saloon car, a coupé and an estate and in the first year of production after 1975, at the same time as the “Stroke 8”.
We continue on our journey to Naivasha. Past villas and slums, colourfully dressed people waiting for a bus, Massai with long walking sticks, and toothless corncob sellers. Protected by the letters CD (for “Corps Diplomatique”), travelling in Kenya is pleasant. If you are travelling without this immunity, the police, lurking everywhere, may well stop you, find something wrong with the car and then open their hand. That can be expensive.
But even without corrupt cops, the overland journey is still pretty risky in between ancient trucks, handcarts and moped drivers who seem to have a death wish. We occasionally dodge the odd giraffe majestically gliding along the bumpy road. The Daimler purrs while exuding such reliability that Resch has to nod his head in recognition. Without my persuasion, he would never have set off on the long journey to Naivasha. But why not?
We glide down into the valley of the East African Rift just like Denys and Karen did in Finch Hatton’s plane in the last third of the film. Thanks to the large windows in the Mercedes-Benz, the views are immensely wide. As far as the Ngong mountains. The soundtrack of “Out of Africa” reaches our ears from the iPod. We reach the lodge without breaking down once, of course. I sit on a stone on the bank of the lake and listen to the clicking noise of the old car’s engine cooling off. Life is somewhat simpler here close to the Equator. Behind us, the hippopotamuses snort, over us, the sea eagles circle. An example of German engineering in the midst of nature on the other side of the world. Maybe time passed over this old car unseen. Maybe a W 123 is the first positive step on the way to slowing down in an ever-faster paced Western world? No worries. “I took a drive in Africa.”
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They were tough, those daring young drivers on that famous rally, driving 1,000 miles right through Italy. Their cars were fast and expensive, and the cross-country route from Brescia via Ferarra to Rome and back again was brutal and complex. A lot of things have changed in this event since 1927. Today, the cars participating are still fast and expensive, but above all they are old. The route is still brutal and complex ... or isn’t it? Our vehicle is a 1991 400 SEL (W 140). The increased comfort is to be compensated by doubling the length of the route. 3,700 kilometres, or 2,312 miles, in four days.
Brescia! I only know it from the books about the Mille Miglia, and all of a sudden we’re there. A road book from 2008 takes us to the starting point of the historic rally. It is bucketing with rain. Eternally grateful not to be stuck in a 1950s roadster, we drive in silence with great respect for the true rally pilots. Rome! It’s lovely here, friendly, cheerful, teeming with people, and, well ... Italian! The eternal city hums day and night. A mild spring wind murmurs quietly between the green trees, and a few night birds boldly whistle their little night song. The next stage begins early, in front of the honourable mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian, who ruled in Rome only one human life later than a certain Lord Jesus Christ. The “Castel Sant Angelo” is a building equal to our Mercedes-Benz. Somehow, this car exudes a massiveness that gives its owner a vague feeling of eternity.
With the road book on our laps, we try to weave our way through the traffic of central Rome without touching anything. Mopeds and motorbikes whisk past dented cars, like wasps travelling at lightning speed. The W 140 seems to have an effect on the Italians like a jumbo jet that has made an emergency landing: occasionally they let us through with fearful looks! Mission accomplished. The tower of strength leaves the eternal city behind. In the hinterland between Rome and Siena the roads are a little wider, the houses a little lower and the traffic is, in comparison, non-existent. In little towns such as Ronciglione or Montefiascone the Daimler occasionally needs a little siesta so it can sweat off the engine oil that has spattered on the manifold. That needs mending soon. Also, it’s so lovely here that two grown men start romanticising unashamedly.
Mille Miglia! We tread in your historic footsteps with awe and childlike wonder at the beauty of Tuscany. Each stage seems to be tailor-made for the classic cars that are soon to roar through here. As if we were in a light sports car, my driver brakes before the bends, only to put his foot down hard on the accelerator again to press the V8, straining its rear tyres. Which react with smoke and squealing. Cool.
Is this the conquest of modern electronics over the inertia of mass? The thing is simply fantastic to drive. After a while, we have got used to the way the rear axle drifts away on tight bends between olive trees. We reach the plain ahead of Siena, laughing. This town is pretty but the drawback is that you are not allowed to drive cars through it. Which means we have to turn the great ship round, laboriously and grumbling, in between the crowds of tourists.
Florence. What looks romantic from a distance turns out, on closer view, to be a cramped renaissance town with narrow alleys that were built when nobody dreamed what a 400 SEL would be. Italy is too small for this car. The Arno and its banks are our destination. Here we discover a few parking spaces big enough for small coaches. At last, the supertanker comes to a halt, ticking quietly while the engine cools down. We have driven far enough for today! We don’t feel like looking for a hotel room. Now a little cheers to the rally, the lovely day and the warm evening! Hotel Sindelfingen! Good night, John-Boy. The space is lavish as usual and the old river gurgles comfortingly. It feels a little strange sleeping in a car in this buzzing city amongst all these strange people. But the local wine and good food are a fine nightcap.
6.30 a.m. The morning is cool and the town is asleep. Last destination: Maranello, a sparkling town around a car factory that manufactures small, fast and extremely expensive sports cars. Ciao, Firenze. And then ciao Italia, and off we head north again. In between old walls and spectacular countryside, on awe-inspiring roads in a huge car, we’ve had a taste of the distance of 1,000 miles across the country! That really is a lot of work for four days, even in a huge Mercedes-Benz. Respect for the drivers of the Mille Miglia, and after all our drifting around, respect for the cars, too – cars that are many years older than ours! Hamburg, 11 p.m. Without any traffic jams, tired and full of the impressions we’ve had. At the end of May, the “real” Mille Miglia will be starting in Brescia. Will you be following it? Maybe you’ll recognise a few of the locations.
Guest article: All statements in this article are personal opinions and impressions of the author and sometimes not of the Daimler AG.
South Africa. The southern-most country on the continent where the human race began. The mother country. A direct flight to the only metropolis situated in the middle of a national park. With around four million inhabitants, Cape Town is the second largest city in the country after Johannesburg. And a dream destination for generations. Even the landing approach to Cape Town International (CPT) airport is an experience: to the right, the turquoise-coloured ocean and on the left Table Mountain and Lion’s Head at the foot of which Cape Town is situated. Starting from here, I am going to drive through the Western Cape region for the next two weeks. Without a defined destination. Or to be more precise: without a defined travel destination. The aim: just to travel.
I have arranged to meet Marcus Hoelper at the airport; a German who earns his living renting classic Mercedes-Benz vehicles through his company Retro Rentals to tourists, photographers and locals. He is waiting with his 350 SE (W 116) in silver green metallic, but needs to leave soon for the next handover. So his instructions are brief: drive on the left, obviously. It’s a right-hand drive, of course. “Have you ever driven on the left?” “Yes, yes, I’m an England fan and I’ve been to India.” “Good. The spare wheel is in the boot. Oil too. Please check the coolant regularly. Any more questions? No? Fine. Then have an exciting time. Have a good trip. See you in two weeks.”
So here we are; the 350 SE and I. I take a good look at it from all perspectives. Its lines: clear. In contrast to modern bodies, the surfaces are of an almost simple structure. Chrome trims, aluminium, the baroque wheel rims, the wonderfully discreet colour – all that gives it a sovereign and elegant, almost glamorous appearance, even after 38 years. I stow away my suitcase in a boot the size of a cellar and go to the driver’s door … oops, that was the front-passenger door. So over to the driver’s door, I sit down in the armchair-like seats and adjust the mirrors. And start the V8 engine which snarls distinctly for a moment and then turns over rhythmically and almost without vibration. Indicate right and our adventure can begin.
Nelson Mandela Boulevard, M2, leaving Cape Town. Past Woodstock. Palm trees waving in the wind remind me of the flailing hair of the hippies during a Janis Joplin concert. The V8 is the rhythm section. A monotonous humming sound, only interrupted by short solos consisting of aggressive snarls when overtaking. The accompanying theme: the rustling of the palm trees in the wind. I pass the exit at Stellenbosch on the left. Maybe I’ll drive to the Winelands later. For the moment, I’m enjoying the smell of freshly burnt stubble from the fields. A pleasant barrique flavour hangs in the air.
Close to Strand, I take the R44 in the direction of Betty’s Bay. On the left the steep mountains, towering up into the heavens. They rise up from the turquoise ocean on the right. In between runs one of the most beautiful roads in the world, which they have named the Whale Coast Route. Spacious beaches, devoid of people, black flags with sharks drawn on them. On the horizon, far beyond the Atlantic blue, you can make out the Cape of Good Hope and the Twelve Apostles in the haze of the day. See you soon, Cape Town.
Baboons squat by the side of the road. The older ones gaze stoically towards the cliffs. The ocean doesn’t seem to be their thing. But it is mine. I drive on, mountains to the left, the ocean to the right. After days of sand and sea, of white and turquoise, I am drawn inland. There are many vineyards and fruit plantations and a lot of brown, barren landscape. From the top of the Tradaouw pass, the road is steep down to Barrydale. Putting the automatic into “N”, the downhill race can begin. The 350 SE starts rolling. And gets really fast. The tight bends allow a maximum of 120 km/h. A brief speed rush. And then I arrive in the valley: back to “D”. Drive and dream at around 70 km/h. I drive for what seems like an eternity without seeing a single soul. The road shimmers and my thoughts clear.
“Rise early,” I was advised. While the valleys are still dark, the highest peaks are just being caressed by the first light of the day. To the left lies the Swartberg Pass in the direction of Prins Albert. Gravel. The whole way, uphill, downhill, gravel. For 27 kilometres. Birds are standing aimlessly around on the road with dassies dozing next to them. Gemsboks are startled because usually no car drives this way at this time. The last clouds are disintegrating above the mountain range. The sky is nothing but blue from now on. It is cool up here. It’s an archaic mountain landscape, rough, barren, brown and black only, untouched. Of a simple, almost overwhelming beauty. Zigzagging steep bends, sometimes bordered by stone walls, sometimes with nothing. And then again and again, there is the view. It must be one of the most enchanting roads that man has ever built.
In Prins Albert, I treat myself to a copious breakfast as the sun comes up. Afrikaans houses from the 18th century decorate the main road of the cosy, small town. Before setting off back, I drive to the only fuel station. Here in Africa, the following rule applies: always start your journey with a full tank, with enough oil and with at least 5 litres of water. So, back to the Swartberg Pass.
At Eerste Water, a river with crystal-clear, cold mountain water, I have a break. The freshwater crabs as big as a man’s hand and the many small fish which are endemic to the region show no reaction to my feet in the water. Driving uphill, I drive straight into the sunlight: the star on the bonnet seems to melt into the grey-coloured gravel. I’m enjoying every moment.
All statements in this article are personal opinions and impressions of the author and sometimes not of the Daimler AG.
The “Gallery of Names” presents vehicles of famous individuals, such as Pope John Paul II., Lady Diana, Emperor Wilhelm II and Konrad Adenauer. The largest exhibit is the O 302 team bus of the German national football team from 1974, while the smallest object is the Daimler motorised road car of the Sultan of Morocco from 1892.
Since April 2017, the new room has enriched the permanent exhibition with vehicles of Lukas Podolski, Cro, Nicolas Cage, astronaut David Randolph Scott and globetrotter Gunther Holtorf.
In 2015, the musician Cro, famous as the rapper with the panda mask, transformed a CLA into a work of art. By the free-hand use of spray cans, touch-up pencils and paint, he created a unique design in Street Art style, which is now on show at the Mercedes-Benz Museum.
German national footballer Lukas Podolski bought a SLK 55 AMG in September 2006 – just after the football World Cup in Germany, in which the host country finished third. In terms of optional extras, the footballer opted for such features as the AMG Performance package.
An expressive 190 E 2.3 was purchased by the actor, film producer and Oscar winner Nicolas Cage in February 1993: The black vehicle with AMG Drivers Package also boasts dark-tinted windows at the sides and rear. The original Mercedes-Benz cassette radio is still part of the extensive equipment specification.
The 190 SL of NASA astronaut David Randolph Scott, who in 1971 became the seventh human being to set foot on the moon, is in its unrestored original condition. He bought the elegant roadster on 2 March 1959 from new and owned it until August 2004. The 190 SL was unveiled in 1954 along with the 300 SL “Gullwing”. The two cars established the tradition of “SL standard production sports cars”.
A total of 897,000 kilometres in 215 countries: that is the impressive record set by the 300 GD of globetrotter Gunther Holtorf, who used “Otto”, the affectionate nickname given to the off-roader, for 26 years as an expedition vehicle. In doing so, he realised one of the brand’s advertising promises: “Where there’s a G, there’s a way.”
Space for the new additions will be made by four vehicles that will then be available for other purposes in the Mercedes-Benz Classic collection:
the 24/100/140 PS Roadster (1926) of Oscar Henschel, a 190 SL (1958), the 190 E 2.3 AMG (1984) of Ringo Starr and the ML 320 from the movie “Jurassic Park” (1997).