Carl Benz

The driver On 29 january this year we celebrated the 130th birthday of the automobile. Carl Benz applied for a patent – certificate DPR 37435 – for his ‘gas-powered vehicle’ Motorwagen on that date in 1886 and set the world in motion. This important piece of paper is part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World, along with the Gutenberg Bible, the Magna Carta and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

Carl Benz installed a 954cc single-cylinder four-stroke engine in a three-wheeled chassis, which enabled the 0.75hp Motorwagen to hit 10mph. It was the very first, self-contained, self-propelled vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine.

The brand ‘Mercedes-Benz’ first appeared in 1926 and has long been synonymous with the best German automotive engineering. Mercs have been part of my motoring background since I was a boy. Growing up in South Africa, if you were The Man – no matter whether Afrikaans, Zulu or Xhosa – when you made it big, the first thing you had to have was a sizable Wabenzi. From cabinet ministers to wealthy shebeen owners, a Wabenzimarked you out and accorded you the respect no BMW could muster.

I can still smell my first ride, taken as an impressionable child, in a 1960s Mercedes-Benz 280SE: the square, Paul Bracq-designed saloon with the stacked headlights, model number W108. (I don’t understand Merc’s convoluted model numbering system. I once asked a head honcho at MB and he didn’t get it either!) I was intrigued by the vertical instrument cluster and the lovely padded steering wheel boss, with its central silver star. I remember the hard and bouncy seats and the fruity rasp of the exhaust. And, oh, the luxury of an automatic gearbox, as proudly enscripted across the bootlid. Gosh, we didn’t have an’automatic’.

The local ‘rich guy’ at the time would then bring his gleaming black-on-black Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster along to the Crankhandle Club monthly meetings, where all the other car guys treated it with hushed reverence. Usually we were allowed to climb into other people’s jalopies, but not this one. I never so much as touched it. Things got even better when another of my father’s friends brought his silver 300SEL 6.3 around (he was the head of Shell in SA, so could afford the fuel bills). Another first – a mighty V8 engine andautomatic gearbox. This was a true Wabenziwarrior.

Then things deteriorated with my first girlfriend. Her father had a 230E (W123). It was beige, dull but always immaculate. He was an accountant and his Merc was a whole lot less exciting than his daughter. But now time has passed I realise the humble 230E, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, is one of the best ever. Known as the Beirut taxi, it is beautifully built (engineered up to the highest standard, not built down to a price), totally reliable and virtually indestructible. I’d really like an engineering-grey 230E on steel wheels with those yellow French headlamp lenses, in left-hand drive. Maybe with a roof-rack, and most certainly an automatic. The perfect winter car – and entirely unlike the AMG Hammer you will read about elsewhere in these pages.

Hot Mercs have always been hilarious, ever since rebel engineer Erich ‘Wax’l’ Waxenberger shoehorned the mighty 6.3-litre V8 into an unsuspecting 300SEL saloon. It was a secret skunkworks project, and he didn’t tell the senior managers until it was too late. Needless to say the hot rod was signed off once the suits had a chance to drive it. This has evolved with those AMG boys, in a virtuoso display of that famous German sense of humour.

Again, back in the ‘good old days’, I experienced a sort-of-AMG. An impecunious student friend of mine inherited his mum’s old 280SE and he lunched the engine. In South Africa, when engines blew up, the perfunctory fix was to fit a small-block Chevy V8. The car was painted a feminine pale sky blue and wore standard steel wheels – he didn’t have the cash to rod it in any other way. But standing on the throttle pedal produced the most amusing results at traffic lights. He finally flogged it because he got tired of replacing the shredded rear axles.

A well-known South African billionaire (who also has a developed sense of humour) has a vast collection of classics and supercars, as well as a nondescript little C-class Merc. Dark blue, with modest alloys and tinted glass, his Merc has a mighty Brabus 6.0-litre under the bonnet – not that you’d notice until he whistles past you in his favourite WabenziQ-car.