The one I should never have sold

| 9 Sep 2011

Had a rather nostalgic e-mail earlier this week from a mate of mine in my native South Africa. It wasn’t so much what Georg wrote, but the picture he attached: a shot of a Mercedes-Benz fin-tail that myself, he and another good friend – Lindsay Stewart - have always regretted parting with.

The snapshot was taken in the Mitchell’s Plain area of Cape Town after Georg – his mates call him Org – spotted the car by chance in the traffic. Now a fin tail Merc might not sound exotic enough for three grown men to have bouts of seller’s remorse over, but this was (or should have been) a keeper.

Resplendent in ‘shikhaki’ (a self-explanatory label – if ever there was one - for its mid yellow/brown colour), this majestic old Stuttgart saloon was a one-family-owned car, bought new by a minister of the Dutch Reformed church in the then-prosperous southern Cape farming town of Bredasdorp.

Those were the days when church ministers were expected to make a statement on the roads, much like doctors and barristers (remember that old advertising ‘director’s car’ strapline that sounded so impressive, but meant nothing apart from that the car was likely to be ‘full house’?)

What made the 230S special was that it was utterly original. The odometer on the trademark ribbon speedo may have gone round the clock, and the paint may have been thin from years of polishing, but the car still looked good while. Also Merc’s ‘built up to a standard, not down to a price’ mantra meant everything on it worked as well as the day it rolled off the assembly line in East London (that’s South African East London!).

The doors closed with that factory trademark Chubb safe-like thunk, that later Mercs failed to emulate, and the switchgear operated with a lovely oiled, mechanical precision, even after four decades on harsh African roads. And the generously proportioned leather seats, stuffed with horsehair, were as comfortable as a favourite armchair.

The old fin-tail was equally sound on the move; the lusty twin-carburettor 2.3-litre ‘six’ emitted a gorgeous sound as you worked your way through the gears on the column shift.

With oodles of torque, she could take on Cape Town’s Hospital Bend on De Waal drive in top, four and, one time, six up (when Lindsay took his extended family on an 800km tour of South Africa’s garden route.

He was the first to own it back in the late 1990s, before he emigrated to Scotland, after which it was in my care. Sadly, my tenure only lasted a few months before I also moved to these shores, and the Mercedes was bought by Org.

Not long after, Org went travelling, too, and the 230S was relegated to the classifieds, disappearing into the heartland of Africa’s Mother City for years until it was spotted earlier this week.

Despite owning some great classics since (including a one-owner Citroën DS23 Pallas) Org has always regretted selling the Mercedes, while Lindsay and I have often reminisced about great trips in the car – which is why the e-mailed picture was so heart-warming.

What’s more, Org got more than just a photo: he flagged the owner – a Mr Virgo - down to find out if he’s got any plans to part with it. “Never” was the reply!

Evidently, the old Merc is still purring perfectly and is very much his pride and joy. What’s more all the neighbours talk about Virgo’s ‘parliament’ car whenever it cruises by. Proof that it’s still a suitable motor for a minister!