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Less than 250 kilometres of unpaved rural roads covered in 14 hours and buying petrol from a chemist in a remote village.
This might sound like an excerpt from Bertha Benz’s infamous drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim in her husband Karl’s Patent-Motorwagen back in 1888, but actually records two memorable aspects of one day on a journey through the Andes some 130 years later.
This seriously tough route was taken by Dutch-born New Zealand residents Fred and Elisabeth Smits, as part of a transglobal journey the couple has been tackling for the past seven years.
Fittingly, though, given the similarities to Bertha’s pioneering trip, the car they’re driving is indeed a Mercedes-Benz: a 1957 220S. And their experience is all thanks to C&SC…
The couple’s adventure was inspired by our June 2011 issue, detailing ‘101 Ways to Live the Classic Dream’.
Fred was on his way to the USA for work and bought a copy to read while in transit.
Just two years short of retirement, he had been mulling over a classic adventure when item number 82, ‘Drive across the USA from coast to coast’, caught his attention and soon had him reaching for his telephone to call his wife from the airport lounge.
“This is what we should do when I finish work,” he enthused.
Blasting some 4800km in an old car across the breadth of a country on the other side of the globe is perhaps a radical idea to the average aspiring retiree, but the Smits are far from average.
They had travelled extensively for work and pleasure over the previous five decades, and were old hands at classic-centred adventures, having already racked up close to 70,000km in ‘Abel’, as their saloon is known, touring New Zealand’s scenic North and South Islands.
The prospect of driving from coast to coast took on an added magnitude after Elisabeth headed out the morning after Fred’s call to buy a Lonely Planet edition for North America, but accidentally came home with one on South America.
Fred’s reaction? “Oh well, we might as well do that part of the Americas too, then!”
Seven years and more than 180,000km over some of world’s toughest roads later, they’ve exhausted that guide book.
And several others, too, thanks to an epic journey that took them across the Americas and a chunk of Europe before the pandemic put their travels on hold.
The Smits’ passion for old cars kicked off 21 years ago when the last of their three children left home.
They had settled in Pinehaven, Upper Hutt, after emigrating in 1985, and in the years that followed, Fred, now 72, worked as a geotechnical engineer in the marine environment while Elisabeth, 71, was a carer for children with special needs and the elderly.
In 2001 they found themselves contemplating life as empty-nesters.
As Fred recalls: “I asked Elisabeth,‘So what are we going to do together from now onwards?’” Elisabeth’s reply was emphatic: “Buy ourselves a vintage car!”
Cue the acquisition of a 1929 Willys-Overland, affectionately known as Mrs Whippet, which has taken the pair on numerous rallies and become a much-loved fixture at their local car club.
Elisabeth’s suggestion wasn’t a bolt out of the blue. She had harboured a desire to own an old car after a stint as an au pair in the UK in the early 1970s.
“My host family had a collection of pre-war Alfa Romeos and David, the husband, loved to take his young au pair for rides through the countryside,” muses Elisabeth. “It got me hooked on vintage cars!”
Quite some baptism: the David she refers to was the late David Black, a noted pre-war Alfa collector.
The Mercedes-Benz 220S ‘Ponton’ was purchased just a year on from the Willys-Overland’s arrival, after the couple realised that they needed something capable of more extended tours.
The choice was influenced by Fred’s upbringing.
“My father drove one when I was a boy and we toured Europe in it, so I have fantastic memories of these cars,” he explains. And the name?
“That was inspired by the ‘AB’ prefix in its registration and Abel Tasman, the first European to ‘discover’ New Zealand – and who, fittingly, was also Dutch – in 1642.”
With its powerful six-cylinder engine and sturdy construction, Abel was the obvious choice for their adventure, which rapidly took on transglobal proportions as the Smits got behind the idea.
Preparation kicked off just three months after that inspirational issue of C&SC went off sale.
First came a thorough mechanical overhaul – including an engine rebuild – for Abel, and the fitting of a towbar with which to haul a fold-out trailer-tent.
The latter purchase was a compromise: Fred wanted to camp under canvas, but Elisabeth wasn’t keen on a nightly routine of poles, pegs and a blow-up mattress.
It turned out to be a hugely successful solution.
The glassfibre trailer is light and compact, but its tent ‘top’ can be erected in less than 20 minutes, although the couple have had it up and water-tight in just three minutes.
It features an extendable kitchen and a chemical toilet, and provides a fixed base for a bed.
The work on both the car and trailer was completed by day; by night Elisabeth spent many hours researching to establish their needs: maps, visas, carnets du passage and vaccination requirements for the 32 countries on their route were just some of the considerations, along with budgeting and shipping arrangements.
With their home rented out to subsidise their travels, the couple loaded the car and trailer into a container bound for the USA in May 2014.
The aim was to kick-start the journey with that coast-to-coast drive across America.
Along the way they took in the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and the Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials, where they acted as pit crew for a friend who had entered an electric motorcycle.
“We were the only people there without long hair and tattoos,” laughs Fred.
From Utah, the Smits headed to Colorado, tackling Monarch Pass – a heady 11,312 feet above sea level – while other standout moments included the Grand Canyon and driving a large part of Route 66.
But crossing the deserts and high-altitude areas in the depths of summer put a strain on Abel: “We were constantly battling with vapour lock in the fuel system.”
Insulating the fuel lines helped, but the issue persisted, often scuppering their plans: “We wanted to drive up Pikes Peak [14,115ft], but Abel had other ideas that day.”
The problem was only eradicated much later at Daytona Beach, Florida, when the couple hired a lock-up so they could remove the Ponton’s exhaust manifold for coating with a heat-resistant ceramic finish.
“We also installed an electric pump with a return line to the tank to keep the fuel circulating,” explains Fred. “We never had another problem, even in 45ºC heat.”
But Abel did have a different ongoing issue, with its rear axle.
“It was one of the first independent designs, but it is a real weakness,” says Fred. “Mercedes changed it for the model that followed.”
Pulling a 750kg trailer put it under extra strain, as the Smits found out when the differential stripped a tooth on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee: “We were motoring along and suddenly there was this loud noise at the rear.”
Fixing the pinion would involve the first of four rear-end rebuilds for the car to date.
From the south, the Smits took in the Daytona 24 Hours before travelling up the east coast, making a detour for a snap of Abel in front of the White House, then heading on to Canada.
Three weeks later they were back on the US west coast when Abel’s axle played up again after a universal joint failed, damaging the differential casing.
A replacement was sourced from Maine but, unbeknown to Fred, it was slightly bent, which altered the wheel geometry.
“Just 5000km later the back tyres were shot,” he laments.
Abel’s appetite for rubber wasn’t the only issue: the Californian climate was making the interior stiflingly hot, so the Smits decided to give the body a white wrap to offset the effects of its black paint.
“After that, the car was 12-15º cooler inside on really hot days,” says Elisabeth.
It was welcome relief as the pair headed to Mexico, where news of their travels – the duo had by then acquired more than 1500 Facebook followers – would have a hand in shaping their trip.
“We stopped at a Firestone dealer and a guy thrust his phone into my hands,” Elisabeth recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve been following your trip online and you must speak to this person.’”
That person turned out to be one of the organisers of the Carrera Panamericana road race, the modern-day take on the trans-Mexican enduro that ran from 1950-’54 to showcase the country’s new Pan-American Highway.
“He invited us to take part in the 2015 rally as guests of honour,” says Elisabeth. “We were given pole position for the start at Tuxtla Gutiérrez.”
It was the couple’s first taste of Mexican hospitality, and the Smits soon fell in love with the country.
“We enjoyed Mexico so much that our planned five-week stay ended up being a year,” explains Elisabeth. “Before we left New Zealand we had enrolled in two winter courses in Spanish, and we also spent time studying the language as we travelled.”
This fluency in the local lingo certainly came in handy for the onward journey.
From Mexico, the Mercedes crossed into Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and then El Salvador, although the Guatemalan border guards initially refused to let the couple leave without their trailer, which had been put in storage so they could tackle the mountainous terrain.
When they attempted to cross into Honduras for a second time, they had another brush with the law.
“We relied on the wisdom of our GPS to get from Chiquimula to Copán, but it took us to an unmanned border crossing,” says Fred.
Not wanting to fall foul of the authorities, the pair retraced their steps, only to find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun – or rather six guns.
“The road was blocked by two armoured vehicles from the Guatemalan anti-narcotics force, and six troopers jumped out with their automatic weapons,” says Fred. Evidently the unmanned border is popular with drug mules.
By July 2016, Abel and the trailer were back in a 40ft container, this time from Veracruz, Mexico, bound for Cartagena, Colombia.
The passage took three weeks, which the Smits whiled away by touring Cuba.
It wasn’t the only break they took from their beloved Benz: the couple visited the Galápagos Islands and took a voyage to the Weddell Sea, off Antarctica.
Three months in Colombia followed the Cuba trip, before they set course for Ecuador and Peru.
From there, the adventure continued into Argentina and Brazil, where Abel’s odometer – which had been zeroed at the start of the trip – hit the 100,000km mark.
A stint in Uruguay followed, before heading back to Argentina and over the Andes to Santiago, Chile.
And there Abel ’s rear axle again cried enough, which was hardly surprising considering that it had criss-crossed the Andes a total of nine times. Salvation came from Mercedes-Benz itself.
“The head of Kaufmann – Chile’s only Mercedes dealership – offered us his facilities,” explains Elisabeth. It was just the garage, though, because the couple did the bulk of the spannering themselves.
And they didn’t hold back.
“We spent six days a week there for three months, refurbishing a lot of mechanical and electrical parts,” adds Elisabeth, who isn’t shy about getting her hands dirty.
Trawl through their 200-plus social posts and you’ll find snaps of her overhauling the brakes and re-installing needle roller bearings in the rear axle’s sliding yoke. By mid-May, Abel ’s rear end was sorted.
And that was just as well, because the route back to Colombia over the following four months involved some seriously rough roads, including the PE-3N from Cañón del Pato to Cachicadán, Santiago de Chuco, in Peru – the route that proved so tough they emulated Bertha Benz’s pace by covering just 247km in 14 hours.
“The road winds around steep mountains with drops of hundreds of metres without guardrails, and parts of it are washed away,” explains Fred, who counted 38 single-lane tunnels as they climbed more than 4000ft. “I had to adjust the carbs several times, too.”
Adding to the treacherous environment was the fact that locals occasionally sabotage the road with hidden bumps and by removing drain covers, as the Smits found out.
“Of six covers in one village,” recalls Fred, “one had been removed, but I didn’t spot it.”
The result was touch-and-go as Abel’s rear suspension bottomed out, and the car had to be jacked up to be extracted from the hole.
The drama continued when the Smits later had to move the remnants of a landslide by hand, then ran out of fuel.
Thankfully, like Bertha 130 years earlier, they were able to buy some from a chemist, albeit at an exorbitant cost, as Fred recalls: “We bought 62 litres at $4.63per litre!”
That day was just one of many extraordinary, if harrowing, mountain-pass experiences before they made it back to Cartagena, from where Abel was once again loaded into a container, this time heading for Felixstowe, England.
The couple spent eight months touring the UK and The Netherlands before the onset of COVID-19 scuppered their plans.
Fate had dealt them a kind hand, however, because an issue with their travel insurance had prompted a return to New Zealand.
“We had to come back to take out a new policy,” says Elisabeth, “and soon after we arrived home the world changed.”
With its borders shut and a low infection rate, the island nation was one of the best places to be holed up while the world locked down.
This meant the Smits didn’t need to shelve their travel plans, just adjust them: never ones to sit idle, they put Abel into storage in The Netherlands and overhauled their 1989 Mitsubishi camper, before adding nearly 25,000km to its odometer touring New Zealand over the past year.
With life returning to normal, the Smits hope to be reunited with Abel later this year and plan to head for Eastern Europe.
“During the Communist era it wasn’t possible for us to visit those countries,” says Fred, who’s also keen to see Iran, Turkey and the ’stans.
They also hope to visit Scandinavia and North Africa, too. After that, there are no firm plans, apart from ultimately an aim to take Abel back Down Under, touring Australia on the way home.
Assuming, that is, they don’t get inspired by another article…
To follow Abel and the Smits’ ongoing journey, see facebook.com/ClassicStrider
Images: Elisabeth & Fred Smits/Luis Alfredo Domínguez Hazbún