Mercedes memories

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An Editorial in a contemporary about Denis Jenkinson’s one-time Giro di Hampshire, in the carefree 1950s, using my road-test cars in the dead of night, recalls some memories.

The gullwing 300SL Mercedes-Benz he upended we had taken on test down to Land’s End, averaging better than 56 mph over roads covered in places with snow and with many lorries to pass, and including a stop for petrol. From Land’s End we set off on an equally quick drive up to Fort William. Whereas the E-type Jaguar was a near 150 mph car which was surprisingly docile in traffic, the 300SL impressed as more of a man’s motor-car, although a maiden aunt (why are aunts and district nurses regarded as inveterate crawlers?) could have driven along in top gear at 700 rpm with no problems. I remember that the drum brakes of this 300SL were not up to the impressive performance and that the left-hand driving position was a slight embarrassment on British roads.

Thus, when I swung out for a better view approaching a narrow bridge somewhere on Dartmoor, and gave way to a Ford Zephyr coming towards me, its lady driver apparently thought the Merc wasn’t going to stop and she ran into the parapet. I remember, too, the subsequent exciting run in the dark, pouring rain, and a gale, from Glasgow, when Michael Tee, the Guv’nor’s son and my photographer, averaged 54 mph under these adverse conditions. We had rung our hotel from Glasgow, to ask whether dinner could be kept for us. On arrival at Fort William, with the 300SL “pinging” outside as its exhaust system cooled down, we went to book in. “Sorry,” said the proprietor, “but I am expecting my last guests in about half-an-hour. They rang from Glasgow and as a driver I know how long that will take.” Outside, his car was parked — a Morris Eight. . . !

I remember that we did over 135 mph on a bit of arterial road and how 126 mph was almost commonplace. Then Jenks borrowed RYT 28 for his nocturnal “dice”. I had promised to return the car early on the Monday morning and when Jenks was late re-appearing with it, I was not exactly pleased. “Bod”, he said “come and look at it.” “I don’t need to,” I replied, “I’ve had it for ten days!” When I finally relented I saw that there was considerable off-side damage, caused when DS1 had hit ice and gone off the road. I told him he had better take the Merc back himself, for I knew accidents were not popular with this then very fast car, because insurance premiums had been rising. It was fortunate that I did, because at first the Service people began to suck their teeth and look decidedly petulant. Then they peered at the driver and said “Why, weren’t you the chap who navigated Stirling Moss to that great Mille Miglia victory last year?”

After which, all was sweetness and good humour . . . By then I had been a Mercedes advocate for a long time. It all started when, aged 14, with the impetuosity of youth. I had written a letter to The Autocar suggesting that the right way to supercharge a car was to blow air through the carburettor (I never have claimed to be an engineer). Mercedes-Benz saw a possible customer and had an invitation for a trial run forwarded to me. I went to the London showrooms wearing my school cap and produced it. The salesman inquired if the letter had been written to my father. “No”, I responded, “he was killed in the war” — tactless perhaps, in this German stronghold . . .

He went to consult the Herr Manager. I was peered at for a moment, but not an eyebrow was raised. If I would wait for a while a demonstration Mercedes would be sent round, for me to experience. It turned out to be a 36/220 tourer, with a driver in a chauffeur’s cap at the wheel. He headed for the Barnet Bypass, where the traditional blower whine was produced and a top speed a whisker below 100 mph was seen on the speedometer. Bliss, for a keen schoolboy! From that day onwards, I was “sold” on everything Mercedes. The classic victories by the big green Bentleys at Le Mans naturally impressed. But in later times, after I had road-tested so many Mercedes-Benz for Motor Sport, I came came to regard these as the best-engineered cars in the world. Even though I accepted that a Rolls-Royce was the World’s Best Car. . . (Autocar & Motor has come to the same opinion, I note, quite recently).

It wasn’t just the cars; it was the efficient in which Mercedes went about everything it did. I remember being told by the late Laurence Pomeroy, when he was Technical Editor of The Motor, that before the war Mercedes used to send him free tickets for the Berlin Motor Show, and I think Lufthansa Air tickets as well. I inquired about this at Stuttgart later on and it was explained to me that it was known that Pomeroy’s father had designed great motor-cars such as the 30/98 Vauxhall and the Daimlers used by the British Royal Family, “We did not know whether the son would follow the same profession, but in case he did, we wanted him to be aware of what Mercedes-Benz had accomplished,” they told me. So for me, as perhaps for “Porn”, the three-pointed star was in the ascendant!

I remember how, after the war, Prince Urach, who had suffered under the Nazi regime, had been appointed to look after foreign journalists and motoring writers who visited the Mercedes factories. On one of our calls at Stuttgart he took us to dinner in the then-new Television Tower, an ordeal for me, who cannot abide lifts. But eventually they got me to the elevated restaurant and it was then that another facet of Mercedes magic materialised, which I have never fathomed. Urach couldn’t drive, so he used a chauffeur-driven car. After Michael Tee and I had declined a night club, we came down in one of the restaurant lifts, to find people outside fussing about, trying to find their cars or their drivers. Not us! Hardly had we emerged than side-lights lit up away in the car-park and our host’s Mercedes slid to the kerb.

Did its chauffeur watch for us, never taking his eyes off the foyer, for several hours, or was some secret message used to tell him he was wanted? I wish I knew.. . In going round the Stuttgart factory we would use “slave” Mercedes, which were dotted about just for this purpose, available to any senior employee who needed transport.

I remember how we were taken to inspect the then-new test-track. Nothing was using it, although waiting cars were lined-up, their drivers having a chat among themselves. We enquired why this was. It transpired that the track had been closed so that we two reporters from an English monthly magazine could monopolise it. A small courtesy; but so typical of Mercedes-Benz. On another occasion we were to take a test car from the Stuttgart works and drive it through the winter night to the Geneva Show. As we were leaving my passenger asked innocently whether it was insured for him to drive. “Sir, if you can tell me of any civilised country where the insurance for any driver is invalid, I would like to know.

Furthermore, you will find maps in the cubby-hole, together with a note to the German Police which might just get you off a minor traffic transgression, there are telephone numbers of M-B service depots en route, and as it looks like snow, the chains have been put on the spare wheels in the boot,” came the confident reply. It was all so Teutonically efficient! Indeed, it prompted me on a similar occasion, when we were about to take away a road-test BMW for a long haul and I was told I would have to wait for twenty minutes or so while a flat battery was replaced, to tell the Bavarian PR that his publicity was first-class but not quite up to Mercedes standards. “How so?” “Well,” I said, “if we were at Stuttgart the problem would not have been revealed. We would have been told they had overlooked one item we had not been shown and if we would just spare a little more time. . .” Mercedes-Benz cars never broke down, let alone had flat batteries!

Say I am biased, if you like. But the same near 100% efficiency was apparent in the way Erik Johnson and his knowledgeable German lady secretary handled Mercedes publicity in this country, in my day. Moreover, I had seen the quite astonishing way in which Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union approached motor racing just prior to the war, at those never-to-be-forgotten 1937 and 1938 Donington Grands Prix — and never mind that Auto-Unions driven by Nuvolari and Rosemeyer won them both (see THE MOTORSPORT BOOK OF DONINGTON). Then there was the way in which we journalists, under the eye of engineer Ulenhaut, were allowed to drive one of the first 300SLs at Silverstone, and how a 600 limousine was produced at short notice for a Motor Sport photographic feature. Long before that I had seen Earl Howe and Sir Malcolm Campbell racing their SS Mercedes Benz at Brooklands and competing with them at Shelsley Walsh.

After the war I had a drive in the late Peter Hampton’s fabulously-restored 36/220 with the later “Elephant” blower as used on the racing 38/250s, and took the ex-Campbell 36/220 from the Midland Motor Museum at Bridgnorth to Brooklands and up the Test Hill, also using it to show Lynda Chalker, MP, what was left of the old motor course. Mark you, I think that 300SL Jenks pranged had a sense of humour. When I was taking it home to Hampshire, where I then lived, I came rather too swiftly into Frimley and a policeman at a road-check by the bridge signalled me to stop, which I just managed to do (those drum brakes — discs came later). So I leant over and released the off-side door-catch — and the gullwing shot up and caught him under the chin. He was very good about it, and sent me on my way. Arrived home, there was Jenks, who went off for a preliminary canter — and there at Frimley Bridge the same policeman was still on duty!

More recently there have been those wonderful Brighton Runs on Roger Collings’ versatile 1903 Sixty (now in America), twice getting in before every other veteran, and with which we celebrated an anniversary of Jenatzy’s Gordon Bennett race victory with the same type of Mercedes, by driving his car more than 300 miles in the day. I remember, too, when I did other Brighton Runs on Mercedes-Simplex and Benz Spider cars, how they were brought from Stuttgart in two huge Mercedes-Benz transporters towing equally vast trailers, which were parked unmolested overnight on “double-yellows” outside Kensington’s Grosvenor Hotel. And how, when the battery of the Benz became exhausted during the Run, the DB mechanics had a fresh one to hand before we had halted. It goes without saying, that it fitted correctly and we were able to resume within minutes. . . All in all, Mercedes-Benz is, for me, THE premier marque. And today the company’s PR officer, Sue Colby, is as helpful as her predecessors. W B

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