220S Coupe Ready for the Grand Tour

David Van Duzer, Gary Anderson
Joseph Robinson
What is it that causes a particular person to appreciate one specific make and model of automobile above all others? In my case, I have loved the ponton-bodied 220S Coupe built by Mercedes-Benz from 1956 to 1959 for many years. Since 2006 I have been the proud owner of a beautiful 1959 example that I purchased in Seattle.

Ready for the Grand Tour

This refined 1959 Mercedes-Benz 220S Coupe elegantly embodies the height of sophisticated postwar luxury

ARTICLE  David Van Duzer, Gary Anderson

IMAGES Joseph Robinson

 

What is it that causes a particular person to appreciate one specific make and model of automobile above all others? In my case, I have loved the ponton-bodied 220S Coupe built by Mercedes-Benz from 1956 to 1959 for many years. Since 2006 I have been the proud owner of a beautiful 1959 example that I purchased in Seattle.

 

Elegance and engineering

 

There’s no question where my own appreciation for that make and model came from. My father was a car guy all his life, and when I was young he frequently pointed out interesting cars to me – including examples of the then-rare Mercedes-Benz – when we were out riding together in his car. He wouldn’t own a Mercedes-Benz himself until later in life, but he did spark my awareness of the brand. It is no surprise that I acquired my first one while in college.

 

As a third-year architecture student at the University of Virginia, I was working diligently to hone my understanding of line and proportion, and could see the excellence of both in the 1958 220S sedans owned by two of my classmates. I also quickly learned to appreciate the quality of the engineering underpinning the elegant design of these vehicles.

 

By selling my 1954 Chevy and racing bicycle, I was able to raise the $395 the Charlottesville Mercedes-Benz dealer was asking for a tired 220S sedan parked at the back of the used-car lot. It wasn’t much to look at, but other than needing a junkyard transmission, it was a pretty nice ride for a college student. In that car I experienced a feeling of elegance in motion that was promised in its design.

 

I would drive that 220S for the next 32 years, adding 165,000 miles and lots of sweat equity into restoring and maintaining it; eventually, it was even good enough to show at local Mercedes-Benz club events. During that time, I also acquired and sold two other 220S sedans; one an all-original car with 54,000 miles on it; the other a 25,000-mile car at an estate sale. In both cases, I found other owners who would appreciate the classic looks and solid reliability of these beautiful machines as much as I did.

 

Something about a coupe

 

However, in my own mind I kept coming back to the idea of owning a coupe.

From my architectural training, I could see that the design was a direct result of the “Bauhaus” form-follows-function philosophy developed by architects such as Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and later I.M. Pei, designer of The National Gallery of Art’s East Building who recently passed away. The car’s exterior design was minimalist, directly contradicting the chrome and fins of extroverted American automotive styling of the period. On the inside, the combination of rich materials and fine detailing was simply exquisite.

The long hood and short rear-end proportions were very well resolved. In particular, I have always found the design of the rear window enormously attractive. The purity of design and execution is timeless, and the styling has aged well, even after all these years.

Of course, the combination of Mercedes-Benz engineering and the hand-built assembly of the chassis and body was, I believe, the epitome of engineering excellence during a time when the company was building cars to a standard of quality, not to a cost target. I even acquired a barn-find example of my own in the 1990s. However, I quickly realized that restoring it to the level it deserved would be well beyond my skills and resources, so I sold that coupe to a serious collector who eventually did restore it properly.

 

On the hunt

 

In 2005, I began in earnest my own search for a nice 220S Coupe. The two-door coupes and cabriolets had been designed by Mercedes-Benz to be slightly more affordable, but equally aspirational models to replace the discontinued 300 Coupe and Cabriolet at the top of the lineup. They were hand-built in small numbers on the W180 ponton chassis.

 

 Though I was prepared to be patient, within a year I found what I was looking for in the classified ads of The Star. As soon as I saw the advertisement, I called the owner. He told me about the history of the coupe, including a sordid short interlude later in its life.

 

The coupe had originally been purchased September 28, 1958, at the Giorgio Motor Car Company in Baltimore, Maryland, by Jerome C. Murphy, a dentist from Annapolis who later moved his practice to Seattle. The car was originally equipped with a Hydrak transmission but had been converted by the dealer to a normal 4-speed column-mounted manual transmission very early in its life.

 

These vehicles aren’t really intended to be driven on a daily all-purpose basis, so in the 37 years Murphy owned it, he drove the coupe only 80,000 miles. About halfway through his ownership, Murphy repainted it in its original DB190 Graphite Grey, but in all other respects he carefully maintained the 220S and kept it completely original.

 

In 1995, a Seattle collector purchased the car, one of 50 that he bought over a very short period of time. Two years later he was arrested on charges of bank fraud and money laundering, some of which appeared to have been facilitated by his car-collecting activities. The collection was sold at auction. Two subsequent owners didn’t make much use of the 220S, keeping it primarily in storage before it was offered for sale in The Star in 2006.

 

An ideal example

 

I couldn’t travel to inspect it, but the owner suggested that I speak with the car’s mechanic of 20 years in Seattle. The mechanic’s instruction to me was, “Buy it, you will not easily find another one this nice.” So, with that advice and a large quantity of photos in hand, I arranged to purchase the coupe sight unseen, from the by-then-reluctant seller who was having second thoughts about selling the car. Finally, six months later, we came to terms and I had it shipped back to my home in Arlington, Virginia.

 

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The car was nearly perfect, including the beautiful bird’s-eye maple wood veneer trim on the interior that Murphy had specified as an option. The natural-color leather likewise was in beautiful condition and took only some reconditioning to bring back to its original color and supple quality. All I did to the remainder of the interior after acquiring the car was to replace the steering wheel and have a trim specialist install new carpeting, matching the original specification including the color and texture of the material. 

 

An unexpected treasure came to light when I opened the trunk. The car was equipped with a rare complete four-piece set of original fitted luggage crafted by Karl Baisch, available from Mercedes-Benz dealers as an option when these automobiles were new.

 

On the exterior, the body work was in excellent condition, with no dents or rust anywhere, but the Graphite Grey paint had not been properly buffed out. Nevertheless a light wet sanding by a friend who specializes in detailing of classic cars brought out the paint’s sheen that changes with the light, and restored the body to its understated elegance.

 

Ready for its close-up

 

Since purchasing the coupe and bringing it back to its original beauty, I use it regularly, but respectfully. I wouldn’t jump into it to go out for a loaf of bread, but I have absolutely no qualms about driving it to and from Greater Washington Section and other Mercedes-Benz Club regional and national events, as well as occasional multimarque concours events.

 

The car has been shown at the StarFests in Winchester, Virginia, and New London, Connecticut, the 2009 and 2015 International Ponton Owners Group gatherings in Malvern, Pennsylvania, several Fall Meet gatherings in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and the Cars & Coffee at the Concours gathering at Amelia Island, in Florida in 2014. Though, truth be told, I did trailer it to the Connecticut and Florida events.

 

Perhaps the most appropriate setting in which to display the coupe was at the recent Old Town Festival of Speed & Style, a charity event in Alexandria. Though awards aren’t my thing, I am proud to say that the car was also judged first in class when it was entered in a competitive multimarque concours, the St. Michael’s Concours d’Elegance on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, in 2017.

 

It was in the pictures from a GWS event last fall that the editors of The Star spotted the car and suggested it should be showcased in the springtime among the classic buildings, monuments and landscapes of Washington, D.C. So it was that before sunrise on a beautiful spring morning, I took it out of its underground garage in Rosslyn, Virginia, and drove it across the Potomac River on the Arlington Memorial Bridge to our first location in front of the Lincoln Memorial. From there photographer Joe Robinson and I moved to each of the other locations we had scouted a few days earlier, ending our shot at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel.

 

My favorite site was at the Pei-designed East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, under the portico near a monumental bronze “Knife Edge Mirror Two Pieces” by British sculptor Henry Moore (1899-1986) (see StarryEyed, page 120), where I often wait to pick up my wife after her volunteer work at the museum.

 

As I look at the many evocative photographs we took over the course of that morning’s collaboration on the streets of Washington, D.C., I feel much the same way I do when I find myself at a stoplight or caught in slow traffic. All I have to do is look around the richly harmonious interior of my 1959 Mercedes-Benz 220S Coupe to be struck yet again by how very special this vehicle really is. I am very grateful for the opportunity to be the caretaker of such a wonderful piece of automotive art.

 

 

SPECIFICATIONS

1959 Mercedes-Benz 220S Coupe (W180 II)

TYPE: Two-door, four-passenger coupe

PAINT & TRIM: DB190 Graphite Grey • DB1058 Natural leather upholstery

OPTIONS: Sunroof • Bird’s-eye maple wood trim •

Amber fog lamps • White wall tires • Karl Baisch 4-piece fitted luggage

ENGINE: M180 III, 2,195cc, overhead cam I-6 • Two Solex carburetors

TRANSMISSION: 4-speed manual

HORSEPOWER: 124 (SAE) at 5,800 rpm • TORQUE: 139 lb-ft at 3,700 rpm (SAE)

WHEELBASE: 106.3 in • CURB WEIGHT: 3,102 lb

FUEL EFFICIENCY: Approximately 17 mpg

PERFORMANCE: Zero-62 mph 17 sec • TOP SPEED: 99.5 mph

CURRENT MILEAGE: 85,000

 

HIgh-resolution versions of these images are available from Joe Robinson at

ps://www.joer.photos/Cars/1959-Mercedes-220S/

 

This graceful 1959 Mercedes-Benz 220S coupe – built in the last year that the model was manufactured – brings alive an era of design that enlisted harmony, proportion and exquisite surface detailing in the pursuit of understated beauty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every finely considered curve, shape and line reaffirms the 220S as one of the most graceful luxury automobiles built by Mercedes-Benz during a postwar decade rich with great design.

 

 

 

 

 

Every finely considered curve, shape and line reaffirms the 220S as one of the most graceful luxury automobiles built by Mercedes-Benz during a postwar decade rich with great design.

 

 

 

Ageless design displayed in classic surroundings: the Graphite Grey 220S coupe with optional bird’s-eye maple interior trim is perfectly complemented by our capitol’s neoclassical and contemporary monuments, buildings and parks.

 

On the corner of F Street and 14th NW, in front of the Willard Intercontinental Hotel and across the street  from the former Garfinckel’s Department Store

 

 

The lustrous natural leather and gleaming wood veneer of the coupe’s interior surround occupants in a warm embrace, subtly enlivened by perfectly proportioned chrome detailing.

 

National Museum of Natural History seen from the Smithsonian Castle

 

Fitted luggage fits the setting of the Willard Hotel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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