This Prized Ponton Mercedes Has Already Spent 58 Years With The Same Family
Photography by Robb PritchardandSasa Juric Sassch
The artful curves of a Ponton’s rear end standing out from the normal euro-boxes in a Zagreb parking lot is enough to turn a Benz enthusiast’s head, but this one had the bonnet up and I couldn’t help wandering over to get a closer look.
“Ah, damn,” Damir Jelusic replied, shaking his head when I told him what I do for a job. He shouldn’t have been embarrassed about fiddling with a disconnected gear linkage though, because this lovely 1960 Mercedes-Benz 180D isn’t a concours car and it’s all the better for it. This particular example has lived a long life serving the same family for 58 loyal years. Passed down from father to son, it’s every bit an heirloom.
Far from the dealer’s forecourt, this car’s story starts in a less typical place: the Ethiopian desert. In the late 1950s, Damir’s father, Milan, was a mechanic in charge of maintaining a fleet of Land Rovers that a surveying company was using to scour the desert for evidence of oilfields. It wasn’t the Series trucks that caught Milan’s attention, though, but rather the prototype cars the engineers from Mercedes were using to conduct endurance tests in the heat.
The era wasn’t exactly a boom time for Eastern European residents as communist bureaucracy clamped down severely on what people could buy in their own country let alone import, and back then the only other person in Yugoslavia with a new Mercedes was an important member of the parliament in Belgrade. But Milan qualified through a legal loophole that allowed people who worked overseas for more than 12 months to import a foreign car for themselves. So, as a single young man with a big paycheck, it was an opportunity he couldn’t let pass up.
The princely sum of $1,952 was wired from Addis Ababa to Stuttgart via New York. On the 5th of July, 1960, the car rolled off the production line and just 11 days later it was ready to be collected from the importing company in Ljubljana. “In those days the paperwork involved for anything foreign was next to impossible, so getting possession of the car when it was just 11 days old was basically a miracle,” Damir says over a coffee in the smoky bar we’ve carried our conversation into.
Damir digs out the original delivery certificate from the binder of old documents and photos we’re sharing our table with, which states that in the trunk there was a tool kit, a set of wheel hubs, the three-pointed star that back then you had to screw into the top of the grille yourself, a user manual… and a kilogram of spare paint! Everything but the paint is still with the car.
In production from 1953 to 1962, the 180 was the bridge model from the pre-war 170 to the much boxier 190 of 1961, and Damir’s example is a late-model so it has a wider grill, the first example of a piece of styling that would remain a recognizable look for the brand for the better part of the next 30 years.
The 1.8L inline-four diesel gives what can charitably be called a “modest amount of power,” but it was a host of other innovations that made the 180 such a popular car. “In the early 1960s, my uncle was a chauffeur in Germany and drove a 170 for his job. When his company bought a 180 he said it was like being in a spaceship by comparison. He was really impressed with how you could do the wipers and water with just one switch without having to pump the water with the pedal on the floor.”
It was also the very first three-box design in the company’s history, and was so ahead of its time that designer Dr. Fritz Nalinger created the first crumple zones on either end of the rigid passenger section. It wasn’t a feature Mercedes officially announced back then, though, so in 2010 the ADAC crash-tested one just to find out for sure and confirmed it to be true.
Back to our specific car in question. In 1975, after 15 years of faultless service, the time came for the Merc’s semi-retirement when Milan bought a Fiat 126 as a daily run-around. This was the first time the Ponton almost left the family, and the first time that Damir’s mother saved it. “It was in the family longer than she was. Her and Dad went in it on their first date together and a few years later drove it to the church to get married, so she didn’t want to sell it. And besides, for going on family holidays the tiny Fiat was totally impractical, so it was stored in the garage and only taken out of special occasions and trips.”
But it was a family holiday that almost spelt a sad end. “In 1986 my brother wanted to take his girlfriend away with it and my father agreed, as long as he got two new tires. He went and got two radials for the front but didn’t realize that the ones on the back were cross-ply. On a mountain road he braked hard, the car swapped ends, rolled up the bank, and landed on its roof. It was a bad accident, especially as the car didn’t have seat belts, but my mother didn’t want to have it scrapped then either, so without telling my father about the crash, she paid for the repairs and when they got it back from the garage we never fully explained to him why the doors didn’t quite fit any more.”
We drove out from Zagreb to the village where Damir’s father spent the harsh Balkan winters in a retirement home. His infectious smile and kind eyes belied his 90 years, but it was negative two outside so we didn’t have long to take photos of the car when I saw it last. “Do you remember when you gave me the car?” Damir asks. Another warm smile. “He didn’t give it to me for a birthday or anything… He was frustrated about not being able to get it to start one cold morning and slammed the door shut in anger. I asked him why he treated a car he’d owned for so long like that and he asked me if I would look after it if it was mine. I already knew all the idiosyncrasies about driving it, like the funny movement you have to do with the gear stick between 2nd and 3rd and how to generally drive it like my dad did and not like my brother, so I said ‘Yes!’ He took the keys out of his pocket and gave them to me. That was in 1988.”
A few years later it was time for some work to be done. “In the ‘70s the dealer in Ljubljana was selling off a load of original Mercedes spares cheap, so Dad bought a lot of stuff and kept it. In 1991 I used them to do an engine rebuild… just before the war broke out.”
An interesting note is that the car never strayed too far from Zagreb in its life even as the political climate around it shifted dramatically. At first the number plate had an H for Hrvatska (Croatian for Croatia), but then they ran out of numbers so they gave ZG for Zagreb, with a red star on it, for communism. After the war of independence in the early ‘90s, it got Croatian plates again and now it sports the blue flag with a circle of yellow stars instead of a single red one, as Croatia joined the European Union in 2013.
Some more work on the car in 1997 was focused on tidying up the bodywork, which actually only had a few spots of rust despite the time and the use. A local body shop did all of the work. “It hadn’t been driven in the winter since the mid ‘70s, so the body has always been in good condition, and all the panels are original. The bumpers were re-chromed but the guy had a bit of a problem because the OEM ones were even longer than the Cadillac ones he’d done in the past. An upholsterer redid some of the interior which was starting to get worn, but back then I couldn’t afford the original Mercedes material, so I got him to just find the closest match possible… Now I have the original material so the next time it needs redoing it will be replaced, although I don’t think it will need it anytime soon.”
I ask Damir if he remembers the moment when he realized that the 180 had gone from being just a treasured old family car to a true classic. “Maybe it was in 2000 when I came to understand that it would need some real looking after, and since then I’ve had better-paying jobs so I can thankfully afford to put a bit more money into it, for example the white-wall tires and the set of Bilstein shock absorbers, ones made exactly for this model… I also started making notes of when I replaced what, so I don’t neglect or overdo anything out just because I forgot when I last changed it.”
Although it is obviously treasured, it hasn’t been maintained with blank checks—as we were cruising along back to the city, Damir pulled the clock out of the dashboard and showed me the kitchen clock mechanism taped to the back of it. “The original was far too expensive to buy and the watchmaker I left it with for two-years said he couldn’t fix it, so I made it work my way,” he smiles. There’s also a little chip missing from the thin dashboard strip. “It will be staying that way. That little strip is 600 euros! Because the speedo has worn out a couple of times no one is really sure of the total mileage. My father will tell you a million but I think it’s somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000km.”
When Milan passed away, the car understandably became an order of magnitude more valuable, and so as a dedication to his father—as well as preserving it for the future in general—the 180 has just had its first full nut and bolt tear down and rebuild. There was a lot of rust in the floor that Damir had no idea about, and so the budget was blown just from cutting and hammering new sheet metal into shape. The work cost €10,000, but with new metal, paint, bushes, a wiring loom, and all the pipes now zinc-coated steel, it should last another 50 years before it needs anything near this much work again.
The car is safely assured of its place in the Jelusic family, but it will skip a generation next time it gets passed down. “I have two daughters and it’s a bit too big of a car for them, especially with no power steering or assisted braking… and the gear stick in the steering column can be quite tricky, so they aren’t interested in owning or driving it. But my grandson is seven years old now, so hopefully I will get another 10 years of looking after the car before I give it to him one day.”