Exploring South Africa in the family sedan / John R. S. Dowsett
Editor's note: When I took over the Mercedes-Benz Ponton website in April 2001, there was a photo included in a miscellaneous folder that was not clearly identified. It featured a boy sitting on the hood of a Mercedes-Benz Ponton sedan with mountains in the background. I assumed I would never learn much about it. That was true until December 2001 – when the information began to flow!
January 1962: John R. S. Dowsett / firstname.lastname@example.org / perched on the hood of his father's Type W128 220SE Ponton sedan in the Transvaal province of South Africa. Exact location: northeast of Ladysmith, Natal, South Africa. Note the right hand steering and pre-radial tires. John's sister, Cate can also be seen in the back seat. Until John (the boy himself) wrote to the editor on December 31, 2003, the people in the photo were "unknown" and the exact location remained a mystery.
In December 2001, two years before Before John R. S. Dowsett wrote to the editor, Mr. Moosa E. Moosa provided the following clues as to the whereabouts of the photo:
Update: December 16, 2001
Moosa E. Moosa identifies the license plate as being from South Africa. He writes: "Hello: You have a picture of a right hand drive Ponton with a kid sitting on the hood (bonnet) with the license plate number TJ 157-906 and do not know the location of the car. Well, the license plate is from South Africa. The T is for the Transvaal province and the J is for Johannesburg. When I was growing up in Johannesburg we had a plate number TJ 159-786. So the right hand drive makes perfect sense. The background also looks like part of South Africa. These type of license plates went thru the late 1970s. Thereafter, the color and the make up of the numbers changed. Hope this helps." - Moosa E. Moosa / 1955 Mercedes-Benz Type 220a Ponton
In December 2003, I received another email, this time from John R. S. Dowsett, who proclaimed that he was in fact the boy in the photo. As it happens, John sent the photo to Ray Ilich a few years earlier. Here is what John had to say about the photo:
Update: December 31, 2003
We were living in a small village in South Africa called Mount Ayliff, and we were only away from Canada for a few years. My father was a geophysicist for Inco Ltd. working in exploration. He is still working in geophysical exploration at the age of 76. Also in the photo, sitting in the back seat, is my sister. Then Cate Dowsett, now Dr. Cate Dewey, DVM. It must have been a very special car to my parents, as they still talk about it now and again - pretty much the only car they ever talk about, as they are not car aficionados.
Here is a photo of my father, John S. Dowsett, in 1960 (aged about 32 years) at the top of Sani Pass in South Africa. Check out the road! The vehicle is a Land Rover.
Update: January 4, 2004
Talked with my father last night and he gave me a bit more information. The car was two or three years old when he got it in 1961. In 1963 he rolled it near Newcastle, Natal, South Africa (no speed limits) where he was thoroughly enjoying a very fast drive. He was faced with the choice of a head on collision with a car, colliding with a donkey cart in his lane, or heading for the ditch. As he recalls: "Somehow, I missed the ditch entirely, and went over a fence into a farmer's field."..where the car rolled at least once, but he cannot remember how many times. Much to my father's surprise they repaired the car, but it did not come back to our family unfortunately.
Here are some family snapshots which include the Mercedes-Benz. This is my mother, Maxie and my sister, Cate posing along side some local villagers in Zululand, 1962.
Cate in Zululand, 1962
Detail of the previous photo. The 220SE appears to have the larger (14" or 15") wheels which were fitted to Mercedes-Benz sedans destined for regions where the road conditions were often less than ideal. The standard Ponton wheel size for North America was 13".
My sisters Cate and Ann leaving Kruger, 1962
Bales of sugarcane organized along side the road
Myself with Cate and Maxie (front passenger seat of the Ponton) in Barbertown
Maxie, and sisters Ann and Cate in Barbertown
My father loved to drive twisty roads (as do I). It never held him back much having the family in the car. It seemed to be a regular occurrence that my mother would be asserting that my father slow down. I remember one occasion, after we came back from Africa, where my father spun the car on the highway one winter - managing to keep it in his lane. Did not phase my father, nor me, but my sisters got very quiet and my mother quite noisy.
"9 Careful Miles"
Finally, a more recent photo of the boy on the hood of the Ponton.
"Don't know where you get the time to manage such a large site, but thank you a million times over."
- John R. S. Dowsett / January 8, 2004
"That was such a wonderful journey through time - thanks a million - it was a great story with pictures - lovely balance of text and photos."
- Dr. Cate Dewey, DVM / January 9, 2004
Created January 4, 2004 / Jeff Miller /
Thanks to John R. S. Dowsett