Growing Up Benz

Paul DeLucchi / San Rafael, California / December 6, 2020

Year Make Model Chassis Prefix Body Style Purpose
1959 Mercedes-Benz 220S W180 sedan family car
1956 Mercedes-Benz 300c W186 limousine high school and college car

In 1945, USAF Captain Milton DeLucchi was in Lithuania, of all places, as part of a photoreconnaissance team. They needed a vehicle, so commandeered a Mercedes-Benz Type 320 (W142) sedan. My dad was so impressed with the car he vowed to have one of his own someday. That day finally came in February 1959 when then-Major DeLucchi picked up our 220S family sedan at the factory in Stuttgart, and drove it to our home near Brussels, Belgium. I was seven years old and completely in awe of this strange black coach, which bore no resemblance to our U.S. Embassy Ford or to our previous Chevy and Plymouth cars.

Left: 1959 brand new. Right: 1959 Netherlands.

I memorized the Owner’s Manual, and studied the details of the car, comparing it to the Type 180 and 190D taxicabs then in profusion. We drove it all over Europe. In France we were careful to park it out of sight, because anti-German feeling was still quite strong, and my dad’s only other language was German, so I did business for us both in my second-grade French. In the Netherlands one time we found ourselves in the middle of a lake, because my mom had driven out onto a bicycle path! Driving through Switzerland we always judged the fuel level carefully, as gasoline there was expensive. In Stuttgart we toured the M-B factory, with an especially serious 14-year-old guide, while our car received an “E” service.

Left: 1960 Dinant, France. Right: 1960 Marcel VanGansbeek was our housekeeper Rosie's husband, who used to ride his bicycle over to our house and wash the Mercedes with a natural sponge and chamois every few weeks.

1961 took us to Van Nuys, California and the greater Los Angeles experience. Skateboards!, Jan and Dean, The Beatles, Zuma Beach. My dad drove to UCLA and back every day – 58 miles round trip in stop-and-go freeway traffic – operating the clutch pedal with his war-injured left knee. We went camping every summer; I learned about vapor lock and about driving at altitude. In New Mexico my mom drove the car through a flowing river – water came into the car everywhere – because she didn’t trust the brand-new bridge nearby. While traveling, my parents had the notion I should learn to drive, so they would put me on the “dawn” shift – first drive of the early morning. It’s amazing I never wrecked the thing.

Left: 1960 Wagenfeld, Germany. Right: Wagenfeld.

Left: 1961 Switzerland. Right: 1961 – entry to the Gotthard Tunnel at Goeschenen, Switzerland.

Left: 1961 Van Nuys, California. Right: 1962 Sequoia National Park.

Left: 1962 Yosemite National Park, California. Right: 1963 Big Sur.

In 1966 we moved to Houston, Texas – near NASA, where my dad was on the medical team. The 220S still looked and ran great, though now over 200k miles. It did burn some oil. I drove it on my first real date. But it was still my parent's car, and I wanted one of my own. Driving home after seeing The Graduate, I spotted a 300 sedan (W186) in a used car lot. I gawked – “I want one like that!" Ironically, way back when I was just three or four, my dad had bought me a small wind-up Mercedes toy car, which was a 300 sedan. That fat rear shape must have stuck in my memory.

Left: 1964 My sister Diane in Van Nuys, a suburb of Los Angeles. Right: 1966 Big Sur.

Left: 1967 Utah. Right: 1968 Houston.

My dad traveled a lot. On a plane ride home, he met Carmen Anguis, a woman from Caracas, Venezuela, temporarily residing in Texas. Back in 1956, she had ordered a new 300c just for herself – red leather, grey-cream paint, automatic transmission, central lubrication, short-wave radio. Her car was now 12 years old and somewhat tired, so she was looking for the right new owner. In what seemed like a heartbeat, I was him! The car desperately needed brakes and tires but other than that was a honey, and I was out of my mind with delight. I drove that car all through high school. Friends called it the “Paul-bearer”, haha.

Left: 1968 Houston. Right: 1969 Houston.

But some days I also drove the old 220S – like to the SAT tests being held in a city about 30 miles away, and once again drove through flooding water. Poor old car; the wiring was coming apart, and we had small fires. Eventually it also developed engine noise and oil thirst, and we had to sell it.

Left: 1970 Houston. Right: 1971 Hermann Park Houston.

Over time, I got the 300c into better shape. I corresponded with one Dr. Hugel at the M-B factory, who sent me a complete parts manual – in German, on film strip! I drove that car everywhere, even on sand dunes despite its 4,200 lb. weight. I carried a canoe on the roof for much of one summer. I lost my virginity in the back seat of that car, while parked in a cemetery! I worked at a Shell station, so got a discount on tires and could use their lift.

The 300c had all sorts of hidden features. There was a sort of winch underneath the rear seat that raised the rear suspension about four inches, "for boarding ferries." It also had a full-length, full-width skid pan underneath, held on by about a million 12 mm bolts. The engine was a 2,996 cc inline six with SEVEN main bearings. The rear doors featured additional inside "wing" glass, so that the window could be all the way down, yet you'd still be able to mitigate the breeze.

In 1970 I headed off to college in Austin. Had a variety of problems with ignition, charging system, exhaust leaks, wheezy transmission. It was a glorious ride but not entirely dependable. But oh, when it ran! Austinites will know Bee Caves Road – I ran its full length in that car at top speed, as only a 19-year-old would do, drifting through corners magnificently on polyester radial tires. I drove it to San Antonio to protest the war – and spent a night with lodging provided free by the constabulary. I drove it to Dallas, trying to get a job, which turned out to be a pack of lies, so slept in the car several nights.

Left: 1971 Lake Nassau Houston. Right: 1973 Winter / Austin, TX.

1973 Austin, TX.

In 1973 I left Texas, and drove the great white beast back to my family’s San Francisco bay area home, where I’ve lived ever since. In Palo Alto the car became something of a local celebrity. One day on the street, a red-haired Hungarian man came up and exclaimed at length over the car. He wanted to trade me a mid-50s Alfa-Romeo roadster, freshly restored, straight across. But I insisted on cash, and three days later the car was his. I’ve (almost) never regretted selling it – the car needed so much work, and it needed a considerably better mechanic than me. It went to the right guy.

So – flash forward 40 years. I’d owned many specialty cars (1959 M-B W105 219 Ponton w/ Hydrak and Webasto sunroof, 1951 Pontiac Chieftain, 1938 Buick Special 41, 1963 Ford Falcon convertible, 1952 Chevrolet 8-door church limousine, 1959 Volkswagen, and too many other VWs to count), and enjoyed them all. Now was living in North Beach, San Francisco, walking downtown to work each day. What should appear, parked on the street, but a 1958 M-B 220S sedan, black with red leather – being ruined by exposure. Someone had deeply keyed every panel and stuffed in the grille. I sought out the owner, and we cut a deal. Suddenly the old family chariot (or reasonable facsimile) was back!

2014 San Francisco.

And it still is. I’ll never need or want another classic car. As money and time allow, I’m bringing this 220S back to good order. We live in Lucas Valley, just to the north of San Francisco, where nearly all the roads are two-lane blacktop, winding through coastal hills, with speeds of 40-55 mph and good cafés at handy intervals – could it possibly be any better for Ponton cruising? I doubt it. That car and I are both, finally, home.

Created: December 6, 2020 / Jeff Miller
Last Update: September 28, 2021

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