Car Feature. Two classic Mercedes-Benzes that have stayed in the family. Mercedes Family Album. A son honors his parents’ memories with the restoration of Mom’s #1959 #Mercedes-Benz-220S-Coupe
and Dad’s #1963 #Mercedes-Benz-300SL-Roadster
. Words and photography By Jeff Koch / #Mercedes-Benz #Mercedes-Benz-W198 #Mercedes-Benz-300SL-Roadster-W198 #Mercedes-Benz-300SL
Mrs. Bertha “Tiny” (Linsenmeyer) Lutfy of Phoenix, Arizona, was doing all right in the ’50s. Her family owned a number of properties around downtown Phoenix, including near the intersection of 16th Street and Roosevelt Avenue, home of the nation’s first Circle K convenience store. (When the Texas-based Kay Foods wanted to expand into Arizona, and couldn’t use that name in Arizona because there was already a business with that name, it was her brother — the company’s local attorney — who suggested a name change to Circle K.) Beyond that, Tiny was a world-class champion trap-and-skeet shooter, from the days when pigeons were not made of clay, and travelled extensively throughout the States, Mexico and Europe on the marksmanship-competition circuit. Later, she would pursue oil painting with the same vigor and enthusiasm.
On one of her many European trips, she bought a used 1957 Mercedes 219 sedan from a friend to take her from event to event across the continent; eventually, they made their way home to Phoenix and the car was sold. But it made enough of an impression that when it came time to order a new model, Tiny had made up her mind: she was going to buy a new Mercedes.
“In those days,” recalls Philip Lutfy, 75, Tiny’s eldest son and keeper of the pair of vintage Mercedes-Benzes seen on these pages, “the car companies promoted European delivery — you’d save some money on buying the car new through a local dealer. A European-delivery 220 S like Mom’s was something like $5,800 with overseas delivery in 1959, while it was $7,000 through the local dealer. They’d help arrange for your flight over and everything. What’s more, when she brought it back to the States, it returned as a used car, so the import duty was less than it was buying a new one.”
The “Ponton” series of Mercedes-Benz sedans, launched in 1953, were the marque’s first completely new postwar cars. They used a fully unitized body and chassis, and four-wheel independent suspension — nothing that Opel hadn’t done in the ’30s, but all of which was high-tech stuff compared to the domestic U.S. luxury cars of the time. Theories about the “Ponton” name vary — some say that it comes from the fender lines stamped into the sheetmetal to give a faux-pontoon-fendered-look, while others suggest that the U-shaped subframe mounted to the unit-body in three places and resembled a pontoon bridge. (Either way, it’s better than some names: In Costa Rica this generation is known as Chanchito, or “little pig,” and in Mexico it’s known as Bolitas, or “little balls.”)
The coupe version of the Mercedes 220, the #Mercedes-Benz-W180
, was short-lived, launched in late 1956 as a 1957 model and lasting just three years. The roof incorporated a wide B-pillar and wrap-around rear window glass, for a jaunty, contemporary look not completely out of place with the big Studebaker coupes it shared a stateside showroom with. It was, Philip admits, the last of the postwar Mercedes that lacked the full array of comfort and convenience options that have come to define the marque today: no automatic transmission (save for the fussy Hydrak system), no power steering, no disc brakes filtered down from the Gullwing Mercedes’s race experience. A total of 3,429 220 S coupes and cabriolets were built through the end of 1959, against more than 55,000 fourdoor sedans, making either of the two-door variants rare and desirable today.
You can’t deny that Tiny had taste. She wanted a full-zoot 220 S — convertible, fuel injection, the works — but one by one, these ideas were shot down by Dr. Louis P. Lutfy, Tiny’s then-husband and Philip’s dad. “She really wanted a convertible, but Dad said, ‘No, you don’t want a ragtop,’” Philip recalled. “Then she looked into the Webasto sunroof option, which is really rare today, and Dad said no to that too, because he thought the sunroof would leak. So she went to the dealer to order her car; she was intrigued by the fuel injection, and inquired about it. And the salesman advised against it: He said no, fuel injection is brand-new this year; they still have to work the bugs out.” And the result was a bog-standard Light Blue 1959 Mercedes 220 S coupe, with optional Becker Mexico radio, whitewall tires, and precious little else. And off Tiny went, back to Europe to shoot pigeons and to pick up her brandnew American-spec Mercedes coupe.
“At one point, she sent the car back to Phoenix to have air conditioning put in, then had it shipped back to Europe.” Philip recalls that, “When we were on vacation in Europe, I drove it mostly to sharpen up my driving skills. I was very lucky. We’d be over there — my brother, my sister, my mother and I — and we’d drive to some little town early in the morning to get fresh bread, then get to another town to get some wine, and by noon we’d stop on the highway and have a picnic. There were roadside tables for this — all you’d do was get out a tablecloth and spread out. We always had packaged food in the car, with different specialties from different countries.” Good times. By the early ’60s, the 220 S was back in Phoenix to stay, although Philip’s parents had split.
It’s fair to say that the Lutfys were pleased enough with the 220 S that they became a Mercedes family for a while thereafter. “We got a four-door 190 sedan in 1960, for my sister, Nan, and me to take to Phoenix College. We drove it for years.” Which led fairly directly to Dad’s purchase of one of the last Mercedes 300 SLs ever built. “Dad saw that we got good service out of the 190 in college, got a burr in his saddle, and decided that he wanted a new 300 SL. He was kind of a flashy guy, he was divorced, and he wanted something sporty to be seen in.” This was in 1963, when Mercedes-Benz was trying to get rid of the last of the old 300 SLs in favor of the new-and-improved 230 SL, just recently launched in Geneva.
It was this generation of Mercedes SL that changed the marque’s stateside image over the course of its life. With the carmaker known for its line of sedans (much like Tiny’s 220 S) that were considered by many to be solid and stolid in equal measure, famed sports-car distributor Max Hoffman told the Mercedes bosses that a production version of the company’s successful racing W194 coupe would go down a treat with well-heeled Americans. Mercedes gambled and produced them, and Hoffman, as usual, was right: More than three-quarters of Mercedes’s three-year, 1,400-unit SL Gullwing production came to the States. The W198 generation 300 SL’s name came from its three liters of displacement from its straight-six, and the term Sport Leicht (Sport Light), referring to its liberal use of aluminum body panels. Its blend of high technology (first-ever production fuel-injected engine) and dramatic style (those doors!) spruced up the corporate image quickly. The roadster replaced the coupe in 1957; it kept the coupe’s high technology, and most of its style (including the wheel-arch “eyebrows” that helped direct airflow over the body), while increasing its livability, thanks to the conventionally opening doors. A total of 1,858 300 SL roadsters were built through 1963, though not all of these were the same: The last 209, starting in March 1963, received a light-alloy block and fourwheel- disc brakes.
As hard a time as Louis gave Tiny about her choices on the 220 S a few years earlier, the karmic wheel of destiny rolled around to trouble the now-single Louis’s decision-making process. “He wanted European delivery,” Philip recalled, “so he went to Phoenix Motor Cars, the local Mercedes-Benz dealer here, and they said no to European delivery on the 300 SL — they were promoting the new car, the 230 SL. Dad wanted a 300 SL, though, and the dealer was discounting them to move them out of inventory; the sticker was more than $12,000, and they discounted the price to an even $10,000.” Yeah, wrap your head around that: The last remaining SLs were considered bookkeeping albatrosses, and Mercedes-Benz’s U.S. operations had to resort to drastic discounts to get these all-time classics out of inventory. Cue dropped jaws.
When Dr. Lutfy and Phoenix Motor Cars called Mercedes-Benz Sales Inc., in Montvale, New Jersey, there were just three 300 SLs left: silver, red and white. They were the last three new SLs in the country. “Well, Dad liked silver because it was the Mercedes colour — the Silver Arrows racers, and all that. So the dealer called Montvale, and they’d sold the silver one. Next choice was red. By the time the dealer called back, the red one was gone, too. So the only one that was left was white with the red interior.” And here it stands today. It’s not the highest-serial-number SL by any means (it’s about 100 units shy), but it could well be the last one sold by Mercedes-Benz in these United States. “Others were sold here later,” Phil recalls, “but they were most likely sold by brokers who bought ’em in Europe and brought them here.”
As it happened, Dr. Lutfy’s late decisionmaking was fortuitous: wouldn’t you know it that he received one of those last 209 alloy-blocked, four-wheel-disc-brake shod machines. (And at a discount, no less.) In the already rarefied air of 300 SLs, this makes this particular roadster one of the more desirable examples extant. “It was just a fluke that Dad would get one of these,” Philip says.
It was also something of a fluke that Philip ended up with it. “Eventually, Dad got tired of the SL; the battery was frequently dead, so he hooked up a tricklecharger. The wide sill was a pain to get over, too. He bought other cars and drove them, mostly American cars, for a couple of years. I remember he had a Dual-Ghia for about a year. He wanted to get rid of the SL in the ’70s, but no one was interested in it.” Could it be that the 300 SL was, at one time, just a used car? An old Mercedes? Something seen in the mid-’70s as we look upon a 2003-model Mercedes- Benz today? No one (beyond Philip) was interested in a one-owner Mercedes 300 SL? How could this be?
Well… “Tom Barrett, of Barrett-Jackson, offered him $3,000 for it. I was off in Europe at med school at the time, and my mother told my dad that he would make me upset if he sold it. They had split up, but they still talked, and she put her foot down. They brought it to the house, parked it under the carport behind another car, and Mom took away the keys” — lest it disappear in the middle of the night in exchange for some quick cash. Once Louis died, Philip became the rightful owner.
Each car had been in the family for more than a quarter-century at this point, so moving them on to new homes seemed foolhardy somehow. And each of them remained straight and unblemished. “There was never any rust damage or accidents,” Philip tells us. “Dad was very particular about his car. He’d take it to the car wash once a week” — you can almost hear Philip wincing at the memory — “and the washers would climb on it and scuff up the sills under the door.”
Philip made the decision to invest in a complete top-to-bottom restoration of the 300 SL in the mid-1980s. “I got it for free and spent something like $100,000 restoring it then, which was way more money than what it was worth, but I thought, so what, it’s Dad’s car.” Pricing guides put an alloy-block, disc-brake SL with a factory hardtop somewhere in the $1.6 million range — probably more at a well-advertised auction. Balancing that good fortune, perhaps, is the $52,000 top-end book average value of his mom’s 220 S — a car that certainly cost more than its current value to restore, even in the early 1990s when Phil brought his mom’s example back to its current splendor. (A convertible, like Tiny wanted, is valued at two and a half times the coupe today.)
Since their restoration, they have been driven little as Philip’s Mercedes collection extended into the double-digits — a series of Pontons, a gaggle of Pagoda-roof SLs, and other ’50s and ’60s Mercedes delights make the bulk of his car collection today. It’s fair to say that these two are the cause for Philip’s particular brand of three-pointed- star enthusiasm. So they’ve sat, Tiny and Louis’s cars, their odometers showing original miles.
But you’d never know by looking at them that these restorations have now been around longer than the cars’ original materials: Both appear new, patina-free, and have particularly supple leather, considering they’ve been sitting in the desert for nigh on three decades now. “I had them in un-air-conditioned rental storage units for a while, but I kept buckets of water in the cars; the moisture stayed in the car, and the leather has remained in good condition.” It’s remarkable to note that the replacement leather has been in these cars as long as — if not longer than — the original factory-born hides were.
Tiny was 96 years old when she died in 2013, and even though she’d gone through a number of other European coupes in her long life, from Jaguar to Rolls-Royce, she always had a soft spot for her old 220 S. “She really liked cars, and took good care of them,” son Philip remembers. “She loved that 220 S, because it brought back so many fond memories — of her traveling in Europe from one shoot to the other, her shotgun in the back; for outings and picnics; and occasionally for extended vacation trips when we were over there. I know she really appreciated me taking it all apart and making it better than what it was.” My mother told my dad that he would make me upset if he sold it. They brought it to the house, parked it under the carport behind another car, and Mom took away the keys.
The 300 SL doesn’t seem much sportier than the 220S from this angle, though the wraparound buckets, lower-slung seating and floor shift all suggest otherwise once you’re inside. Hard to believe that this SL was sold at a discount in order to get it off the books.
1963 MERCEDES-BENZ 300 SL ROADSTER
Engine SOHC inline-six
Displacement 2,996 cc
Horsepower 222 @ 5,800 RPM
Torque 202-lb.ft. @ 4,600 RPM
Fuel system Mechanical direct fuel injection, #Bosch
Gearbox Four-speed manual, floor shift
Suspension Front, double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar; rear, low-pivot swing axle, transverse compensating spring, coil springs
Steering Recirculating ball
Brakes Four-wheel disc, hydraulic power assist
Wheelbase 94.5 inches
Length 179.9 inches
Width 70.5 inches
Height 51.2 inches
Shipping weight 3,130 pounds
0-62 MPH 7.2 seconds
Top speed 137 MPH
1959 MERCEDES-BENZ 220 S
Engine SOHC inline-six
Displacement 2,195 cc
Horsepower 105 @ 5,200 RPM
Torque 126.5-lb.ft. @ 3,500 RPM
Fuel system Dual two-barrel #Solex
Gearbox Four-speed manual, column shift
Suspension Front, double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar; rear, swing axle, radius arms, coil springs Steering Recirculating ball
Brakes Four-wheel drum, power assist
Wheelbase 111 inches
Length 187 inches
Width 69 inches
Height 61 inches
Shipping weight 3,110 pounds
0-62 MPH 17 seconds
Top speed 99 MPH
The 220 S cabin is elegant and orderly. Air conditioning was dealer-installed after purchase. Engine is the standard carbureted 2.2-liter inline-six, good for 105 horsepower. Inside and out, it’s sized like the compact Studebaker Lark it sold next to in U.S. showrooms.