Lost & Found classic choice 180D Ponton
After German expat #Joachim-Fischer
rescued this 180D Ponton from a crusher, the classic Mercedes saloon soon became a firm family favourite. Words & Images Richard Truesdell.
In the immediate post-war era, Mercedes-Benz needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. Following World War Two, more than 75 per cent of the car manufacturer’s production facilities were nothing more than bombed out rubble. But this gave Mercedes-Benz an almost clean start as many of the facilities in and around Stuttgart were rebuilt, providing the company with state of the art engineering and production capabilities.
The Type 170, with its pre-war, body-on-frame construction, was the mainstay of #Mercedes
- Benz in the period from 1946 to 1953. But at the same time, the company’s designers and engineers were busy readying an all new, modern design for what would become the W120 and W180 saloons. Over time these threepointed stars would be affectionately known as Pontons and, in the minds of many, these elegant looking saloons saved the company.
With their unitised bodies using a separate but fully integrated subframe, the Pontons enabled Mercedes-Benz to build a wide variety of four- (W120) and sixcylinder (W180) models, including diesels. These all new Ponton saloons had appeal as the German economic miracle gained momentum throughout the 1950s.
It could be argued that Mercedes-Benz was somewhat late in getting the Pontons on sale, as both DW K and Borgward started production of their post-war saloons featuring modern bodies more than three years earlier. But Stuttgart’s engineers used the extra time to incorporate features that would have great long term significance, especially in terms of safety. For example, while the later Fintails were the first cars with crumple zones and rigid passenger cells, with their unitised bodies combined with the separate front subframe, the Pontons incorporated some of the Mercedes-Benz systems pioneered and patented by Béla Barényi in 1951. This is what we now call the safety cell and it forms the foundation of the passive safety system design found in almost every modern car, where the car’s structure is designed to absorb and dissipate the sometimes massive forces generated in the event of a crash.
The Ponton’s exterior design, crafted under the direction of Friedrich Geiger and Karl Wilfert, was clean and modern, in contrast to the earlier 170s with their floating wheelarches, characteristic of pre-war designs. In the case of the Pontons, the wheelarches were completely integrated into the body.
FRUGAL FAMILY FUN
When the W120 was presented in August 1953, the end of World War Two was less than a decade in its rear view mirror. But this didn’t stop Mercedes-Benz from mapping an aggressive export strategy worldwide, including Great Britain and the United States. Although sales ramped up slowly, growth was steady and the diesel models were a small but important part of the model drive. Mercedes’ marketers touted the low operating costs of the range’s diesels, then as today promoting their exemplary fuel economy. In the case of the 180D pictured here, the official figure was a mighty impressive 44.8mpg.
The W120 180s offered a 20 per cent roomier passenger compartment combined with substantially enhanced visibility over the 170s they replaced. And although they were similar dimensionally, the boot could hold 75 per cent more luggage and the climate controls were greatly improved and could be adjusted separately for driver and passenger. In the Mercedes-Benz line up of the 1950s, the fourcylinder W120/121 Pontons, like the example you see here, could be considered the #E-Class
saloons of their day, while the 170mm longer, six-cylinder W180/105/128s were predecessors to today’s S-Classes.
To begin with, the W120 was fitted with two engines, both carried over from the 170s. The M136 four-cylinder petrol engine produced 51bhp at 4,000rpm, while the OM636 diesel engine produced 39bhp at 3,200rpm (42bhp at 3,500rpm from September 1955, as in the car pictured). Coupled with 74lb ft torque, the OM636 could power the 180D to a top speed of 68mph. All models were mated to a four-speed, all synchromesh, manual transmission, with a column mounted shifter, allowing the 180 Ponton to seat five adults comfortably, possibly six at a pinch.
The rest of the Type 180 was thoroughly modern with coil springs fitted front and rear. From September 1955, the rear set up comprised a low placed, single-joint swing-axle (previously just a swing-axle). The steering employed a recirculating ball system and was equipped with a steering shock absorber, while the Ponton’s brakes were drums at all four corners with hydraulic assistance.
If Mercedes-Benz needed to pin its post-war recovery on just one model, especially in overseas markets, the 180 was up to the task. While the star studded 300SL and the luxurious 300 Adenauer grabbed the headlines, the 180, and to a lesser degree the 220, re-established Mercedes-Benz in the minds of car buyers throughout the world with its virtues of engineering excellence combined with a simple elegance that has stood the test of time.
FATE STEPS IN
Which brings us to this car and its owner, Joachim Fischer, a lean manufacturing expert hailing from sunny California, for whom these virtues hold a special appeal. Originally from Germany where Pontons were a common sight during his childhood, his Ponton, a 1958 180D (one of 114,046 built), is a story of reclamation and restoration. Purchased in 2003, his 180D is a driver quality, self restoration that has now covered more than 119,000 miles.
“My wife Petra and I got lost on a roadtrip to San Francisco,” recalls Fischer. “While looking for the best way to get back onto Highway 101, we drove past a junkyard and the Ponton was sitting in front of it with a ‘for sale’ sign in the window. I think they felt sorry for it and didn’t want to crush it. I turned around and bought it for $2,200 on the spot, despite the fact I had no intention of buying a car at all.
“I probably overpaid but it doesn’t really matter,” he continues. “The car was not running, was missing many parts and was in very poor condition overall. Its windows were cracked, the seats were torn, rubber parts were missing and the chrome parts that remained had been painted silver. I got the car towed the 400 miles back to Orange County the next day and started a two-year restoration.”
The forlorn 180D needed almost everything, including new rubber seals, tyres and brakes. The windscreen was replaced along with all the silver painted chrome trim. Fischer’s 180D was treated to a fresh coat of blue paint, replacing its well worn and faded two-tone brown scheme (this car left the Sindelfingen factory in 1958 with grey paint).
A COLOURFUL EXISTENCE
On the inside it received new cloth upholstery on the seats and door panels, along with new headlining. Mechanically, Fischer got the engine running after cleaning the fuel tank. However, although he loves driving his classic Mercedes, over the 10 years he’s owned it and since the completion of its restoration, this 180D has only covered a little over 3,000 miles.
That might not sound a lot, but it gets driven almost every week to local events in Orange County. This includes regular appearances at the well known Cars and Coffee show in nearby Irvine. There it fits right in with the more than 30 classic Mercedes models that congregate on any given Saturday morning. He also drives it to Cook’s Corner, a well known biker bar in Trabuco Canyon, one of the locations where we photographed the car – it was amazing how much attention the blue Ponton attracted among all the Harleys! And it is a tribute to the car’s design that outside the iconic, sharply modernistic headquarters of sunglasses maker Oakley in nearby Foothill Ranch, where we also photographed it, the Ponton still had a strong, elegant appeal.
Fischer has two sons and this diesel Ponton plays an important part in their lives. “They just love playing in the car pretending to go somewhere,” he says. “My older son, Paul, is in a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy and sitting in the Mercedes-Benz is just the greatest thing for him. I taught him how to drive the ‘four-on-the- tree’ while sitting on my lap and that is his weekly highlight.”
While this #1958
180D is Fischer’s first Mercedes-Benz and first restoration project, he has since restored an Airstream travel trailer and has called upon his well honed skills as a cabinet maker to build a wooden boat. And he certainly has got the Mercedes bug, now being an active participant in the International Ponton Owners Group on Yahoo.
A DEPENDABLE FRIEND
When asked to sum up his Mercedes’ best attribute Fischer had this to say. “The car always starts and runs, no questions asked. The diesel’s torque from only 43 horsepower [42bhp] is just amazing. But compared to a modern car, it’s like stepping back in time. You have to work it. Steering takes a lot of effort and braking requires anticipation.”
It seems that Fischer has found a great sense of balance with his Ponton. It is restored to a level that makes it a great example of its kind, but not so much that he’s afraid to drive it on a regular basis. And, of course, it’s a classic Mercedes-Benz that his entire family enjoys. What could be better than that?
It always starts and runs, but you have to work it – steering takes a lot of effort and braking requires anticipation.
We were lost and drove past a junkyard – the Ponton was there with a ‘for sale’ sign in the window.
In the minds of many, these cars saved the company in the post-war period.
JUST THE FACTS #Mercedes-Benz-180D-W120
Power 42bhp @ 3,500rpm
Torque 74lb ft @ 2,000rpm
Transmission 4-speed manual, RWD
Top speed 68mph
Fuel consumption 44.8mpg
Years produced 1954 / 1959
Pontons helped revive Mercedes’ postwar fortunes, setting the standards of engineering excellence for the models that would follow Figures for a 1958 180D as pictured; fuel consumption determined at ¾ of top speed (not more than 110km/h, 68mph) plus 10 per cent.
The windscreen washer fluid reservoir shows its 55 years.
The speedo and gauges are remarkably small.
It took Joachim Fischer two years to restore this Ponton.
The OM636, normally aspirated, four-stroke diesel.
A very industrial look for the diesel injection pump.
Becker Europa II with bass and treble adjustment.
Retrofitted seat belts feature on the rear bench.
A modernist setting, but the car holds its own.
First grey, then brown, Fischer chose a deep blue.
A column shifter for the four-speed manual gearbox.
The chrome had been painted silver, so needed replacing.
The strong patina adds to this well used car’s character.