26 July 2010

Driving the world's only known '35 Mercedes-Benz 150 Sport Roadster

Driving the world’s only known 1935 Mercedes-Benz 150 Sport Roadster is a lot like going to dinner with the last, living, original Rockette. You know the conversation is going to be bewitching and the stories seductive, but most of all, you can’t help but remember that at one time she could kick her leg over her head.

Let’s set the record straight, most people in the world, including you, are never, ever, ever going to get to drive this car. Never. And that’s a good thing for us because we did get to drive it (albeit ever so briefly) and maybe better yet, we got to brag about it to everyone saddled up to the bar at the Sand and Surf Hotel in Laguna Beach, Calif.

We were planning a trip to SoCal to shoot an episode of Discovery HD Theater’s Chasing Classic Cars when Mercedes-Benz rang us up and asked if we’d like to drive and film a few of their ultra rare 1930s-era mid- and rear-engine classics. We figured, “Sure, why not?” The crew needed a break from chasing host Wayne Carini around for a day and the 150 sounded like the perfect car to feature in one of our upcoming episodes.

The lineup included a 1935 type 150 Sport Roadster, a 1934 model 130, a 1936 170H and a 1934 150 Sports Saloon. Of course we gravitated to the roadster because it reminded us of the aforementioned Rockette, it was red, and it had a great rear-end.

Times were decidedly tough in the 1930s, with the U.S. in the grips of a massive depression and Europe not faring much better. But that didn’t stop the designers at Mercedes from thinking outside of the box when it came to new car design. In fact the economic challenges of the day inspired Mercedes to completely reinvent, redefine and redesign. The designers and engineers at Benz started with a radical move: They tossed the engine behind the driver. The idea was to offer passengers more leg room and a cushier ride by creating better springing between the axles. The drive unit was pared down into a single unit and required no propshaft, which reduced weight and transmission losses.

In 1934, Mercedes produced the four-door rear-engine 130. Next came the two-seater, mid-engine 150 “Sports Saloon” created especially for the "2000 Kilometres Across Germany" long-distance rally. Then one day in 1935, during a schnapps break, a designer had the great idea to chop the top and produce an open-top variant of the original competition car. Voilà! The gorgeous Mercedes-Benz 150 Sport Roadster was born.

While the 150 was offered through 1936, the cars weren’t exactly selling like hotcakes. During the production years, Mercedes produced twenty 150s – or maybe two depending on who’s telling the story – and then they all disappeared, all except one. The one we now had a chance to take for a spin. So, God Bless Mercedes when they threw us the keys for a (mostly) unescorted drive.

But this was no recreation. Not only was this car the last living, original Rockette, but after a loving and extensive restorative visit to the Mercedes Classic Center, the ol’ girl was lacing up her dancing shoes looking hotter than ever. And inexplicably we had been selected as one of the lucky few to drive and film her return to the spotlight.

With keys in hand and a map of the PCH pointing towards Carmel, the first thing we did was ask Mercedes the ten thousand dollar question:

“What’s she worth?”
“She’s not for sale.”
“Everything’s for sale in some sort of weird capitalistic way isn’t it?”
“Nope, not for sale.”

Back at the Surf and Sand, we argued that you could have this car parked in your driveway tomorrow night for around $2 million, but on second thought we’re probably off. Way off.

We were ready to hit the streets, but before we did the Mercedes PR and mechanical teams needed to give us a psychological pat down and a set of road rules.

“One, you can only drive it around Irvine and not to Carmel, and two, stick to the speed limit. Seriously.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah we nodded our understanding even though all we really heard was, “she could kick her leg over her head.”

The keys changed hands and we were behind the wheel of the only known 150 in existence. We wound our way through the streets of Irvine with the roadster dancing beneath Wayne’s feet and the MB marketing folks not far behind dancing on their AMG brakes. The car was surprisingly agile despite its purely mechanical steering, muscle-powered brakes and the Kate Moss skinny tires that lightened the steering feel to acceptable levels of tendon strain. The acceleration was adequate, especially considering its age, and the gearbox shifted into each of the four speeds with the finesse of an 85-year-old Rockette who’s kicked her leg one too many times – a little creaky—but it all worked somehow, even the three headlights that protruded from the front end. Not necessarily elegant or classy, but somehow utterly unforgettable and undeniably a “think-out-of-the-box design” that was pure 1930s.

Our cruise was met with blunt stares by other drivers as they saw us approach and pull away. We got “What is that?” and “Nice ride!” along with tons of thumbs up and cell phone cameras firing shots along the route. But the thing about classic cars that you learn after driving a few hundred is that just because they’re classic doesn’t mean they’re all winners – some are junk and some are jewels. This 150 Sport Roadster was indeed a jewel even if they only made two (or twenty) of them.

So, what did we take away from this drive? It boils down to this: It’s important that carmakers don’t lose sight of their heritage. Designing and building cars is an evolutionary process and some in the industry seem to forget this progression. They shouldn’t. This Benz was indeed was a diamond in its time, an original Rockette, and thank God it’s been preserved. Its rear end is still turning heads.

- Jim Astrausky and Hannah Lintner, Chasing Classic Cars

Watch Chasing Classic Cars on Discovery Channel and Discovery's HD Theater .

For more information visit www.chasingclassiccars.com or www.facebook.com/chasingclassiccars

Chasing Classic Cars is produced by Essex Television Group, Inc. whose award winning, all-HD broadcast division specializes in creating vivid adventure and personality driven documentary programming. Their series and specials have covered the legendary Baja 1000 off road race, post Katrina New Orleans and the war torn countries of Somalia, Afghanistan and Sudan. Current programming includes season one and two of Chasing Classic Cars, starring master car restorer and Ferrari expert Wayne Carini airing on HD Theater: A Discovery Company and seasons one and two of Dr. Danger on MOJO HD. Their work can also be found on the Travel Channel, Discovery’s Military, Health and International channels, HDNet and PBS. Executive Producers for Essex Television Group are Jim Astrausky and Dan Carey. Senior Producer is Hannah Lintner.
http://www.essextelevision.com

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