This car is the only Gullwing in existence with the roadster-type rear axle.
This 1962 Mercedes-Benz L 319 Westfalia camper conversion is one of the most charming vehicles in Scottsdale
As is often the case with collector vehicles, Bob Knowles was in the right place at the right time when he scored his ultra-rare 1962 Mercedes-Benz Westfalia Camper. Fate was equally kind last weekend at the Pavilions Car Show in Scottsdale, Arizona, when a stranger stopped by and shared information about the vehicle’s past. (More about that later.)
“I’m mostly a Volkswagen guy, but I’ve always had a passion for vintage campers and trailers,” Knowles says. “I was looking for a camper that I could enjoy, not just look at, and I found this. As soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘OK, this is one I can live with.’ It’s so rare that I didn’t even know what it was.”
He soon found out. Mercedes never imported the L 319 to the U.S., and Knowles believes it’s the only one like it. “It’s definitely a unicorn,” he says.
Records indicate that Knowles’ L 319 began its life in Stuttgart, Germany, as a panel delivery van. In 1965, it underwent a Westfalia camper conversion, which included the addition of a bathroom, sink, two-burner stove, gas heater, and an electric refrigerator. Knowles has all the original manuals and documentation, but proof that his Mercedes is a true Westfalia conversion is right there in plain sight—on the table.
“One of Westfalia’s touches was using a world map as the table top,” Knowles says. “They didn’t add any special badging or anything, but you know it’s a Westfalia because of the table. That map was their signature.”
Mercedes-Benz built L 319 light commercial cabovers from 1955–67, and they could be ordered in a variety of forms: panel van, pickup, low-loader (platform), and open delivery, which was basically a mobile shop with awning-type covers at the sides and rear. A special O 319 minibus was also available. Converting an L 319 into a camper was almost unheard of.
Knowles, 59, has been detailing automobiles for 33 years; he prepped cars for RM Sotheby’s during Arizona Auction Week. Not only is auto detailing his career, it has expanded his friendship circle in the collector car world. That’s how he found out about the L 319, which he purchased from the Peter Thomas Collection in Phoenix six months ago.
“It’s 99.9-percent original, and everything is fully functional. Even the rubber is still good,” he says. “The [1.9-liter four-cylinder diesel] engine ran a little rough when I got it, but I adjusted the valves and the timing, and now it runs like a Swiss watch. It drives really well—it’s just slow.”
That isn’t a surprise, considering the 16-foot-long Westfalia camper weighs 9200 pounds and its engine produces less than 100 horsepower. On the positive side, Knowles says the L 319 gets 25.5 mpg, and since it possesses both a 16-gallon fuel tank and a 45-gallon auxiliary, “I could drive it almost 1600 miles without refueling.” But would he? “If I could drive it on backroads at 45 mph or so, I’d take it 1000 miles without worry. It’s solid.”
One obscure—but fun—feature is Mercedes’ simple solution to keep moisture from seeping inside the vehicle. Rain gutters line the roof’s edge, and a thin metal spout on the right side of the windshield serves as a drain. “When you’re on the road, water shoots out 2–3 feet,” Knowles says with a laugh. He adds, “Mercedes also put grease zerks [which feed lubricants into a bearing] on every hinge so they don’t wear out.”
Knowles says a German couple imported the camper van to the U.S. sometime in the 1970s, and “for two decades they camped in it, up and down the California coast.” He has few details beyond that—or, at least, he had few details. Minutes after Knowles shared the L 319’s history as he knew it, a gentleman—David Young, general manager of Precious Metals in San Diego—walked up, took one look at the Mercedes, and said, “Yup, this is my van. I found this thing down in Chula Vista.”
Knowles immediately snapped to attention.
“Are you serious?”
“Yes!” Young answered. “It was in the backyard of an old German couple. I had to move three cars to get it out. This is definitely it. I remember it had a great wood interior.”
Knowles’ eyes widened. “It has a custom mailbox with the initials E and H on it…”
“Well, the guy’s name was Howard Singer,” Young said. “His wife was Ellie.”
“Wow, that’s amazing,” Knowles said, extending his hand. “What are the chances?”
Slim to none. Not only are L 319s as rare in the U.S. as hens’ teeth, active membership in the 1962 Mercedes-Benz L 319 Westfalia Camper Owners Club pretty much stands at one. So for Knowles and Young to find each other through a chance meeting—and not at one of the auctions but at a show that offers a respite from all that—well, that’s like finding a needle in a haystack blindfolded.
“People go nuts over this thing,” says Knowles, who invites anyone who shows interest to take a look inside. “I’ve taken this camper to shows with McLarens and Carrera GTs and other great cars, and people flock to this. A lot of them say thanks for bringing it. They’ve never seen one before.”
Armed with new information and accompanied by his dog, Stella, Knowles says he’s ready to hit the road. “Now that the auctions are behind me, I think I’ll enjoy it more. It’s going to keep making the circuit—I want everybody to see it. Maybe I’ll take a little trip to Bartlett Lake.”
Coincidentally, the road to Bartlett Lake, Arizona, passes through Paradise Valley and Carefree. Of course it does. Right place, right time, right vehicle.