60 and 125
At the 125th anniversary of Mercedes-Benz, the urban legends were flying fast and free. To start of the year long global celebrations, CATS Motors, the local Mercedes franchisee, toasted the Mercedes fans to a party at appropriately luxurious Opus Lounge. As fate would have it, the German company's 125th was also Mercedes' 60th year in the Philippines.
In the early 50s, Charles Lee, one of several brothers of the Li Seng Giap family, was standing on the corner of one of their properties in the riverside town of Mandaluyong in the province of Rizal. In those post war years, cars in the Philippines will mostly big aeroflow look pontoon fender cars from America. Fuel was so cheap that 6 cylinder and 8 cylinder cars did not even merit thoughts of gas guzzlers.
Along came a smallish car with a clattering noise that presaged its passing arrival half a block away. It was a 38PS diesel engine 1951 Mercedes Benz 170 SD. It had a dated pre-pontoon design with headlights separate from fenders and spare tires mounted on running boards. Since there were very few Mercedes in this part of the world, that '51 model of the W191 1949 170 V series belonged to my uncle.
Ricardo P. Hermoso was an eccentric chemical engineer, trapped by the War in Cincinnati, Ohio, working for the Allied War effort. There made considerable connections with fellow research engineers and after the war, he went back home to establish RHTrading, a company with international links to inventors and engineering products that we would today call "hi-tech".
On one of his forays to Europe, he was impressed with Germany's efforts to rise from the ruins of World War 2 and was equally impressed with the Mercedes 170 diesel. In those days, European factory practice was to build to order and Mercedes franchise dealers around the continent didn't usually have standing stock. A visit to the port side jobbers at Antwerp did not produce anything. But the traders pointed him to the more resourceful Italians in the port of Genoa.
Night train to Genoa
Taking the train to Genoa, Ricardo and his youngest brother Rosauro, my father, arranged to meet an aging Italian ex-count and wheeler-dealer who had a secret stash of 170's. These were the days of telegrams and between Belgium and Italy, there was plenty to lose in the translation. After a meet and greet and a short drive to the dockside godown, there it was a resplendent 170. Unfortunately, it was the more expensive cabriolet and it was a "V" model - a gasoline, not a diesel. It was an order for King Farouk of Egypt, who was just deposed by a military in coup a few months before. Exiled to Italy, the King did not want to ruffle his hosts feathers by immediately tooling around in nice little cabriolet. As if by magic, another 170, this time the diesel SD was said to have been forfeited by one of the Egyptian King's men. Paper work and transfers made, the Hermoso 170 SD was put on the boat to head for the Port of Manila.
In New Manila and South Forbes party circuits, my eccentric uncle started gaining the reputation for the noisy manner he arrived at garden parties. The 170 SD's unmistakable sound, akin to a an industrial rice thresher, heard several blocks away noisily announced his arrival. Having a passe body style, discerning party guests looked at the 170 SD with amusement and ridicule. The car had signal light semaphores mounted on the B-pillar. There was the glow plug ritual starting the engine from the cold. A small canister of lighter fluid was necessary for starts in cold Baguio mornings as diesel fuel in those days was viscous, formulated for trucks, ships and power generators. It had an on board foot operated lubricating system that is pumped to inject lubricating oil to all ball joints every 3,000kms. Idling shook the car violently. But once up to speed of 60MPH, it was steady even on the roughest of roads because of its independent swing axles, designed, pre war, by one Ferdinand Porsche. No American car could duplicate a Mercedes's feat of high speed cruising on rough roads. Soon, Ricardo, Charles and Charles' brother, Anthony would meet and Universal Motors set up to assemble Mercedes-Benz vehicles and RH Trading became its first Mercedes-Benz dealer. A pick up and station wagon version followed the sedan, and the Manila Times bought Argentine assembled 170SD panel vans for newspaper delivery.
Folklore for the elite
During the Commonwealth era, the most prestigious cars in the country were mostly American - Chrysler Imperial, Lincoln, Cadillac, Packard, Peerless and Pierce-Arrow. If there were any Rolls Royces or European brands like Mercedes, they were mostly tucked in the island of Negros, Sugar baron territory. Unfortunately, many of the nation's fleet of cars were destroyed by the "scorched earth" policy of the retreating Japanese Imperial Army.
Mercedes' fame, or infamy, if you like was based on the rocking and rolling OM636 diesel engine, whose thrift became legendary in a sea of gasoline fed 6-cylinder American cars. The Philippine assembled 180D became a favorite fleet car and taxi. The diesel's high torque at low rpm made it a reliable choice for aftermarket air conditioning as most small petrol engine cars tended to overheat when burdened with non-OEM air con units. The pontoon styled 180D was looked upon as a generation late in car styling as Detroit iron was going into fins, rocket-ship shapes and the longer, lower, wider wrap around fuselage look. Still, the most popular perception of a Mercedes was its unique diesel engine noise, which was said to be as noisy as an industrial rice thresher, earning it the moniker, "Kiskisan".
From Turtle to Hunchback
As the rounded style 180D gave way to the fin-tailed series of the 1961 190D, the two models now popular in taxi, fleet car and Police forces, continued to be sold side-by-side. To distinguish the two, the 180D was called the "Pagong", or turtle in the vernacular. The 190D was called "palikpik" or roughly translated into the "finned one". Around the same time, the Public Utility Jeepney became a popular home grown form of mass transit. With the 180D's thrift and durability, orders for its OM636 engine were being filled not only to run jeepneys but also boats. A black market of OM636 engines from stolen 180Ds evolved. Also, with Mercedes offering more wheelbase and trip differentials between its 190, 200 and 220S models, a black market in conversions also started to thrive in upgrading a 190 to look like a 220. The Dollar Crises of the late Sixties made all German imports dear and the 1968 200D/8 - nicknamed "kuba" or hunchback - started Mercedes' climb into elite pricing and jet set society circles.
IMF, wraparound and "Chedeng"
By the mid seventies, the Philippine made 200D was to become the fleet car of the IMF global meeting in the Philippines. The more desirable Mercedes', like the 1971 "Mr. Slim" 280SL - nicknamed after a popular 120mm cigarette , and the 1974 450SL and 450 SE with ridged wraparound tail lights - subsequently called wraparound were grey market imports. By now Mercedes was solidly in the elite class and those who could not afford the "wraparounds" bought the tail lights and forced fitted them to the "kuba" and "palikpik" models, rounding off the fins of the latter. This was not lost on the burgeoning "Jeproks" and "Masa" counter culture as expressed by the Juan de la Cruz and Circus bands in their songs. Folk aspirational moods were to christen Mercedes as "Chedeng", a Filipino nickname for anyone named Mercedes.
The 80s Benz to today
The explosion of mass media and the service industries made market savvy MBA-speak a must to get up the corporate ladder. Yuppies, young lads and bankers aspired to take their office commute in a "Benz" to show that they have arrived. At that time, the only available Benz was the bare bones W123 assembled by Commercial Motors. Thanks to Mercedes' strong links with celebrities and Hollywood ever since the film "North by Northwest", the celebrity aura enraptured the Filipino Yuppies. By the 90s and early 21st century, liberalization of automobile imports extinguished the need for Commercial Motors to assemble cars in Pasig. By then, Mercedes Benz, long dominant in the Philippine luxury car market, had several new competitors. That did not stop its current distributor, CATS Motors led by Felix Ang, from importing every single model that one's heart desires.
Still going strong
As for the clattering 170SD, another trip to Germany would find my uncle's 170SD replaced with a 1958 220Sa with the new fangled pontoon coachwork and 106PS 2.2 liter 6-cylinder petrol engine. Today, if one is lucky, one can catch a glimpse of the 170 SD in the vicinity of the Nepo Market as it is still used as an everyday car by a scion of the established Nepomuceno family of Angeles City, Pampanga. Its been a long road from that noisy and dated looking car that clattered its way to Charlie Lee's attention in Mandaluyong. Sixty years is a long time and Mercedes could do well to revive its old slogan in the 60's: "The good star on all roads".