Behind the White Wheel

Behind the White Wheel

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Dreams, Street Shots, Pontons and more in Beirut

I was born in a city that was destroyed and rebuilt 7 times as history tells. I was raised to despise the causes and consequences of the 1975 destruction and of the 1993 - 1994 urban planning massacre or "wiping out exercise". 
As I grew up, listening to stories, looking at old pictures...etc. my interest in discovering how Beirut was grew tremendously. I wanted to feel a certain something that was lost; I was continuously looking and searching for a way of life, for habits, for people, for places, for buildings, for streets that have all vanished. Many months of surfing the net, of reading in "Le Centre Ville de Mon Pere" (by Tania Rayes Ingea), in "Pure Nostalgia" (by Imad Kozem) and in "Beirut, Souwar fi Zakirati" (by Pierre Maadanjian) books and in asking around provided me with a good feel of the daily life's vibes of the city. 

On the Martyr's Square facing the old police station towards Souk El Sagha.What is this guy selling? 
I imagine myself going from Hamra to Al Bourj Square on a sunny morning of April, hearing the noises of the shops' metallic sliding doors opening with the typical Mercedes-Benz ponton/ fintail's honk in the back of my mind, feeling the still enjoyable heat of the sun and waiting for a "Service" to pick me up.
Yesterday, after a long evening of reading, of looking at pictures, of comparing between then and now, coupled by an infinite number of questions I asked my father and my Montrealais friend Kheireddine El-Ahdab, I ended up dreaming that I was driving my 1961 Mercedes-Benz 180 in the old Beirut. A weird dream I admit...

This picture of Dona and I popped up in my dream (Photo: Crystel Abboud)
In this post, I picked up random pics of some areas of Beirut that appeared in my dream...I tried to reconstitute it as accurately as it could get; we will therefore go in a virtual ride in my 1961 Mercedes-Benz 180 and discover snapshots of the city together...The route followed in this post is the same as the one I followed in my dream; hence some lack of logic might pop up from one time to the other. 

Map of Downtown Beirut circa 1974. Source: Le Centreville de Mon Pere by Tania Rayes Ingea
Lets start from some balcony in Ain El Mreisseh. We are facing the St.Georges Hotel, and I can spot the arcades of "Ahwet El Hajj Daoud in the Zeitouneh area. I parked my Mercedes-Benz at the entrance of the hotel. Lets go!

Notice the beautiful flowers and the yellow steel chair and table on the balcony
On the road after St. Georges to the right, then to the left, we reach the beginnings of the Zaytouneh area (Blue bus line in the map above). On my right in the picture below (where two long pine trees appear), lies the Latin cemetery. My grand father Anis Mansour was buried there. This cemetery doesn't exist anymore, the "dead" moved to the region of Beit Mery. Rain has just stopped and a beautiful rainbow connects Beirut to the sky...

Zaytouneh area from the side of Ain El Mreisseh
I continue straight on the road, 1st, 2nd, then 3rd gear. I can hear the newly re-built engine of my 180b calming down while still "asking gently" to move "him" to the 4th gear...

The tall pine trees used to cover the cemetery and isolate it from the surrounding noises. Notice the Saviem-Chausson bus (blue line)
Straight on the road, I pass by Ahmad Shawki Street. Some old buildings, similar to the ones in Gemayzeh face each others, mostly all of the same height; this assures that the sun enters in all apartments; the ones facing the mountain get the sun in the morning and the ones facing the sea get it in the evening.
I continue driving...on my way I cross an Opel Kapitan Break and a beautiful blue Peugeot or Renault Fourgeonette. The streets still have the old Neon lights, a typical aspect of Beirut.

Towards Hotel Normandie
I cross Ahmad Shawki street and stop towards "Ahwet El Hajj Daoud", looking back towards the Phoenicia Hotel's direction, I can see on my right, by the sea, the Kit Kat building. This building has been demolished in 1993, it used to be the hub of a very famous cabaret. The general aspect of this building is somehow similar to that of the St.Georges Hotel.
 
Zeytoune with the Kit Kat building on the right facing the sea. This area is now the road leading to the west side of Starco
On my left and behind the palm trees and in the picture below, lies what used to be Hotel Bassoul and Hotel Normandie. Hotel Bassoul or Grand Hotel d'Orient was the first hotel ever built in Beirut. I can remember its remains back in 1990 when the civil war stopped. A beautiful white and orange Ford or Chevrolet is parked facing the sea.
Hotel Normandy and Hotel Bassoul on its right
Ahwet El Hajj Daoud and its famous arcades
A view of Normandie Hotel, with Bahri Cafe and Ahwet El Hajj Daoud
Turning around again facing the mountains, I can see "Ahwet El Hajj Daoud", directly facing the sea. "Ahwet El Hajj Daoud" constituted a sort of island between two roads: to its right, one would go towards the old souks, the Beirut Stock Exchange building and l'Orient le Jour building (still present nowadays, awaiting its renovation), to its left one would go towards Bahri Restaurant, and the building of "La Banque de la Syrie et du Liban" (still there).
I engage the 2nd gear and go towards the old souks, taking l'Avenue des Francais behind "Ahwet El Hajj Daoud" and turning left to catch the end of la Rue du Patriarche Howayek to reach the "Bahri" sea road.

The Becker Mexico with the Wonderbar (Photo: Dona Bardawil)
There, my dream changes, and I should have skipped an area that I am still unable to re-construct in my mind. How was the road next to the Lebanese Marines Base? Which buildings were there? I still can not draw a clear picture of it.
I suddenly see myself on Foch street; it hasn't changed much...The Mosque is still there next to the beautiful red and off-white Idriss building. This building has marked my teenage years: After the demolitions of 1993, it appeared alone, standing among the endless waves of dust. Its colors combination reflects the unique Art-Deco style of the late 1920s. A two-tones paint ponton passing by a funny guy wearing what looks like marines uniform appears in front of me. The two tones paint 180/190b appears to have the additional chrome strips from the 220S model; these strips were a dealership addition at an extra cost along with the front fender turn signals. Again, the neon street lights are illuminating Beirut's nights. 

On Allenby Street, note the two tones Mercedes-Benz 180b/190b
Following Foch Street, I reach Weygand Street next to Beirut's Municipality. I see vaguely its buildings thinking of the big Daaboul building that used to stand between Foch and Urugway streets. This building was heavily destroyed during the early years of the 1975 civil war.

Daaboul Building; destroyed in 1975. Note the Hotel Regent building that has been replaced by Annahar building
Jumping deeper in my dream, "madame chignon" (typical 1960s hair style) appears crossing Weygand Street towards the old souks. Was she entering souk el Tawileh? She looks so. Souk el Tawileh was distinguished by its high end small (by today's shopping mall standards) boutiques such as Beranger and Au Gant Rouge that has now moved to the intersection of Allenby and Fakhry Bey streets. At least three pontons, most probably taxis, appear on scene. The first one, with red interior has the typical metallic bar above the front seat's back; this bar helped people getting in and out of the car without pulling the back of the front seat with their hand. This typical Lebanese invention was present in my ponton when I first bought it. I took it out during its restoration to respect originality.

A woman crossing Weygand Street towards the old souks. Notice the row of pontons on the street
Continuing up in Weygand Street, I reach its crossing with Riad El Solh Street, also known as La Rue des Banques (Banks street). Weygand was one of the most crowded streets of Beirut linking Hamra to Saifi, and the old souks to the rest of the city. In the picture below, three pontons (180b/ 190b) seem looking for passengers; at some point, the police used to forbid taxis to stop and take passengers on this street in an attempt to decrease the traffic; they used to immediately give a fine when a car's stop lights turn on! This decision apparently did not survive for a long period of time.

3 pontons on Weygand Street
I jumped in my dream to the Martyrs Square, specifically to the entrance of "Souk El Sagha" in the picture below...This souk was characterized by a big door that used to be closed at night...The Souk was located between two or more old buildings that connect in a way or another to Souk Abou El Nasr and Souk El Nouriyyeh; two of the very old souks once located between Place des Martyrs and Maarad Street.

Arcade at the Entrance of Souk El Sagha. Notice the simple yet classy Mercedes-Benz 190 Fintail
What took me suddenly to this spot is unexplainable... Maybe the beautiful Mercedes-Benz 190 Fintail parked at its entrance that I long contemplated while looking at the picture? Maybe the so many questions I asked of who for example would close the souk's door every evening and who would open it every morning?
I looked at the door of the souk, read what was written: "Souk Al Sagha" in Arabic and French and continued my way up towards Azariyyeh building at the crossing of Emire Bechir street and Place des Martyrs.
Going towards Souk El Sagha and the crossing of Emir Bechir Street and the Martyrs' Square

At the crossing of Emir Bechir Street and Martyrs' Square.
My iPhone's alarm started ringing pushing me to "squeeze myself" on the road driving towards the Holiday Inn Hotel next to Starco Center that has not changed much since then...

Starco Building towars the St.Charles City Center. Notice the Mercedes-Benz 180b/190b
I woke up, turned on my Blaupunkt Santos tube radio as I do every morning... The BBC on the AM Band was evoking the explosion that demolished completely the historic Carlton Hotel in Aleppo...I remembered the Daaboul Building, associating dreams and realities... My dream wasn't real, it was a series of old pictures that I scrutinized to the extent that they became engraved in my mind...In my sleep, I though I knew this old city very well; in reality, it was somehow unknown to me; it was evolving in its own way when a certain earthquake called war hit it deviating the path it was following before "reconstruction" changed completely its identity.
Looking at Aleppo and comparing it to Beirut made me realize for the hundredth time maybe, that destroying people's past is most of the time made on purpose and rarely happens by coincidence. Conflicts arise, wars too, then certain regions get the heaviest destruction; "by chance" these regions are always the places that used to hold the richest and most remarkable memories and heritage of the society. I asked myself, what was the military importance of, lets say, Souk El Nouriyeh? Of Zaytouneh? Of Souk El Tawileh?

Beginning of Souk El Nouriyyeh behind cinema Opera that became the Virgin Megastore Building
Why were they looted, bombed and burned first then systematically erased as of 1983 almost ten years before the end of the civil war...?
The historically, culturally and economically important cities of our dear Levant are being systematically deprived of their original roles and heritage. Beirut first, then Aleppo and Homs...A pure coincidence? I really doubt...
Now that the conflict in Syria has reached an important turning point, I will be observing how the reconstruction of the old cities of Aleppo and Homs will take place. The hope to preserve the original social and economical roles of these agglomerations is all I wish for. Reconciliation in Syria cannot be reached without letting these old cities flourish as they did; playing their original stabilizing role.
Thank God old Damascus remained intact...

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

To Hartwig Mueller

Being a founding member of IPOG (International Pontons Owners Group), and an active daily visitor of mbzponton.org, I always enjoyed reading the stories of Hartwig Mueller, a retired German Mercedes-Benz Salesman. 
Hartwig Mueller standing proudly next to a 180b/190b demonstrator (Ref: mbzponton.org)
From 1956 up till 1964, Hartwig's daily work involved selling all types of Mercedes-Benz vehicles; from the 180 to the 220S passing by UNIMOGS, Trucks, SLs...etc. 


Getting in or out of a 190b demonstrator; notice the 1960s sunglasses (Ref: mbzponton.org)
Hartwig described in the Ponton Page as well as in his now gone website the daily life back in the late 50s and early 60s when pontons, especially 180 and 190 were brand new, top notch cars. He sold many Mercedes-Benz to US soldiers stationed in Germany and to other people who opted for the Mercedes-Benz quality and simple yet elegant design.

A 190b demonstrator (Ref: the now gone Hartwig Mueller's website)
Hartwig passed away on the 13th of November 2013. I regret not having the opportunity to meet him in person and I regret not being able to save his personal website that included a genuine description he wrote about the feel on board of a brand new ponton.

It is easy to shift gears in a ponton (Ref: mbzponton.org)

Notice the old pre-European Union white registration plates (Ref: mbzponton.org)
Hartwig, may you rest in peace, your stories have inspired me and have helped me associate my 180b with its original context.

Associated Link:
http://www.mbzponton.org/pax058/people/mueller/mueller.htm

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"The Imagination of a Generation"

It is always fulfilling to read positive comments about my favorite car the Mercedes-Benz 180/ 190 (W120/ 121). 
While surfing the net, I came through the article below; a test drive performed by Paul Stassino from Classic Cars Magazine in Australia on a 1959 Mercedes-Benz 190b. Paul's description was so accurate that I felt I wrote the article by myself. 
Indeed, "The 190b Ponton (or 180b in my case) captured the imagination of a generation, and helped cement Mercedes-Benz's commitment to excellence." 

 


Enjoying a beautiful ride in my 1961, 180b (photo: Dona Bardawil)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Rebuilding the Engine

Back in 2010, the engine of my 180b (its original engine) started burning oil excessively leaving behind the car a blue/whitish cloud of smoke. Back then, I had a rebuilt 180b bloc that I have kept for years. I didn't know exactly how it was rebuilt but I knew it was ready to be installed. Quickly, I took out the original engine and replaced it with the rebuilt bloc keeping in the back of my mind the idea that this replacement is temporary until I find the right time to rebuild the original one. After Christmas and New Year vacation, and with 2014 announcing major changes in my life, I decided to take the opportunity and rebuild the original engine.

Dismantling going on

I faced the dilemma of which mechanic to choose for the job. It was either Bechara Ghsoub or Abdo El-Hage. Both are experienced mechanics who have more than 50 years of experience in Mercedes-Benz cars. Finally, I decided to opt for Abdo El Hage for mainly his free time (he is retired but has kept his garage), for his continuous enthusiasm and good speed of work.

Abdo working hard on taking out the bloc
The original engine did not need boring; the pistons (standard size) were fine and the cylinder walls too. Of course new rings and polishing were a must. Looking at the crankshaft, we noticed that it needed boring and that it was already bored 4 times! It hence needed replacement! Among the many parts I had, there was a crankshaft that was only bored two times! Perfect match! The head needed new valves, guides and seals, a few hours job with the availability of the parts. Finally, I had a completely rebuilt engine ready to be installed.  
New bloc installed

Assembling the head after valves, guides and seals change
The installation process took few hours, the "new" engine quickly took its original place. Abdo, with his usual enthusiasm, and after saying few prayers, asked me to jump behind the wheel and start the car. Three cranks were enough to let the engine start! I was amazed by how smooth it appeared despite everything being new and hence still rough.
Assembling at its final stages
I took the car for its first ride. Nothing seemed unusual except its high idle which was left on purpose to smoother the engine. I drove around 100km, from Beirut to Batroun and back. I was happy no overheating was signaled and the oil pressure remained straight at its max.

After a thorough cleaning
When I finally arrived home, I noticed some oil dripping from the front crank seal; a deception after all the work performed. The seal I had installed was a NOS piece: I learned the hard way to never install NOS items when it comes to seals, joints and rubber pieces as these items tend to loose their elasticity and sealing properties with time. I ended up buying a new one from the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center.

The seal number 15 leaked oil
With the new front seal installed, I started driving and enjoying more and more my car. The break in period has been completed now: An oil and filter change, greasing and an engine bay wash is all what is required.
The next project will involve the rebuilding of the heating system; I admit it is a big challenge. 
   


Thursday, February 27, 2014

The 1 Euro Picture

An eBay find...a beautiful picture showing a family proudly posing in front of what seems to be a newly acquired Mercedes-Benz 190b ponton.
This type of pictures was very common back then. The car symbolized a certain social status, a certain success. I don't know who are the persons in the picture, I know it is taken in Austria in 1959. From my analysis, the "grandfather" or father (person supposedly taking the picture) of the little boy has acquired this car. On a sunny weekend day, the whole family went out of Vienna or whatever other city to enjoy a nice ride in "dad" or "jeddo"'s new car. The young boy reminded me much of my childhood when I used to wait for Sundays to go on a 1 hour ride to a certain restaurant where endless family lunches took place. The ride to the restaurant was always more enjoyable than the ride back home...when the Sunday afternoon down-mood syndrome attacked me...when my mind started excessively worrying about a homework I have not completed or an exam I am about to get its results...
This picture has awaken in me all these feelings, of course we never posed in front of a Mercedes-Benz ponton when we were kids as these cars had already became obsolete and almost disappeared from circulation but we have posed in front of a 1983 Honda Accord, a 1988 Pontiac Bonneville and a 1994 Cadillac STS...not to mention the exciting ride in ammo Walid's (my dad's best friend) 1970s white Jaguar...


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Once Upon a Time...Beirut by Bus

I grew up in Beirut, witnessing its unique chaos, traffic, noises, cars smoke, Mercedes-Benz W114/115 "atech" and W123 "laff" honking all around looking for passengers...etc. I grew up without noticing that my city had almost no public transport...oh with the exception of these old always empty white and blue Berliet or Karossa buses blocking the roads, stopping everywhere, desperately competing with privately owned, newer and smaller Brazilian Mercedes-Benz buses. I admit I was never able to draw their pattern or to discover their route...

Abandoned Berliet PR100 in Mar Mikhael old train station - Beirut
Photo courtesy: www.bus-planet.com
I grew up listening to my dad's stories on how he used to jump of the Tramway traveling from the old downtown to Bliss street...and on how in 1964, the Tramway service was discontinued, replaced by buses commonly called "Jahech El Dawleh" (the State's Mule).

The Tramway in downtown Beirut.
They were green before being painted red & white in the late 50s
I never had the curiosity to ask about these buses, their operating system, their routes...etc. No one seemed to have stories to tell, no one seemed to have any related memories except that they were used as streets barricades in the 1975-1976 phase of the civil war.

An abandonned Saviem-Chausson in Beirut. Courtesy: Imad Kozem
Time elapsed, downtown Beirut was destroyed then rebuilt in an awkward manner and I started looking for old pictures desperately trying to live and feel the long-gone spirit of the city.
In the many pictures I found, in addition to my favorite Mercedes-Benz 180/190 ponton, there was always beautiful off-white and red buses’ traveling on the main axes of the city.

Jahech El Dawleh going from Debbas Square towards Bechara El-Khoury square.
Notice the Mercedes 180 and the W114/115
Beautiful SC-3 awaiting next to Parisiana building
What was the brand of these buses? What were their characteristics? What was their route? Were they clean? Were they reliable? Etc. All these questions had no answers…

Two Saviem-Chausson facing Rivoli building.
Direction: Bab Idriss then Bliss Street
Heavy rain on the Corniche and an SC-3 driving "a contre-sens"
My primary search led to the following results: The buses were French made Saviem-Chausson, a brand I never heard of before! The Saviem-Chausson buses were the fruit of the merger between two French companies obviously Saviem (Société Anonyme de Véhicules Industriels et d'Equipements Mécaniques) and Chausson Cars (a French company manufacturing utility vehicles since 1903). The Lebanese government and in an attempt to ameliorate the public transportation and decrease traffic jams in the city ordered 150 new Saviem-Chausson buses that would replace the already old tramway. These buses were the SC-3 model, the topnotch of the bus' industry back then.

A green SC-3 in France. Courtesy: gege75-53.skyrock.com
Whether the bus system was efficient or not was the second question that came to my mind! Up till now, I am still not able to gather the needed information. Kheireddine El Ahdab, a friend living in Montreal and deeply interested in all the detailed aspects of daily life in the old Beirut described the bus service as inefficient, always late due to traffic jams, not having specified stops and generally lacking the required cleanliness. On the other hand, my aunt Annette described the bus service as efficient, clean and on time. She frequently used to take it from the National Museum Street to Koraytem.

A Saviem-Chausson facing the National Museum. Courtesy: Imad Kozem
With the beginning of the 1975 civil war, the heart of Beirut was destroyed, the State paralyzed and the links between Lebanese cut. Whether these links were social, emotional or physical didn't matter; the war was there to cut them… The bus system as a physical link stopped, the Saviem-Chausson were mostly destroyed and used as street barricades; an ironical fate for a vehicle destined to solely connect the various parts of the city.

Another SC-3 on Debbas Square going towards the Martyrs' Square.
Notice the many Mercedes-Benz 180/190
The Martyrs' Square in all its splendor. Notice the Saviem-Chausson
The war ended in 1990, Lebanese were told that they should re-connect together, without having the opportunity to discuss the past, why they fought and killed each others, why they destroyed their country…etc. Everything suddenly stopped, a page was turned and a “wanna be new starts” emerged… Quickly, the physical scars of the war were erased and downtown Beirut was transformed into a huge empty plot of land awaiting new constructions…and new “illegitimate” owners. No true efforts were done to heal the emotional wounds that the war left; no small actions were taken to re-connect people together. The once “big heart” that gathered and mixed all Lebanese together became a giant private property unable to tolerate one single bus stop where ordinary men and women could wait, discuss the weather…etc. before a certain “ja7ech el dawleh”, maybe the grandson of the famous “Saviem-Chausson”, would arrive and take them home, to loved ones, to work…etc.
 
Destroyed Saviem-Chausson SC-3 in Beirut. Courtesy: Imad Kozem
Few days ago I passed by an old bus “sanctuary” on the “Corniche du Fleuve”. Some buses are still there; among them this Saviem-Chausson bearing deep marks of the war…I bet they mirror those engraved in people’s hearts.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Swissvax Time

Keeping a classic car in perfect shape is on its own a demanding task especially if its owner is kind of perfectionist. For me, the cleanliness, shining and immaculate functioning of my Mercedes-Benz 180b is subject to no jeopardizing under any circumstances; I always look for original parts, trust two extremely well experienced mechanics and use the best, yes truly the best, paint caring products.
My car’s exterior color is the DB040 Black which on its own is one of the most difficult colors to take care of, hence the need to use the best products available on the market arises. After trying many brands I discovered Swissvax: a bespoke handmade series of waxes that vary in carnauba wax concentration and of course price. Using Swissvax on my car made me discover a new perception of “smoothness and shining”. In fact, I opted for the 2nd best product which is the Swissvax Concorso. The Concorso has a 52% concentration of natural carnauba wax along with many vegetable/ natural oils and aromas and constitute the best quality to price ratio in my opinion.
To keep my Mercedes-Benz’s paint in immaculate condition, I wax my car every 3 to 4 months using the non-abrasive Swissvax cleaner fluid and the famous Swissvax Concorso. The key to get the best result is the patience and love one puts in every polishing and buffing stroke! As a start, I clean my car from the garage’s dust and apply the cleaner fluid. Once done I wipe it out and buff it with the special Swissvax microfiber cloth. Afterwards, I apply the wax by hand and let it dry for few minutes before buffing it again.
The result is generally immaculate, making me forget the fatigue and stand speechless with amazement in front of my shining Mercedes-Benz. Time has come for waxing! I will try mixing two waxes together; the Swissvax Concorso and the Swissvax Shield - a new blend that is able to fight nature's harshest conditions - hoping to get an even better result…stay tuned for new pictures…