Behind the White Wheel

Behind the White Wheel

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Before It's Too Late

I have always admired the Mercedes-Benz Fintail series. For some reason; mainly to be able to compete in the US cars’ market and to follow the 1960s trend, Mercedes-Benz “went crazy” and added “wings” or “tails” to the newly designed sedans intended to replace the already aging pontons.

The late style 180b/c ponton overlapped with the Fintail series (Photo: Nadim Bou Habib)

The early 190 Fintail shared the same wheels, front blinkers and grill with the late 180b/c. Notice the wrong star (Photo: Dona Bardawil)
A blue 4 cylinders 190 Sedan
The four cylinders (190 and later 200) and the six cylinders (220S and its variants and the rare 300S) models of the Fintail series, had a successful career and an impressive look. Particularly, the six cylinders models with their big wings and long headlights enclosing the front blinkers had an imposing “attitude”.

The imposing 220S, unlike the 4 cylinders 190, the front blinkers migrated from the rear fenders to the headlights
A rare automatic 220S; notice the beautiful design of the rear wings, the huge taillights and the 13' wheels
Pleanty of room to work on the powerful 220 liters 6 cylinders engine. Notice the dual carburetors
Two years ago; I spotted in Mar Mikhael - Beirut a tired blue with beige interior 220S Fintail. Upon close inspection, the car looked complete with a relatively acceptable interior. However, rust was peacefully and generously eating its body.

Broken headlights glasses and missing star. Notice the rust on the front fenders (Photo: Dona Bardawil)
To my surprise, I found out that the car was for sale; I quickly called the owner who turned out to be living in the building under which the car was parked. An old funny guy, who had bought the car new back in 1963 and used it extensively until he stopped driving due to health reasons.

Rusted trunk, and broken/faded taillights. Notice the reflectors added on the wings (Photo: Dona Bardawil)
I sat in the car, had a look at its engine, trunk and dashboard that surprisingly was still housing the original Becker LeMans AM/ LW tube radio.

Simple and classy 220S dashboard. Unfortunately, the dashboard of our 220S needs a lot of refreshing
2 front seats that can easily accommodate 3 persons; notice the discrete pockets on the front doors interior
Spacious interior and folding arm rest. Notice the wood strips on the doors' interior
I fell in love with the car and found it an excellent candidate for an extensive restoration that would give it back its formal glory; unfortunately, the owner was asking for 5000$ non negotiable, an amount that I found and still find huge for a sedan in a similar condition. 

Missing hubcaps and chrome strips. These strips are very difficult to find (photo: Dona Bardawil)
2012 passed, followed by 2013 and now 2014…Every six months I used to call the owner asking for the price of the car; he never showed any willingness to go lower than 5000$. I hope 2015 would make him change his mind; the car has a history and deserves to be saved.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Becker Mexico Kaputt

The radio sets originally supplied with the Mercedes-Benz Pontons are, like the cars themselves, of another age. The vacuum tubes need to warm up before the sound begins radiating from the speaker. They are prone to needing repeated adjustments, yet the audio quality is warm and inviting. There is something about sitting in a Ponton at night with the radio on, and hearing the barely audible buzz from the power supply that makes one believe if they were to tune the dial to the right frequency, they would hear voices and music from the past. - - Jeff Miller / April 5, 2002

Back in 1995, when I bought my 1961 Mercedes-Benz 180b ponton, the owner (I respect him tremendously for that) had left the original Becker LeMans radio in the car's trunk.
After restoring my ponton, and being a purist when it comes to original equipment, I deeply wanted to re-install the original Becker LeMans. Unfortunately, the radio wasn't functioning and operated only on the AM and LW bands which were both obsolete. 
These Becker radios operate on vacuum tubes and are composed of two parts: The radio itself and a heavy power supply that is installed under the dashboard. 

Time passed by and in 1999, by chance, I found a similar radio in working condition. The radio was a Becker Mexico. I bought it quickly and was amazed when I found that it operates on the FM and AM bands. I installed it in my car and the love story started...

Becker Mexico Tube Radio - the perfect fit
The Becker Mexico with its Wunderbar (Automatic Electromechanical Search System) was a piece of art on its own; it goes perfectly well with the car's dashboard, has a warm and inviting sound and is very practical to use while driving. The driver has to just push the wonderbar and the radio will start searching for different channels and stopping on the strongest one. I enjoyed this Becker Mexico for the past fifteen years up till two months ago when suddenly the Wunderbar stopped finding any station...

I had been used to conduct regular maintenance on the radio; this included cleaning the tubes pins, changing few capacitors in the power supply and replacing the buzzer by a solid state one. Other than these operations, the radio worked very well for the past fifteen years. 

Notice the heavy power supply and the Blaupunkt Santos Tube Radio
With the help of IPOG (International Ponton Owners Group), particularly Jeff Miller who had posted the schematics of these radios on I was able to get a hint on where to look to try to repair this defect. I changed a resistor and tried to calibrate a capacitor in vain...The Wunderbar would either not work or work sporadically. 

The variable capacitor that I tried adjusting in vain
Yesterday, as I was trying to source some capacitors that I thought might need replacement, I found by chance an old gentleman (Elias Kfoury) who used to repair these radios; he provided me with some additional tips on what to examine and where to look. Unfortunately, my trials all failed; the Wunderbar worked normally briefly and stopped again. I called Elias today, asking him to accept to work on the radio; after many trials and a lot of begging he accepted. 
I will give him the radio by the end of this week or early next week, hoping to get satisfying results. 
I kind of have a positive feeling about it, I have a strong favoritism vis-a-vis old technicians; they are artists who have a certain know-how combined with a very rich experience. They are, "like the pontons themselves, of another age". I enjoy listening to their stories; they are often proud to speak about their experience that makes them remember the "good old days". 

Elias, I am counting on you...I hope to publish a more detailed post once the work is done.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

To Sabah

Today, the legendary diva Sabah left us…another symbol of the post independence Lebanon disappeared; a symbol of the “trentes glorieuses” era where the young republic and despite all the surrounding turmoil “knew” how to shine and excel.

Sabah, I always long to a beautiful era when I listen to your songs; an era I associate with the many pictures I saw and stories I heard of a certain “موسم عز", a certain short dream that landed once in my village Kfarhata in the early 70s, an era that I feel every time I listen to your beautiful “mawwal” "معنا بعدك و بتضل معنا".

Sabah, in one of your songs, Allo Beirut, you helped me feel, discover and know my city, you increased my love to it, to its people, its streets and its organized chaos. You projected me to moments where I walked around its old streets, listening to some of your songs coming out of Mercedes-Benz ponton and fintail tube radios. 

Sabah, with you gone, a beautiful part of Lebanon’s history ends; a part that I doubt will ever come back again…

Shine in the skies and keep on sweetening our lives with your beautiful voice and smile.  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Tough Old Lady

This posting is part of a series of articles that will target the Mercedes-Benz young classics. As a freak of the brand and a happy owner of a 1961 Mercedes-Benz 180 (W120) since 1995, I am recently thinking of acquiring/ saving another model. Will it be another sedan? Perhaps a coupe? Or a convertible? My decision should be based of course, on the beauty of the model, its price, the cost of its restoration and most importantly the memories and feelings it ignites in me.
I will start by the very dear Mercedes-Benz W115; the tough old lady that is still refusing to retire…

38 years after its production stopped, the W115 still refuses to retire. Notice the red Taxi plate
Time takes me back to the late 80s; mainly in the month of August or September of the year 1988; I was as usual sitting on the backseat behind my dad in the 1983 dark grey Honda Accord that I loved. Some relatives were following us in a navy blue Mercedes-Benz W115 (atech) on the Jal El Dib highway. Suddenly and abnormally, it started raining, and as a young cars freak, I started following the movement of my dad’s Honda’s wipers desperately trying to listen to the barely audible noise of their motor…I had developed a curiosity in discovering how the wipers’ motor functions and had nagged infinitely to get the replaced wipers’ motor of my late uncle’s 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
When I laid eyes on our relatives’ Mercedes-Benz I noticed that the wipers move in a different way; they go from the center of the windshield where they cross each others’ towards the opposite extremities of it. I was flabbergasted by their movement and found it so matching with the look of the car that has intrigued me. Somehow I had the impression that the general expression on the “Atech’s” “face” was a bit sad or reflecting some worries. The model started to highly interest me.  

Notice the ivory steering wheel and the crossed wipers
What can I say about the W115 series? Talking about how successful it was, is just an habitual statement; in my perspective, I always saw it as the successor of the 180/190 Mercedes-Benz ponton series (W120), a successor that did not have the privilege of fully witnessing the golden era of Lebanon. Nevertheless, the W115 was along with the W123 the main actors on the “service”/ Taxi scene for nearly three decades; I grew up listening to their honking and enjoying riding in one of them to go from Hamra to Mar Elias to visit my friends there. To our generation, the W115 in Lebanon became quickly the symbol of the “service” to the extent that one would be shocked to see it without a red plate…
A typical Taxi in Beirut
It is in these W115 that our laughs, our stories, our endless discussions took place. In these W115 we discussed the performance of my friend Georges Naufal’s W124, we discussed grades, teenage adventures, future projects…etc. Today, as I look back, I find that a bulk of days and years has accumulated; again, as the Mercedes-Benz 180/190 (W120)’s mileage has flipped over and over so many times until they gave up 25 years ago the mileage of the W115 is still flipping and flipping, yet these cars are still refusing to completely retire albeit their decreasing number on the roads.

An extremely tired 230.4
Rotten interior. Notice the old style steering wheel and the sunroof
Before they completely disappear like their antecedents, I will be doing my best to save one, restore it and try to re-live through it parts of my childhood and teenage years. Usually, life obliges people to put priorities and I admit it is not on the top of my to-do list to venture into this project. However, acquiring a daily driver and restoring it slowly is always a good option.

A perfectly restored W115. Notice the typical 1970s yellow color

The taillights indicate that it is a pre-1974 model
Simple yet elegant interior
During my honeymoon in Italy, and as I was acquainting myself with the different spots of LeAgavi Hotel in Positano I bumped into this beautiful and perfectly original W115 that seems to have been sleeping for years. Was it a sign? Maybe! I automatically asked if it was for sale, unfortunately it belonged to the owners of the hotel and selling it wasn’t in their plans…

The W115 "dans son jus" overlooking Positano's beautiful sea
Another view; notice the unusual blinker on the side of the fender
I liked how original the car was; it reminded me of a similar W115 that remained parked for many years in the street where I live until it suddenly disappeared. I still regret not asking more about it!

Gone W115; I wish I was able to save it

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...