For many of us, retirement seems like a lifetime away. The thought of extensive time in front of the TV and driving slowly in the fast lanes of Florida in a land barge may sound fun to some, it remains a completely unacceptable option for others. Fred and Elisabeth Smits are not the kind of retirees who like to sit still and wallow in the bingo parlor. Over the years, they’ve undertaken extensive automotive excursions together, experiencing everything from the rutted roads of Africa to the unforgiving outdoors of Australia’s Outback. It’s what they live for, and this courageous couple goes about it in a car that isn’t known for being road trip-worthy or sensationally swift.
Originally from the Netherlands, this dynamic duo is lead by the exploratory drive found within Fred, a retired engineer who for decades oversaw fleets of marine research and exploration vessels for civil projects. His wife Elisabeth has loved his adventurous spirit since day one, and upon retirement a few years back, they began driving their 1957 Mercedes Benz 220S Ponton in rallies together, often in extremely demanding conditions. But their most recent adventure is the biggest one yet, as they intend to travel to five continents over the course of 5 years, and hit every single Mercedes museum and factory along the way.
The couple is already halfway around the world, and they were last seen lounging bay-side in San Francisco in their Danish Zambezi Cross-Road camper, with the Golden Gate Bridge stretched out in front of them like an over-sized lawn ornament. Without air conditioning it sure hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been cheap either, but with enough savings and the right set-up, even the most arduous trans-continental voyage can be a joy.
So as this road-ready couple reached the end of the North American peregrination, we asked them a few questions regarding their adventures. It’s hard to tell which sounds more daunting: driving around the world in a classic Benz that has the crash safety rating of a pint glass, or the thought of being in said vehicle with your spouse everyday for hours on end for five consecutive years. All of the couple’s experiences are well documented on their Facebook page, so be sure to check it out and follow them for all the details regarding the journey. But before we get too far into their trip, let’s take a brief look at the car that is making all of this possible, for a 1957 Mercedes-Benz 220S Ponton isn’t something one comes across every day.
In March of 1956, Mercedes-Benz introduced the 220S, which was externally almost identical to its predecessor, the 220a, but had an upgraded 2.2-liter inline-six engine that produced around 100-105 horsepower depending on if it had twin-carburetors or not. Nicknamed “the Ponton” after the German word for “pontoon,” this title refers to both the fenders as well as the postwar styling trend that it inspired.
Behind the 220a, this design was Daimler-Benz’s second attempt at offering a fresh passenger vehicle after the fall of the Third Reich, and with its one-piece front bumper, twin chrome door/fender strips, and undeniable VIP interior, the 220S was a solid hit for the German automaker. By October of 1959, 55,279 sedans, and 3,429 cabriolets and coupés were on the market, with the one you see here being entirely built and released in Australia; which is how the Smits found it, since they reside in New Zealand.
The 220S had a four-speed column-equipped manual transmission, and it was available with an optional Hydrak automatic clutch that utilized notoriously finicky micro-switches on the gear selector to automatically disengage the clutch when the driver changed gears. Since this car is not known for being “power-savvy,” the Smits decided to go with a very lightweight Zambezi camper, and have spent their fare share of nights camped-out beneath the stars. While they do stay with plenty of people along the way, as they have become quite the nomadic celebrity couple, having the ability to sleep where you wish is a fantastic option even if the trailer limits your speed to 55 miles per hour.
What started with Fred restoring his Ponton on nights and weekends for fun turned into a two year project, and after a complete mechanical and electrical overhaul, some fresh paint and some tires, the couple began their trip in Los Angeles, where they started their one-year tour of the United States last summer. Since then, they’ve renewed their wedding vows in front of an ordained Elvis in Vegas, hit every single southern city worth mentioning. They have just wrapped-up their tour of Canada, and as they make their way back down the west coast, the Smits will hit Mexico and South America before the car gets shipped to Europe.
So why is all of this so important to us at the Cheat Sheet? Ultimately this is a testament to what is possible while behind the wheel; and it proves that with enough time, money, and energy any retiree can forget the interstate, take the back-roads all the way, and experience the real reason why we drive cars in the first place. Cars aren’t just transportation, they are our lifeline to one another, and whether we’re heading to the office or rolling to Tuscany, there is usually someone waiting for us at our destination. “The friendships we’ve made are just unbelievable” Fred says “After we’re done with the five-year trip, we may take a seven-year trip.”