In 1953, Mercedes-Benz introduced the line of mid-sized automobiles that would be its mainstay for nearly a decade. Built using unit-body principles, they were lightweight yet strong and utilized a front sub-frame for mounting the engine. These "ponton" or "roundie" models received a number of motors, from 48-hp diesels in the 180D taxi models to 130-hp six- cylinders in the final fuel-injected 220SE. "Zippo," the car on sale at Monterey, is considered to be the highest-mileage gasoline-powered Mercedes-Benz in the world, with over one million miles on the clock. It is offered with full provenance, including a 300-page manuscript titled "Roadstar" detailing its remarkable one-owner history. Ordered in 1955 as one of the first 220S models, "Zippo" was delivered to its owner in Japan in 1956-the first Mercedes there not to belong to the Emperor. It has been driven in five continents and the mileage is verified by Mercedes-Benz factory officials. "Zippo" was first restored by the Mercedes-Benz factory in Stuttgart in 1964 and then by Ron Marker of European Motors in Hutchison, Kansas, from 1997-2002. It has been repainted six times, reupholstered in red leather, had deluxe body trim added, its bumpers reinforced, and steel plates added underneath. It's quite possible it could travel anothermillion miles in the next 50 years.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1956 Mercedes-Benz 220S
Years Produced:1956-59
Number Produced:55,279
Original List Price:$4,474
SCM Valuation:$2,500-$7,500
Distributor Caps:$13.99
Chassis Number Location:Right front frame rail
Engine Number Location:Left front of block
Club Info:Mercedes-Benz Club of America;
Alternatives:1959-70 Volvo 122S, 1955-66 Citroen DS 19, 1959-66 Jaguar MkII
Investment Grade:C

This 1956 Mercedes-Benz 220S Sedan aka Zippo was sold for $19,800 at the RM Auctions sale held August 19, 2005.

Rising out of the ashes of WWII, the ponton models allowed Mercedes-Benz to seize the German mainstream market and hold it throughout the 1950s. While visually uninspired, the pontons were mechanically sophisticated and relatively bulletproof.

In contrast, BMW was peddling its fragile and bizarre 501, 502, and 503 “Baroque Angels” in very small numbers while the laughably dangerous Isetta bubble car put food on its corporate table. Borgward struggled to build a competitive big car, but the effort bankrupted the company and all the tooling was sold (to become Mexico City taxicabs) at the end of the decade.

In Europe, it was taxicab durability that contributed to Mercedes’ success. Anybody who flew into any German airport between 1953, when these cars were introduced, and about 1967-two generations later-was likely to have hopped in the back of a 180D or 190D diesel taxi. And while “Zippo” is significant as a genuinely documented one-million mile gasoline car, it likely has quite a bit of company among its diesel brethren.

Unless you equate the clattering of pistons with horsepower, you can dismiss the four-banger 180D series diesels or their feeble gas siblings as underpowered. The two-liter, six-cylinder, 220S gas models are the ones to have with 120 hp and 100-mph performance, excellent brakes, and very good handling for the day.

There’s a caveat in that (though a mild one), because the cars are coil-sprung up front with low-pivot swing axles at the rear. This might be the most forgiving swing axle setup, but it’s worth remembering the design limitations. Get used to handling a “four-on-the-tree” shifter and avoid the unhappy Hydrak semi-automatic four-speed, which was criticized for significant power loss through the fluid flywheel.

“Zippo” is described as having a three-speed automatic transmission, which was only available on the Adenauer 300 model. If so, it’s either an update at one of the restorations, or the original owner persuaded Mercedes to change its rules- quite an achievement.

Allowing for beauty to be in the eye of the beholder, the 220s make a huge jump when they’re restored-going from frumpy to shapely like the television makeover of a librarian. In the right pastel color, and with the full-length Webasto canvas sunroof, they can be stunning. (“Zippo,” in black and lacking a sunroof, had neither attribute).

If your pocket runs to it, Mercedes built 1,251 of the stylish 220S coupes and 2,178 cabriolets between 1956 and 1959. The last versions to use this body are the fuel-injected 220SE models, and there were 830 coupes and 1,112 cabriolets made between 1958 and 1960. However, you’d better dig deep, as a coupe will run you between $15,000 and $25,000 in nice shape and a cabriolet from $35,000 to $85,000.

RM’s pre-sale estimate for the 1956 Mercedes-Benz 220S Sedan of $60,000-$80,000 can best be described as ambitious-that’s cabriolet money. Luckily “Zippo” was listed without reserve.

When you’re talking about ponton sedans, $10,000 buys a lot of choices. For example, Bonhams sold a decent 1959 220S on April 18 for $6,245 (SCM #38457). After all, Mercedes made 111,034 six-cylinder pontons, so they aren’t exactly exclusive.

But at least “Zippo” is fresh. If you’re looking for a 220S, the main thing to consider is that any survivors are 50 years old. They’ve either been worn out (and maybe rebuilt) or they’ve spent long enough sitting to be fossilized and will fall apart like a cheap suit when they’re exhumed.

Aluminum cylinder heads are an expensive weak point after all this time and the cloth-covered wiring is best replaced. Cloth interiors will usually dissolve in a cloud of dust with real use, and any original leather will have an appetite for saddle soap akin to W.C. Fields and gin.

Rust is also your enemy. It tends to attack rocker panels rather than structural attachments, though beware of European cars, which may appear to have been driven in the sea. Bumpers are as soft as shiny beer cans and it’s as hard to find undented ones as it is for a Volvo 544.

Detail and trim parts are also a nuisance, since you’re mostly looking for new old stock or good used parts. People restoring cabriolets may have parts manufactured; it’s hard to justify that for a sedan.

But if you find a good runner, it’s still a perfectly practical daily driver and Mercedes dealers will love you when you take it in for service.
One story of convincing durability: 35 years ago in London, I helped a reporter friend move. He was German and drove his old 220 everywhere at 50 mph-quite an achievement in the city-smoking and talking continuously. His girlfriend was Russian and had been his interpreter in a short stint in Moscow. We went to collect tools from a wooden garage at the end of the garden. Inside the garage was another 220S, wearing Belgian plates. It was on blocks, with the nose punched in.

“What’s it doing here, anyway?” I asked him. “When I left Anna in Moscow, I promised to come back and get her. We crashed the Czech border in this car, at midnight with no lights, at about 100.”

Now that’s provenance.

Even though it was expensive at $19,800, “Zippo” may be the best 220S sedan extant. And if in fact it had a three-speed automatic, it’s a lot more driveable than the stick or Hydrak models. In any case, I’d call it well bought.

(Historical and descriptive information courtesy of the auction company.)

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