TOOLS OF THE TRADE

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By Stuart Grant with photos by Mike Schmucker

Before becoming a commercial photographer, Mike Schmucker packed his bags for a two-year photography lab technician apprenticeship in Germany. After spending hours in the dark and another six months working to afford a new camera (the world had swapped to digital by now), he headed home to Pretoria and completed another three-year photography qualification. With the tools of the trade now under his belt, he focused on his three passions: cars, architecture and skateboarding. But there was another thing he had discovered while in Germany – station wagons are the vehicles to own.

South Africa is not a massive wagon market, but Mike knew that in order to carry the heap of lighting equipment he’d be using, he needed one. And one where the rear seats fold completely flat to enable some of those uber-cool, low-angle, car-to-car motion shots motoring publications love. With an empty wallet it was never going to be a new model though, so he scanned the print classifieds for the estate versions of the 1970s and ʼ80s Datsuns, Opels (or SA’s badge-engineered Ranger), Valiants and Mercedes-Benzes.

After sampling some of these offerings, it quickly became apparent that only one of them met the smooth-ride requirement for sharp photography. Of course it was a Merc W123 wagon, complete with that pretty chrome roof-rack railing. Problem is that when new, these imports cost Porsche 911 money, so not many landed down at the tip of Africa. And the lucky few who had them hung onto them like cherished kids. But Mike continued buying the AutoTrader every Thursday, living in hope…

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Seven months into the hunt, another option popped on the pages. Still a Merc, mind you, but a 1992 W124 230E. When he read that it still had operational self-levelling rear suspension, cargo net and pull-out boot cover (perfect for hiding his gear from prying eyes), he hopped on the next flight to Cape Town. 

The owner, who told him that the odometer had just recently broken on 262 187km, let him take it on a short drive to Muizenberg. Smitten, Mike didn’t bother looking underneath the car and the cash and paperwork traded hands. From there a splash of fuel was put in, oil level measured and tyre pressure and coolant checked. Then it was straight onto the road for a real test drive – 1 400km back to Pretoria.  At 16 years old the Merc made it without hassle, but the scorching Karoo sun did show up the non-working aircon – though the electric windows and sunroof helped to ease the pain.

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For the next nine years, the W124 did its job as a daily commuter, family holiday machine and photography assistant admirably, with only regular maintenance and servicing the order of the day. And no, the aircon was never fixed. Neither was the failing paint clearcoat. (Why is it that so many Mercs of the 1980s and ʼ90s can’t handle the South African sun?) Stickers sourced from both local and international skate shops were used to divert the eyes off the paint issues, and when these weren’t enough, the warbird-inspired mouthful of teeth was added along the flanks.

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At one point, Mike’s bike fell over in the driveway and smashed the headlight and front bumper; these were fixed with silicone and liberal use of some vinyl off-cuts. But under the skin all was not well with the Benz. Corrosion in the cylinder head led to the gasket blowing, and the wagon landed up in the sick bay. Mike had to make the tough decision: repair or move onto a newer model. But like the owners of all W123 wagons, he was simply not prepared to let go of his W124. So he bit the bullet and repaired the workhorse.

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To celebrate, he took it on a five-day, 2 400km business road trip. From Pretoria, the first leg was to KwaZulu-Natal for photo shoots of buildings in Dundee and Hluhluwe and a skate session in Richards Bay. Then it was off for more work in Barberton (Mpumalanga) and Polokwane (Limpopo) before rushing home. The rejuvenated 27-year-old 230TE performed admirably through heat waves, heavy winds and pelting rain. It pulled like a train, soaking up the bumps, cushioning Mike’s skate park-battered body and returning fuel consumption figures below the 10-litres-per-100km mark.

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Mileage now reads 262 187km, but calculations suggest it’s actually up at the 500 000km zone. The odo is still broken… and so is the aircon. And it seems likely to stay that way.


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