By Stuart Grant with photography by Douglas Abbot
In 2015 Mercedes-Benz announced that, with the South African, Australian and Latin American markets in mind, it would be adding a luxury pick-up to its model offerings. This came to fruition in 2017 with the launch of the X-Class, essentially a facelifted and badge-engineered Nissan Navara. As one of the most expensive bakkies on the South African shopping list, sales were so lacklustre that the plug was soon pulled. With a stint in a Namibian-built Mercedes-Benz 180D Ponton pick-up, I found out that the X-Class was not the first Merc foray into the bakkie market, and that South Africa played an important role in building load carriers for the brand back in the day.
Let’s rewind a bit. Post-war Germany was all about rebuilding industry and, like most manufacturers, Daimler-Benz (for simplicity we’ll now refer to it as Mercedes-Benz) looked at adding new ranges to its portfolio as well as targeting the export market for real growth. Realising that there was a possibility of adding a utility vehicle to its repertoire, Merc had just shy of 1 100 W136 170V sedans converted into bakkies during 1946 and ’49 – for the most part used by the German government but the platform, ready for ute conversion, did also make its way to Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Namibia and here in limited quantities. The South American market for Mercs was strong, with cars being favoured, but to bypass hefty import taxes these were shipped across in completely-knocked-down (CKD) kit format before being assembled and sold. Their robustness suited the harsher South American conditions and being in kit format meant that a decent number of these Merc saloons were modified into workhorse station wagons and pick-ups.
As mentioned, South Africa had been on the Mercedes-Benz radar and by the early ’50s, six local businesses were importing and selling complete vehicles from the tristar brand: Cargo Motors in Johannesburg, NMI in Durban, Stanley Porter in Cape Town, Haaks Garage in Pretoria, Ronnie’s Motors in East London and John Williams Motors in Bloemfontein. But import quotas on complete cars – imposed by the government in an attempt to encourage international firms to set up manufacturing facilities in SA – had limited the number of units available nationally to just 100 per annum. A CKD option was considered, but with Mercedes-Benz under the impression that South Africa still lacked the skills and facilities, another way of circumventing the restrictions was found – the commercial vehicle route. As commercial vehicles weren’t as heavily restricted, South Africa soon started importing what were known as ‘chassis-cab’ or ‘half-cab’ versions of the W120 180D Merc with the idea being that local firms would build them into a bakkie in a similar fashion to the prototype cargo carriers built by German firm Binz. Binz presented a few right-hand drives to our importing dealers, one of which appears to have stayed behind and is currently undergoing restoration.
The ‘chassis-cab’ or ‘half-cab’ tag meant that vehicles arriving at the tip of Africa were just that: 180D two-door cars missing the rear-half bodywork. With Mercedes-Benz officially involved, quality of the added-on load-bin and whether it matched the exacting standard of the German-built front was of the upmost importance. It took some hunting to find the correct coachbuilders but, in 1955, Sweiss Technic Nicol of Windhoek (Namibia) got the nod as the first builders of the African 180D bakkie (or ‘Vaste Bak’ as it was called there). It delivered 18 before production moved to Morewear Industries in Germiston midway through ’56.
Manufacturing records are few and far between, but general consensus is that when Morewear production stopped late in 1958, something like 300 Ponton bakkies (fondly referred to as Stanley Porters by the Cape Town crew) had been sold by the six dealers. The South African bakkie impressed back in Germany and inspired Binz to reconsider carrying out its own conversion. In the region of 450 Binz pick-ups were manufactured and it appears that as many as 150 of these might have headed to South Africa to keep up with bakkie demand. If you’re lucky enough to spot a 180D bakkie, you can differentiate between a Binz and a locally made one by inspecting the loading area carefully. The Binz had the load-bin between the sculptured, car-like rear fenders, while the Germiston and Windhoek utes saw them integrated into the box. And our bakkies got a gap between cabin and bin (the Binz didn’t). It is estimated that Binz produced around 450 pick-ups, but it’s not known how many of them have been exported to South Africa.
In its relatively short lifespan the bakkie did a brilliant job, showing the powers that be that South Africa was a bona fide market for Mercedes-Benz – so much so that a factory was set up in East London, producing 180 sedans without any import quota restriction. How many South African Ponton bakkies survive today? It’s very difficult to say but one can be sure that the heavy-duty action that most will have seen means that the survival rate is seriously low. This, coupled with the low production number, means that it is one of the rarest of all production Mercedes-Benz models the world over. The X-Class might have missed the mark but the Southern African-built 180D Ponton bakkie and ‘Vaste Bak’ definitely had the X factor.