Brian Whittington readily admits he’s a petrol head with a penchant for powerful, luxury vehicles from American muscle cars to his passion for classic Mercedes — last count, around 60.
His great appreciation for the Mercedes Benz – the 125 year-old pioneer of the horseless carriage – has seen him acquire “36 good ones” over the past forty years.
Whittington, who’s just turned 70, was the eighth Hawke’s Bay classic car owner to adopt the Petrolheads name for a monthly run. “Our wives were going out for coffee so we thought why don’t we go off and have lunch somewhere.”
Today there are 112 enthusiasts; gatherings attract an eclectic assortment of Ferraris, Aston Martins, Audi R8s, Mustangs, MGs and even a 1929 Bentley race car. “you wouldn’t believe what’s in the Bay,” says Whittington.
He prefers to give his various Mercedes sport models, perhaps the 1960s in-line six cylinder fuel injected 230 sL with pagoda roof, an outing on Petrolhead Fridays.
However, options were getting thinner when BayBuzz dropped by. Only a dozen or so vehicles in various states of restoration and repair remained in his massive Puketapu shed and workshop.
Bay’s lost opportunity
Most of his meticulously maintained classic Mercedes have been loaded on to car transporters headed for fellow connoisseur Kevin rush’s Manukau City Mercedes museum.
Whittington and fellow car enthusiasts had hoped to establish a local museum to display their vehicles as a tourist attraction, possibly to raise money for charity.
However, he was put off the idea when others who had attempted similar ventures warned he would be worn down by bureaucracy and years of negotiation with councils. “it could have been another draw card for Napier or Hastings. That’s the sort of thing people love to visit.”
When Mercedes parts specialist Kevin rush came to Hawke’s bay for Art Deco week last year he took one look at Whittington’s collection and offered to sell the cars on his international websites.
“I knew I needed to do something with them so I reluctantly agreed and was very happy when he decided to buy them himself so they could stay together.”
Cars have character
He has driven all the cars at various times, putting the registrations on hold until needed. “i took them out on rotate, drove them around for a bit, then put them back into storage. Many were one-owner cars before i got them.”
Even if they’d not been used for a decade, he’d often find that with a new battery they’d start first-off. “They’ve all got character. i know how they drive. you can get two the same but they’re all different.”
A few fine specimens were still parked in the yard, including the magnificent CL 600 V12 twin turbo 2003 Mercedes built to order for Graeme Hart, one of Australasia’s richest men.
It cost $350,000 new and features bulletproof double glazing, heated and ventilated seats with massage pulse control, Parktronic voice command, adjustable suspension, 18 inch mags and reaches 100km in 4.6 seconds.
“It’s a head of state car, sheer luxury. you don’t just buy these, they have to be built to order and it took twelve months from the time he put the money down to delivery,” says Whittington.
He has a sportier model, the latest s500 V8 with all “the bells and whistles” which he’ll also keep, until its time for an update.
Every car has a story to tell, and while the white 1964 Mercedes 220s in the yard might not look like a show stopper, it’s a keeper. Whittington has owned it twice; once straight off the German production line and again in 1995 when nostalgia got the better of him.
He’s in the middle of restoring it to factory specifications. despite having done 658,000 miles – around a million kilometres – it still runs like a dream.
After all these years
On saving up his hard-earned cash driving pea harvesters and tractors for the bird’s eye cannery in Hastings, Whittington headed out on his great OE with fellow traveller Brian McAra from Havelock North, at the age of twenty years.
After touring around Britain and europe he took a job demonstrating trucks and tractors at the newly acquired Unimog division of Mercedes-Benz in single Fin, southern Germany.
While at the Mercedes factory he heard of plans to produce the first white 220s Mercedes saloon in a colour previously reserved for the sports models. Whittington was determined to have one, knowing he’d have to own it for two years before it could be taken home.
He placed his order, specifying blue upholstery, and was told full payment was required before delivery. in 1964, after ten months of saving up “the equivalent of five new Mark III Zephyrs”, the production manager called him into the factory — they’d put aside the first model off the production line.
He couldn’t wait to get it out on the autobahn and was pleasantly surprised how quickly it reached 100mph — just to confirm its stability on the road he took his hands off the wheel. “I thought wow, that’s really something.”
Swapped on the lot
Whittington began selling Mercedes-Benz cars and was offered a position in North America. However, he opted to return home to look after his parents’ Pakowhai property when his father took ill in 1965.
A Tauranga car dealer offered to swap the 220s saloon Whittington had driven around Europe for a brand new Mercedes off the lot. “I thought it was a good deal, but I know he sold it for about 40% more than the new price.”
Whittington went back to the big American Fords, Dodges and Chryslers his father and uncles had driven until the early 1970s … until his friend Kelvin Frickelton at Cable Price Motors in Wellington challenged his allegiance.
He sent up a maroon Mercedes 280 SE 3.5 four door V8. This wasn’t just any car — it had history. The Russian embassy vehicle had been tailed around Wellington in 1974 by SIS agents convinced former government official and author Dr Bill Sutch, was selling state secrets to a KGB agent.
“It was driving that V8 that made me realise it was time to move back into the Mercedes; the quality and the road handling was just superb.”
Whittington also ended up with the embassy’s sister vehicle, an identical dark blue model, plus a multitude of other classic Mercedes through his relationship with Frickelton.
“Kelvin saw I had a big shed and while he would have liked to keep the cars himself he had no room. I agreed to take a few, but he just kept finding them.”
If wife Carolyn answered the phone she would simply say “No Kelvin, he doesn’t need another car”. However the two enthusiasts conspired to have the vehicles delivered on the quiet.
Another acquisition was the 1953 Mercedes-benz 300 Adenauer, a hand-built touring car, imported new and owned by Christchurch businessman John Owens for 43 years.
The ‘3 litre overhead cam, aluminium head, straight six with twin downdraft carbs and 4-speed manual synchromesh gears’ is described as ‘elegant, powerful, exclusive, and expensive’ with extras including a VHF mobile telephone and dictation machine.
Soon Mercedes were jammed nose to tail in Whittington’s expansive shed, some up on hoists and others parked in the yard. in another shed a couple of kilometres away are a further twenty or so more mainstream Mercedes.
Some have been rescued after being parked up for years, while others were purchased for restoration or parts. His motto is take them back to factory standard, including upholstery, carpets and even the colour coding and brand of paint.
His first restoration was a 1958 Daimler-Benz Ponton, the first new post war passenger model, and his current project is a rare 1955 Mercedes 180 diesel.
Asked why he has a Rolls Royce Silver Spirit in his collection, he says it makes him realise how much better the Mercedes is. “They’re not really the car many people think they are; it might be Rolls Royce under the bonnet but the transmission and diff are Cadillac and the suspension is Citroen.”
End of an era
Whittington returned to the German Mercedes factory where he worked in the 60s for the 1986 centenary, and as an early employee from the Unimog years he was asked to sign a document marking the anniversary of that company.
His love affair with powerful luxury vehicles was further celebrated when he and wife Carolyn joined five other Kiwis and six Aussies for a 5,000km drive across America’s meandering route 66. A Mercedes seemed inappropriate, so they drove the latest Mustang.
During that trip Whittington learned his friend Kelvin Frickelton, who had supplied him with all but ten of his best Mercedes, had passed away. From that point he began reflecting on the future of his prized collection.
Despite the lost opportunity for Hawke’s Bay there’s some consolation in knowing his best cars will have pride of place at the new Mercedes museum in Manukau. He’s saddened, however, that there’s no place to display the amazing examples of automotive history that collectors have amassed around Hawke’s Bay.
When BayBuzz left, Brian Whittington was looking forward to the next cruise with the Petrolheads, with stopovers planned at another Hawke’s bay’s classic vehicle restorer, then lunch at some out of the way pub.