JOHANNESBURG - As his fist pumped the air, most South Africans realised the tremendous change in politics that Nelson Mandela would bring to South Africa following his release from prison. He would save the country from what could have been a civil war. He would re-open the doors to global trading and forge new relationships with leaders across the world.
It was 11 February 1990, and little did the future president of South Africa know that hundreds of Mercedes-Benz employees would congregate the very next day, to decide upon a gift to celebrate his liberation. The meeting was organised by the National Union of Metalworkers in South Africa (NUMSA), which represented the employees at Mercedes’ East London plant. When news aired earlier that month that Mandela would be released from the Victor Verster Prison, situated 60 km from Cape Town, one Mercedes-Benz East London worker immediately wondered, “What can we give to Mr Mandela?”.
This employee was Philip Groom. Back then he was part of the laboratory team at the East London factory. He was a quality control technician who had to sample and test parts to analyse their suitability for mass production.
The decision is made
The day after Mandela’s release, there was a meeting at the factory, attended by all its workers. It was during this discussion that Groom proposed they build a Mercedes-Benz for Mandela. Back then, the W126 S-Class, as well as the two-door, 126-series SEC, were manufactured in East London – two of many Mercedes-Benz products.
Management came to a decision on this proposal, and within the hour, the word spread that the ambitious plan had been approved. There was jubilation among the entire workforce on the factory floor, Groom recalls. Management agreed Mercedes-Benz South Africa would supply all the materials, but asked how the workers would contribute to the manufacturing of the S-Class. The workers did not hesitate for a moment. They said they would work overtime – free of charge – to build the Mercedes.
During an interview with Groom, I asked him what memory of that period was the most vivid for him. His answer was simple. “The passion of everybody who participated. This wasn’t a sub assembly car, it was a complete knock-down. This meant you had different workers building the floor of the car, or a door, or even a wing. Every Mercedes-Benz has a job card, so all these employees knew at what stage they were building a part for Mandela’s S-Class. The enthusiasm of everyone who laid their hands on the car was mind-blowing.”
These words and emotions can be seen on YouTube. In 2013, Mercedes-Benz South Africa made a video called Mercedes-Benz Labour of Love. It clearly shows the enthusiasm with which the factory workers did their jobs. It includes interviews with Groom himself and other workers who contributed to the car. Groom said, “From the moment the car was merely a skeleton, and every time it was passed on to the next station, the workers would gather around the car, like in a ceremony, dancing as it passed them. To me, that will always be something that is etched in my mind”.
Despite the fact this W126 500SE is not bulletproof or armoured, it is still rather special. The red exterior colour and cream interior leather were part of the original proposal to management. It is a suitable and beautiful combination, especially since red was a less common colour for a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The only other factory option that was fitted was the electric sunroof.
As I climbed onto the rear seat, trying to imagine the thoughts, views and discussions that might have happened there, I noticed the telephone attached to the upper part of the transmission tunnel. “We knew Mandela would be doing a lot of work in the car and would be transported regularly in the back of the car,” explained Groom. “That is why we made it clear in our proposal to management that he should be contactable wherever he went. This is the reason why we proposed a phone to be installed in the car. This is not a factory fitted option though, and was only installed after the Mercedes-Benz had been built.”
On July 22 1990, over five months after Mandela’s release from prison, the car was finished and was ready to be handed over to its new owner – the future president of South Africa. Mercedes-Benz did not want this to happen at the factory where only the employees could attend, but rather outside the plant where it could be a community event.
The Sisa Dukashe Stadium was chosen as the host venue and was in the heart of the Mdantsane residential area, where many of the factory workers lived. More than 30 000 people attended this massive political rally, which was indeed a unique occasion.
Although the handover happened 30 years ago, Groom remembers it as if it were yesterday. “I made my speech, and then he responded with his speech. It is something I will never forget. In my speech to Mandela, I explained how we had built the car. I also explained what everything on the car meant, as there was a reason for everything, including the colour we had chosen. His acceptance speech was very emotional, as he said how the colour would always remind him of the blood that had been spilt by many South Africans in their pursuit of freedom. He did not take the Mercedes-Benz for granted and he knew how many workers had sacrificed their time to build the car.”
In the coming years, before Mandela became president, the car was well used by him. It was later replaced by a new car, and this W126 was returned to Mercedes-Benz South Africa, where it now forms part of the Heritage Collection. As an act of goodwill by MBSA, the car was placed in the permanent Mandela Exhibition at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. In a museum mostly made up of static exhibits and audio recordings, the Signal Red 500SE draws your attention.
And as we drove the Mercedes-Benz out of the museum for our photoshoot, its near-perfect condition was very clear. The odometer shows just over 42 000 km while the exterior red paintwork still shines. The interior is as crisp and clean as you would expect from such a low-mileage W126. The seats show very little signs of wear, and as the car was used to chauffeur a president to be, it was kept in very tidy condition, both in the front and in the back. In typical Mercedes fashion of that time, the pews are wide and have that familiar springy feel.
In Mandela's seat
I would guess Mandela sat on the left rear seat, as the phone is installed on the left-hand side of transmission tunnel. That theory might be totally wrong though, if a member of his entourage was given the task of making or receiving phone calls, and handing the phone to him. The engine bay, meanwhile, is relatively clean and only the discoloured plastics give away the true age of the car.
In 1998, then DaimlerChrysler CEO, Jürgen Schrempp, announced a one-billion rand investment in the East London factory. Mandela was at his side on that occasion, and was presented with a new, white S-Class to replace this Signal Red example. After this handover, the red 500SE was taken to the plant in East London to form part of Mercedes-Benz South Africa’s own collection.
As is the case with most chauffeur-driven VIPs, Mandela probably never had the chance to drive this unique 500SE and experience the thrill of pressing the throttle and stirring the 5,0-litre V8. Mandela owned a few presidential cars during his tenure as South Africa's leader, including a BMW.
However, none of them offered, or can even claim, to have the same level of history and passion in their make-up as this Mercedes S-Class.
*Special thanks to the Apartheid Museum for making the car available for this article...