What Hennie Roux harbours for vintage Mercedes Benz cars and parts is nothing short of a grand passion, writes Lin Sampson.
My wife said, ‘It’s me or the cars.’ I said ‘I’ll miss you.’” Hennie Roux, lover of vintage Mercedes-Benz cars, is talking.
“Women are so tricky,” he says. “Mercs are kinder and easier.” Roux’s house in Primrose Hill, Johannesburg, overflows with the bold and chromey remains of dozens of classic Pontons, the kind manufactured in the ’50s and ’60s, before fintails made their appearance.
It is a Mercedes-Benz graveyard, I say, but Roux looks indignant. “What do you mean ‘graveyard?’ You are talking about my family.”
Roux is a fiks ou: hard, compact body, razor-cut hair, high colour. He has the look of a soldier and, in a way, that is what he is: a foot soldier in the vast army of Mercedes-Benz aficionados. He wears blue overalls and his hands are small and white with perfectly pared nails, not the kind of hands you’d expect on someone who works on cars.
He says he is not into making more money than he needs to live. “That car I sold to your friend [a 280SE from 1968], I bought it for 10 and I sold it for 10.” He picks them up cheaply, usually R10 000 at a time. “That one [he points out a car the colour of pond water] that I paid 20 000 for, it will be worth 100 000 when I’m finished.”
He leads me to the backyard. “This is really lawn,” he says cheerfully, stepping carefully between old leather seats, some an ancient velvet green, and a spread of Ponton torque converters, oil filters, wheel rims, consoles, a pile of those wonderful old Mercedes steering wheels and even a few damaged butterfly windows, big shiny lamps, brake pedals and dipsticks. The cars themselves look like old carcasses, skulk-eyed, intimidating in their desolation, a commingling of styles and shapes.
Across the small swimming pool another car hovers precariously. “That’s a 1957 180 diesel. I love the sound of a diesel engine. I could listen to it all night.”
Roux has been known to drive through the night to Cape Town to collect a car. He loves the workmanship, the smoothed coil of their shiny bumpers, the dashboards with their caressing detail, the leather seats, the strange squat elegance.
“I have been fascinated by these cars since I was a child,” he says. “I went to Malvern High school. My father had a powder-blue 1959 220S which I used to go to school in. There is something about the shape that really does something to me. Ten years ago, I had 20. I thought I must be off my head to have all these cars. But I couldn’t stop. I just started collecting again. I got some back that I had sold. ”
And the more rattled and disreputable they look, the more Roux seems to love them.
“I don’t mind how damaged they are,” he says, looking at a horribly mangled crash victim. “If I don’t go and fetch them, people will just take them to the scrapyards.”
His eyes look a little moist.
“Sometimes I just look around and think to myself, I’m running a bloody IC unit here. They’re all over. I’ve got in Boksburg. I’ve got in Roodepoort. I’ve got in Pretoria.
“I don’t know, I’ve probably got about a hundred in all. I tell people that, for every spot on a Dalmatian, I’ve got a Merc.”
If you didn’t have a Merc, what would you have? “Another Merc.”
He has a Gullwing 300 SL 1958, a real roadster with a slick blond finish, in perfect condition. You could imagine Grace Kelly gliding smoothly round the Monaco bends in it, wearing soft, butter-coloured leather driving gloves.
Roux loves all Mercedes, but most of all he loves the S class, which dates as far back as 1950. With its long nose, distinctive grille and hard, edgy lights, the S class is considered by many to have been the apogee of Mercedes-Benz design. “Do you see the fenders are longer than the others?” Roux asks me, rhetorically. “They are very beautiful. Full wood dashes.”
Roux’s speciality is reconstructing the Ponton bakkie, workhorse of the South African countryside. “I take a car and then I cut the roof and the back end off and replace it with a load bin. In the ’50s and ’60s, they made Mercedes bakkies in Germiston. They don’t make them anymore. I can make a load bin out of a saloon if I cut everything from the front door backwards.”
He himself drives a light green 1985 200 series. “Man, that car is strong,” he tells me. “That’s the best Mercedes ever made. This one I bought at a scrapyard five years ago, for R6 000. I have never had any problems with it. If I have to go to Cape Town, that’s the one, it never lets me down.”
“Even if I had the money, I wouldn’t buy a new car. I bought this house for R120 [thousand]. It doesn’t make sense to buy a car for half a million rand.”
“I have even got a Mercedes inside the house,” he says, and there’s something about the wide front door that makes you believe he could drive one right into his bedroom, but it’s his little joke. He takes a model Mercedes out of a display cabinet, a 180 diesel, also 1957.
Judging from the outside, I had expected the interior of Roux’s house to be an overflow of papers and car parts, a wild effulgence of discarded things. Instead, it is very ordered; it seems he has brought his perfectionism indoors. There’s a piano, a little, bewildered-looking cat, a vase of flowers. It is pin neat. Roux has just ripped all the floors out and replaced them with tiles. “I worked until three in the morning,” he says. “Wooden floors look wonderful. And then these women in high-heeled shoes walk all over it, pitting it with holes.”
Mercedes is a country. It is the oldest car-manufacturing company in the world. There are Mercedes wall plaques, wallpaper, jackets, beanies, skiing hoods. You can buy Mercedes toy cars, bags. Mercedes have always had a big presence in South Africa. At one time no farmer was without one.
“In fact, that is where I have been getting them from, the farms. I tell the girls: You need a Merc in your life, not a man. You’re going to get value for money. Something proper.”
I’m with a friend who is considering buying an old Merc, but Roux doesn’t seem keen to part with one. He says he doesn’t even belong to the Mercedes Club. “They’re always after stuff. You know what? They come here and say: ‘You’ve got 50 tail lights. Give us two and you’ll still have 48.’ You wouldn’t like to sell your children, would you?”
So if one is looking for a Merc, affordable and hard wearing, what does he suggest? He picks up a paper where car advertisements have been ringed. “Look, here is a Mercedes- Benz 230E 12 series, white automatic, very well looked after, R16 000. I mean that’s just about what you pay for a meal. They’re good for something like 250 000kms.”
What does Roux think about new cars? “They’re just paper,” he says. “They dent, they fall apart. Look at this car. It was in a bad crash, the other driver was killed, but this guy just walked out.”
This obsession is all about love: love stumbled into, love reignited (with the serendipitous find of a long-lost Mercedes), love held happily in the heart, love renewed tenderly every time a bag of old Mercedes bones is found.
Collecting Mercedes-Benzes is Roux’s hobby. So what do you do for a life? “Nothing. Collect Mercs.”
First published in the SUNDAY TIMES newspaper on 8 January, 2006.