Curbside Classic: 1962 Mercedes Benz 220 SE Coupe (W111) – Old World Charm

It took a bit over an hour of driving to reach the small hut in the countryside. I followed Dad and Mom as they entered the poor quarters, stepping through a narrow door, entering a dim room which comprised most of the humble adobe home. Around us, clay cooking pots, a hammock, some poorly assembled furniture, and a bit of sunlight flickering through the straw roof. The meek house was a world away from urban Puerto Rico, another sign we had indeed arrived in a different country. An elderly lady came to meet us, carrying a rustic broom in her hands. After exchanging a few pleasantries, she started to painstakingly sweep the dirt floor. This vexed me: why would anyone broom an unpaved floor?

The man of the house greeted us and started some light talk with Dad. Mom looked around apprehensively, probably going over her reservations in her head. Should everything go according to Dad’s plan, Mom was about to enter a Salvadorian middle class tradition: to have your own housemaid, in the manner of the upper classes.

Eventually the young woman came into the room, staring at us with a deer caught in the headlights look; appearing timid and lost, as her dad and my family worked out the arrangements of what was to be her first job in the city.

A housemaid in our home? What kind of plan was this? Were we to embark on the pretenses of the rich?

Throughout the first half of the 20th century US makes had the luxury market mostly to themselves in Central America. Car ownership numbered only in a few thousand, and brands like Buick and Cadillac had a modest—yet significant—presence. After all, in the tiny economies of the region, possessing any vehicle was only for the well heeled. Even a Model T was beyond the grasp of local peasants and laborers.

The Spanish-descent Central American upper classes considered themselves to be Europe beyond Europe, sending their kids to France, Spain and Italy for education. Before US pop culture became a worldwide-aspiration, the cultural references local elites emulated were those of the Old Continent. And they did so avidly.

Granted, it was a distorted version of ‘Europe.’ Against the tropical heat Mediterranean style villas were built in modern residential areas, public parks aimed to replicate those of Paris, and military displays payed homage to those of Mussolini; all surrounded by lush vegetation, low class barrios and impoverished peasant slums.

A longing for their ‘ancestry’ played in most of their endeavors; society pages celebrated the lives of the affluent, with lavish weddings and banquets in Victorian style reception halls. Servitude was common, with multiple housemaids in charge of the many chores that it took running a house; some assigned to cooking, others to cleaning, a few more to child rearing.

As is often the case the minuscule but rising middle class took to these trappings as well. By the 50’s, newly built suburban middle class homes consistently included a ‘housemaid’ room, and vestibules were common. Cheap Victorian style furniture was widely available and china display cabinets were de rigueur, even if most families had no idea what their purpose was.

Now, the ‘Europe’ that was longed for was the one before the industrial revolution. Lacking silver or gold mines, Central America’s wealth was created on the backs of natives performing all sorts of back-breaking farm labor (coffee pickers above), pretty much maintaining a feudal style economy. Any concept conceived in the wake of the French Revolution was looked upon with suspicion by local elites.

Aspiring to be local señoritos, the lifestyle of being served was the loftiest of goals, encompassing a sedentary sense of luxury. It’s a tradition that still refuses to die in the nation’s psyche. To this day, in local “self-service” gas stations, attendants are ever ready to sprint to your assistance, notwithstanding the Texaco-approved signs that proclaim otherwise.

Car wise, local upper classes moved away from US brands not long after WWII. Reasons are hard to assess; could be American vehicles were becoming too large for local roads, or too flashy and space-agey. For whatever reason, the times were a-changing.

European stereotypes probably played a role in what was to come next. Then again, if stereotypes are ‘played’ right, they can work as a brand: the British had manners and industry, the French sophistication, and the Germans engineering prowess.

This ‘German mystique’ played greatly in Central American nations, with the Teutons’ fame for engineering inspiring nothing but awe. Arriving in local markets in the ’50s, it didn’t take long for Mercedes Benz to establish itself as the preferred ride of the moneyed.

Whatever luxury is, we gotta admit it is an ever changing goal post. And whatever that goal post was, Mercedes had it in spades by the ’60s. It certainly attracted the likes of old money families, given that the brand portrayed a sense of Continental affluence and sophistication. Was it its sedate yet elegant styling? Its solid and hefty built? Or the secure footing of its technical advances?

For a society fixated with ‘sedentary’ upper class pretenses, the solid and restrained elegance of a Benz must have spoken volumes. A link to a past they longed for, extolling virtues of manufacture that drove admiration. No other brand came close.

By the time my family arrived to El Salvador in the mid ’70s, Daimler’s products had displaced all that had come before. A drive through upper class neighborhoods at the time invariably showed a Mercedes and a Cherokee (always together) proudly displayed on the driveway of about every other home.

Now, most Mercedes I ever saw were Heckflosses or W115s, not W111 coupes, which were rare even back in the day. Coming across this somewhat rough sample certainly took me aback.

In typical local fashion, once I was seen taking photos, the car’s owner came towards me and quickly brought up the ‘it’s for sale’ topic. Asking price? A scant $6,000 USD, and the surest way to rid one’s self of an additional $30,000 if choosing to take the plunge.

Noticing that I wasn’t ‘biting,’ the youthful owner chatted away a bit before parting. The 220SE automatic was his dad’s car, and was being moved around while setting a up a gourmet coffee shop in the porch area of the old family house. A TR3 had been moved away as well, with the Benz still in wait for some storage location.

With the house hidden behind off-putting black iron gates, photos fail to show it’s one those ‘European’ streets of yore, now surrounded by modern commerce and seedy alleys. The ‘European’ houses sticking out like sore thumbs in the modernized landscape, a long way from being hanging grounds for the posh anymore.

With coffee not being nearly as profitable as it once was, younger generations of the previously wealthy have taken to new venues reflecting US acquired tastes. Even if aghast, old money types were incapable of keeping away postwar US influences for boisterous fun and relaxed mores. Even old Mercedes dropped the act, pursuing an ‘active’ lifestyle image for the last couple of decades. The ever moving goal post of luxury can no longer be associated with ‘sedentary.’

To some degree, this 220 reflects the fading fortunes of the old moneyed class. Old haciendas have suffered much in the last 40 years under the strain of international competition, growing urban aspirations, and falling produce prices. Fates vary wildly; some ex-coffee plantations now have fancy restaurants, children’s playgrounds, and offer ecotourism escapades to go rappelling and kayaking. Others barely eek by, while a good number have just been deserted.

The 220’s owner obviously belonged to this old money past, trying to keep the old family tradition alive to some degree. After our brief exchange, he got back to sorting out furnishings for the coffee shop area still in the works. I remained taking some final shots.

Once again I owe you photos of the interior, but once I saw the traffic cone on the passenger’s seat I just didn’t dare to look closely. Better to keep memories of the exterior, which I found lovely to look at.

Now, it’s one thing to yearn for the riches of the Old Continent, but it’s another to cheaply ape them. Or evoke them in distorted caricatures.

Even at my scant five years, the housemaid idea was rather irksome to me. Had I already grown too egalitarian in my brief Puerto Rican youth? In any case, it was quite a leap for all involved, with our poor first countryside maid leaving after a short few weeks, overwhelmed by all. Too much city-life to absorb, too restricting a lifestyle, and too many peculiar US-imported appliances to deal with (Dad and Mom had shipped most of our household electronics from Puerto Rico, the Latin quarter of US territories).

The hiring of housemaids stayed on and off for a few years, with countryside girls coming to a house filled with appliances that were like a new science to most.

The most memorable? Poor Carmen, who incidentally was the only maid I ever liked. It never crossed Mother’s head that Salvadorian countryside girls were alien to the concept of pressure cookers (you know where this is going…) The loud bang heard throughout the house that afternoon put the whole family in emergency mode; Mother ran (well, almost), with brother and I rushing to the kitchen. Poor Carmen had her heart in her throat, shocked in horror and shame, with a whole casserole of red beans splattered on the ceiling (some beans must still be there to this day!). Next to her the cooker’s lid laid on the floor, bent on one end. It looked like a crime scene, with gory red beans playing the role of blood splatters.

“What did you do? You’re not supposed to open it!”

Fine time to tell her, Mom! Even though the pressure cooker was now unusable, Mom didn’t hold Carmen responsible, and she stayed in our service until marrying a street policeman some time later.

Many households were not as forgiving or kind, though. It wasn’t rare for Mom and I to visit some classmate of mine and see maids put through their paces in those homes. House owners would bellow orders such as “Come and shut the door! Right away!” even if said door was 3 feet away, and poor maid had to come down three flights of stairs to perform the task (and people wonder why we ever had a civil war?). Fairy tale architectural detailing aside, some of those houses could tell quite a few horror stories.

I rarely think about my family’s housemaids; it’s as if that part of my life was stricken clean from my mind. Good thing, for I prefer a more egalitarian world. On the other hand, I think much more of those Mercedes of yore. Those are the type of memories I can happily live with.

For a more automotive take on the W111 Coupe:

Curbside Classic: 1966 Mercedes Benz 250SE Coupe (W111) – Losing The Fins, Mostly

Automotive & Design History: Mercedes-Benz W110/111/112 Fintails – Béla Barényi And The Elusive Pluckenheckflosse