Say hi to my Oldie! Wolfgang Kufner and his Mercedes-Benz 180 Ponton

Almost everybody who loves cars, is also fascinated by Old- and Youngtimers. And some of the coolest copys belong to our Daimler employees. So let’s show our Oldies and share them with other Old- and Youngtimer-Fans. First car we want to introduce to you is the „Ponton-Mercedes” Type 180 of Wolfgang Kufner.

By the way, the image isn’t reversed. This particular Ponton Mercedes does indeed have its steering wheel on the right-hand side. Manufactured in Sindelfingen for the South African market in 1955, this car was shipped to that country right after it rolled off the assembly line. Four years later, this 180 model (model series: W 120) returned to its “birthplace.” Wolfgang Kufner, a supply logistics employee in Sindelfingen, bought the classic car from Germany’s “Economic Miracle” era from a friend who worked in East London, South Africa.

This upper-midrange sedan was the first car from Mercedes-Benz to feature a unitized body and the first model shaped like a ponton. Would you like to go for a spin? Hop in.

A new design concept

From a stylistic and technological standpoint, the new 180 sedan broke with prewar traditions when it was first presented in August 1953. The W 120 was the first Mercedes-Benz car whose body had a ponton, or pontoon, shape. The characteristic features of this “three-box” design are the fully integrated fenders, the rectangular body layout, and the block-shaped vehicle sections for the engine compartment, the passenger area, and the rear. This concept reduces air resistance, lessens wind noise, and cuts fuel consumption, while at the same time making the interior more spacious.

Wolfgang Kufner drives an unusual Mercedes-Benz Ponton, a right-hand drive version from South Africa

The 180 had the first unitized car body in the history of Mercedes-Benz. The body panels are firmly welded to the frame floor assembly in order to create a static unit. As a result, the Ponton has more torsional stiffness and weighs less than previous designs, which had a body simply stuck onto the frame. This design made the 180 a cutting-edge automobile for its time.

Most Pontons are now found in museums. My 180, on the other hand, is absolutely ready for the road.

“The car floats”

The designation “ponton” is derived from the French word for bridge. Because a bridge is a “carrier,” the car’s name highlights the vehicle’s unitized (self-supporting) body. When you go for a spin in this classic car from the postwar era, you immediately feel that the entire car is carrying its occupants gently across every bump in the road.

This is due to the cleverly coordinated suspension, which begins with the axle structure. Thanks to coil springs, rubber bumpers, and telescopic shock absorbers, the axle structure balances the body and prevents it from tilting too far during cornering. The suspension concept even extends to the springs in the red leather seats, which gently counteract the inertia force and offset shocks caused by bumps in the road.

Mercedes Benz Typ 180, 52 PS, Fahrgestell, Bauzeit: 1953 bis 1957.

Critics claim that the car “floats,” and they’re right. The driver has to actively steer in order to keep the 180 in its lane, because the Ponton responds rather sluggishly to turns of the steering wheel. It’s the same with the brakes. In order to stop the car at a red light, the driver has to hit the brakes much earlier than would be necessary for today’s vehicles. And the braking must be forceful! As a result, the driver has to think ahead and anticipate potential problems. But it’s precisely because we have been pampered by modern technology that is old car’s sluggishness forms a nice contrast to today’s hectic and speed-driven life. An unhurried approach has charms of its own.

The basics in brief

  • The 180 Ponton can easily meet the various challenges of driving. In addition to having great maneuverability and stable road-holding properties, it can handle inclines of up to 43%. This makes it a favorite for traveling routes that include steep mountain passes.
  • Regardless of the outside temperature, the heating and ventilation systems create comfortable conditions within the passenger compartment. The driver and the front passenger can precisely adjust the flow of fresh and hot air on their respective sides of the vehicle. Airflows keep the front side windows clean and prevent them from steaming up.
  • Great sound insulation. The body has no openings to the engine/transmission compartment except for the pedals and the electrical wiring. Even the steering column is closed at the bottom. Thick insulation practically seals off the vehicle interior.
  • The synchronized four-speed manual transmission is operated by means of a single-H shift on the steering wheel. This opens up new possibilities for the interior concept. The front has separate seats for the driver and the front passenger and can also contain a bench seat for three passengers.
  • In 1953 the Mercedes-Benz 180 Ponton was initially launched as a gasoline-powered vehicle. However, the 180 D diesel model was added to the W120 lineup as early as January 1954. This model proved to be the most successful four-cylinder Ponton vehicle, with sales of almost 150,000 units.
  • The Ponton Mercedes was available with an optional foldable roof. The unobstructed upward view, the fresh cool airflow, and sunshine were very appealing features for fans of open-air driving. This variant combined the advantages of a sedan with those of an open-top vehicle.

A distinctive name for the ages

During the nine years of the Ponton era, which lasted until October 1962, Mercedes-Benz produced a total of 442,963 units of the 180 to 190 D models. The production output consisted of 437,310 sedans and 5,653 chassis with partial bodies. Both of these model series were modernized during their lifecycles and are both regarded as forebears of the E-Class. From a technological standpoint, the later Mercedes-Benz sedans also had a Ponton-shaped body. However, when people use the term “Ponton Mercedes” as a proper name, they refer exclusively to the first generation of models.

A unitized body. The body panels are welded to the frame floor assembly in order to create a static unit. As a result, the vehicle has greater torsional stiffness and less weight.

At the vehicle’s market launch, car aficionados all over the world unanimously agreed that the new 180 combined the advantages of a long-haul sedan with the handling properties of a sports car and the comfort of a mid-range automobile.

No matter which routes he travels, Wolfgang Kufner drives his Ponton Mercedes almost every day. But the most pleasant drives of all are in the great outdoors, far from frequented roads. “Deceleration” is the key concept here — for the car as well as for the driver.

A stylish dashboard. Clearly arranged control elements, easily readable instruments, and an instrument panel that harmonizes visually with its surroundings.

The front wheels are attached to a U-shaped axle carrier consisting of two metal sheets that have been welded together. The engine, transmission, and steering system are also attached to this component.

Whenever the driver wants to change lanes, the Ponton’s attached turn signal lights immediately catch other drivers’ attention. At night, these lamps can also be used as standing lights. The lights on the right and the left can be switched on separately and consume little electricity.

Wolfgang Kufner’s Ponton has a continuous bench seat in front and in back, so the car can easily accommodate six occupants. The large convex windows let in large amounts of light and let the outside world pass by like a great panorama.

The frame floor assembly extends across the car’s entire width. The body from Sindelfingen is firmly connected to this strong substructure. The axle carrier is located in the front section of the vehicle.

The two broad forward-opening doors can be opened very wide. Passengers can get in and out of the vehicle easily without bumping their knees or elbows. The upholstered armrests on the doors are a very comfortable feature during drives.

Passengers in the 180 don’t have to pull in their legs, and their heads won’t bump against the roof. The interior has a volume of more than three cubic meters, so the occupants sit comfortably even on long trips. The large windows provide a clear view in all directions.

The engine is a four-cylinder inline side-valve unit with 1,767 cubic centimeters of displacement and 52 hp of output

The 180 has a top speed of 126 km/h and accelerates from zero to 100 km/h in 31 seconds.

The trunk has space for lots of luggage and a spare wheel. There is even a set of suitcases that is especially designed to fit this trunk.

Drivers coming up from behind can clearly see the Ponton’s combination rear lights, taillights, brake lights, turn signal lights, and reversing lights, all of which are positioned as high on the body as possible.

Rollover test at the Sindelfingen proving grounds in 1954 with a Ponton 180

The two-spoke steering wheel is made of strong colorfast plastic and contains the signal ring. The driver turns this ring in order to operate the turn signal lights.

The strength of the passenger compartment is being tested in this rollover test at the Sindelfingen proving grounds in 1954. The roof has almost no dents, and that’s a great selling point regarding occupant safety.


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Gert Hofmann is an Editor in communications at Mercedes-Benz Cars

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  1. Grow the Network – How Leadership 2020 drives cultural change

    sandeep meti: Very nice article. :-)