Prithvi Nath Tagore's 1958 Mercedes-Benz W120 Ponton 180a
Images: Deepanjan Sarkar
Father figures and their remarkable achievements are as integral to the automotive realm as Graham Bell's invention is to cellular telephony and Tim Berners-Lee's groundbreaking efforts are to this expansive website, connecting countless computers and transcending physical limits, both spatial and political.
A Neanderthal wouldn't have imagined taking a high-tech device out of their pocket (pocket? what's that?!) to make a phone call, or even read about a car made nearly three-quarters of a century ago. What's a car, they may ask, and without digressing too much on that, it'd be useful to bring their attention to ‘who’ is commonly referred to as the father of the automobile: Karl Benz.
But this isn't about Herr Benz or how his creation changed the way we travel. It is instead about a gift that the regular contributor to deRivaz & Ives, Prithvi Nath Tagore, received from his father on completing school. After surviving tumultuous years of neglect to being restored bit by bit—to the exact specification its new owner wished—the car eventually came to life. Of course that wasn't all; it also helped Prithvi grow further as a car enthusiast, helping him develop a trained eye for meticulous detail. Especially for all things Ponton!
As Mercedes-Benz found itself trying to get back on its feet from the devastation that the war had caused, it accelerated the recovery with the launch of what's described by many as a post-war car that was developed pre-war, the 170 series. Soon after that, the advent of the 1950s saw the launch of the top-spec 300 'Adenauer', a car chosen by those who'd be at the helm of everything: from big businesses to even countries.
Naturally, a more approachable model was required, to replace the W136 170 Series. And that came in the form of the W120/121 Ponton—a revolutionary car that wouldn't take too long for prospective buyers to develop a liking to. In its promotional material, Mercedes-Benz referred to it as 'the car for touring at its best', and the complementing brilliant Hans Liska sketched artwork made it even more appealing.
The Ponton was now unibody and more aerodynamic than its predecessors, but its modernity didn't take away from its beauty. Now, as it completes seven decades of existence, it's hard to think of a world where the Ponton didn't ever exist. When new, there were a variety of models to choose from: various body styles including the part-body models sold directly by Mercedes-Benz.
The design of the Ponton remained largely unchanged during its life—imposing and characterful, right from day one. Small model-specific changes aside (like, for instance, the 190 models sported a distinct chrome trim under the windows), the major design change that the W121 saloons got was a Heckflosse rear in the later years.
The car featured here is one of the later variants, internally known as the 180a. It came with a slightly detuned version of the same four-cylinder engine that graced the refreshed W121 190 saloon. But the 180a used a less-complex carb and lower compression, both of which resulted in a company-rated max power of 65 bhp.
In the year 1958, the car's first owner bought it in Jeddah and brought it along to Calcutta as they moved to India. A few years of daily use by its subsequent owner later, it was brought into the Tagore household by Prithvi's father as a graduation gift for his son.
And thus began the nearly two-decade-long process of getting the Ponton into the remarkable shape you see in the photos. But, if you're going to assume that it was just the limited availability of parts that slowed the progress down, stop right there! The restoration began in a workshop that Prithvi's dad used to run. It went on until the engine developed what Prithvi describes as a terminal failure.
Another failure was to head the Tagores' way, and that was by someone who had approached them to help with restoration but instead ended up causing more harm to the car than good. Which is when Prithvi took matters into his own hands, got the car back from the 'restorers', and approached the late Mr. Rahul Sircar, a brilliant mind behind countless restorations.
And thus began a decade-long exercise of carefully getting everything right. As they progressed, Prithvi also began to develop a knack for strict originality: anything that wasn't available on the 180a when new was thrown out. Prithvi became actively involved on Ponton forums and was speaking to owner groups and clubs, which not just helped him understand the car better, but also became a boon in sourcing rare parts.
In 2020, he brought the car back home, imported many original parts (including bumpers, fuel tank, wings, complete wiring harness, etc.), got things like the floorboard and the frame MIG-welded, and over the next two years, and with the help of skilled mechanics he recruited, managed to bring the Ponton to life in the home-based garage and paint shop. To top it all, he involved Allan Almeida in getting the chrome work done on the car's exterior…which complements the car's impeccable bodywork and interior quite perfectly.
None of this would've been possible had Tagore Sr. not printed an internet-sourced photo of the 180a and posted it to his son who was yet to finish school, telling him what was waiting for him when he would come home. Not just great parenting, the car became a lesson in perseverance—and how one should aim for the best, always. But most importantly, it's a great example of how influential fathers are—especially the ones with a Tagore or Benz surname.
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