Hans Knol ten Bensel Sep 22, 2012
OPGELET: Aan deze gastbijdrage hangt een disclaimer vast!
Of course there are highlights in one’s life. And this is even more so when they are shared. This is what happened in 1994, when my father and I were invited by Mercedes to participate in the Mille Miglia Storica, at the wheel of a works museum car, the 1955 Mercedes Benz 180 Diesel Ponton.
It was history revived for us both, as my father’s first car was just this 180 Diesel, and as a young boy I drove with him daily to Brussels, for many years, throughout my school time. I had also my first driving lessons from my father in this car, so we knew the sound, the feeling and smell of this Benz, which we both loved so much.
And there we were, to re-enact and relive this completely, in one of the world’s greatest road races, in the works team of the marque with the three pointed star which we both admired and cherished. As an ultimate icing on the cake, we were also to have team mates like Stirling Moss, the man who is a living legend of this race, having won it in 1955 setting the event record at an average of 157.650 km/h (97.96 mph) which was fastest ever on this 1,597 km (992 mi) variant of the course, not to be beaten in the remaining two years when the race was held. As a young boy, I devoured these stories, notably in the book by Denis Jenkinson, ‘The Racing Driver’, a book which every car and racing enthusiast should read.
A beautiful drive
Of course, sliding behind the wheel of ‘our’ Diesel made us feel timelessly young again, and at the starting grid we went off like fresh champions. The public address shouted when we drove the first meters through the night lit streets of Brescia, ‘la scuderia Bensel – Bensel, con la Merchedess cento ottanta Diessell’ , the public applauded our bravery to take on the Historic Race in this diesel limousine.
Actually, it needed hardly any courage: the Ponton Diesel is an extremely comfortable car, with a very tractable engine. ‘We changed the settings of the injection somewhat’ the Mercedes works mechanics had told us with a meaningful smile, ‘so the top speed is some good 125 kph, and with the well spaced gearing you can keep up with the Aurelia’s’… and indeed we did!
The mechanics who looked after our car also gave us some advice how to drive the car in corners. ‘You have basically the same swing axle rear suspension as the standard gullwings, so when they go fast in long corners, just keep your foot down and follow, you can do it too!’ Indeed we did, it all came back as in the fifties, we knew very well how the car handled, and what it could do.
So driven with verve, the 180 Diesel was quite fast indeed. At one stage, a team in a BMW Veritas said admiringly, ‘you have really thundered with the Diesel’. Let it be forgiven, we chased the Veritas at one stage because we had to make up precious time after Sienna, as we had been talking with Stirling Moss at a time control rather too long… The sight of our big Diesel in the racing rear view mirror of the Veritas proved a shade too impressive, so very courtly, the Veritas driver let us pass.
Ideal Mille Miglia Car
Our Ponton proved ideal for the special stages. The short bottom gear and the very elastic engine made crawling to the finsish of a timed stage with the car very easy, and we could drive some very exact times. Unfortunately, the last day, a competitor in front of us stalled his car at the finish of a stage, totally blocking the road and making us come in also a few hundred seconds too late.
But for us, participating in this grand race was far more important than winning. By the way, the winner of the 1994 edition was the team Canè / Galliani in a Lancia Aurelia B20 – 1957. This couple from San Lazzaro, near Bologna has won the Storico many times, their latest win was in the 2010 edition, in a BMW 328 MM Coupè – 1939. It leaves us now with the photos, and of cause, also a very cherished material reminder, the Chopard Watch, complete with engraving of our starting number and the year of participation. Of course, a watch to hand over to coming generations…
[Dit artikel verscheen ook op de website van auteur Hans, namelijk Autoprova.net]