x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

German rally marks 100th birthday of racing great Paul Pietsch

In a rally honouring the oldest living grand prix driver, Neil Vorano rediscovers the joys of driving classic cars behind the wheel of a priceless Mercedes-Benz.

The Mercedes 170 DS sits beside the company's more famous 1955 300 SL gullwing sports car. Neil Vorano for The National
The Mercedes 170 DS sits beside the company's more famous 1955 300 SL gullwing sports car. Neil Vorano for The National

The south of Germany in summertime is a beautiful place. With a temperate climate, lush, thick forests and rolling hills, it's a stark contrast to the heat and sand here in the UAE. And there are plenty of sights for visitors to take in.

More so today; especially for me. In fact, I'm not even in the mountains or by a burbling brook; I'm standing in a grey car dealership forecourt in Freiburg, and I'm trying to pick up my jaw from the floor, having dropped it there in absolute astonishment and giddiness.

The German hillsides and vineyards are currently taking a backseat to a collection of more than 100 of the most beautiful and rare classic cars I have ever seen in one place. But it's not a museum; these cars and their owners are getting ready for two days of driving in the Paul Pietsch Rally, where they venture into the hills and through tiny villages of southern Germany over the course of last weekend.

It's all in honour of Pietsch, who celebrated his 100th birthday on June 20, making him the oldest living grand prix driver in the world. Pietsch is a famous name in Germany, but not just for his racing in the early 20th century; he went on to form one of the biggest car magazines in the country - Auto Motor und Sport - and his publishing house, Motor Presse, decided to throw him a party befitting of his stature.

And this is my kind of party. Lined up waiting for the start are cars ranging from a 1927 Bentley 4.5L and a 1929 Mercedes-Benz SSK, to a 1952 Jaguar XK 120 Supersport, 1961 Maserati 3500 GT Vignale Spyder and a 1971 Citroen SM.

And there are some familiar faces in the group, too. Dr Ulrich Bez, the CEO of Aston Martin, is driving a 1952 DB3 roadster race car along with his son, Fabian. And former racers such as Hans Herrmann, Dieter Glemser, Jochen Mass and Bernd Schneider are along for the two-day drive.

Many of the cars are owned privately, but a few car companies felt it important enough to break out some of their classic collections.

Porsche had a few from its museum collection; Ferrari sent along a 1954 750 Monza, piloted by former F1 driver and current test driver Marc Gené; and Mercedes-Benz brought out 12 classic cars from the more than 900 in its collection, all in shiny, near-showroom shape.

And then I see Robert Wägerle, my co-driver for the trip whom I had met briefly on a tour of the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart the day before. He's standing beside the car that we'll be driving, a 1952 Mercedes-Benz 170 DS - a diesel. "Hi," says Wägerle, shaking my hand and smiling. "How do you like it?" I can only laugh and mutter "Wow". The car is beautiful; not like the low and sleek 300 SL sitting beside it in the parking lot; it's small, with four doors, looming fenders and a tall, chrome grille. But it has an unmistakable style and flair, and I can't help but grin from ear to ear.

Wägerle is the head of the car maker's museum, which supplied the 170; he's only been in the position for six months, and seems to be a very happy man when it comes to his job.

"I was asked to take this new role and I said yes," he says in his soft German accent. "And I did not wait 10 seconds to say yes! I think this is the best job in the company.

"I like classic cars, but I don't necessarily know everything about them. But my heart is beating when I see a classic car."

Minutes before the start, we both look over the cryptic roadbook and agree that neither of us knows what to do. But that's okay; the fun will be the drive, not the timed competitions, which involve arriving at specific checkpoints at specific times.

And, with a wave of a flag, we're off. Getting out of Freiburg - Pietsch's birthplace - we move at a languid clip along the countryside, heading up into the mountains of the Black Forest; Wägerle drives first, then I take the wheel at the halfway point.

The 170 DS is, quite frankly, shockingly underpowered when compared with today's cars. The engine is a small diesel with 40hp; on a level road, the 170 has no problem eventually reaching motorway speeds of around 110kph and staying there, but long, steep hills are a struggle, even in second gear, and we are able to reach no more than 30kph in many places. The thinner air in higher elevations makes things even worse. The handling capabilities match the low power, too, as hitting a downhill corner just a little too quickly kicks the rear end out unexpectedly or make the skinny tyres screech their displeasure. This 170 DS makes a Nissan Tiida seem like a supercar.

And all that means nothing. Because what the 170 lacks in power, it more than makes up for in historical significance and outright charm. Because, when you're driving, you have to realise that it's what a typical saloon was like back in the post-war era - it was the height of technology at the time. In fact, the 170 was quite a status purchase for a German then. If you accept the car's limitations and stay within them, then driving it is an absolute pleasure. In fact, considering the car is almost 60 years old, it really goes quite well.

And it's a pleasure for those lining the route as we pass by, too, whether they are classic car fans or just townsfolk out for a walk. The little saloon garners grins, waves and finger pointing wherever we go, whether they are eight years old or 80. A short toot of the horn would invariably brighten the face of even the most dour German on the street; I almost feel like royalty.

So how much would this kind of pleasure cost to purchase? Wägerle exhales sharply when I ask him.

"There is no cost for this car," he says, shaking his head. "We can't put a price on it."

"Look at the 300 SL," he continues, pointing out the window at one of them as it passes us. "That is a car that costs a lot of money, but there is a price because they are in the marketplace; you can buy one. But this car, you can't find them; you can't buy them. And we wouldn't sell it."

The beauty of a classic car is that each one has its own history, its own story, and this one is no exception. It had just one owner, a bishop who bought it new in 1952. He kept it for 15 years and the Mercedes museum then acquired it. The museum restored the car in 1989, but all that was required was the replacement of rubber components and a body respray; the diesel engine wasn't even touched and, at the end of today's rally, the odometer will read 51,862km; all original.

The slow speeds make for a relaxing journey, up and down tree-shrouded mountain roads. I'm getting the hang of double-clutch downshifting with the steering column-mounted shifter behind the huge, skinny wheel. During the trip, we're constantly passed by some of the faster cars, more notably Bez roaring his Aston race roadster by us after every checkpoint. But Wägerle and I take it easy, and we even stop for a coffee at points along the way.

One of the nicer stops for the rally comes on the second day, when we come to the ancient hilltop castle of Schloss Eberstein. It's here that Peter Paul Pietsch, the racer's son, tells me about his famous father.

"He had two careers," says Pietsch. The younger Pietsch heads two magazines and is on the board of directors for the company, and he is suited up in overalls to drive a classic Bentley from the 1930s.

"His first one was a racing driver; the second one was the publisher. He raced until 1953. Before the Second World War he was driving the big cars; 16 cylinders, a lot of Italian makes and Auto Union. A lot of times it was very violent, there were a lot of accidents. It's amazing he's even here, not just because he is 100 but because of his amazing life.

"Then he had an idea to start a magazine about cars, for car fans just like him. He had to get a licence from the French government because, after the war, that's who was here in charge. And they got the licence, but people told him 'there would never be enough cars in Germany that you need a car magazine, but if you want to do it then do it'."

Among the ralliers is Anke Rückwarth, who is driving the huge 1929 SSK roadster. She is a frequent participant on the classic rally circuit, having done the Mille Miglia in Italy. Her car is, as she describes, a "family car", with her father having bought it in 1977 and passing it down to her.

"I came to this because of Paul Pietsch; he's a very famous and very interesting guy, and I heard of him since I was a little girl.

"I love driving the car. And you meet very nice and very interesting people. You see beautiful places and you get to drive beautiful roads - you just have a lot of fun."

Our final leg of the journey brings us into Stuttgart, the home of Mercedes, Porsche and Pietsch's magazine company. The rally route snakes through the hilly streets and, finally, brings us to the magnificent Mercedes-Benz Museum, where a huge crowd awaits the cars as they are lined up in rows upon arrival. It's a friendly atmosphere, with families moving around the cars and taking pictures, and the ralliers talking and patting each other on the back. Paul Pietsch himself makes an appearance, much to everyone's delight.

As Wägerle pulls the 170 DS to a stop and turns off the chug-chugging diesel engine, we both smile and shake hands in congratulation after a thoroughly enjoyable trip. It's Wägerle's first rally in his new job, but he tells me with enthusiasm that it won't be his last.

And I can't help but hope that it won't be mine, either.