Class act

IT WAS A PINCH-ME MO­MENT WHEN A PORIRUA WOMAN FI­NALLY FOUND THE CAR SHE’D HANKERED FOR

NZ Life & Leisure - - Taste -

“COF­FEE-CUP HOLD­ERS are the only thing I’d ever add,” says busi­ness­woman, for­mer clas­s­ic­car racer and mo­tor­biker Irene van de Cool­wijk of her 1961 Mercedes-Benz 190SL.

She’s weav­ing through lunchtime traf­fic in Porirua in her lux­ury road­ster which is equipped with a four-cylin­der 1.9 en­gine, a floor-mounted man­ual gear­box, good power-to-weight ra­tio — its doors, bon­net and boot are alu­minium — and ti­tanic charm.

The soft top is down. “There’s room for a small dog or golf clubs be­hind the bucket seats,” she says. “The boot space is ex­cel­lent, the heater and wipers are first-rate, and its orig­i­nal drum brakes are part of the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I love hav­ing the UE BOOM [por­ta­ble Blue­tooth speak­ers) on board with some bossa nova or Burt Bacharach.

“There is noth­ing here that isn’t needed but ev­ery­thing you need. It’s full of Ger­man pre­ci­sion and per­son­al­ity, and it doesn’t drive it­self which I love. It’s su­perb,” Irene says as she eases down Tī­tahi Bay Road.

Su­perb also is the con­clud­ing chap­ter of Irene’s 10-year search for her coupe. She had cov­eted the model for years. “Grace Kelly al­ways seemed to be driv­ing fast around the hills of Monaco in a Mercedes 190SL in her movies, and that’s where the car first caught my eye. I love the styling and the by­gone era it rep­re­sents.”

A decade ago, Irene and her hus­band Mike Baucke put their ears to the ground. “We guessed there were half a dozen in New Zealand and sus­pected the price tag would be a pretty penny. Over time the idea came and went, but we had no luck.”

In a twist of fate, their search ended in their neigh­bour­hood; Irene’s Mercedes-Benz 190SL was in a garage 10 min­utes from home. “It had been owned by a Cana­dian woman for 35 years whose fa­ther had given it to her as a gift. She’d mar­ried a New Zealan­der in Canada — the Mercedes had been their wed­ding car — and when they even­tu­ally came to live here in New Zealand, they brought it with them.”

With its sen­ti­men­tal back story, the ven­dors were in­tent on sell­ing the 190SL to a lov­ing home, and Irene was more than keen. “It was a case of ‘what other box could it tick?’ It had 60,000 miles on the clock [nearly 100,000 kilo­me­tres] and was so gen­uine and gor­geous.”

As­sem­bled in Stuttgart, Irene’s two-seater had been cre­ated by the Ger­man gi­ant for a clien­tele with pock­ets smaller than those re­quired for its ex­otic Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gull­wing — one of which sold in the United States re­cently for more than $7 mil­lion. From 1955 to 1963, Mercedes as­sem­bled 25,000 of its 190SL model with the North Amer­i­can mar­ket in its sights.

‘I raced for 15 years which re­ally honed my driv­ing skills’

From Ger­many to Canada to Aotearoa. “It has been beau­ti­fully cared for over time. We un­der­stand it had a re­paint with an au­then­tic Mercedes sil­ver colour, but other­wise every as­pect of the car is as it was when it left Stuttgart.”

Irene says the 190SL is eco­nom­i­cal and its main­te­nance record is flaw­less — a credit to the love and at­ten­tion of its past own­ers. “It’s an ideal week­end ma­chine. We love tak­ing it to the Wairarapa and Taupō. Bar­rel­ing along the Desert Road with the moun­tains along­side is a favourite run. It’s a car that loves to stretch its legs and cruise.”

Speed, free­dom and in­de­pen­dence have been part of Irene’s path­way. She grew up in Lower Hutt with a Dutch fa­ther, who was raised in In­done­sia, and a Kiwi mother.

“Af­ter World War II, Dad’s fam­ily re­turned from In­done­sia to Hol­land, but the coun­try was a mess. He and his brother came to New Zealand. Dad had his 21st birth­day on the ship. Their par­ents and sib­lings were to fol­low but a change in the im­mi­gra­tion laws meant it wasn’t pos­si­ble. He and Mum were so hard­work­ing. We didn’t have a car un­til I was eight.”

In her late teens, Irene joined the Vic­to­ria Mo­tor­cy­cle Club based at the univer­sity — where, along­side her then-boyfriend Robert Holden (the le­gendary Kiwi road racer trag­i­cally killed on the Isle of Man in 1996), she dab­bled in bikes.

“My sis­ter was into mo­tor­bikes too. A huge num­ber of club mem­bers would meet at the ceno­taph near Par­lia­ment and ride at speed over the Rimu­taka Hill. It was like an on-road race track. Those were the days.”

Her in­ter­est in clas­sic cars was prompted when she met Mike — a third-gen­er­a­tion coach­builder who es­tab­lished The Surgery, an in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned clas­sic-car restora­tion stu­dio in the Welling­ton sub­urb of Tawa. Its port­fo­lio high­lights in­clude Hugh Hefner’s 1960s Bent­ley, John Len­non’s old Mercedes Pull­man stretch limou­sine and the fit-out of a 1958 Daim­ler with 24-carat gold-plated door han­dles, cock­tail cab­i­nets and taps.

When Irene ex­ited a high-pow­ered ca­reer in the em­ploy­ment in­dus­try to join Mike in run­ning the busi­ness, she found her­self in a pair of sec­ond-hand fire­proof over­alls on the track at Man­feild. “We spon­sored a sprint race se­ries, and I fell into com­pet­ing my­self. Mike and I both drove early 1970s BMW 2002s with match­ing liv­ery, and of­ten com­peted against each other. He’d get a lot of stick if I hap­pened to win. I raced for 15 years, which re­ally honed my driv­ing skills.”

Hav­ing been im­mersed in the world of clas­sic cars for 20 years, Irene says there are marked trends in the restora­tion mar­ket.

“There’s a big swing to­wards restor­ing Fal­cons and Hold­ens, which are the new favourites, and the elec­tric ve­hi­cle con­ver­sion of Euro­pean cars is a growth mar­ket. VW Bee­tles are es­pe­cially pop­u­lar.”

Away from work, Mike and Irene have em­barked on a raft of per­sonal clas­sic car projects. “Poor Mike is very tol­er­ant. I’m very good at spy­ing a clas­sic that’s go­ing to re­quire a lot of work.

“The next thing is that we have bought it and Mike’s faced with a restora­tion.”

Along the way, the cou­ple has owned Mark II Jaguars, Daim­lers, a 1973 Lan­cia Ful­via, a 1957 Morgan and a 1973 911 Porsche. The cur­rent cache of ve­hi­cles com­prises a 1983 DeLorean, a 1996 Toy­ota Cam­per “our bach with all day sun”, a 1999 2.8 man­ual BMW Z3 and a 2013 Lotus Evora S su­per­car.

Last year, Irene’s 190SL joined the col­lec­tion housed in a multi-bay build­ing above Porirua. She and her long-yearned-for auto are out and about on a weekly ba­sis. And that’s the way it’s al­ways go­ing to be. “It’s my for­ever car. It has such a sense of class and so much Grace Kelly about it. I can be guilty of wear­ing a scarf and sun­glasses my­self.”

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