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