Life Cycle - Travelling Autobahn and motorway alike with a 1967 Mercedes-Benz 230E W110 Fintail, since 1968
Bought new by a Ministry of Defence official, this Fintail has spent the decades since in single family ownership criss-crossing Europe.
Words RICHARD MASON
Photography IAN SKELTON
Trans-Europe Express – the well-travelled story of a ‘Fintail’ Mercedes
July 1967 – Desmond Thain collects in Stuttgart
‘My dad, Desmond Thain, always had nice cars, Zephyrs and Jaguars,’ says Desmond’s son Philip. ‘But he’d never had a Mercedes before. Dad spoke German which was useful because he was taken prisoner at Dunkirk and force-marched across Belgium. After the war he kept up his German. In 1966 he took a job near Dusseldorf as a services liaison officer – an interface between the army and the local community. So if a tank crashed through someone’s barn, his job was to smooth things over.
‘We arrived in Dad’s black Jaguar Mk2. He soon became aware that working for the armed services entitled him to a huge discount on any car. Soon after our arrival he ordered the Mercedes. It cost about 12,000 DM [around £1080 at the time]. Five weeks later he went to Stuttgart to collect it. Looking back I doubt he could have afforded a Mercedes in England with the import duties and taxes. So it’s not surprising he jumped at the chance of having one in Germany.
‘He went for a six-cylinder 2.3-litre which was quite high up the range. Performance interested him more than optional extras which in the Mercedes range were pricey. Safety glass for the front windscreen was the only option he bought. Front seatbelts were standard. Dad ordered the manual four-speed version. But that’s it, a basic car, cloth seats, no power steering, air conditioning, electric windows or sunroof.
‘I should mention that Dad opted for left-hand drive, given that for the foreseeable future we were living in Germany. He was very safety conscious, hence his choice of colour. The Jag was black but he considered white safer because it’s more visible. I don’t know how true that is. Actually a photo from our first family holiday, in 1967 to Bingen, shows it parked next to an identical Mercedes, only in dark grey. Not sure which one stands out more.
‘We often went on trips following the Moselle and the Rhine veering off into countries like Austria and Switzerland. There’s a photo of us in Austria taken from across the River Traun in Gmunden, I think you can just see us bathing. It was our only car and Mum and Dad both drove it, so a lot of use, especially since the army quarters were out of town. I was only seven at the time but I remember trips to get my hair cut and also going shopping at the NAFFI, a British Military shop. We had a slight accident in April 1969 when a lady hit the rear, damaging the bumper, wing and tail light. Our car was parked at the time with me in it but she tried to claim that we were in motion and to blame. From the documents I have, this incident generated a lot of paperwork.’
‘On returning to England in April 1971 – at which point the Mercedes was re-registered DLO 225J – we visited Teignmouth where my two older sisters were at boarding school. I was too young to go to boarding school so I went to a British Forces school. Eventually my parents bought a house in Riverdale Gardens, Richmond. In a photo with the car taken soon after moving in, you can see on the left of the radiator is a badge for the Civil Service Motoring Association, and on the right one for the ADAC, the German equivalent of the RAC. One confusing thing is the 1971 ‘J’ plate – it’s from when the car arrived in the UK, not its date of manufacture.
‘Although we were back in England, Dad liked holidaying in Austria and Switzerland. He only felt comfortable abroad in German-speaking countries. I think the furthest we went was Vienna. We made many trips over the years. At first me and my sisters in the back with our three tortoises in special boxes. As we got older eventually it was just me. Finally just Mum and Dad, although sometimes I’d drive them instead. Dad was fond of the car even though by then he’d bought an orange Beetle for local use.’
1985 – Desmond gifts the Mercedes to Philip
‘When I was 25, Dad gave me the Mercedes and each of my sisters a sum of money in lieu. He was very fair like that. His replacement was a BMW 5 Series.’ Philip says he was pleased to have the car for sentimental reasons although he removed the grille badges for a while. ‘German had been part of my degree course and it involved a spell working in Germany, up in the Ruhr near the Dutch border. Not surprisingly I made friends there. Although eventually my work was back in England I would regularly visit my German pals in the Mercedes. Once a year, in September, they would have a big carnival so I drove over for that regularly.
‘I remember in 1986 my German friend, Klaus, bought himself a 190 diesel Fintail. I have a photo of them side by side, although mine has more chrome being the upmarket 230. By 1986 I’d married and my wife Eleanor and I lived in a flat in Wandsworth. However, I kept the Mercedes in my parent’s garage in Richmond – it has never lived on the street.
Nowadays it’s in an underground garage in London or else at our home in Cornwall.
‘One advantage of these old Mercs is the large boot. We would go on shopping trips to Calais and fill it with as much food as we could cram in.’
‘In 1994 my German friends, Herman and Doris, were getting married and asked if they could use the Fintail for the ceremony. It was the right colour. One challenge was driving with a huge bouquet of flowers on the bonnet. This was held in place by suckers. I was a bit concerned it might damage the paintwork but it didn’t. Driving the happy couple from the church on the Dutch border to the reception, I had to moderate my speed to stop the flowers flying off. I don’t know what happened to the bouquet. In another photo the bride has a much smaller one, so it can’t be that. A mystery.’
‘My reason for joining the Mercedes-Benz Club was actually because I’d bought another Mercedes-Benz, a W108 3.5 V8. I was rather blasé about running the Fintail because I’d grown up with it and knew it. But the W108 was unknown territory so joining the Club seemed a good idea for help. Anyway, the first big Club event we did was a rally to Stuttgart and we took the Fintail. The first stop was Spa but there was a race on so no chance of any track time, we’d have been a rolling roadblock. Next the Nürburgring, where we could get on track but you can’t really do much in a saloon car other than be careful. From then on I went to lots of Club events like the Enfield Pageant of Motoring in 1997 and earlier the same year a Dutch rally. The Fintail was so reliable even though by now it was thirty years old. I attribute this to regular maintenance in line with the servicing schedule.’
By now Philip had a young family and his wife Eleanor had her hands full. So on the next Club rally to Germany in 2000 Philip teamed up with his father. ‘Dad and I did the Ponton Rally in June. He enjoyed the trip although he didn’t drive. For the next few years with a growing family I couldn’t do as much car stuff as before. I had to buy a Mercedes 230TE because an estate was more practical. So now I had three Mercedes! Eleanor has got used to my obsession, as has the rest of the family.’
By 2009 Philip’s family was experiencing his passion for Mercedes on track at Mercedes-Benz World near Brooklands. ‘Ah yes, my kids remember that day well. It was the Club’s National Weekend at the newly opened M-B World. I have a photo showing my kids in the back. I was giving it some wellie around the track and the kids were bouncing from side to side. Even though they were still young they remember that day vividly. Later that year I entered the Fintail in the Club’s concours event at M-B HQ in Milton Keynes. I think it was in a general all-comers category. It didn’t win a prize but I have a nice photo of my eldest son William with the car, he was 12 then.’ Philip has other reasons to remember the event. ‘This was the one and only time the car has broken down in 110,000 miles. The mechanical fuel pump failed without warning. And the worst place to breakdown, the M25, in some roadworks.
We were blocking one lane, it was getting dark and the car doesn’t have hazard warning lights. And forget using the ubiquitous Mercedes warning triangle on the M25, that’s asking to get run over. Luckily nobody piled into it.
‘In 2011 we couldn’t miss out on the M-B Club’s trip to Berlin to celebrate 125 years of car production. Mercedes put on a huge event at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, a whole load of Brits went to celebrate. There are six of us so we took two cars with Eleanor driving our W108 with two children; I drove the Fintail with the other two kids. And that’s how we got photos of the Fintail at the Brandenberg Gate and US Army Check Point Charlie. We drove the whole way in convoy. We were there about three days.’
In 2014 I took it on the Brooklands Double Twelve Hill Climb and Driving Trial which, as its name implies, involves various timed activities. At the time it was quite a popular event with members of the Club. Now I was only using the Fintail for Club events of one sort or another. With a young family, time was limited. Sometimes I’d do events on my own. I remember one such trip to Stuttgart when grit got in the fuel system and it started misfiring badly, near Trier. Luckily a local M-B dealer stripped the carburettor down and the next day I was back on the road. Speaking German does make life easier in those circumstances. Otherwise the biggest preventative maintenance item has been the clutch replacement. I still get it MoT tested every year.
‘Of course age plays a part with rubber bushes wearing so these have been replaced along the way. I’ve found leaving the Fintail unused for too long can cause problems which is something I try to avoid. The rear parcel shelf cloth is faded and brittle because of sunlight in Dad’s garage coming through a skylight over many years. Otherwise the cloth upholstery is wearing well. When it comes to the paintwork, I describe it as being original on the horizontal sections like roof and bonnet. Front and rear wings plus doors have had paint mainly because of wear and tear. The front wings have no inner wing protectors so rust occurs and needed repair. In 2022 I noticed a few oil leaks so I had to have the gearbox removed and stripped down to replace some seals.
In February 2023 I had the seals in the rear axle replaced but when it was removed I had a shock because it revealed significant surface rust. Nothing for it but to have the underside repaired because it would only get worse. It’s been Waxoyled periodically throughout its life, but you can’t reach everywhere. Being garaged all its life has helped preserve it.’
Philip produces more wedding photos. ‘Both my nieces have got married using the Fintail, one in 2018 at Trinity College Oxford where she had been studying, the other one a year later. In September 2019 we travelled to Germany for the 60th anniversary of the Fintail. One of the most recent events was in August 2022, the Concours of Elegance at Hampton Court. This June we’re on the the Club’s Ponton Rally to Germany. Now looking back I remember Dad saying the Fintail was one of the best buys he ever made and I agree with him. It has a special place in the family.’
‘In 2011 the whole family drove to Berlin, the six of us in convoy with our W108 3.5 V8’
After 56 years the Fintail is still a comfortable mile muncher 2014: Double 12 at the Brooklands Museum July 2009: on track at M-B World with the family aboard 2018: wedding duties again, this time in Oxford 2016: M-B Club stand star at the 2016 London Classic Car Show.
July 2009: at Mercedes-Benz World in Weybridge. 2015: with stablemates at Enfield Pageant of Motoring. 2000: father and son on the Ponton Rally 2006: the Thain family fleet in Twickenham.
2000: father and son on the Ponton Rally 2006: the Thain family fleet in Twickenham
‘I remember me and my two sisters in the back, with our tortoises in special boxes’
1986: streetparked outside Philip’s flat in Wandsworth Philip is well used to driving a lhd car in the UK Fintail easily keeps up with modern traffic, averaging 25mpg 1994: on wedding duties in Germany 1996: on the Nürburgring bound for Stuttgart.
2.3-litre M180 was the W110 Fintail’s first six-cylinder Engine. 1986: GB stickers and UK plates for German pilgrimage