Arlo's Choice: 1954 220 Cabriolet A owned by Arlo Guthrie rides again.
This beautiful 1954 Mercedes-Benz 220 Cabriolet A was owned by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie
Article Gary Anderson & Byron DeFoor
Images David Gooley & Susan Morehouse
Arlo Guthrie’s life was already changing rapidly in the summer of 1970 when his friend John Pilla spotted the distinctive old white convertible with a “for sale” sign on Sunset Boulevard in west Los Angeles.
The 1969 movie “Alice’s Restaurant” – based on Guthrie’s 18-plus-minute song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” that he sang publicly for the first time at the 1967 Newport Jazz Festival – had been released to unexpected success the previous August. And his performance at Woodstock singing “Coming into Los Angeles” was a major scene in the then recently released movie “Woodstock” that focused on the three-day concert that defined the generation just coming of age.
Needing a ride in Hollywood
Back then, Guthrie was in Los Angeles with his wife Jackie, whom he had married the previous year, working with the musicians who could be assembled more easily there than near the couple’s home in rural Lenox in Western Massachusetts. This was the high life indeed for the 22-year-old Arlo, son of Dust Bowl folk singer and political iconoclast Woodie Guthrie, who had died just months before Arlo first performed the chronicle of his ill-fated Thanksgiving Day arrest and on which his own career would be built.
Perhaps because there were so many contradictions in Arlo Guthrie’s own life, the idea of a folk singer driving a worn but well-maintained 16-year-old Mercedes-Benz 220 Cabriolet A appealed to him. He wouldn’t have known, of course, that the 220 model in sedan and two cabriolet body styles had been introduced in 1951 as mid-range models in the Mercedes-Benz lineup, or that the more stylish Cabriolet A was updated in 1953 with a curved windshield – nor that fewer than 1,500 would ever be built.
But in the California sunlight, Guthrie could easily have imagined that the cabriolet, with its already-dated top irons and upright grille displaying badges of several European countries, would once have been the everyday car of up-and-coming Hollywood types cruising down Sunset Boulevard on their way to the movie studios. Whatever might have been in his mind that day, the car appealed to Guthrie; he called the telephone number on the sign and made an appointment for a test drive.
Though he probably struggled a bit at first with the odd 4-speed shift pattern of the steering-column gear lever, Guthrie found that the car was obviously well maintained and solid, and would at least be a step up from the rental car he planned to drive for the three months he would spend in Los Angeles. He made an offer on the car against the owner’s $5,000 asking price, a serious amount when a new Jaguar E-Type wouldn’t have cost much more. But he had the money, so he paid cash and it was his. As he tells the story, he justified the purchase by making it “kind of a late wedding gift” for his wife.
When he retold this tale to barn-find specialist Tom Cotter 40 years later for Cotter’s book, Rockin’ Garages: Collecting, Racing & Riding with Rock’s Great Gearheads, Guthrie allowed that he was more interested in his music career than he was in motor racing, so didn’t notice that the previous owner’s name on the title was Phil Hill; he never discovered whether this was the same world champion racer who would co-found the Hill and Vaughn classic-car restoration firm the next year.
However, the condition of the car when he bought it certainly suggests Hill’s hand at maintaining automobiles. Guthrie remembers that the car ran flawlessly while he was in California, so he didn’t think twice about packing his wife and infant son, Abe, into the car at the end of the summer and driving old Route 66 and U.S. 40 across the country to their Berkshire Mountain home. Once back home in Lenox, however, he made a deal with Craig Auto Stereo to install the latest eight-track stereo tape player in the car in return for his appearance in a magazine ad for the company’s new product (shown above).
The car would be the family’s mainstay for transportation for the first few years upon returning to Massachusetts. “I loved the way it handled,” he told Cotter. “It was the most balanced car I had ever driven. Well, except for the 1957 MGA that I bought from Pete Seeger’s son. That MG handled great, but I blew up three engines.”
Guthrie’s daughter Annie, who now helps her father manage his touring business, says she fondly remembers top-down weekend runs into Lenox in the car when she was growing up.
Finding a proud new owner
But even 45 years later, that beautiful white car still had the same eye-catching appeal when Byron DeFoor and his wife saw it in the showroom of Donovan Motorcar Service while visiting Lenox in 2015 to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.
A real estate developer in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who races BMWs and Lolas as a hobby, DeFoor was taking a bit of a busman’s holiday from the relaxation of the spas when he dropped into Brian Donovan’s restoration shop in Lenox. DeFoor said that the level and quality of cars was astonishing for a place as far off the beaten path as Lenox, but there was something in particular about the 220 that caught his eye. He couldn’t help asking if the car might be for sale. “Well, yes,” Donovan replied. “In fact, it’s been for sale for about 20 years.”
Donovan told DeFoor that the owner was, in fact, Arlo Guthrie, and that Donovan’s shop had been maintaining and storing the car for Guthrie for nearly three decades. As an idea began to form in DeFoor’s head, Donovan made arrangements for him to talk to Guthrie.
Within the short time that DeFoor was in Lenox, he agreed to buy the car at a price acceptable to Guthrie, but he added one proviso. Active in philanthropic programs in Chattanooga, DeFoor had volunteered to arrange a September 2016 fund-raising event in Chattanooga at the local Public Broadcasting System station. As part of the sale agreement, DeFoor asked Guthrie to perform at the event with the car. Guthrie also arranged to have Donovan Motorcar Service prepare the car with new brake lines, a throttle cable, new tires and fresh fluids.
The car was soon shipped to the DeFoors’ home in Chattanooga where Byron began driving it frequently, soon getting used to the quirky column shift, and finding that the car was as satisfying to drive as Guthrie had described. When it came time to prepare to ship his Lola T70 out to Monterey for the 2016 Motorsports Reunion event, DeFoor decided to take the cabriolet with him to use for transportation during the week’s festivities. As an early classic, it would be eligible for a special pit pass, making the arrangements even more attractive.
Back in the public eye
Because DeFoor had to be in Monterey the weekend before the races for practice and car preparation, he would have most of the early part of the week to do other things; a friend suggested he consider entering his 220 in the Concours on the Avenue in Carmel on the Tuesday of Classic Car Week. Though it was past deadline for entries, the organizers were pleased to accept the car, considering its intrinsic appeal and celebrity cachet.
That was how DeFoor and his wife, very early on that Tuesday morning, found themselves in the cold and fog of the Monterey Peninsula, trying to hold the old 220 Cabriolet B in place with the clutch and brake on the steep incline up a Carmel side street as the entry line they were in crept toward Ocean Avenue. But with some relief, they soon were parked in their designated parking slot. As the public arrived and the day progressed, their last-minute arrangement to enter the show was repaid with genuine interest. People were walking right past the glistening Italian and British examples of the classic-car hobby to admire the white cabriolet with the worn country badges adorning the upright grille.
As spectators looked at the worn record albums that DeFoor had found under the carpet, they realized the connection with Woodstock and the flower-power antiwar-protest days of the 1960s. The crowds never diminished all day long. DeFoor’s wife was moved by the experience, realizing that a part of her husband’s love for classic cars was rooted in the personal histories these cars evoke well beyond their own tangibility.
Tired out by the end of the day and having received a nice plaque as being best in their class, the DeFoors were packing up and preparing to leave when one of the show organizers rushed over and asked them to stay a few minutes longer and bring their car up to the awards area again. There, to appreciative applause, Donald Osborne of TV’s “Jay Leno’s Garage” and “What’s My Car Worth” presented them with the trophy for 2016’s Best on the Avenue.
With the car back in Chattanooga after its triumphant return to California after 45 years, it was reunited with Guthrie at the September PBS gala: The event was a smashing success. The DeFoors couldn’t be more pleased with the prospect of continuing to share and enjoy their 1955 Mercedes-benz 220 Cabriolet A. We still can’t verify that the car was once owned by F1 Champion Phil Hill, but at least Guthrie is satisfied that the car, which is a part of his family’s memories, continues to impress other people as much as it impressed him on that sunny afternoon in 1970 on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard.
Originally produced to appeal to an elite social clientele, this 1955 Mercedes-Benz 220 Cabriolet A announces its dash and exclusivity from every angle.
Its design straddling the classic and modern automotive eras, this 220 Cabriolet A is embellished with rich details, yet remains almost dainty in appearance.
The evocative patina on interior wood, leather and chrome speaks to decades of careful use and meticulous attention.
Graceful 220 underway.
Reliable M180 engine ferried Arlo Guthrie’s family across the country.
Rear-hinged doors and hood offer easy access.
Bumper fairings exemplify subtle styling.
Elegant 220 charms both passengers and bystanders with its sense of occasion.
1955 Mercedes-Benz 220 Cabriolet A (W187)PRODUCED: 1951-1955, 1,278 builtTYPE: Two-door, 2+2-seat Roadster, Cabriolet A (four-seat Cabriolet B also built)ENGINE: M180 inline 6-cylinder 2,195ccTRANSMISSION: 4-speed manual with column shiftHORSEPOWER: 86 at 4,600 rpm TORQUE: 108 lb-ft at 2,600 rpmCURB WEIGHT: 2,860 lb TOP SPEED: 90 mph (mfr est)
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