To the Manor Born -- 1957 Binz-built Station Wagon on 300c Chassis

Gary Anderson
Denis L. Tanney
Coachbuilt by Binz in 1957 on a Mercedes-Benz 300c chassis, this rare station wagon was designed by a woman of great wealth and taste to suit her sailing and society lifestyle in Palm Beach and Europe

To the Manor Born
Coachbuilt by Binz in 1957 on a Mercedes-Benz 300c chassis, this rare station wagon was designed by a woman of great wealth and taste to suit her sailing and society lifestyle in Palm Beach and Europe
Station wagons were so common on American roads in 1956 that they’re almost an icon of that decade; nearly every manufacturer from Nash to Cadillac offered one of these practical family vehicles in their lineup. However, the body style was almost unknown in Europe, aside from the occasional coachbuilt “shooting brake” or “estate” being manufactured in Britain on a Rolls-Royce or Wolseley chassis.

Consequently, when a very-Mercedes station wagon from the 1950s appeared in the 2010 Gooding & Company Amelia Island Auction catalog, many enthusiasts did a double take, wondering if they really knew all there was to know about the marque.

Bruce Iannelli did more than that; he did his research and made sure that his bidding credentials were in order. When the hammer fell,  the massive but elegant midnight blue station wagon was his, and Binz and Company’s one-off, coachbuilt body on a 1956 300c chassis was already parked near the Classic Center pavilion near the Amelia Island concours field. It would go back to Irvine, California, for a thorough check by the crew that has restored many of the Mercedes-Benz cars Iannelli has in his collection in New Jersey. The car is now comfortably stabled in his coach house and already seems completely at home.

The stunning Binz station wagon body with coachbuilt roof and rear cabin complements the dignified lines of the 300c front clip.

The Binz wagon looks right at home next to the Iannelli coach house. Most striking is the light and airy greenhouse with chrome accents, likely inspired by the taste of the first owner, which foreshadows Mercedes-Benz designs introduced a decade later.

The origin of this rare station wagon

Caroline Ryan – granddaughter of Thomas Fortune Ryan, co-founder of the American Tobacco Company and the 10th richest man in America during his lifetime – grew up with wealth. Married and divorced three times, Caroline Ryan Foulke was accustomed to having things done exactly as she wanted them, whether it was in her extensive philanthropy or her personal life.

When she wanted jewelry, for example, she sat down at Van Cleef and Arpels or Harry Winston and had them make the jewelry to suit her impeccable taste for simplicity and elegance.

Not surprisingly, when Mrs. Foulke decided in 1956 that she needed a station wagon to take her luggage to the yacht moored in Palm Beach, Florida – a yacht purchased from Harold Vanderbilt – she stopped in to chat with her friend Max Hoffman in the Mercedes-Benz showroom just a few steps away from her Park Avenue apartment. Though there was nothing like a station wagon in the Mercedes-Benz catalog and Hoffman’s influence in Stuttgart was waning, he suggested a solution: Have Binz GmbH & Co, experienced in building ambulance and hearse bodies on the 300 Adenauer chassis, build a station wagon to her specifications. 

Consequently, the latest 300c limousine, in standard trim but with an optional air conditioning system and radio, was shipped the short distance from Sindelfingen to the Binz coachworks in Lorch in 1956. There it underwent a complicated conversion that began with removing the roof from the top of the windshield back, and the body from the B-pillars back.

Perhaps reflecting Mrs. Foulke’s concern that she did not want the wagon to look anything like the typical Binz ambulance or hearse, the greenhouse is quite delicate, with chrome window surrounds accenting slender pillars below a simple roofline that extends back to the rear hatch. Taking a leaf from standard station wagon design, rather than the typical side-hinged Binz rear door the wagon has a top-hinged liftgate and bottom-hinged tailgate. Again, perhaps reflecting Mrs. Foulke’s taste, instead of the standard Adenauer taillights, the rear lights from the popular 190SL were used. Recent articles note the resemblance to the Mercedes-Benz 300TD wagon introduced almost 20 years later.

Of course, the interior of the automobile is highlighted by the gracious appointments of the 300c limousines, set off by the leather and carpeting in rich red that Mrs. Foulke specified.

The interior is also custom designed, with rear seats that fold forward level with the flat rear load floor, and additional storage space beneath the floor accessible from the tailgate. A brilliant red was selected for the carpeting and leather upholstery, though the remainder of the interior is all typical 300c, which is to say acres of polished wood around straightforward instruments and controls.

On the exterior, Mrs. Foulke specified a sedate dove-grey color, though to ensure that she would be recognized at the gates of her Palm Beach yacht club, the car carried thin diagonal stripes from the upper front corner to the lower rear corner of each front door in the red and blue of the club’s pennant. Adenauers were typically shipped with black wheels and body-colored wheel covers, but period photographs of the car clearly show chrome wheels and wheel covers, typically an American touch.

Upon completion, a Binz tag was attached that shows the 1957 delivery date and Binz serial number 3, though no one knows what kind of body may have been fitted to numbers 1 and 2. Certainly, no other 300 station wagon is known to exist.

Opening the two-piece rear hatch displays the practical two-level rear luggage area.

A distinctive provenance

Mrs. Foulke must have been very pleased with the resulting combination of her design, Mercedes-Benz engineering and Binz craftsmanship, because soon after the wagon was shipped to Palm Beach, she decided she also needed to have it when she was on the French Riviera in the spring and Baden-Baden, Germany, in the summer. It might have been cheaper for her to have a second car built; a later owner said the car logged more miles in the air, shipped back and forth each year, than it ever logged transporting Mrs. Foulke and her luggage between her homes and her yachts.

In her later years, Mrs. Foulke gradually gave up her travel and her apartments in New York and Paris, and settled down in Palm Beach. The Binz station wagon was eventually sold to Bill Patton, an MBCA member in Orange County, who continued to drive it before selling it to collector Charlie Crawley. Crawley had the car repainted in its current midnight blue, finally erasing the yacht club stripes on the doors, but retaining the red interior.

In 1999, the car sold for $75,000 by RM Auctions at the Amelia Island sale to Lee Munder of Palm Beach, who bought it for his wife to drive. After so many years of active use, the car was a bit tired, so Munder had it partially restored by Hatch & Sons Automotive; the refurbish included removing the engine, refreshing all mechanicals, and rebuilding the entire interior. If cars have souls, this one must have felt right at home, driven by a woman on her errands around Palm Beach. After being returned to Palm Beach, the car was shown for the first time at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in 2000, after which it was the subject of an article in The Star.

Ten years later, the Munders decided to pass the car on to a new owner, so it was auctioned by Gooding again, and again at Amelia Island. This is where this story began, with Bruce Iannelli deciding it would be a perfect and practical part of his collection in New Jersey. After having it thoroughly inspected at the Classic Center, including replacement of the clutch, the key link between the 4,400-pound car and the 136-horsepower engine, the car moved to its new home on the Iannelli estate. Iannelli and his family are now using and enjoying the car in the same active manner that previous owners have.

We saw it again just a few weeks ago at the 2012 June Jamboree in Montvale, New Jersey. Given the car’s impressive condition and estimable appearance, it was no surprise to anyone when the announcement was made that the car, originally designed by a woman who was known for both her good taste and active lifestyle, was selected to receive the Judges Choice award, as well as the MBUSA trophy for “Most Historically Significant” car.

Specifications: 1957 W186 300c

ENGINE: M186 6-cylinder 2,996cc, dual-carburetor, gasoline engine
POWER: 136sae hp @ 4,500 rpm
TORQUE: 163 lb.-ft. @ 2,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 4-speed manual
WEIGHT: 4,400 lbs.
WHEELBASE: 120 in.  LENGTH 199.4 in.
PERFORMANCE: 0-60 mph 17 sec.
What’s it like to drive?

Reading the specifications is sufficient to get clear hints about what this unusual automobile is like to drive. As with other 300cs, the first new car developed by Daimler-Benz after coming out of World War II, this car is powered by a 3-liter dual-carburetor engine putting out 136 horsepower, not unlike several smaller English sports cars of the day. But this wagon weighs 4,400 pounds, 200 more than the typical model built on the 300c chassis, twice the weight of one of those sports cars. To compensate for this weight, a very low first gear and 4.67:1 differential is necessary to translate 163 pound-feet of torque into forward motion. The result is that 17 seconds is needed to propel the car from a stop to basic highway speed, extremely lazy by today’s standards, though not unusual within the car’s luxury class in the early 1950s.

However, once the car is moving at speed, its very modern suspension, with upper and lower A-arms in front around coil springs, and an electric-powered self-leveling suspension, does give the car a comfortable and confident ride, with little tendency to wander, and good response to steering input.

The car doesn’t stop quite as confidently, even with hydraulic drum brakes, finned for cooling, on all four wheels. Bottom line, the car must be driven just like it looks: with dignity and forethought.

Evolution of the Mercedes-Benz Station Wagon

The design approved by Mrs. Foulke in 1956 included a high greenhouse with slendar supporting pillars which minimized the visual bulk of the big car. After some missteps, Mercedes-Benz stylists returned to the same theme, first in the Universals built on the Finback chassis in 1967 and then in their own T-models on the W123 chassis  in 1977.

After Binz built the wagon for Mrs. Foulke, they continued to build the occasional one-off station wagon, though they used their standard commercial bodies as the base. This 190b was built as a chassis by Mercedes-Benz in 1963 and shipped to Binz to be finished as a station wagon for the American market. (Gunthorp Collection)

America wasn’t the only market that wanted wagons. Estates and shooting breaks, as they were called, had long been popular in England. This 1965 190c Estate Wagon was built for a customer in Great Britain by Binz, drawing on the style and engineering of its hearses and ambulances. (Gunthorp Collection)

The body of this station wagon is from a 1967 230S Universal, built as Mercedes-Benz edged closer to adding station wagons to its own production lineup. It has been grafted onto a 1961 220Seb sedan. (Gunthorp Collection)

At the Frankfurt International Motor Show IAA, in September 1977,  the so-called “T-Model” was presented as the third body variant of  series 123. “T” was to be interpreted as “tourism and transport.”  For the first time a station wagon solely produced by Mercedes-Benz  was part of the official model range. Note the similarities to the classic lines of the wagon that Mrs. Foulke ordered more than 20 years earlier.