Daimler in Distress: 1975 Mercedes 0309 Diesel Bus

When you think of Mercedes-Benz, chances are you wouldn't think of a vehicle like this one.

A lot of people misunderstand Mercedes-Benz. Correction, a lot of Americans misunderstand Mercedes-Benz.

But that's not all our fault.

When European cars started to gain traction in the American marketplace in the post-war '50s, it was in large part due to the superior products that German auto manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz offered. Perhaps as part of offsetting the cost of exportation and regulation, some of the first products Mercedes offered in the U.S. were also their very best. At the urging of New York Mercedes distributor Max Hoffman, Mercedes made a street-legal version of the legendary 300SL Gullwing with the U.S. market specifically in mind. Of the 1,400 units ever made, 80% were sold in the U.S. to people like movie star Clark Gable.

The Gullwing was a unique and special car. Mercedes would then go on to offer a remarkable series of much more practical, everyday automobiles for the next 50 years that permanently cemented their reputation as masters of craftsmanship and build quality. As their advertisements proudly boasted in the 1980s, Mercedes were "engineered like no other car in the world". For Americans, whose domestic cars were considerably less sophisticated, Mercedes truly were like nothing else.

But the reputation also had a downside. Since their cars were marked up in price, there came the stigma of snobbery and elitism. Mercedes eventually became more synonymous with "luxury" and "status" than "quality" and "durability", though even the very quality and durability that made wealthy people like Mercedes in the first place would eventually slip at the beginning of the 21st century.

But what did Mercedes mean to its home country of Deutschland? For Germans, Mercedes was no doubt a source of patriotic pride in the same way that Fords are to Americans. And since it was a domestic car for Germans, the role of Mercedes-Benz in Germany is much more populist and utilitarian.

Therefore, to Germans, Mercedes had nothing to do with personal wealth, power, and status and more about their country's wealth, power and status. And what a success story it is. Germans rose from the ashes of WWII to become a peaceful nation engaged in commercial trade. To the German individual, a Mercedes was just a supremely solid and well-made product made.

Which brings me to this glorious '75 Benz Bus.

Given the upper-crust reputation of Mercedes in America, it might come as a surprise in 2012 to find this large, dusty, dinged up Mercedes diesel bus in two-tone medical green and white, about the size of a Boston T. But here it is, solid proof of the company's track record in the late 20th century of making not just great cars but also vans and buses.

This is a 1975 309D. The owner states they are selling to because they have too many other projects. The owner says it was sold in the Unites States for a limited time in the '70s. They also say not many are left, which is probably also true. If you saw this in a junkyard, beyond the large three-pointed star on the front, you wouldn't think twice about it.

But that's the thing. A lot of mid-size to large vans and buses actually are junk. But since this is a Mercedes from the 1970s, you know the build quality is excellent, construction solid, design practical and easy to use, and the diesel engine bulletproof for many, many miles. The engine is a OM616 4-cylinder 3.8L motor. The odometer shows 267,309 miles.

What isn't clear is what this bus was originally used for. If it wasn't a grey market car and was intentionally imported by the manufacturer, perhaps they envisioned it as part of a fleet of buses for a taxi company or hotel?

I would characterize the condition as rough. Cosmetically, it will need a lot of work. The paint looks faded. The interior is a mess. Dirt and grime are just the beginning. The driver's seat is torn, and it seems that all the passenger seats have been removed. Wires look exposed and pieces missing.

The seller makes no mention of rust, but that would be another thing to look out for.

Mechanically, the seller states it was last on the streets in 2006, but has been started periodically since then. Their grammar is poor, but they seem to say it only needs the batteries charged and tires inflated to go. They also seem to say it may have a brake leak in the rear.

Although this 309D is a rare and interesting vehicle, it's admittedly harder to justify as a personal acquisition. If you intend to use it and enjoy it at all, it would need a lot of attention. This bus would make most sense for a small business that wanted a unique vehicle to shuttle passengers and could give this a modern freshening, or for a total restoration to original specs by a museum.

I have no idea what it would cost to fully restore it. It would certainly be less than a Porsche, but still requiring uncommon foreign parts. Finding the right-looking seats doesn't mean they have to be OEM, however, which could cut costs.

Find it here on ebay with a buy-it-now price of $4,500 and bidding still under the reserve. At the bottom of the page it looks like the previous owner who sold the vehicle in 1997 contacted the current seller to see if it was the same vehicle. The seller seemed to think it was. Both seemed to have fond memories of the vehicle.

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